Fantasy world: Maligne Canyon ice walk is like walking in a winter wonderland

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JASPER, Alta. - Most people who think of Jasper automatically think of its world-class skiing. And 98 per cent of visitors to Jasper never get more than two kilometres from the highway. But this is definitely off the beaten track and far from the madding crowds at the ski hill.
We're down at the bottom of a deep canyon, a place of miracles, where walking on water is possible and where water really does come out of the rock. The steep limestone walls, worn smooth by eons of erosion, tower above us like the ruins of an ancient temple.
As we move along, the passage opens into a large room, an almost holy place where the walls form a domed ceiling above us. An opening in the ceiling allows us to look up to the heavens. No wonder this place is nicknamed The Cathedral.
In the summer and fall, such an experience would be impossible. The raging torrents of the Maligne River roar through the canyon, flooding the Cathedral and turning it into a giant whirlpool. Steep waterfalls make this part of the canyon inaccessible to all but the most intrepid kayakers.
Warm-weather visitors to Jasper usually start their treks at the famous tea house, located near the top of the canyon. They stick to the well-marked paths, where interpretive signs guide the way. A network of bridges and fences is designed to keep over-enthusiastic photographers from going over the edge.
But in winter, we are off the beaten path, over the fence and over the edge. Walking upstream under a pale blue sky, we find that the water in the canyon is frozen over, although - as we're about to learn - not completely frozen through.
The canyon is constantly being fed by a labyrinth of underground rivers draining from nearby Medicine Lake. In fact, we learn, many geologists think that this cavernous canyon was once part of this subterranean system of streams. But when the glaciers receded at the end of the last great ice age, they peeled back the roof of this cave, exposing it to the sky and to the elements. That's probably why a foray into the canyon feels more like walking into a vast cave - a spelunking experience for the claustrophobic.
In midsummer, the water gushes into the canyon, churning in whirlpools and rushing over rapids. In winter, the water trickles in and freezes to form an ever-changing and challenging ice path. In places, the ice is rock hard and slick. In other places, huge air pockets can form between the ice and the frigid waters below. If you're not careful, you can find yourself falling through the ice.
Walking on water, even frozen water, can be treacherous. But equipped with cleats and waterproof winter boots, our guide leads us into a sci-fi world. Hoth, the Ice Planet from Star Wars, perhaps. Maybe Superman's Fortress of Solitude.
Our first venture into this Ice World is a daytime trip with Murray Morgan, owner of the Jasper Adventure Centre. He's likely the most experienced guide in the canyon, and more than enthusiastic: He is part raconteur, part adventurer, part caretaker of the canyon. If the Maligne Canyon were an ice rink, you get the feeling he'd be the one driving the Zamboni.
Morgan says that those who miss out on the canyon Ice Walk are missing out on one of the best things about Jasper. The trekkers concur. Even those who have seen the canyon in summer are struck by fantasy-novel waterfalls - crystallized in an instant by a wave of the Ice Queen's wand.
We turn a corner to see ice climbers - dressed like futuristic star troopers - scaling a frozen wall of water rising 30 metres or more from the floor of the canyon. Thirty metres is a long way down when you're suspended from a rope and clinging to an ice axe.
Ice climbers come from all over the world to challenge these crystal cascades. The expert climbers' favourite fall is the majestic Queen of Maligne that rises from the canyon floor like a giant column of carved ivory. Nearby is the beginners' favourite, the much smaller and accessible Angel Icefall. At Niagara Falls, you can walk behind the falls. Here you can walk behind them - and on them.
These natural ice sculptures mark the apex of the tour. We turn back and head out of the canyon, stopping along the way to take more photos. An Australian journalist remarks that he has never seen anything like it in all his travel adventures.
Even winter-weary Canadians - who generally find snow and ice to be commonplace and even annoying - are using words like "amazing" and "breathtaking" to describe this winter trek.
But we have heard that a night-time venture into the canyon is a completely different experience.
You might say the difference is like night and day. So that evening, we are back in the canyon.
This time our guide is Chris Roy from Overland Trekking and Tours. He says that daytime tours and night tours "both have their advantages" but he really enjoys the night tours.
Roy is an enthusiastic and experienced guide, who conveys just the right balance of confidence and caution. In the summertime, he used to give boat tours on Maligne Lake, where the headwaters of the Maligne River form. He tells us that he likes the idea that in winter he can walk on the same water that he sailed on in summertime.
Roy is also an avid ice climber who loves the challenge of scaling his favourite frozen falls. He lights up when we make it to the highlight of the tour.
Our headlamps cast an eerie light down the canyon. The air is still. The sounds of running water echo from behind the frozen waterfalls and from underneath the ice.
At night, the Angel Icefall looks more ghostly than angelic. The Queen of Maligne now looks more Gothic than majestic. Fans of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or the Twilight novels would love this place.
On our way out, we pause at The Cathedral. With our headlamps turned off, the eerie open-roofed cave feels like less like a sacred space and more like something out of Tim Burton's "Batman." Still, the view of the sky is awe-inspiring. Far from the city lights, we make out Orion, the Hunter. And Venus, the Evening Star, shines so brightly that some mistake it for a UFO.
For a moment, there's a kind of holy hush. For some, it's like being in church. For others, it's like looking out through the dome of a natural observatory.
But for one man, it's more like something from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."
"My God," he says, "it's full of stars."
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If You Go ...
The town of Jasper, in the heart of Jasper National Park, is 360 kilometres or 3 1/2 to four hours southwest of Edmonton on the Yellowhead Highway. Maligne Canyon is just outside the town. For more information, visit www.jaspercanadianrockies.com.
Ice walks in Maligne Canyon generally run from Late November to April, depending on weather and ice conditions. Tours are available morning, afternoon and evening. Transportation, boots, cleats and headlamp (for the evening tour) are provided.
Tour companies offer free pickup service from your accommodations in Jasper.
Tours cost about $50-$55 for adults, about $25 for children.
For more information on tours, contact Jasper Adventure Centre, 780-852-5595 or 1-800-565-7547 or visit www.jasperadventurecentre.com. Overlander Trekking & Tours is at 780-852-0167 or www.overlandertrekking.com.

Organizations: Jasper Adventure Centre, Ice Queen, Overlander Trekking & Tours

Geographic location: JASPER, Maligne Canyon, Maligne River Medicine Lake Niagara Falls Overland Trekking Maligne Lake Jasper National Park Edmonton

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