The answer, when it comes, is geology. Geology having to do with underground springs and fissures in the rock. This area of Jasper National Park, which also contains Medicine Lake, a lake famed for disappearing mysteriously at the height of the summer glacier melt despite having no outlet, is riddled with underground springs. And of course underground springs don’t freeze. So even during Rocky Mountain winters during which temperatures can hover around zero for months at a time and entire lakes freeze solid within weeks, the Maligne River does not freeze. Or at least it doesn’t freeze solid.
Instead, the water freezes bit by bit in shallow layers of ice that builds itself into waves, swirls, sheets, and waterfalls that are spectacular to see. It’s as if nature put on an ice carving show deep in a canyon with nothing but the foxes, elk and bighorn sheep to witness it. There are waterfalls of ice 30 feet high, icicles taller than I am, and caves walled by solid ice that drips bit by bit from rock overhangs. Going inside the caves, accessed through tunnels of ice, is like seeing what it would look like inside a gigantic diamond.
Our guide, Chris Roy of Overlander Trekking and Tours, points out the line of moss indicating summer high water levels well above head height, leaving us to imagine the force of the water as it’s channeled by the narrow rock walls around and above us. Even the part of the river that is navigable is classified by kayakers a Class 5, safe only for the most experienced pros. This means the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk is an ephemeral treat; guides start taking people up the canyon at the beginning of December, when they’ve deemed the ice solid enough to stand on, and stop at the end of March when it gets too soft.
As part of Jasper National Park, Maligne Canyon is open to all and the road to the trailhead is plowed, so you don’t have to come with a guide. But the trail down to the canyon would be hard to find without a local to show you so if you do come alone, get good directions first. And don’t try it without knee-high rubber boots and ice cleats, necessary to navigate areas where new springwater hasn’t frozen yet and to prevent slipping on the sheets of ice.
So for first time visitors, I’d recommend a guided trip; the three-hour treks are led by two outfitters, Overlander Trekking and Jasper Adventure Centre. Pickups are available from your hotel, so there’s no need to drive if snow driving isn’t your thing.