After arriving in Jasper, just in time to enjoy our lodge on the edge of the Fraser River with a bottle of cheap wine, we watched as the clouds descended from the mountain and the sky became darker, like a brewing coffee.
As soon as we drew the curtains, the thunder and wind began their howling and growling. I woke up in the middle of the night to electric flashes, illuminating the shadows of our room. I wandered over to the window and looked out over the flowing river, every shadow turning into a monster of some kind – a hungry bear, a wolf, a poacher, a ghost. I bundled back under the covers and squeezed my eyes in a hope for morning.
The river was beautiful again as I walked over the wet grass, trying to get a good photo before we left. The clouds had descended further, now wispy but full, and pure white.
It wasn’t quite the picture-perfect summer stay, with hummingbirds near the windows that I’d pictured. But you could still see it – you could picture the warmth and the blue, overlaying it almost on top of the greys, whites and greens of the fast-approaching autumn.
My weather app confirmed our predictions for the next couple of days. I’ve never seen such a combination of different rain and cloud symbols. After discussing, we decided to continue with our plan anyway – worst case scenario we’d just have to stay in the car.
It was nearly two hours to Jasper, and then another hour on backroads to reach our final spot – Maligne Lake. Now, if you’ve seen the calendar-type shots of Canadian lakes then you will definitely have seen the idyllic photo of Spirit Island, a small round of land in the lake with fir trees sprouting up all fighting for space. However, the detail that’s left out in the pictures is that it’s a 14 km (6 hour) kayak from the start point, with no other land access.
We arrived, after driving to what felt like the end of the earth, through the spookiest views of large green-black lakes surrounded by burned-out trees, in the early afternoon. Discovering that Spirit Island would unfortunately be impossible, due to the weather and the fact that kayak-renting would end in 25 minutes, we began walking down a path around the edge of the lake.
What I found most interesting about Maligne Lake, is not only its haunting beauty and rich colour-palette, but also its history. It was originally known to the First Nations as "Chaba Imne" (Beaver Lake, but was never inhabited (aside from the large Grizzly Bear territory on the hill to the west). The first explorer to find the lake was Henry Mcleod, in 1875 as he travelled across Jasper. However, he viewed it from one of the surrounding mountains and did not venture down.
The lake was therefore only fully explored and surveyed as late as 1907! It’s bonkers to me that Queen Victoria had died and this lake had yet to be put on the map. Mary Schäffer, a rich Quaker from Pennsylvania, began exploring the Canadian Rockies as a child with her father. She studied flower painting and married Dr Schäffer, a Botanist, who she continued to explore the area with. After he died, she continued with his project of collecting botanical species samples from the area, and this led her to Maligne lake. She went to Samson Beaver, who was descended from Job Beaver of the First Nations in Jasper, who drew her a map of the route to the side of the lake.
She was accompanied there, on a trip in 1907, by her friend Mollie Adams and two guides. They rode on horseback and when they came to the lake, they built a raft nicknamed HMS Chaba, to sail the length of the water in exploration. Mary produced a full survey of the area in 1911, and even named all of the surrounding mountains.
As we wandered around the lake edge, I thought about the First Nations, and their experience of the lake. They named the area ‘Beaver Lake’, which as I found later, ‘Beaver’ symbolises wealth and hunting success in many First Nation languages. We could see fish as we wandered on the beaches there, as well as hear the rustle of animals in the forests surrounding.
I then thought of Mary Schäffer, and her experience, as she rode through the valleys from Lake Louise, on the approach to a lake she has only heard of through others. What was she thinking, as she saw the black-green water stretch out in front of her, far into the distance, with the red-tipped trees sprouting from its edges and running up the hillsides?
At a crossroads, the path had produced a sign on a post, informing us either to loop back round for the easy route, or to continue on for the Schäffer Trail. T is always desperate for a hike, so he bounded on like an eager spaniel. We continue through the trees, and I keep spotting mushrooms. Every shape and size, some the perfect fairy-tale toadstool and others oozing and moulding as if covered in radioactive slime. Fascinating. While taking snaps of those I had stumbled across, a crack of thunder reminds us of those weather app predictions.
Spots of rain begin to fall, as if from the tops of the huge fir trees, and suddenly I realise how alone we are. There are no screaming children, hiking tourists, or excited pups, as there had been at the lake side. I’m short-sighted too, with an overactive imagination. The roots of the trees escape from the ground and grow in patterns across the forest floor. It feels like at any second, when you’re not looking, a root will whip upwards and spin around your ankle.
I’d been desperate to spot bears, having been unsuccessful on our hikes so far in Banff, but as I walked past dark shadows and my eyes struggled to focus on far off clearings, my heart began to race. Long strands of pines drooped from trees but looked as if they were covered in dark hair. Were the bears watching us? Was this how I died? I rang my bear bell furiously, and desperately sang ABBA songs as I tried to figure out how far we were from the beginning of the trail.
T meanwhile, found the whole walk very amusing, desperately trying to reassure me at first that all was well, and after discovering there was nothing he could do to calm me, focused on absorbing his surroundings.
After an age, we reached a verge and another path joined ours. I looked at the board, hammered into the ground on its post, as it warned that we were in the red zone for Grizzlies. “SEE!” I shouted back to T, triumphant that my fear had not be unjustified. He calmly told me that the map was detailing the red zone at the other side of the clearing we had just come to. We then came across two hikers who were returning from there – “No bears today folks,” sighed the man, who wasn’t even wearing bear spray.
At this point, I realised how much I’d been stuck in my own head, living out an ‘Into the Woods’ type of melodramatic horror. Before long, we were back at the beginning, with a visitor centre, a waffle house and a huge car park. At first I was angry at myself, why did I always have to overdramatise things? Why couldn’t I be rational? We had taken all of the relevant precautions with us. We weren’t even in a bear zone. But I can’t, because it’s me, and it’s what I do. And boy, wasn’t it exciting. Who needs a horror movie?