Traveling Canada: Jasper & the “Wildfire Plan”

It was unfortunate that we only had one night in Jasper. There were nearby hikes, scenic roads, and ghost towns that we never had a chance to explore. We had to head down south again, back to Calgary, to fly to Vancouver early the next morning. We had originally planned to drive from Jasper through Kamloops and onto Vancouver, but the rapidly spreading wildfires and evacuation orders forced us to implement the “wildfire plan” we created hastily just before leaving home. We booked a last-minute flight from Calgary to Vancouver (1 hour flight time) and arranged to return our rental car there instead. This roundabout plan would get us into Vancouver earlier than if we had driven ourselves and avoid the precarious situation along Highway 5. I had put this backup plan into the “in case of emergency” itinerary shared with family, so I texted my mom (as all 30-somethings do when stuff changes) a somewhat cryptic message that morning which simply stated, “we are implementing the wildfire plan”.

We booked the Jasper SkyTram the night before, which was fortunate since we heard the attendants turning other patrons away when we arrived. The tram takes you high above town to a sweeping and infinite view of the mountains. We didn’t know that you could hike another hour beyond the tram to the summit, and our thin sneakers were not adequate for the climb. Still, we trekked roughly halfway up the dusty, gravel path that snaked up the side of the hill from the station, rewarding us with a wider panoramic view at every step. Further uphill was a sweeping brown mountain with windblown bits of mist dancing around. It felt like the edge of a dream. Looking back down, the hilltops looked like someone had aggressively shaken a feather pillow out onto them.

Backtracking to Calgary meant re-driving the Icefields Parkway in the other direction. The weather was not on our side today – no striking blue sky or clear air like we had the day before. A thick mist rolled in as we made stops to see Athabasca Falls and Sunwapta Falls, saturating our jackets as we navigated muddy paths. The thick roar of water rushing over rock was palpable when you stood so close. You have to respect that kind of beautiful power.

We made a final stop at Athabasca Glacier back at the Columbia Icefields Centre for a closer look, having largely missed it the day before. You can walk right up to the snow’s edge, passing signs that indicate where the glacier once reached 10, 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Visual climate change really kicks you in the butt. 

Driving away from the glacier, I watched a small snowy peak as the sun pushed through the mist and beamed onto it like a spotlight. I knew that soon we’d be out from inside this sea of mountains and onto an urban adventure in Vancouver. I started crying, as has become my routine. Staring at mountains and crying. I don’t know why I find beauty to be so heartbreaking.

That breezy, fleeting way that storms usually moved through was not the case today. The rain hovered and hammered our car, blinding our view for most of the trip back. Clear air would only linger for so long before another ominous cluster of clouds moved in. We were mentally and physically exhausted when we arrived at our Calgary airport hotel, rushing across the street to the “lounge” at a nearby hotel, which was the only food in walking distance. It was understaffed and bursting with patrons, so we quickly became chatty with the bartender and got a few flights of beer in before the rush intensified. What should have been a lightning-fast dinner became a long and lingering hangout. Our bartender caught onto the fact that we were a couple and gave us some bar recommendations for Vancouver. That night we crashed like logs, and I thought back to the misty and intoxicating mountains that we’d been surrounded by just a few hours ago. Like always, I had to let them go. The mountains that seem to stick to me like magnets.

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