Why is there no one here at the far end of Maligne Lake, the most famous body of water in Jasper National Park? Gorgeous glacier views, interesting folded rocks. A trail that’s not-too-hard but not-too-easy, 16 km (return) on an enjoyable grade following a stream up through the forest.
Instead, thousands of visitors board tour boats to cruise mid-lake to Spirit Island, a well-marketed patch of land with about a dozen trees. Have you guessed that we prefer the lower half of Maligne Lake?
“There burst upon us the finest view any of us have ever beheld in the Rockies,” said Mary Schaffer in 1908 when she saw the body of water now known as Maligne Lake. The first European to see the lake was Henry McLeod, scouting routes for the CPR in 1875. McLeod got a trail named after him, but Schaffer, the first non-native to actually visit the lake, was accredited with the discovery, which she named Maligne Lake.
Almost twenty-three kilometres in length, Maligne Lake is the largest glacier-fed lake in the Canadian Rockies. As glacier-fed lakes go, only Lake Baikal in Siberia is larger.
Pure Outdoors in Jasper is where we rent a boat, an Esquif Prospecteur. As promised, JF has delivered the boat, and it is waiting for us at the launch ramp early on a Monday morning.
Maligne’s water is a pretty azure blue, and the mountains surrounding it are grand – it’s the Rockies, after all. As a result of wildfires to the west, Maligne’s mountains are hazy, like a soft-focus mural.
It takes less than three hours to paddle thirteen kilometres to our first night’s campground, Fisherman’s Bay. Wake-generating tour boats are the main hazard in the northern half of the lake, as selfie-stick-wielding visitors are shuttled to a walkway from which they can photograph Spirit Island, featured in photo spreads and commercials and on fridge magnets and the old Canadian five-dollar bill. Guess what? Spirit is not really an island, since it is connected to the shore by a sliver of land.
The wildfire haze, the tourist boats, and the uniformly-sized gravel shoreline combine to give the top half of the lake an artificial feel, but the vibe begins to change at Fisherman’s Bay. An eagle and a loon greet us. A deer walks through the camp, and a young couple share their Okanagan cherries with us as we cook dinner at the picnic table.
Maligne’s boat-in campsites have an interesting lay-out, designed to protect people and bears. The eight tent pads are grouped together at one end of the campground, while cooking, eating, and clean-up take place in a communal area with four large picnic tables, several fire rings, and four bear-proof food storage boxes.
The swish of the paddle, the chirp of the eagle, the call of the loon, the roar of the waterfall: these are the sounds we hear in the southern half of the lake, between Fisherman’s Bay and Coronet Creek campground, a two-hour paddle. A friendly work crew is upgrading the campsite at Coronet Creek, rebuilding tent pads and installing a greywater disposal tube. We are happy to see this infusion of effort; the infrastructure has been neglected since our last visit in 2003.
We meet Judy and Warren as they return from a six-hour day-hike on the Henry McLeod Trail, also known as the Coronet Creek Trail. The following day it’s our turn. We have the trail to ourselves.
The wildfire smoke has cleared, allowing us to savour the fine scenery, including views of the Coronet Glacier. Parks Canada no longer maintains this trail, but it remains in good shape, with just a few down trees to straddle and streams to hop across.
Uh-oh – a sudden storm blows up on day four. Thunder, lightning, heavy rain, and fierce winds. The water temperature is a chilly four degrees Celsius in this lake, so a capsize is best avoided. We pull into the weeds, safe but soaked. Between squalls, we carry on to Fisherman’s Bay, where tarp fairies have kindly provided a covered cooking area.
Day five starts out squally and choppy, as we transit the wind tunnel created by Samson Narrows. We paddle up the lake’s west side, which adds a bit of distance, but we cover it quickly. Tim Hortons awaits!
Don’t forget your camera! This easy to moderate canoe trip is all about scenery. Parks Canada has a backcountry guide that will help you plan your trip.
If you go, you will need reservations. The Maligne Lake campgrounds are very popular in the summer and should be booked well in advance, preferably on the day that backcountry reservations open for the year, usually in January.