JASPER — In this land of rock the most fun may be in the water.
“Forward!” shouts our Dutch surfer-dude guide as we plunge our paddles into the Athabasca River (the “Atha-B” to locals), pulling through raging whitewater fed by glacial ice.
We plunge into a trough, then rise up to crash bow-first into an oncoming whitecap, sheets of spray exploding and drenching us, water sluicing through slits in the bottom of the red self-bailing raft.
When the rapids subside, we drift in the sun surrounded by sheer cliffs and sharp summits of the eastern Rockies, riding in the wake of long-ago explorers, traders and First Nations paddlers on a river that eventually finds home in the Arctic Ocean.
Whitewater rafting, along with Miette Hot Springs, Lake Annette and Sunwapta Falls, are among the many aqua-oriented experiences for summer visitors to Jasper National Park.
“Jasper is the whitewater capital for Alberta. More people go whitewater rafting in Jasper than anywhere else in the province because we’ve got the great rivers,” says Pat Crowley, general manager of Maligne Rafting Adventures, one of five rafting companies in the area.
Crowley started the company 22 years ago, after she went rafting for the first time, on the Maligne River in 1986.
“The first time I rafted I had no idea of the power of moving water,” she said.
“At different times of the year there’s more water or less water depending on the (glacial) melt. It’s always a different ride.”
There are runs for novices and first-timers along with more challenging courses for every level from intermediates to thrill-seeking daredevils.
The boaters come mainly from Alberta, B.C. and the rest of Canada, says Crowley. But one in four are from abroad — Americans, Brits, Germans, French and others looking for fun on the run.
“There are lots of Europeans, particularly Germans, because they like the wilderness and they’re crazy for mountains,” says Crowley.
The No. 1 fear for first-timers? Falling in.
“Everybody says ‘I can’t swim’ or something like that,” says Crowley.
“It’s really infrequent that anybody goes in the water, and even if you do you’re floating at the same speed as the raft, so you’re right there beside us and we just lean over and drag you in.”
“Forget the fear and go out and have some fun.”
Anyone with aching paddler’s muscles can head east of the Jasper townsite and drive 17 kilometres on a winding road through a green hallway of towering trees in Fiddle Valley to Miette Hot Springs.
Miette taps the rain and snowmelt that drains through the surrounding mountain fissures down, down, down three kilometres below the surface, where it is heated by the radioactive decay in the earth’s core until it boils and bubbles back to the surface at a scalding 54C.
The hot springs filters and cools it to 40C. Water lovers enjoy two hot pools and two cold pools, one so Titanically icy the water bores into your bones in seconds, sending you jumping out almost as soon as you wade in.
It’s the perfect place for kicking back. The pools are ringed with bathers content to sit and stare at the majestic Ashlar Ridge.
Families who have pre-teen to early-teen kids looking to jump, splash and play around may want to look elsewhere. For my boys — aged seven and 13 — the thrill of going back and forth from the cold pool to the hot one soon wore off, and jumping into the pool was immediately discouraged by the Tilley-hatted lifeguards.
After an hour, we were done.
One place where kids can splash and play is in the clear, blue-green waters of Lake Annette, near Jasper Park Lodge just outside the townsite.
Here, there are picnickers, Frisbee tossers, hikers and families building sandcastles at the shore.
Locals call it “The Beach” and on this day there were a few 20-somethings sunworshipping before heading to work, comparing body art (“Hey, nice tat. Is that new?”) and recounting a recent social outing (“I was sooooo wasted.”)
Surrounded by the Rockies, Lake Annette is for those who appreciate nature’s beauty.
And to understand nature’s power, head south from the townsite to the thundering Sunwapta Falls, which were 8,000 years in the making.
Back then, receding glacier ice carved valleys through the area, some deeper than others, creating eye-popping modern-day dropoffs for water from the Athabasca glacier.
You can visit the upper falls or take a short hike to the lower one.