Somewhere along the line, I learned the Shawnee name for elk is wapiti. So when our guide Wes Bradford posed the question, I was quick to yell out the answer, kind of like that keener in grade four.

But then Wes asked if I knew what it meant. I didn’t. So he explained that it translates to ‘the one with the golden rump’. Wes should know. He spent 36 years as park warden and wildlife specialist in Jasper National Park. Now, for kicks, he’s a guide with Jasper Adventure Centre and today, he’s taking us on the Maligne Canyon Icewalk.

First we get outfitted with warm waterproof boots and grippy cleats. On the drive to the canyon, Wes tests our knowledge of the park. How many elk? Just under 1,000. What’s the elevation? Around 1,200 metres. Best bakery in town? The Bear’s Paw.  

We start at the top pf the canyon and quickly learn it’s part of a karst system that has caves above and below ground level. Sometimes water bubbles up so we can see it, and other times it flows mysterious below our feet.

In winter, it makes for a beautifully uncertain path of ice, snow, blue water, slick rocks and spectacular icefalls.

Outdoorsy Wes tell us about the American Dipper, a little grey bird that nests on the rock ledges, has the ability to see underwater and hunts for food while strolling the bottom of fast moving, rocky streams.

But don’t spent too much time looking up. Look down and you’ll see pockets of open water hugging the bend of the canyon wall, a good 50 metres down from where we started. Careful now!

As we shuffle along, learning to trust the grippiness of our cleats on this icy surface, Wes invites us over to a slash in the rock wall, where a tabletop of ice falls into a little back hole. It’s here that cave explorers enter. We stick our heads inside, doubtful that our bodies could fit. It’s warm inside but I’ll say no thanks to spelunking.

We hear the chink, chink of ice picks ahead. Climbers are roped in, hauling themselves up Angel Falls, and yes, it really does look like a pair of angel’s wings.

At one point, Wes cautions us to stay to one side, because in the middle, there’s only a thin layer of ice covering a swirling, churning flow of water. It’s mesmerizing to follow the bubbles as they snake along. It’s also a reminder that we’re in the wilds here. It’s safety first, but the payoff is a huge bundle called The Great Canadian Experience.

We’re coming to the end of our 5 kilometre adventure and magically, someone has shuttled the van down to a lower parking lot so we don’t have to haul ourselves back up the canyon. How sweet it is.