There was never any doubt that I would break the cross-Canada train trip in the Rockies, if only for a couple of days. Aside from my love of mountains, I wasn’t up for four nights on the train. Even when I took the Trans-Mongolian across Russia, I didn’t spend more than two consecutive nights on board. The showers on the Canadian made three nights feasible, but I was just sorry I couldn’t break it two and two instead of one and three.
The next question was, Banff or Jasper? Both are popular stops, with eponymous National Parks, but Via Rail only goes to Jasper. The trains to Banff are run by a private company, the Rocky Mountaineer, and not only were their prices breathtakingly high, I’d have to cross a picket line to ride one, and still have to travel by bus or car to Jasper to take Via Rail the rest of the way. Then, all the sources agreed that Jasper was smaller and less-touristy than Banff. Easy decision.
I haven’t seen Banff, but I found Jasper plenty touristy. As Michael Deacon writes in an article in “Sunrise on the Southbound Sleeper”, it’s “not so much a small town as a large souvenir shop”. It’s also plenty pricey, and I had been depressed by the cost of a hotel room. Fortunately, this led me to do some extensive research on the net (none of the guide books having provided a viable alternative), which led me to a great B&B, the Little Log House. Actually, thanks to an odd Jasper ordinance, it should more properly be called a B-and-not-B, as it’s not allowed to serve breakfast. Not a problem, as it was actually a whole four-room apartment, with a full kitchen, and mountain views (several of the competing B&Bs were in basements).
I towed my bag across the lightly-traveled main road in front of the train station, past some shops, and turned left on Patricia Street. A couple of blocks later the street went abruptly from commercial to residential, and I found the log house surrounded by a torn-up yard. The owner took a break from planting and told me that he and his wife had spent the winter jacking the house up 14 feet so they could make the basement into the ground floor. I was their first guest since major renovations, but aside from the yard I wouldn’t have known.
Fortunately, Jasper’s downtown wasn’t quite all souvenir shops and tour companies, and I bought some groceries and what I hoped would be a cold cure. I hadn’t shaken the bug I had picked up in Victoria, and was feeling a little fragile. Not too fragile for the tour I had booked to drive the Icefields’ Parkway as far as the Athabasca Glacier, though.
I didn’t want to drive the Parkway myself, as I figured I wouldn’t be able to admire the views, but I didn’t want to be stuck on a big bus with 50 other people either. SunDog Tours seemed to be the perfect solution – a small bus that would make more stops. Turned out I should have rented a car, as SunDog canceled their tour for the day and stuck me on the big Brewster bus instead! I was furious, but since I didn’t find out until I was waiting to board the bus there wasn’t much I could do. Later I found that renting a car would have been cheaper, and it was early enough in the season I could have pulled off the road wherever I wanted to admire the views. Drive yourself!
The views were certainly worth admiring. Since I was almost the last to board the bus, and on my own, I lucked into a front seat next to a woman traveling with her parents, and so had one of the best views going. That didn’t alter the fact that we only stopped twice on the way to the Icefields glaciers, and the second stop was just for coffee and rest rooms.
The glacier was in full retreat. The museum on the ground-floor of the Visitors’ Center made that abundantly clear. Not as shrunken as the Pasterze glacier I had seen in Austria in 2006, but still an unambiguous sign of global warming. I chose not to pay extra to ride up onto the manicured patch where tourists could stand to take photos, having walked on a wild glacier in Pakistan, and flown over another in New Zealand. I was content to take my pictures from the Visitors’ Center.
I had most of a second day in Jasper before boarding the train again, and had thought to spend it visiting Maligne Lake. However, the lake was still frozen, so a boat ride was out, and I didn’t feel up to hiking. I stayed in town and enjoyed the mountain views, although I noticed that the last of the snow was melting. I was glad I had been early enough to see the mountains with snow on them, but I was ready to get out of Jasper and back on the train.