Standing on Jasper National Park’s Skyline Trail, exhausted from shouldering a 13kg backpack for two days, I looked far ahead to where the route became a faint, jagged line running straight up the face of the mountain.
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“That’s where we’re going – the Notch,” said my guide Sarah Peterson. I’m sure she could see the doubt in my eyes, because she added: “It’s going to be really hard, but I promise you the view is worth it.” The 44km Skyline Trail is one of the most beautiful – and challenging – stretches of the park’s 1,000km of trails. The route gains 1,380m in elevation and reaches the highest point of any hiking trail in Jasper, the Notch, at 2,511m above sea level.
I had good reason to attempt the journey. Along with neighbouring Banff, Jasper is a Unesco World Heritage site, recognised for its beauty, animal and plant life, and staggering variety of landscapes, including glaciers, alpine meadows, steaming hot springs, cerulean lakes and some of the highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains.
But the wilderness faces threats. Last year, despite opposition from environmental groups, the glass-bottomed Glacier Skywalk was built overlooking the park’s Sunwapta Valley, 103km south of the town of Jasper. And this year, Parks Canada approved a plan for 15 new glamping-style campsites and a day lodge at the mostly undeveloped Maligne Lake – a move many fear will set a precedent for further development.
Yet none of that dampened my enthusiasm. While Jasper receives two million visitors every year, the Skyline Trail – thanks to a short summer hiking season from July to late September, and only 40 tent sites spread over seven campgrounds – sees only 2,500 people annually. I wanted to be one of them.
Because we had no backcountry experience, my friend Annemarie and I enlisted a guide from Canadian Skyline Adventures, the only Jasper-based outfitter that leads hikes of the Skyline Trail. Together with Peterson, we set out from the route’s southern end, the mountain-ringed Maligne Lake, the longest and deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies, and soon were winding our way through a fragrant forest. Peterson pointed out indigenous plants and their medicinal uses and offered edible berries like tiny blueberries, miniature strawberries and buffalo berries –a bear favourites she picked just off the trail.
The three of us were soon passed by several packs of runners – marathoners and ultra-marathoners who somehow manage to complete the trail in a single day. As they disappeared into the forest, I heard loud whoops and whistles echoing off the trees.
“You never want to surprise a bear,” Peterson said, explaining their warning sounds. Along with elk, caribou, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots, grey wolves and black bears, Jasper is home to an estimated 120 grizzlies. Carrying bear spray is highly recommended, but the first lines of defence are hanging food at night, making warning noises on the trial and, should we encounter a bear, avoiding eye contact and trying to appear small and nonthreatening.
After a lunch stop 5km in at Evelyn Creek, the fir, spruce and pine trees we’d been hiking past were replaced with colourful wildflowers and lichen-covered rocks. Chubby marmots darted across our path. By 3pm, we’d descended to the valley floor, where a rock-strewn river led to the night’s camp at Snowbowl, a 7km-long lush meadow at the base of the Maligne range.
While some people complete the hike in two days or stretch it to four or five, we chose the more popular three-day option, which meant covering 19km on day two. So the next morning, we shouldered our packs and began a long ascent through a flower-filled meadow to Big Shovel Pass, named after a 1911 expedition party was blocked by snow and had to fashion shovels from trees to dig a path for the horses.