Maligne Lake, Medicine Lake, and Maligne Canyon Hike

Hi everybody, Kara here. I’ve taken over the blog for today from Gunther for a couple of reasons. First off, he’s way too interested in finding his cousin bears here in Jasper National Park and second…today’s post includes a geology/science lesson and I’m the smart one so I get to edumacate ya’ll.

Before I get to the meat of today’s post, a few leftovers from yesterday. The adults went out to the Jasper Brewing Company for dinner and had a really great meal. Their Honeybear Ale was spectacular, the Cream Ale was good but not quite as spectacular…and for dinner they had Beef Carpaccio and Lobster Mac and Cheese. The food was really, really good…the only drawback was that when taking a bite Connie inhaled some of the panko bread crumbs off the top and choked. She thought she was going to pass out but was wheezing and getting some air so Neil banged her on the back. That didn’t work so he did the Heimlich Maneuver on her and got the blockage out of her throat so she could breathe easily again. He says it wasn’t as bad as Connie thought since she was always getting some air and wheezing a bit…but she was sorta panicked and was really glad when she recovered.

After she did recover we finished our meal and then headed for home…and spotted a female elk on the campground itself. Neil hopped out and got a couple of pictures.



Today we got up early since Earl the RV repair guy was coming at 0900. (well, actually Neil went to bed about 2100 last night and got up at 0100 since he had a fierce headache…but some drugs and sitting sort of propped up in the recliner fixed him up in an hour or so and he fell asleep). After breakfast and coffee we met Earl at 0900 and he quickly diagnosed our problem…as expected the bolt on the transfer arm for the living room slide had sheared off. He told us that it appeared to be an installation issue since the weaker bolt is supposed to be installed in the easy to get to rear end of the transfer bar…if this had been the case Neil would have figured out the problem himself and fixed it already. Anyway; an hour and 126.50 Canadian dollars the problem was fixed so we headed out for our daily Fun.

First stop was the Visitor Center for some internet…sending mail, checking Connie’s work mail, downloading the Wall Street Journal for the day, and checking her work email. After that we dropped by the house for lunch and headed out for Maligne Lake.

The weather was pretty good all the way out at least as far as Medicine Lake. On the way Neil snapped this photo of the mountain view


and then pretty quickly we arrived at Medicine Lake itself.


Beautiful, ain’t it.

Anyhoo, let me tell you a bit about this lake (Start Science/Geology Lesson). It’s about 12 miles long and maybe 3/4 of a mile wide at the widest point. Maximum depth is about 75 feet or so but here is the strange part. The lake is fed at the input end from the Maligne River (which is the outlet from Maligne Lake of course)…but it has no apparent outlet at the downstream end. Despite this lack of an outlet; the lake swells to it’s maximum depth and extent during the spring then gradually reduces during the dry summer season until by the late fall it’s pretty much disappeared entirely. The question is…where does the water come from and more importantly where does it go since there’s no outlet river or stream. Think on that for a few minutes…we’ll come back to it. Before I go though; Neil hiked down to the lake edge and got this beautiful panorama view of the entire lake.

MedicineLake 20130605

Anyway; after he hiked back up to the car we headed for our most distant destination for the day; Maligne Lake itself. Shortly after leaving the Medicine Lake viewpoint (in fact you can see the trees in question on the far left of the first view of the lake) we spotted a bunch of cars on the side of the road. In the Rockies; this means that somebody has spotted something worth photographing…and the grouping of cars is colloquially known as a “bear jam”. We stopped and looked down on the shoreline for the bear which had precipitated this jam (although bear jams can also be caused by elk, moose, or just about anything else interesting) but didn’t see it. Neil did spot a momma Bald Eagle sitting on her nest though; sorry about the somewhat distant photo but she was a quarter mile or so away. We didn’t see papa at all and the eggs don’t look like they’ve hatched yet.


We left the Medicine Lake area and headed for Maligne Lake. We drove right alongside the edge of the cliff for about 10 miles; there was the road with a speed limit of 60 kilometers per hour (about 37 mph or so)…then about 3 feet of gravel shoulder…then a 45 degree slope down to the lake which was anywhere from 50 to 150 feet below the road. Sure glad we didn’t go off the road…the first step woulda been a doozy. To top if off; the rain started coming down pretty steadily and by the time we got to Maligne Lake it had degenerated to a lousy afternoon. We skipped the pictures since we have a hike to go out at the lake later on and will grab some when we go back. It was a lot like Medicine Lake though…even though the views were bad due to the rain and clouds.

We gave up and headed for home; figuring that our planned hike at the Maligne Canyon would be rained out. To our surprise; by the time we drove 30 or so miles back the weather had cleared to a mostly sunny sky so we popped into the parking lot, took stock, and decided to hike anyway…we figured the worst that would happen would be that we would get wet.

Let me describe Maligne Canyon for you. It’s actually known as one of the best views in Jasper but despite that none of us had ever heard of it. The canyon is about 3 miles long and is essentially a slot canyon like one would see in the US southwest desert area. The depth of the canyon averages about 150 feet or so but has a maximum depth of about 300 feet. What really sets it apart is the width; which averages maybe 30 or 40 feet but in at least one area the two rims are within about 4 feet of each other. One could almost jump across it except for that 200 foot fall if you screw up. It was carved by the (of course) Maligne River as it runs south/west toward the Athabasca River which we had some pictures of yesterday. There are several hiking trails around the canyon rims and it is spanned by 6 walking bridges which range in length from less than 10 feet to maybe 50 feet. Starting at the upstream end of the canyon; near first bridge we spotted this waterfall.


It’s a bit hard to tell from the photo but this was taken from the bridge looking down at about 60 or 70 degrees below horizontal; in other words it’s almost a vertical shot down. The top of the fall is about 3 feet wide and there is about a 75 foot drop or so down to the pool below. The top of the fall is about 50 feet below the bridge so it’s like 150 or so feet down to the pool where the fall lands. At this point the flow (this is actually the Maligne River) is about 2 cubic meters per second or about 530 gallons per second. Keep that number in mind; it’s part of the science/geology lesson and will make more sense in context later. Here’s another shot taken from about the same place but looking downstream.


You can see the canyon is about 170 or so feet deep here and maybe 30 or 40 feet wide.

We hiked downstream awhile and got a number of really decent views of the canyon, river, and various falls.




This is the narrowest part of the canyon; as you can see based on the size of the fence the two rims are maybe 4 or 5 feet apart and this fall is 30 or so feet through the narrow gap.


There is still a lot of ice in the canyon; these two chunks are probably the size of a garage each


and another slightly farther away view of the really narrow part; the first picture was taken from atop the bridge you can see at the top of this phoeo.


This one is getting towards the bottom of the canyon


and finally one from near bridge 6 which is at the south/west end of the canyon where it widens out into a more typical river between the mountain peaks.


At this point near the exit of the canyon the river flow is about 45 cubic meters per second or about 12,000 gallons per second. The big question is…since this is the same river how did the flow go from 500 gallons per second to 12,000. Where did the water come from and does it have anything to do with Medicine Lake’s strange behavior. Of course it does…that’s the science/geology lesson for the day.

The answer is broken rocks. Back in the day when the Jasper Rockies were formed by uplifting of tectonic plates; the rock fractured and left an extensive cave system underground between the end of Medicine Lake and Maligne Canyon. The farthest upstream body of water Maligne Lake is fed entirely by snow melt and has a single outlet into the Maligne River which then flows into Medicine Lake. Medicine Lake however; is like a leaky bathtub and has lots of cracks in it’s floor leading into the cave system. During the spring the incoming flow from the snow melt and the Maligne River exceeds the cave systems ability to empty Medicine Lake so it swells to it’s maximum size and depth. Later on during the dry summer the inflow decreases but the underground drainage remains the same so the lake just disappears. 

Where does the water go? Well, the it travels through the cave system (it’s technically known as a karsk but it’s essentially just a bunch of flooded underground passages) and reappears at the surface in the Maligne Canyon; this results in a bunch of springs coming out of the sides of the canyon and adding to the river flow…this is the cause for the increase in flow between the top and bottom of the canyon. Here is a picture of one of the springs coming out of a cave in the side of the canyon.


See how the water is coming from inside the cliff? Here’s another shot of the same spring (ti’s about 15 or 20 feet wide) but with a wider angle so you can see how tall the canyon walls are at this point.


It’s probably 150 feet or so to the top of the canyon wall from the spring. Here’s a second spring with a much gentler drop into the main river…again, it’s just coming out of the side of the canyon.


One final shot of the last waterfall in the canyon itself


and then we climbed up out of the canyon to almost the top of the ridge alongside it. Here are shots from our last view of the river (upstream and downstream from the same viewpoint) before we hiked back to the parking area through the woods and meadows instead of along the rim of the canyon…along with one of the distant mountains (actually about midway direction wise between the up and downstream shots) when the mountain just popped out of the clouds.




With that the major viewpoints of our hike were done and it was just a matter of another mile and a half back (and 300 feet up) to the parking lot. We were getting tired by this point but with a few stops for breathing and water made it back just before the rain broke out again. It poured on us the 15 or so miles home but by the time we had showers and started making dinner had turned into a beautiful sunny afternoon.

The strangest thing we’ve had so far is how much daylight there actually is up here. It is light by 0430 in the morning and doesn’t get actually dark until almost 2300 at night…the light coming in the skylight over our shower actually interfere with sleep if we go to bed early. Luckily we wake up early anyway after so many years of working…we’ve been told that one adjusts to not *having* to get up early but it’s been almost two years since we retired from full time work and it ain’t happened yet.

We got back home and after showers Neil whipped up some Bolognaise Sauce (that’s spaghetti sauce with meat) and we had it over fettucini for dinner along with a nice bottle of Sawmill Creek Merlot. Delish.

Tomorrow we’re headed off early for the coffee shop so Connie can work a bit and I guess Neil will surf the web…then we’ll have some fun stuff although the specifics haven’t been identified yet.

Wasn’t that a cool science/geology lesson?

Update Thursday morning…this morning our next door neighbor in the campground tried to tell us the female elk in the first couple of photos was a deer…not.


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