After the crowds left the Rocky Mountain backdrop of frozen Pyramid Lake, energized by a free afternoon demonstration of Alaskan husky dogpower, Amanda Sinclair and her crew swung into action on a less glamourous duty.
It was their job to walk the 1.5-kilometre track plowed into the ice to scoop up piles of doggie-do.
That just comes with the territory in the leave-no-trace-behind world of Jasper National Park, which is starting to thaw to the idea of creating business opportunities for sled dog tour operators like Sinclair's Cold Fire Creek Dogsledding.
To help kickstart the 24th annual Jasper in January winter festival, Sinclair, her husband Darin Summerhays and three other mushers brought 34 dogs to Pyramid Lake, just north of the Jasper townsite, to give people a shot of Yukon Quest adrenaline. Based near Terracana Ranch Resort on the north side of Highway 16 between McBride and Valemount, Cold Fire Creek has been operating tours in the Robson Valley since 1998.
The dogs didn't mind the -25 C cold one bit, but it was a chilly five-hour process getting through the lineup of 195 people waiting their turns for a ride. Good thing the new owners of Pyramid Lake Resort decided to stay open for the winter. The restaurant was hopping all day, and with about 600 visitors that day, kitchen staff were run off their feet to the point they had to move chilli and hot dog sales to the skate/snowshoe rental shop.
While waiting for the sled dogs, there were plenty of other Winterstruck activities to pass the time. Kids poured molten maple syrup on fresh snow to make soft chewy candy. People cooked bannock over a fire and showed they can spark a flame using a flint and steel (cattail kindling works the best). They gathered on the ice to play hockey and curling (using tree stump sections for rocks), pulled on a tug-of-war rope or took off into the woods on snowshoes.
It was a winter celebration of all things Canadian, and three teams of sled dogs became the centre of the attention. Gazing through powder blue eyes, their thick fur coats covering what looked like scrawny bodies, they yelped with excitement waiting for their chance to run. They were lean but packed plenty of power, easily dragging 500 pounds of human freight around the lake.
“We had 120 people last year on a two-kilometre trail so we made it shorter so we could do it faster and it was a good thing because we had nearly double the people,” said Sinclair.
“I think it’s important to do things like that to contribute to winter festivals and show the kids what we do. Most Canadians have never done it. Some people waited three hours for their rides.”
Parks Canada rules prohibit sled dogs from staying overnight within the park boundaries, but for Cold Creek it’s only a 120-kilometre haul for the dogs to make the trip into Jasper.
“The fact the dog sledding in the park was really well-received this year is really good news because it’s something that has been hit-and-miss over the years,” said Jasper mayor Richard Ireland. “There are some issues with Parks Canada that have to be resolved and I think when Parks sees the interest there was from the public in that activity and sees it can happen without any adverse environmental impact, it’s more likely that will become a more common and accessible activity for people when they come to the park.”
Sponsored by Tourism Jasper and supported by local hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions like Marmot Basin ski resort, Jasper in January organizers opened the festival each yeasr by inviting the Edmonton and Prince George media to stay for a weekend, on the house. We spent two restful nights in the cozy cabins of Bear Hill Lodge, set on the edge of a quiet forest where its not unusual to see a elk traipsing through the yard.
“It started small with just one weekend and it grew to a week and now it’s 19 days over three weekends,” said Ireland, now in his 12th year as mayor. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase the winter opportunities here. People seem to have a good time and like the connection to community as well as the connection to nature and the outdoors. Credit to the original organizers who recognized there’s typically a post-Christmas and New Year’s lull, a time when we needed the attention.”
One hidden gem for nature lovers in Jasper that’s easily overlooked is the wildlife museum in the basement of Whistlers Inn on Miette Avenue. For $3 each or $5 for a family pass, visitors will see a taxidermist’s re-creation of just about every mammal the Rocky Mountain parks have to offer, set in a series of well-lit display cases made to look like natural habitats. In one scene, a half-eaten elk is getting buried into the dirt by a grizzly bear to keep a hungry wolverine from feasting on the carcass. In another, a fully-grown cougar casts a menacing look at its human visitors.
With two weekends left before it ends, Jan. 27, there’s plenty more activities left on the Jasper in January schedule. There are live bands, a street festival, fireworks, ice sculptures, scavenger hunt, polar bear dip, indoor snowball fights, telescope viewing, wildlife tracking games, a winter pentathlon (biking, cross-country skiing, showshoeing, skating and running) and a curling bonspiel still to come.
Jasper is located 376 kilometers east of Prince George on Highway 16.
Accommodation costs for a visit to the 24th annual Jasper In January winter festival were provided to The Citizen last weekend by Tourism Jasper.