Where to hang your pack in Jasper National Park BY MIKE DONNELLY
As Hostelling International unpacks its plans to create a hostel in Jasper, The Jasper Local tucks itself into what other accommodation options exist in Jasper for budget-conscious backpackers.
"Pine Grosbeaks. The big finch of the boreal forest.”
Volker Schelhaus walks over to where I’m watching a flock of large, reddish birds feeding on seeds, his boots crunching in the snow. “They’re usually up there.” He points to the top of the snow covered spruce trees. “Only in the winter they come down.”
Volker, along with his wife Paulette, have managed Hostelling International’s Maligne Hostel for 30 years. As such, they have a close affinity with their backyard and share that knowledge freely with guests and travellers. The small, log cabins on the bank of the Maligne river, with their low, gabled roofs certainly exude an austere charm. The buildings date back to the late 1940s, a time when national parks officials concerned with the “moral and physical development of Canadian youth,” cooperated in establishing a chain of hostels throughout the mountain parks. A central cabin houses the kitchen and common area, while the two other cabins sleep 12 people each.
Maligne Canyon hostel is one of Jasper National Park’s five HI hostels, the fleet of which also includes Athabasca Falls, Hilda Creek, Edith Cavell, and Whistlers. All of the backcountry hostels offer a common area and kitchen served by propane heat and light, with outdoor toilets.
“They are rustic, wilderness hostels,” says Michel Tremblay, who for the past three years has overseen HI’s Jasper properties. “Each has something very special, whether it’s the location or the hostel itself.”
With electricity and running water, guests at Whistlers’ Hostel aren’t roughing it quite as much, but it’s still in the middle of the woods, relatively speaking. Although the wilderness aspect lends to their charm, the fact that the HI properties are—for now, at least—all out of town makes getting groceries, for example, a bit of a chore.
But unlike 15 years ago, when I first came to Jasper and stayed a few weeks up at Whistlers, there are now hostel options in town. In the fall, the Jasper Downtown Hostel opened for business and two years before that, the World Travellers’ Fraternity offered the first hostel-style accommodations within the townsite. Both businesses saw an opportunity to give visitors a wider range of options for where they unpacked their bags—they also wanted to meet backpackers close to where they disembarked.
“Jasper is an international destination, but has never had a hostel right downtown,” said Carlos Rodriguez, part-owner of the Jasper Downtown Hostel. “This gives people more options. They can book here and be able to walk to the bus station.”
The two-storey building on the 400 block of Patricia Street underwent five months of renovations to transform a humble residence into a gleaming, 32-pillow hostel, replete with wrap-around curtains in the bunks, USB outlets on the headboards and the spastic-bombastic, playful paintings of local artist Tristan Overy up and down the hallways. What it’s missing, however, are common areas—no kitchen means guests are forced to eat out, and those looking to connect with fellow travellers might be dismayed that as of yet, anyway, there is no common room.
For Mike and Ashley Kliewer, who operate the World Travellers Fraternity hostel out of their small, unassuming bungalow at the east end of Patricia Street, when they dreamed up their business, they were remembering the close-knit backpacking community they encountered during their own globe trotting. They also had experience using couch-surfing websites, hosting passers-through looking for budget digs. To cater to the demand they were seeing, in 2013 they went through Parks Canada’s rigorous planning and development processes and converted their basement to include a six-bed dorm, one private double room, laundry facilities and a shared bathroom.
“We want it to be like the best shared house you ever lived in, with seven of your newest friends,” Ashley said.
In fact from the outside you could be forgiven for not thinking it was a hostel at all; only a small sign in the front basement window gives any indication to the wayward traveller. All the booking is done online, with a two-night minimum stay. Even throughout the winter, the Kleiwers are typically full.
“Before it was more of a transient vibe,” Ashley says. “Now we want to cater to people who are staying here, having a vacation.”
Although HI’s locations are a bit inconvenient for folks wanting to shop, for example, they are certainly conducive to exploring the park—so long as you have a car. Hostelling International guests often come packing skis, ice tools, snowshoes or other outdoor implements. While some people consider the remoteness a disadvantage, to others it’s an asset. Tremblay is of the latter mind-set. He suggests some of the buildings are nearly as picturesque as the setting.
“The common room at Athabasca Falls is amazing,” he says, “It has a big, beautiful chandelier, everything you need to cook and lots of room to accommodate 40 people.”
If everything goes planned, 40 beds will look positively quaint compared to what’s coming down the pipe for the organization’s newest capital project. On February 2, HI requested a letter of support from Jasper municipal council as they seek funding opportunities from the provincial government to build a hostel with room for 154 people. It’s not a new proposition. Parks Canada agreed on the need for budget accommodations 10 years ago and, accordingly, designated a parcel of land in between Connaught Drive and Sleepy Hollow Road for that purpose. Today, HI has finalized the conceptual drawings. While the timeline of the project will depend on funding, in the 10 years since the hostel was first proposed, the reason for its being hasn’t changed: namely, young travellers looking for a place to crash and seasonal workers transitioning from transients to Jasperites. “Backpackers and hostellers arrive by bus or train and it’s tough to get up the seven kilometeres to our site out of town, Alistair McLean, CEO of HI Canada’s Pacific Mountain Region, said.