In the 1930s, the generous winter snowpack and the undulating terrain of the Maligne Range was the impetus for ski pioneers such as Joe Weiss, Curly Philips and the Jeffery brothers to envision a grande ski traverse that would start in Jasper and end at Coronet Creek. The alpine traverse would be connected via a series of huts, starting with a shelter at Watchtower Basin, south to Shovel Pass and beyond. There was no question as to why the skiing community chose the Maligne Range, says local skier and trail advocate, Loni Klettl: it was all about the slopes, the access and the snow.
“Those boys knew the value of the Maligne Valley,” she said.
While the full hut system was never completed, in 1935 the Maligne Lake Ski Club’s base was constructed at the bottom of the Little Shovel Pass drainage, near Jefferys’ Creek. Known as Shangri-la, the six-person hut has been the starting point for countless winter adventures over what an early club brochure described as “the long, smooth slopes dear to the heart of the alpine skier.”
In the subsequent years, while hardy ski enthusiasts would still make the journey from the north end of Medicine Lake into Shangri-la, on the other side of the Athabasca River, the sport of downhill skiing was being hurtled into the mainstream. Marmot Basin, on the back of the success of a rudimentary ski lift on Whistler’s Mountain, opened in 1964.
While the leather boots and long, wooden, inflexible skis of yore seem prehistoric today, what is truly startling—with the benefit of six decades worth of hindsight—is the government’s resource management policy during the park’s early years. When the balance of predator and prey was tipped‚ Parks Canada’s response was to destroy animals—on both ends of the food chain. Wolves and grizzly bears were shot or poisoned in the park until 1959; elk culls were prevalent into the 1970s. And while there is no evidence that these programs affected the Maligne Valley caribou populations, which were strong up until the late 1990s, similar (mis)management of elk and wolf populations has indirectly affected caribou in other parks, according to former Jasper Wildlife Biologist George Mercer.
“I think it’s conjecture as to what effect those [programs] would have had on caribou in the south part of the park in Jasper...unfortunately Parks Canada never resourced the park enough to ask those questions.”
Mercer holds a lot of criticism for how Parks Canada managed Jasper’s wildlife during his tenure. From 1996 to 2004 Mercer worked to reinvigorate the caribou research and monitoring program in Jasper National Park. He wanted to find out why, with no habitat threats from energy development or forestry, caribou populations were declining. His team eventually started to focus on predator facilitation.
What stuck out for Mercer were stories from old wardens who never saw wolves in the pre-Maligne Lake Road days. Eventually, with the support of environmental groups, he and his colleagues proposed something radical: close the Maligne Lake Road for the winter.
“If you’re going to try to determine whether human activity is having an impact you need to do something substantial,” he said.
While other measures, such as discontinuing of track setting at Maligne Lake, were put in place, the winter road closure never happened, something Mercer laments as a missed opportunity. He blames the managers of the park for “totally dropping the ball” on “a real chance to turn things around for the caribou.” But he also reserves a few choice words for recreational users, some of whom, he says, display “an arrogance and selfishness that blows me away.”
Loni Klettl has heard that criticism before. As the face of Jasper’s winter recreational community, she knows that many Canadians who read about how ski tracks are allowing wolves to prey on the dwindling caribou see her and her fellow skiers as greedy. She realizes her passion for the unique experience that the Maligne Range offers—safe, accessible and varied terrain, with frozen creek crossings and a healthy snowpack—will fall on deaf ears in places where Canadians don’t ski. She understands that, in Ottawa, no one’s heard of the Jeffery brothers.
Despite those setbacks, Klettl and other recreational groups have shown that users are a vital part of any outcome. Recent victories where user groups have been involved in park processes include the certification of individuals for trail clearing and the enhanced winter recreational workshops, which predicated the Maligne Valley Concept sessions.
“It’s time to talk,” Klettl said. “It’s time to get down to the grit.”
Like the early ski pioneers, Klettl knows that the Maligne Range offers something unparalleled in Jasper. The winter travel opportunities there are akin to the park’s very identity and don’t equate to a lifestyle that puts a species at risk, she believes. At the same time, park biologists are picking up where Mercer left off, and hoping they get more support from management than he did. Wolf poisoning and elk culls are a thing of the past, but wildlife management continues to be a tricky science and there’s no clear reason why the caribou have declined so dramatically in the last two decades.
While the past represents learning opportunities and the future is where hope lies, clearly, it’s the present that is most important for the Maligne Valley. To get involved with the Maligne Valley Implementation Planning process, email firstname.lastname@example.org
bob covey // email@example.com