It’s July 8, 10 o’clock on a sunny morning in Jasper's Information Centre.
A mix of accents chime together in a collective hum. Travellers of all kind populate the heritage building, looking at brochures, taking advantage of the free wifi and shopping for things with bears in the Friends of Jasper store, next door. Some folks wear plastic flip flops, others shiny new trail runners, a few have gaiters strapped to their tread-worn boots. The smell of sunscreen and mosquito spray permeate the air in a surprisingly pleasing way.
And while some speak it in French and others force it out in accented English, almost all of the people ask some form of the same question: “What can I do in Jasper today?”
Information Centre Manager Elliot Ingles knows the first thing his staff will say is: “That depends.”
Maps, brochures and a whole lot of patience are the tools of the trade in the Information Centre and by observing a day-in-the-life of this community hub, it becomes clear that the staff have all three in spades. Answering the same questions over and over again may seem monotonous to some, but for Ingles and his colleagues, consistency is part of doing the job right.
“How long are you going to be here?” comes a sweet reply to a somewhat sourly-posed question by two fisher-folks from Lacombe, AB. Ice broken, the conversation starts afresh. Soon everyone is jovial.
“Just make sure you read the regulations. Remember, zero catch limits on bull trout. Thank you. Next? Hello/Bonjour?”
In the back, in the relatively uncrowded backcountry office, staff are on their toes all day here, too. On this morning, Ingles and his colleagues are working the phones.
"No, the booking fee is non-refundable; holidays weekends are very busy, you will have better chances from Monday to Friday. OK, one site for two people from the 12th of July, anybody under 16? Last name, please?"
Back out front, clad in the woodsy brown and tan uniform that identifies her as a Parks Canada employee, Megan Vicente is helping five kids from Ponoka stamp their Xplorer passports. Meanwhile, behind the gaggle of grommets, two Spanish hikers are asking about the Skyline Trail; they want to do in a day and a half and they are curious about weather conditions and the need for maps.
Next to the Spaniards, an older German couple want to know how to get to Maligne Lake. Every hour of every day at the Info Centre, eager mountaineers and climbers mix with people who just want to enjoy the landscape and take some pictures. Ingles, who can jive with both of those ambitions himself, says the key for Info Staff is to spread people out as best as possible.
"Even if 70 per cent of the bookings are for Maligne Lake and the Skyline Trail, the iconic places of Jasper, we always try to spread people out so they can have a unique experience in the Rockies,” he says.
Although the most popular spots are Mount Edith Cavell, the Athabasca falls loop, the Valley of the Five Lakes, Old Fort Point, Maligne Canyon and Maligne Lake, the staff actively encourage visitors to explore other places. It’s hard to get people to think of skipping a premium attraction to visit a less popular zone, but some folks value isolation over iconic.
“That’s a bit of a hidden gem,” one staffer tells an excited American couple who are inquiring after Dorothy Lake.
Tourism Jasper shares the space with Parks, and their desks are equally buzzing. New employees quickly become experts on Jasper’s trail networks, campgrounds and train schedules. They also learn fast how to help visitors differentiate between Whistlers Mountain, Whistlers Campground and Whistler, B.C.
“That comes up more often than you’d think,” one veteran staffer says.
And it’s obvious that having the old salts to field certain questions is a relief for some of the rookies. The park is just too big to be able to learn it in one summer, Ingles shrugged.
But one doesn’t typically apply—let alone get hired—to a post in Jasper National Park’s Information Centre without having a strong passion for the outdoors. Even if directions to all of the trailheads require a bit of research for staff, it’s the enthusiasm that sticks with visitors, Ingles believes.
“All of our staff are passionate hikers and wildlife lovers, enthusiastic people about the Rockies and the National Park. That’s what we want to transmit,” Ingles said.
On this day, as will be the case for the rest of the summer, that transmission is fast flowing. The phone is ringing off the hook and the tide of people probably won’t ebb for another four hours. Ingles says it might not look like it, but there’s a method to deal with the madness.
"During the morning we try to attend to all the phone calls, sometimes 120 a day. During the afternoon, we normally catch up with email,” he says, flashing through an intimidating screen of booking spreadsheets.
Come October, the office work will slow down dramatically, Ingles says, as priorities shift to campground cleaning, trail prep and booking the real keeners. Ingles says the fact that people are planning their vacations so far ahead of their travel date reminds him what a special place he lives in.
“We’re one of the most famous attractions in the Canadian Rockies. People book in advance,” he says.
At present, however, the dog days of October seem a long way off. It’s now 12 p.m. and approximately 15 people are waiting patiently. No flip flops or hiking boots are tapping. Yet.
“Next please. Hello/Bonjour?”
Queralt Castillo Cerezuela and bob Covey