Maligne Lake’s winter ice melted in record time this summer, so naturally I headed out for my first adventure on Maligne Lake earlier than ever, too, booking an overnight spot at Fisherman’s Bay Campground on May 7th, 2016. The plan was for a short overnight microadventure that fit with my @EddieBauer #LiveYourAdventure campaign, so I chose to solo-canoe down the lake in order to carry plenty of extra gear to photograph on location.
I didn’t really plan for the dramatic change in weather that was about to occur and notice I said I carried plenty of extra gear. I didn’t carry much extra food, which would come back to bite me (see what I did there) in the following 24 hours, but let’s start at the beginning.
Adventure on Maligne Lake
Maligne Lake Cruises opened the same day I paddled down the lake. It was a sunny afternoon with almost no wind, which made the entire adventure on Maligne Lake feel more like midsummer than early spring. Things went smooth on the first day, so after just a few hours paddling I was at Spirit Island, well past my Fisherman’s Bay campsite. My plan was to shoot sunset and star trails above the island before paddling back to setup camp under moonlight.
As night fell, the wind picked up and clouds blew. I wasn’t too impressed, as I really wanted to shoot the Milky Way above Spirit Island and was disappointed it’d have to wait for my next adventure on Maligne Lake.Things improved magically at 11:30 PM. It was still partially cloudy, but a few breaks in the clouds revealed a stunning northern lights display that danced across the sky for hours. The classic view of Spirit Island looks directly south, so it’s incredibly rare to be able to photograph the northern lights above it.
It was a magical few hours and I was disappointed when foul weather finally moved in and ended the light show in the wee-hours of the morning. I gave up shooting sometime around 2AM. While the image of the Milky Way above this famous landscape continues to elude me, I feel like this was more than a worthwhile consolation prize!
Misadventure on Maligne Lake
After a short sleep, I woke up to an entirely different adventure on Maligne Lake. The summer-like weather had disappeared. The wind howled. Storm cells flew about, alternating between rain, hail and snow. Waves, big enough to be called whitecaps, unsettled the lake.
I wasn’t too excited to see the wind direction. It was blowing down the lake from the north, so I’d have a headwind for my return journey.
Because I’d been eager to shoot a few different images on the lake, I’d opted to solo canoe rather than kayak down the lake. The biggest advantage of canoeing is space. I had my camping gear, Kokopelli Packraft kit, and a few miscellaneous products with me as props for images I’d created the night before. The biggest disadvantage to canoeing is their size. They’re bigger and slower than a kayak. In windy conditions, they also catch more wind and become difficult to steer. This is especially true when solo canoeing, because there is rarely enough weight to hold the front of the boat sturdy.
When I discovered the change in wind direction, I knew it’d be a long trip home. I packed up my campsite as quickly as possible and began the long paddle home. I didn’t get far.
The stretch of Maligne Lake between Fisherman’s Bay and Spirit Island is called the narrows. It actually begins just before the campsite, so I had to paddle a short distance before entering the Lake’s widest part beneath Mount Samson. I soon realized the trip wouldn’t be possible in the current weather conditions. The waves were 3-4 ft tall in the lake and the gusts of winds would blow the front of my canoe around wildly. I spent a few hours battling the wind, but I was spending my energy keeping the boat aimed in the right direction without making much progress. Eventually, I bailed off the lake and pulled the canoe onto a nearby beach. After a few hours and a few cups of coffee, I set out for my second attempt on the lake. It failed, too, so I turned back towards Spirit Island.
I spent the afternoon onshore at Spirit Island, visiting with the Maligne Lake staff I knew from past summers as they ferried groups of tourists on the 90-minute boat cruise. In between tour groups, I sipped coffee, rationed my limited food and contemplated my options.
Twice more I paddled out through the narrows only to discover unrelenting wind and waves in the main body of the lake.
I nearly capsized twice on my last attempt. Both times, it happened the same way. The canoe would crest a wave just as a wind gust pushed the nose of the boat to the left or right. The next wave would hit the side of the boat and almost dump me over. It was definitely time to give up the return journey and get off the lake.
The last boat cruise leaves Spirit Island at 4PM and I almost left my canoe behind and headed back with them. I could have recruited a second paddler and returned the following day to paddle the canoe home. Just before I made that decision, the Parks Canada warden boat drove past. I simply waved to them and found myself (and my canoe gear) a ride back.
It’s slightly embarrassing to get a lift back with parks, especially for locals in Jasper. We pride ourselves on our outdoor experience and self-sufficiency. It sucks to talk about it, but I didn’t want to hide from it either. After speaking with the warden, I discovered I’d done a number of things right and wrong that warrant learning from.
What I did right:
- Carried the required equipment: waterproof and warm clothing, camp stove, water filter, etc.
- Wore a drysuit. Because I had my kokopelli raft kit with me, I had a drysuit that I normally wear in whitewater. I wouldn’t normally wear this canoeing on flatwater; however, when I realized the water was too rough, I wore it as I made my first attempts at fighting the waves. It would have saved me had I capsized.
- Got off the lake. The biggest message the warden passed on was how smart it was to get off the lake. If it’s too windy to paddle, it’s best to wait out the weather rather than risk swimming. This is true even in the height of summer, as the water in Maligne Lake never warms enough and hypothermia would always be a concern.
What I did wrong:
- I’d planned for a quick trip, so I had limited food for an extra night’s stay.
- Paddled the wrong boat. Had I been in a sea kayak, I’d have likely paddled home without issue. Because canoes are more difficult in the wind and I had less experience paddling solo, I didn’t have a chance.
- Bad planning with my SPOT. My wife expected me home by about 5PM. Although I had a SPOT device with me, it wasn’t setup to send OK or custom messages. Essentially it was just a SOS button, useless to let her know I was running late and/or spending a second night on the lake.
That last item was actually my biggest concern. I feared that if I decided to spend an extra night, it’d end with my wife contacting Parks Canada to inform them I hadn’t arrived on schedule. Ultimately, that would have led to the warden boat heading out to look for me anyways, so I took the easy ride back to my vehicle because it was convenient and easy. I know I could have just as easily spent the night, rationed my food, and paddled out the following day when/if the wind died.
I want to be clear that I wasn’t rescued. I’d almost call it lakeside hitchhiking, simply because I associate rescue with some form of imminent risk. At no point did I feel my safety was threatened or that I required assistance. I merely took advantage of it where it was available.
But I would like to stress that it is imperative never to depend on this sort of assistance. There is never a guarantee that unsolicited help will show up, so it’s best to go prepared.
If I were to redo this mini adventure, I’d have carried an extra Backpackers Pantry meal, just in case, and I’d have taken the 10-15 minutes to update my SPOT messages and contact list. Had I done those two simple tasks, I would have spent a second night out under the stars and enjoyed a second opportunity to photograph the Milky Way above Spirit Island.
Plus spending the second night out would have allowed me to write a better story, which made me look well prepared rather than under prepared. That’ll be the plan for next time.