John Updike, one of my favorite writers, said, absurdly, that in golf the walls between the natural and the supernatural are rubbed thin. But that is spectacularly true of the Rocky Mountains.
I am an island guy. I love islands. Well I love islands, and lakes, and rivers, and mountains to name only a few. But islands are special.
A week before we got to Jasper National Park we had signed on for a photographic cruise of Maligne Lake. This is something I have wanted to do for about 20 years since I was here last. That time we could not go on the cruise because we were here on the wrong day. It only goes 2 days a week. The other cruises don’t bring you right to Spirit Island. This time we lucked out. This time we were here at exactly the right time. Not only that but when we signed up about a week ago we had no idea what the weather would be like. We took our chances. On a gray or rainy day it would not have been much fun. Some days it is so rainy you can’t even see the island. But today it was a magnificent day. Blue skies and puffy happy little white clouds. Justice was served! The universe was unfolding as it should.
Maligne Lake of course means “bad lake.” This is a terrible name for such a beautiful lake. It is the largest and deepest lake in Jasper Park. The lake is reached by driving a lovely but winding 46 kilometer drive which starts near the town of Jasper and ends at Maligne Lake.
Our guide on the cruise was Jeff Lewis who was a young professional photographer but he could talk to the rankest of amateurs too. People like me. He also acted as a guide in the fall at the Seal River Camp in northern Manitoba. That was a position that Dennis Fast once held.
It is blissfully easy to see how Indigenous people found a profound connection between them and the spiritual on Spirit Island. It is difficult to deny here that the spiritual infuses the material.
At most times of the year it is actually not an island at all, but an isthmus or peninsula. Only when lake levels are high is it an island. This usually happens in spring when the snow melts off the mountain. Then the tiny trail to the island is submerged.
Spirit Island is right in the middle of what is called a “box canyon.” That is a flat bottomed narrow canyon with vertical walls. This part of the lake is highly unusual in that it is surrounded on 3 sides by one mountain range–the Queen Elizabeth Range. She is lucky to have such a gorgeous mountain range named after her.
The artist and explorer Mary Schäffer was probably the first known European person to see the island when she visited Maligne Lake in 1908. She called the box canyon in which the island is situated the “Hall of the Gods,” an absolutely appropriate name. Although she never mentioned the island, she also said of the lake on which it is located, “If Lake Louise is a pearl, Maligne is the entire pearl necklace.”
The island is a spiritual place for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, or more properly, Ĩyãħé Nakoda First Nation who believe mountains are physical representations of their ancestors. The Indigenous people have 8,000 years plus of ecological knowledge of the lake and island. They know the land and creatures and organisms on it intimately. As a result they knew long ago that it was important for the area to be burned from time to time. They practiced controlled burns, long before conservationists and ecologists realized their importance.
As we have seen throughout the Rockies we saw massive devastation caused by Mountain Pine beetles. Everywhere in this area the forests were largely red and green. Until recent times when the twin forces of climate change and a lack of burns created perfect conditions for the Mountain Pine beetle they existed in the west but never posed pestilential problems as they do now. Because Indigenous people practiced regular controlled burns and did not cause climate change they never had a problem with Mountain Pine Beetles. Now they are a very serious problem and it is all thanks to forces unleashed by modern white society.
Indigenous people believe that policies of non-Indigenous people have led, to a lack of balance in nature. The natural balance is out of whack. Nature needs to be healed. It was sad to see that even on this small island many of the trees were red. That meant they were dead or dying from the effects of the Mountain Pine beetle.
In 1960 Peter Gales made a famous photograph of Spirit Island which was later used in Kodak’s Colorama in New York City’s Grand Central Station as part of an international introduction to Kodak products. Gales was the first to suggest that this island captured the spirit of the Rocky Mountains. Since then many have agreed with this assessment. Who am I to disagree? This really is Spirit Island.
The photograph he created, and which countless photographers, including me, have tried to emulate, or heaven forbid, improve upon has inspired many people. Were it not for that photograph, we likely would not have gone on this boat ride. It triggered a wave of creativity.
Apple also used an image of Spirit Island when they launched their iPad model in 2014 to demonstrate how it had extraordinary photographic capacities.
The colour of the water around the island is different than other places in Maligne Lake. The closer one gets to glaciers, the more emerald green the waters get as a racial of “glacial flour” in the lakes. The colours also vary depending on the time of year. Today the colour varied from blue to emerald green They also vary depending on the time of day. They changed dramatically in the half hour we were on the neighbouring island.
I think it really is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
The beauty of Jasper National Park matches the beauty of any place on earth. It astounds the senses. My photographs are a poor attempt to show that beauty.
In particular I love the mountain waterfalls. I can never get enough of them and hate to pass any of them up.
Athabasca Falls is one of my favorites in the park.
Sunwapta Falls is also outstanding.
I will never have enough of waterfalls.
Our drive through Edmonton was uneventful. That is the best way to drive through a major city. There was one thing of importance that happened. This was the announcement that the City of Edmonton has declared a state of climate emergency as part of its urgent response to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By itself that is not that amazing. What makes it interesting is that Edmonton is a city deep in the Oil belt. It is in the heart of Conservative climate denial. Recently elected Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has already announced that he is getting Alberta out of the climate deal the previous Premier made with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. A number of Canadian Conservative Premiers, including Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario have committed to fighting the federal climate plan which includes a puny carbon tax even though many serious economists, including the recent Nobel Prize winner have stated that a carbon tax is the most effective means of tackling climate change.
Most politicians in Canada are doing little or nothing about climate change, even though scientists agree it is posing an existential threat to the country. Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist has been haranguing political leaders around the world to treat the climate crisis as an emergency because she sees so few of them treating it as a real emergency. And that is what we actually need. We should be acting like it is an emergency rather than battling each other about how to deal with the problem.
Many local governments in Canada have already declared a state of climate change emergency. I know that mere declarations serve little purpose unless they are accompanied by action, and I hope Edmonton will do exactly that, as its mayor has promised. But doing nothing or advocating that nothing be done, or failing to treat this issue as an emergency, as so many governments are doing, including the Provincial government in both Alberta and Manitoba, is a gross dereliction of duty. It is incredible that it requires a young teen age activist to make that clear.
As we meander through western Canada we see many interesting things. Some of them are in biffies. In a road-side rest area in Alberta near Ross Creek I saw a hand painted sign on a towel dispenser. It was a rough outline of Alberta with two words written inside–“No turbans.” That is my photograph of it. (I felt weird carrying a camera into a buffie) It revealed an ugly side to Canada, far removed from the liberal tolerant people we like to think we are. Sadly, racism and hate seem to be on a sharp upswing in the countries of the west and Canada is not immune.
Canadians are often smug when they compare themselves to Americans. Canadians assumethey are better. Sadly, the evidence is not always so clearly in favor of Canada.
I think the most telling case was the case of Brian Sinclair in Winnipeg. He was a 45-year old indigenous man who died from an entirely treatable infection after being ignored for 34 hours in a city ER. It was a clear case of staff in the hospital obviously thinking (what a poor choice of words!) that Sinclair was just another drunken Indian waiting for help.
Then there was the case of the wife of a Winnipeg lawyer and city councilman Gord Steeves. His wife was discovered making a racist rant online. At the time he was the front runner in the race to be mayor of Winnipeg. This is what she posted: “I’m really tired of getting harassed by the drunken native guys downtown”, she wrote on Facebook. Then she went on, “We all donate enough money to keep their sorry asses on welfare, so shut the f–k up and don’t ask me for another handout!” The former city councillor and long-serving, centrist politician didn’t bother apologizing. What was the point?
This is what Terry Glavin wrote in the Ottawa Citizen: “By almost every measurable indicator, the Aboriginal population in Canada is treated worse and lives with more hardship than the African-American population. All these facts tell us one thing: Canada has a race problem, too.”
Here are some shocking statistics and comparisons from Terry Glavin made a few years ago which are still pertinent:
“The median income of African-American men is about $31,000. Among white American men it’s $42,000. In Canada, the median annual income for Aboriginal people living off-reserve is $22,500 (among those living on Indian reserves it’s $14,000); the average annual income for Canadian wage workers in general is about $48,000.
The unemployment rate among working-age Aboriginal people in Canada is 13 per cent – more than twice the general jobless rate among working-age Canadians. This is every bit as wide a gap as between African-American men and white American men.
Comparing welfare rates makes Canada look far worse. Slightly more than 10 per cent of African-Americans are on welfare, but in Canada, roughly a third of Aboriginal people are on welfare or some other form of income assistance.
Canada looks worse again when we look inside the prisons. African-Americans make up only about 12 per cent of the U.S. population, but 40 per cent of the U.S. prison population is African-American. A mere four per cent of Canadians are Aboriginal, but more than 23 per cent of the inmate population in federal institutions are Aboriginal people – an incarceration r ate 10 times higher than among non-Aboriginal people.
Things are going downhill, too. Over the past decade, the Aboriginal population in federal prisons has grown by more than 50 per cent. In Western Canada, two-thirds of the inmates in federal and provincial institutions are Aboriginal people.
About 28 per cent of African-Americans are stuck with something less than a high school education – half again higher than the rate among white people. In Canada, about 29 per cent of Aboriginal people have less than a high-school education, compared to 12 per cent of non-Aboriginal people.
While a third of African-American children entering high school will drop out – twice the rate of white kids – current drop-out rates indicate that more than half of Canada’s Aboriginal kids probably won’t finish high school. That’s a drop-out rate roughly six times higher than among non-Aboriginal kids.
On reserves, 74 per cent of schools are so dilapidated they lack such basic amenities as drinking water. More than half the schools function without a library, a gymnasium, a science laboratory, or a kitchen. Of Canada’s nearly 1.5 million Aboriginal people, about half are under 15 years of age.
“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King proclaimed all those years ago.
African-Americans might be forgiven for every once in a while losing patience with how long it’s taking that arc to fully bend towards them. For Canada’s young Aboriginal people, it’s not clear that the arc of the moral universe is even bending in their direction at all.”
Obviously we still have a l long way to go.
It was time for more meandering. The destination this time was western Canada and maybe the western United States.
Just like so many other tourists we started our journey at the Centre of Canada. Is there any better place to start a trip to the West? Why do so many people stop there to do that? We don’t know but we did it too. We took selfies too. I just used a tripod to do it.
From that site Indigenous people from the Anishinabe and Cree nations lived for many years. The Anishinabe were more recent arrivals. It is also the traditional homeland of Métis and their descendants. It seemed like a wonderful place to begin our journey.
Our trip nearly ended about 30 minutes on the perimeter highway when a truck ahead of us nearly lost a trailer. It looked like only a safety chain kept it back from sliding right into us. That might have been disastrous. Fortunately nothing happened.
After that we were ready to meander.