Spirit Island


Spirit Island

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.

Leave a Reply