Project Habbakuk—the name suggested that it was an archaeological dig on a native Indian site. But Brent Gavin, director of operations at the Jasper Adventure Centre, told me it was a top secret military project.
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Wars, conflicts and bloodshed seem a world away when you’re floating on a canoe on the tranquil Pyramid Lake in the Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. Okay, maybe not bloodshed—come face to face with a hungry grizzly and five will get you 10 that there’s going to be bloodshed.
But at that moment, Gavin was taking me on a leisurely paddle around the lake, and when I asked him about the possibility of scuba diving the lakes around Jasper, he brought up Project Habbakuk. During World War II, Winston Churchill wanted to make an unsinkable aircraft carrier, and his military scientists decided to make one out of ice and wood. They built a scale model in Lake Patricia in 1943. But although the technology kept the boat itself afloat, sky-high refrigeration costs sank the project. The Habbakuk prototype now lies on the bed of the lake, and anybody curious and adventurous enough can dive down to see its remains.
Picture perfect: (clockwise from top) The Canadian Rockies; a snowed-out bridge and a canoe on Pyramid Lake. Photographs by Rishad Saam Mehta
Spring was bursting upon the astonishingly pretty Canadian Rockies when I started my driving holiday at Calgary. Alberta Highway No. 93, also called the Icelands Parkway, is rated one of the best drives in the world. On the way to Jasper, I would go through two national parks—Banff and Jasper. If you look at the map, the drive is like a slanting “L”—with Calgary at the bottom, Jasper at the top and 416km of jaw-dropping scenic overdose between the two. I realized within the first 23km that there was no way I was going to make it in the recommended five-and-a-half hours. I remember constantly stopping and pulling out my camera for a picture. Here, one needs mass media storage—a fistful of memory cards. There was stunning viewpoint after viewpoint, each prettier than the previous.
My Chevy jeep’s windscreen was like a slide show of picture postcards that changed with every bend in the road. On the way, there are lakes right along the highway like Bow Lake, that reflects the entire world above and around its still surface; and other, hidden lakes that you have to trudge to (through 800m knee-deep snow if you’re there early in the season). One of these, Peyto Lake, is so blue that your Facebook friends will think you’ve photoshopped the pictures. The colour is that stunning because glacial rock flour (silt-sized particles of rock generated by glacial erosion) flows into the lake and paints it bright turquoise. And there’s Lake Louise, where the glacier that feeds it remained frozen right up to the surface. Ice perched dramatically over water, and heavy clouds hung low. Right on the edge of this lake is the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel, where you can stay if you have a heavy wallet. Marilyn Monroe stayed here once and no one there has forgotten yet. On a good summer’s day, it’s definitely worth dining on the patio that overlooks the lake.
It’s not just lakes and mountains. There’s wildlife to be spotted too. I saw two bears, then a coyote and rams with a massive head of horn. When rams clash their horns to fight for females, it sounds like the drum roll from Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Banff, about a quarter of the way along the drive from Calgary to Jasper, is pretty but preens for visitors a little too much—souvenir shops, shopping centres, street-side cafés and ice-cream parlours lend it the air of a mountain tourist town. But it was in Jasper that I was won over by the Canadian Rockies. Jasper is a village that can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to grow up to be a town. It’s immensely popular but thankfully, lacks that tourist sheen. Travellers come here for adrenalin highs, not retail rushes; and families grab cycle handlebars, not ice-cream cones, and set out to explore a wooded forest trail.
I wanted a bird’s-eye perspective of Jasper. Gavin asked me to go to the Jasper Tramway the next morning and meet Todd Noble there. The tramway is a cable car that starts at 4,279ft above sea level, and takes passengers on a scenic 7-minute ride up to the Upper Station, which is 7,472ft high on Whistler Mountain. Todd, who accompanied me up the mountain, told me visitors were usually free to explore Whistler Mountain but some areas had been cordoned off recently since a grizzly bear had often been seen feeding on the carcass of a ram. The first thing that you’re told when you’re about to set off for a hike in the Rockies is that if you walk into a grizzly bear he could very well eat you on the spot.
From Whistler Mountain, Jasper looks “J”-shaped and handsome. The lakes around Jasper—Patricia, Pyramid, Annette, Edith and Maligne—can be seen as dimples of deep blue on a land speckled with snow-capped peaks, and they seem to surround Jasper like maidens vying for an eligible bachelor’s attention. I had only two days in Jasper, which is a shame since there are so many trails to explore, overnight camping trips to indulge in and other outdoor activities that will send an adrenalin junkie trippin’. But in the two days I had, I managed a paddle around Pyramid Lake, a cruise on Maligne Lake to Spirit Island and a 4.9km hike around Edith Lake.
Since I had done my bit to burn calories, I could justify the huge and juicy rib-eye steak at Nick’s Bar and Grill and drinks at the Dead Dog Saloon, where the locals hang out. That evening, I realized that Jasper hikes the outdoors hard and parties even harder. I made it back to my hotel at around 1am. The morning after, I visited another local Jasper institution—the Bear’s Paw Bakery. Its coffee is brewed fresh at 6 in the morning, and helped me get over the previous night’s excesses.
I also got myself a muffin and a slice of quiche for my drive back to Calgary. Spring was starting to fade, and when I stopped to stretch my legs and munch on the muffin, I saw a black bear walk drowsily out of the forest on to the road. It seemed to have just emerged from hibernation, since it looked thin and rather disoriented. Campsites along the way no longer wore a deserted look and traffic on the road was decidedly more than I had encountered on my drive to Jasper. Summer was coming, and with it would come wild flowers, lakes brimming with snow melt, blue skies and warmer days. There’s never a better time to be here.
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