Paddling Jasper’s Pyramid Lake

Toronto Star, Feb 9, 2017: JASPER NATIONAL PARK, ALTA.—I guess the five-minute refresher on how to paddle a canoe really worked. We move across Pyramid Lake almost fast enough to tow a water skier, due perhaps to improved technique, or the fact that six of us are paddling the 26-foot handmade cedar strip canoe.

Michael Lodge of Wild Current Outfitters provided the quick paddle lesson — “so at least we look like we know what we’re doing” — before hopping in the canoe big enough for a voyageur dance party and setting off toward Pyramid Mountain.

The canoe seats 10 but we are six.

I am in the bow with the best view as we paddle toward the wildlife corridor at the base of the mountain. Like every other visitor to Jasper National Park, we are hoping to see one of the 190 black bears that live here.

“We are in the bear’s natural environment,” says Lodge. “Black bears are kinda vegetarian, kinda the hippie bear. They will eat ground squirrels and baby elk and then it’s just berries, berries, berries.”

Driving to the lake half an hour earlier, Lodge thinks he sees a bear in the woods and slows the truck to peer in the bush off the side of the road. But it’s a rock.

“That one always gets me,” he says. A minute later we see a huge bull elk with giant antlers bobbing and weaving in the trees. The locals call him Randy and naturally, all the smaller elk are called Andy.

As we paddle along the lake we see a Kingfisher, “the punk rocker of the bird world,” and stop to watch a loon before turning toward the back shore of the lake.

We get out and stretch our legs as Lodge breaks out chocolate and strawberries.

He also passes around a couple of bear claws (the real thing, not the Rocky Mountain candy). The grizzly claw is bigger and designed for digging, and the black bear’s is for climbing. After the snack and the lesson, we hop back into the big canoe.

We glide past a few loons and an area marked off for their nesting. One of our paddlers tries his best loon call. As weather moves in, we move on.

We pick up speed and it dawns on me, way up at the bow, that I may be the only one who has been paddling in a steady rhythm. With 100 per cent paddle power, we get back to shore just before a summer squall and the rainbow that follows.

Dinner is almost ready.

The picnic table is set with a tablecloth, a jar of flowers and a wildlife handbook written by local naturalist, Ben Gadd. There are thick Hudson Bay blankets on the benches and above the table, a tarp is tied to nearby trees and propped up with a paddle to protect us from the unpredictable weather.

We fill our plates with grilled steak and roasted peppers and dig into a cast iron pot for possibly the best potatoes ever made.

“Everything takes better in cast iron,” says the chief cook, Brett Haug.

We pass around a jar of his homemade chimichurri sauce, careful to save room for the blueberry cobbler still bubbling on the fire.

We talk about mountains, what makes a good “bear dog” and how to build a canoe.

The five partners in Wild Current Outfitters, most of whom still have day jobs in the park, built the canoe by hand in 1,500 hours, give or take.

They sourced the wood within 150 kilometres and used a repurposed whiskey barrel for the triangular deck at bow and stern. The men are building a second Voyageur-style canoe to add to their fleet of canoes and rafts they use to take visitors on adventures.

As our adventure winds down and another squall passes through, our guides start loading up the paddles and packing up the dishes.

As they fold up the tarp, we head down to the lake for a last look and see that one rainbow wasn’t enough. There is another one waiting to cap off the day.

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