Most visitors to Banff and Jasper National Parks learn that striking color of the lakes and rivers comes from fine particles of glacial silt suspended in the water that absorb all colors from incoming sunlight except green and blue, causing the striking turquoise color the lakes are famous for.
However, glacier-fed lakes are also dauntingly cold. Amazingly, there’s a perverse subset of people who enjoy plunging into frigid waters – the members of Polar Bear clubs, for example, not to mention those folk from northern climes who enjoy beating each other with birch boughs in the sauna prior to dashing outside to roll in the snow.
On this latest vacation, much to my dismay, I learned I’d been harboring one of these deviants in the bosom of my very own family.
The first indication of my son Greg’s hyperborean tendencies came during an excursion to Miette Hot Springs near Jasper. I’d never been to a hot springs before, but the idea was quite appealing after several days of hiking. Each of the hot spring’s outdoor pools is maintained at a different temperature. Two were hot – one uncomfortably so, I thought. After a Goldilocks moment in the hottest pool, I settled comfortably in the moderately warm pool, taking my cue from the clusters of middle-aged Europeans congregating there.
Soon, however, I noted members of one group urging one another to jump in the frigid "plunge pool," the ringleader being a burly fellow with perhaps an unfair natural advantage by virtue of his ursine pelt of chest and back hair. He stood in the shallows extolling the virtues of the invigorating plunge, and soon, others farther down in the pecking order were shamed into joining him. I noted none of them stayed in very long, however.
This display of thermal one-upmanship soon caught Greg’s attention. By then, he was glowing a bright lobster red from prolonged immersion in the hottest pool, so I could understand the appeal of a quick dip in the plunge pool. But when he proceeded to go back and forth between the hot and cold pools, barely acclimating to one before jumping in the other, I felt compelled to call out a motherly entreaty. Once Greg hit high school, however, he became selectively deaf, and now neither the length nor intensity of my nagging seems to have any effect on him.
Our next aquatic foray once again ended up with Greg splashing happily in freezing waters. At the end of our rafting trip, along a placid stretch of river, one of the guides jocularly remarked that we were welcome to take a dip if we wanted. Greg, taking this invitation at face value, threw himself backward from the side of the raft, looking for the entire world like an outsized seal swimming alongside in his black wetsuit. Luckily, I’d had the motherly foresight to bring along an extra set of his clothes.
At some undefined point in parenthood a curious apathy sets in. Nowadays, I feel little more than ineffectual witness to my son’s development and can only wonder at his ever-shifting tastes. However, some of his enthusiasms have remained constant, such as a fondness for climbing. When one of our rafting guides mentioned a nearby swimming hole featuring a jump from a cliff off into a deep lake, Greg pricked up his ears and began a relentless campaign to drive out to this spot.
Jack, who harbors latent daredevil tendencies himself, was also intrigued by the idea. Reluctantly, I agreed we’d check out the swimming hole at Horseshoe Lake the following day.
That evening, we drove out to Old Fort Point to watch the Rafting Olympics, a yearly competition among the local rafting companies. In its 11th year, it’s a big event for the locals, who gather in droves along the river starting at around 7pm. Not long after arriving, we heard a commotion: "Here they come!" The first event was a sprint from Alpine Village down to the bridge. Eight tightly-grouped rafts had rounded a corner upstream and were paddling madly for the finish line.
Much high-fiving took place when the winning team reached shore, followed by a long spell of milling around before the next event. Five events comprise this rafting pentathlon: a sprint, raft flipping, slalom, a rescue, and, last but not least, a beer-chugging competition at a local bar.
Next up was the raft-flipping competition. On a signal from the starter, each crew raced from the riverbank into the shallows, jumping in and paddling madly for the center of the river. Each crew readied itself by strategically placing the strongest members who would flip the raft. The goal was to flip the raft, then immediately right it and get all members of the team back into the boat with their paddles held aloft in the least amount of time.
We cheered lustily as the team from Whitewater Rafting Jasper, Ltd., the company we’d rafted with earlier in the day, readied themselves on the bank. The defending champs had their game faces on, with one guide sporting a Mohawk and another clenching a rope in her teeth. Seconds after racing from the bank, they flipped and righted their raft with amazing speed. They performed the next event, the slalom, in impressive style as well. For this event, teams had to paddle upstream against a very strong current, the object being to paddle around – but not touch – a paddle suspended a few feet above the river’s surface from the center of the bridge.
This seemed the most technically difficult and physically taxing event. As side currents were weaker than the center currents, the teams hugging the bank longer set themselves up better for the final haul toward the center of the river. Regardless of approach, however, rounding the paddle placed in the center of the river involved a sheer test of strength.
Unfortunately, it was well past 8pm when this event ended, and the sun was rapidly sinking behind the mountains. We’d been going all day fueled by a few measly snacks. It was tempting to stay to witness the final event, but our stomachs were growling in protest, so we reluctantly left. (We later learned that the team we’d been rooting for came in third among the eight teams.)
The following day we drove out to Horseshoe Lake. While I observed from a comfortable nearby log, Jack and Greg clambered up a cliff jutting over the lake. It was scant reassurance that the cliffs were thronged with teenage boys showing off to girls watching nearby. The boys launched themselves from ledges on the cliffs, landing with impressive cannonballs and skin-bruising belly flops. In Darwinian terms, this activity would be categorized as a "self-culling the gene pool." Teenagers, however, have another term for it: "fun."
It wasn't the cliff’s height so much as the iciness of the water that was daunting. Once the initial shock of jumping in the water had passed, the usual reaction was to swim frantically for the exit point at the base of the cliffs, which took 2 or 3 minutes. Emerging dripping from the water, swimmers stood shivering and blue-lipped for a few moments, arms clasped across their chests.
Greg and Jack watched this procedure a bit before beginning their ascent. The cliffs offered leaping points from various heights. Jack took up a supervisory position as Greg readied himself on one of the lower ledges. He stood there indecisively for a few moments, until a boy some 15 feet higher up on the cliff made an impressive leap. That did the trick – Greg leapt feet-first.
What seemed like an eternity, but was no more than 2 seconds, passed before his head broke the surface of the water. Greg gave a yelp halfway between triumph and physical protest, then made a great show of swimming very casually to the base of the cliff. He was clearly freezing when he finally emerged from the water, but stood there with an nonchalant appraising look watching the next round of jumpers.
Going a bit higher up the cliff with each jump, Greg finally braved the highest point some 30 feet above the lake. By this time, Jack had gotten into the act, too. I’d relaxed sufficiently not to hold my breath each time I watched them preparing to jump. The novelty of the experience was obviously wearing off for them, however, and soon Jack began toweling off and putting on his shoes. Die-hard Greg made one final leap before we departed for the benefit of a group of Australians who had just arrived on the scene.
As we started back to the car, the bellwether Australian had waded into the shallows and was encouraging her friends to, "Come on in. It’s lovely!" A few moments later, we heard a splash followed by an indignant howl: "It’s bloody freezing!"