“Hold on and lean in!” the guide shouted over the rumble of the 20-person raft as it slammed into a series of standing waves known as haystacks. The glacial water of the Athabasca River poured over the students.
“It’s in my shoes!”
“My pants are soaked!”
“Don’t worry; it’s the other side's turn next,” the guide from Jasper Raft Tours said.
The students emptied shoes and wrung out pant legs while the raft lazily spun down the river toward another series of waves. The toe-numbing water was brown with suspended rock particles called “rock flour,” which comes from the millstone-like action of the glaciers grinding on the valley floor, but occasionally, pools of clear blue water could be seen along the banks where springs joined the river.
“The blue water comes through the limestone from nearby lakes,” the guide explained. “The valley is full of caves and springs.”
Near the end of the 16-kilometre, 80-minute ride, the clouds that had been spitting on and off all morning finally emptied and it didn’t matter who was sitting upstream or downstream. Still, Mrs. Ramsay’s Grade 7/8s were smiling. After all, they were on Canada’s Coolest School Trip, a partnership between Parks Canada, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Air Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Nature Canada and Historica Canada that takes one junior high class on an all-expenses-paid adventure.
After a quick change into dry clothes, the 25 students from Duke of Connaught Junior Senior School in Toronto rode the Jasper SkyTram to the top of Jasper National Park’s Whistlers Mountain.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Jasmine Tolentino said at the tram station perched 1,200 metres above the valley on the shoulder of the mountain. “I’ve been up mountains but there are always trees in the way of the view.”
At first the horizontal rain kept everyone in the shelter of the tram station, but the storm soon dissipated and the students scrambled over large rocks, called erratics, that were deposited by glaciers thousands of years ago.
“Imagine, the glaciers were this high,” said Paul Langevin, a Parks Canada educator, gesturing at the plateau upon which he stood. “They scraped the rocks from other, taller peaks such as Mount Edith Cavell and, as they melted, dropped them here.”
Far below, a kilometre-long train chugged its way out of the mountains while the clouds created a quilt of light and shadow on the valley floor.
“You see that greenish, C-shaped lake?" Langevin pointed. "That’s Lake Edith where we canoed on the second day.
“Beyond that cleft there is the Palisades Stewardship Education Centre where we stayed. And there, behind the lake, is Maligne Canyon, where we hiked.
"The Glacier Skywalk was back that way,” he added, pointing down a side valley, “and your final stop of the trip, the hot springs, are that way.”
Although the rain had stopped, the wind and altitude made for a chilly summit. That, combined with a morning spent rafting on a glacial river, meant the class was ready to soak in the natural heat of the Miette Hot Springs.
After a windy half hour drive into a high valley (which produced the first bear sighting of the trip), the students slid into the steaming springs. The past four days of nonstop activity slowly leached out of stiff limbs and weary feet as the students and teachers steeped in the 42 C geothermal spring.
The trip had been the adventure of a lifetime for the group of young teens from the heart of the fourth largest city in North America. They had gone from skyscrapers to Douglas Firs, rivers of traffic to rivers of glacial water; pigeons, squirrels and raccoons had been replaced by osprey, elk and bears.
Each adventure had been thrilling in its way, but an informal poll found the whitewater rafting was the class favourite.
By Saturday, the students were safely home with stories and memories to last a lifetime. Once again, Canada’s Coolest School Trip had lived up to its name.