September Calendar Image : Spirit Island
This blog was written by Anne-Marie Macloughlin for the September 2018 calendar image of Spirit Island in Jasper National Park, which was shot by photographer Bill Settle.
For many of us born outside of Canada, the Rocky Mountain vista as seen from the vantage point of postcard-perfect Maligne Lake is the archetypal Canadian landscape. Part of Jasper National Park, Canada’s largest at over 11,000 square kilometres and a UNESCO heritage site, the aqua lake with it’s other-worldly hue (a result of rock-flour from the glaciers) is what comes to mind when imagining the Rocky Mountains. The park is home to a staggering amount of wildlife, close to 70 different species whose survival depends on the park remaining protected.
Three large glaciers loom over Maligne, the name translating to “Wicked” in French, possibly attributed to the turbulence of the spring runoff into the Maligne River which would have been treacherous to navigate for early explorers. Hard to reconcile such a negative connotation with the soul-stirring beauty of Maligne, the original indigenous name of “Chaba Imne” (Beaver Lake) more in keeping with the mythology of the surroundings, perhaps. And emerging into the lake like a mirage is Spirit island.
What is known as a tied island, Spirit Island is attached to the mainland by a slim spit of land, the iconic landscape globally familiar, used by Kodak Photographic in 1960 in a display in New York’s Grand Central Terminal to show-off colour photography. Depending on the season and water levels, Spirit Island can be cut off from the mainland if the Spring runoff from melting snow is significant. Accessibility in general is limited, tours by boat a popular option for visitors to the park, some of them affording an extended stay on the island to explore and fully appreciate the natural beauty. The island sits in a box canyon, a flat-bottomed lake surrounded by vertical walls of glacier with late afternoon in the summer an optimal time for photo opps, some tours even led by a professional photographer to capture the perfect image.
With much of Canada’s history containing significant elements of indigenous lore, Spirit Island is no exception. A place of significance to the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, it’s easy to understand the connection early settlers to the region felt with the power of nature in spite of its potentially harsh conditions (the average daily low in January a frigid -17.8C). According to First Nations mythology, the name comes from the story of two young lovers. A modern-day Romeo and Juliet, they belonged to warring tribes and used the island for their forbidden trysts. The young girl finally confessed to her father, one of the tribes’ chiefs, and he banned her from ever returning to the island. Her heartbroken lover continued to return to Spirit Island over the years, hoping to see her again. Sadly, she never went back and he eventually died on the island, his spirit wandering there for eternity.
Ghost stories aside, Spirit Island and its surrounding park remains a popular go-to for tourists and nature lovers. With more green spaces diminishing in the name of urbanisation, development and the bottom line, protecting these sacred spaces is even more important than ever. UNESCO has an information monitoring system that provides data on the state of conservation of world heritage sites and the threats they face and Nature Canada, the country’s oldest nature conservation charity, has over the last 75 years helped protect over 63 million acres of parks and wildlife areas in Canada. As important as conservation is for the non-human park dwellers, we humans are deeply affected by our surroundings; recent studies are seeking to prove that exposure to nature improves mental, physical and emotional health. As Edward O. Wilson hypothesises in his book “Biophilia” (Wilson, 1984) we have a tendency to seek connections with nature and other living things. The haunting beauty of Spirit Island seems like a good place to start.