Wilderness experience in Jasper National Park, Canada

Jasper National Park is the largest among Canada’s Rocky Mountain Parks and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Around 95% of the national park area is classified as Wilderness. It spans 1.122.800 ha of broad valleys, rugged mountains, glaciers, forests, Alpine meadows and wild rivers along the Eastern slopes of the Rockies in Western Alberta, with more than 1200 kilometres of hiking trails (both overnight and day trips), and a number of spectacular mountain drives.

Wilderness in Jasper has a very high quality standard. In principle it is an area without any extractive use, which means no hunting, no grazing, no logging, etc, and the Wilderness zone is completely road-less. However the park is accessible with wide asphalt roads, cutting it to three pieces from East to West and North to South. Deep dedication towards maintaining high Wilderness quality standard, size and remoteness of the Wilderness put a great challenge to the shoulders of the park managers. The enormous size of the area and the ongoing process of redefining the current management model aiming to be more efficient, means an additional challenge.

Beside several obvious issues, which have been studied such as the need of a long-term strategy for Wilderness conservation, the challenge of daily management  of declared Wilderness areas and comprehensive strategy for the ecological monitoring and data collection in remote Wilderness areas several other issues also appeared for a European context.

One of them is the ‘Understanding of visitor “Wilderness” experience’. Most of the visitors who are lucky enough to visit this magnificent place, consider their top Wilderness experience as simply driving spectacular mountain highways. Many of them are not even willing to get out of the car or the asphalted parking. They consider the magnificent scenery of the Rockies and the abundant wildlife roaming along the roads as the top Wilderness experience. Visitors can see herds of mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elks, deer and if they are lucky, a black or grizzly bear along the highway. This is what they consider asa top Wilderness experience….  And they are not too far from the reality. Wilderness zones usually begin a couple hundred meters away from the highway.

The true Wilderness experience however begins when you leave the car! When a hiking trip takes you to the realm of boreal forests. On your surprise just a few minutes after you left your car, you become the subject of local food chain: thousands of mosquitoes are hungry to your blood. Even a bigger surprise is that after several hours of heavy walking, you have very limited chance to see any wildlife – usually a main reason for people coming here.

Abundance of wildlife is usually the main aspect people associate with Wilderness. This is obviously not true here! Even after several days hiking it is still a pretty low chance to enjoy viewing local wildlife. Simply Wilderness in this kind of ecosystem doesn’t mean “zoo” – which can actually disappoint some hikers. However footprints and pictures from the camera traps proof that wildlife is right here, but shy and not easy to observe. More important, that species living here are not used to people and their irresistible habit to feed them…

On the other side, many backpacking hikers are happy to avoid any kind of wildlife, particularly grizzlies. Experiencing Wilderness and hiking for several days in remote country is life-long experience. Their biggest challenge is simply to survive few days in Wilderness. There are so many challenges besides dealing with wildlife – changing weather, cold, mosquitoes, river crossing – so backpackers are usually happy to agree to avoid additional challenge and meeting grizzlies right on the hiking trail.

‘Understanding of visitor “Wilderness” experience’ is a concept what European Wilderness movement still neglects. The catchy phrases (but difficult to understand) in our continent usually linked to Wilderness are biodiversity, carbon sequestration, ecosystem services, etc.

Lesson learnt from this experience is that we should not forget is that it will be visitors and Wilderness lovers who will support and fight for the benefit of European Wilderness.

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