Story by Susan Mate
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
JASPER, ALBERTA — Climbing into the gaping maw of Athabasca Glacier, you can’t help but feel small amid the powerful force of Mother Nature. The walk from the parking lot to the glacier feels strangely apocalyptic as you tread through rockbeds exposed by the receding mass of ice and hardened snow, and past rock formations the size of cars. Winds fierce enough to nearly knock you off your feet whip about as you walk.
Those who travel the 232-kilometre (144 miles) Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper will see dozens of glacier-cloaked peaks, emerald lakes, and scads of Alberta wildlife. One of Canada’s most scenic drives, it offers the chance to clamber up the rocky moraine and onto the toe of gaping Athabasca Glacier — no ropes, crampons, or other special gear required. The largest glacier in the Canadian Rockies, it is the most visited in North America with an estimated 500,000 people a year.
The glacier is one of six primary tongues of the vast Columbia Icefield, the largest ice mass south of the Arctic Circle, and is unique for several reasons. It has good access to vehicle traffic from the highway, unlike the other frozen relics that straddle this famous parkway. Like the others, it is receding — about five metres each year — a fact usually attributed to climate change. During the past 125 years, the icefield has lost half its volume and retreated more than 1.5 kilometres, which is documented on markers posted along the walk. Straddling the Continental Divide, Athabasca is six kilometres long and one kilometre wide; the Columbia covers nearly 300 square kilometres (115 square miles).
On this sunny summer Monday, several hundred visitors are still exploring here at 5 pm, marching uphill like a colony of hungry ants en route to a Rocky Mountain picnic. Hardy wildflowers bloom defiantly along the lower moraine below the icefield, where the trail crosses a glacier-fed creek and then turns upward. The lower pitch is a little steep but achievable to most visitors. The initial 30-minute walk uphill has me huffing, but I am passed by two seniors with walking sticks, numerous small children, and even a woman wearing braces on both knees. I stop my internal whine and plod on.
Taking On Alberta’s Icefields Parkway
The headwind is howling with enough force that it abruptly throws back into my face my shouts of “Hold up!” With my travel companions 50 metres ahead, I hustle to make up ground. Another 45 minutes of rolling terrain and the dirt-encrusted glacier looms just ahead. As it’s late in the day, I turn around and pass a group of tourists who are finishing a guided tour. Their eyes turn as big as saucers when the guide explains the terrain’s rapid weather changes and crevasses that can open suddenly and swallow even experienced climbers.
“The ice is very slippery, people should not step out outside the barricades,” says the guide. “In some spots, the glacier is almost 350 metres deep … you don’t want to fall in. People have died this way. The ice changes all the time.”
Travellers with physical challenges, or those who prefer the comfier approach, can visit the glacier and step out onto a section of ice by touring on the giant red-and-white Brewster Ice Explorer buses that transport travellers 2.5 kilometres from the base, a 90-minute round trip. The bus and walking tours generally run early May to early October and can be booked at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre across the highway (reservations recommended).
Brewster Travel Canada is also constructing another access to the Columbia Icefield — an elevated walkway to the north at the peak of nearby Sunwapta Pass on Highway 93, a project that has been opposed by conservationists who fear habitat loss for the region’s mountain goats and sheep, plus ecosystem concerns.
Earlier this month, Brewster updated progress on its new interpretive centre north of the Athabasca, and confirmed the Glacier Sky cliff-edge walkway will open next spring. There’s also a glass-floored observation platform 280 metres (918 feet) above Sunwapta Valley. Brewster says the Skywalk platform is slated to open to the public this fall, with the remainder to open in May 2014.
With the backing of Jasper National Park, Brewster operators say they have gone to great lengths to make the entire facility — considered by many an engineering feat given the rugged terrain — a user-friendly venue for guests, including people with mobility challenges.
Back at Athabasca Glacier, I am grateful we’ve made our trek late in the day — during peak times (usually 10 am to 3 pm), the hike can resemble a carnival midway and there’s little opportunity to soak up the sights, sounds, and smells that solitude brings. I marvel at the way the lowering sun washes a pinkish shadow over the crusty icefield, and decide my next trip here will be at dawn, to watch the sun illuminate the mountain and its giant frozen dinosaurs. I also wonder what it will look like a century from now, and what will be left for visitors to see.
My momentary melancholy over the threat of climate change subsides as I head back to the parking lot and gently pick my way beneath the footbridge to dip my toes in the creek and photograph a thatch of purple wildflowers reaching for sun in the mountain’s shadow. While the glacial till is barren and grey, the unexpected flashes of colour bring hope that the glacier will still captivate travellers for decades to come — Mother Nature willing.
3 More Notable Glaciers in Alberta
With so many glaciers straddling the parkway, several are noteworthy and easily seen from observation parks and vehicle pullouts. Parks Canada offices in Banff and Jasper, along with the Icefield Discovery Centre (www.explorerockies.com),dispense advice about nearby hiking routes for trekkers, climbers and skiers who are heading to the backcountry.
• Crowfoot Glacier – Considered an outflow glacier of the Wapta Icefield, Crowfoot was named by early explorers because it resembled a crow’s foot in the 1900s. Due to ice melt and retreat, the third “toe” broke off, changing its shape. The glacier isn’t road-accessible like Athabasca, but nice views are afforded at higher elevations on hikes such as the 13-kilometre (eight miles) Helen Lake trek that starts across from the highway viewpoint 32 kilometres (20 miles) north of Lake Louise.
• Bow Glacier – Stop the car at Num Ti-Jah Lodge 37 kilometres (23 miles) northwest of Lake Louise and enjoy the view of Bow Lake and the glacier in the distance. Hikers can do the challenging 32-kilometre, round-trip hike to Bow Hut in the warmer months, and ski in during winter, which for experienced skiers is faster as they can zip across the frozen lake. Be prepared for wicked weather, even in mid-summer, as well as a daunting headwall climb just beneath the backcountry hut.
• Saskatchewan Glacier – One of the best views of this glacier can be had from Parker Ridge, a moderately challenging, six-kilometre, zig-zagging, round-trip hike that starts on Highway 93 about 105 kilometres (65 miles) north of Lake Louise. During the past century, the glacier — the largest tongue of the Columbia Icefield — has retreated more than 1,360 metres (4,460 feet).
More About the Columbia Icefield
Location: The icefield is located in Jasper National Park, the largest park in the Rockies (see map below)
Park entrance fees: Adults pay $9.80; a family pass is $19.80.
Ice Explorer tours: Brewster Travel charges $49.95 for adults and $24.95 for children (6-15) for the Glacier Adventure Tour package.