Story by Carol Patterson
JASPER, ALBERTA — I’m a skywalker. I don’t have a light sabre like Luke Skywalker, but I have some futuristic-style travel under my belt, thanks to Parks Canada‘s newest super attraction. Clinging to a cliff in Jasper National Park is the Glacier Skywalk. This boomerang-shaped platform of steel and glass juts 30 metres (98 feet) out into the air over Sunwapta canyon, giving visitors an unbroken view of the valley bottom 280 metres (918 feet) below.
Some people opposed the Skywalk construction, arguing that the facility would disturb animals in the area. An environmental study showed wildlife impacts would be minimal as the area had been previously disturbed — it was a roadside pull-off and viewpoint — and the facility design minimized human/animal conflicts. Designers even built a goat gate into the walkways so directionally confused mountain goats or bighorn sheep could be herded off the pathway and back onto the mountain. I have a healthy skepticism for experts claiming they know what wildlife need, but the sheep I saw chewing his cud while I was on the Skywalk seemed as concerned about our presence as politicians planning their travel budgets.
I first saw the Glacier Skywalk on a winter drive along the Icefields Parkway, a famed stretch of roadway that must rank among the finest drives on the planet. Construction was not complete, but I could see a resemblance to the Skywalk erected over the Grand Canyon in 2007. Now, I was back to see the finished structure. As a private pilot, zip-line enthusiast and occasional Tarzan-swing rider, I have been suspended in mid-air a few times and figured walking the Skywalk would be a thrill worthy of my 84-year-old mother. I was wrong.
Brewster Travel Canada, the operator of the Glacier Skywalk, set an impressive stage for the new attraction that’s already been designated a Canadian Signature Experience by the Canadian Tourism Commission. Visitors enter the attraction along a 500-metre (1,640 foot) interpretative trail with six stations on subjects ranging from geology and hydrology to wildlife. I did not learn as much as I could, as I was eager for the main event. Skipping past the solid comfort of the weathering steel walls, I took my first steps onto the structural glass floor of the lookout.
Was it my imagination or was the rest of the group lagging behind, waiting for someone to go first? I have been chased by elephants in Africa, tottered over ankle-deep bat guano in Borneo, and almost frozen to death on a llama safari, so I thought my nerves would be yawning at this adventure. Strangely, that first step was harder than I expected. Perhaps, we each have a primordial safety valve to keep us from stepping off cliffs. I forced my feet forward, then stopped and looked down. The glass cleaners had done a wonderful job so I had a good view of what was — or was not — below me.
New Alberta Attraction Will Thrill You
As usual, my gut was ahead of my mind and did a rapid roll realizing there was nothing but a sheet of structural glass between my feet and the rocks below. “Are you sure you strength-tested this?” I asked Rusty Noble, the Columbia Icefields general manager, when a bolder visitor started jumping on the Skywalk. The whole thing flexed in time to the leaps of our over-achieving skywalker. “Yes,” Noble replied with a smile, “we could hang two Boeing 747s on the side and the structure could handle the weight.”
I was not interested in the Skywalk’s suitability as an airplane hanger; I wanted to ensure I was not a crash test dummy for a new reality show on structural engineers gone wild. But Noble assured me the facility has been built to withstand several metres of wet winter snow. A horde of tourists — even if they stopped at the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre buffet — would not be as heavy.
Once I was able to take my eyes off my feet and the nerve-wracking view beneath me, I could admire the soaring peaks of Mt. Andromeda and Snow Dome. I could see why this spot had been a pull-off for road-weary tourists since the 1930s. The views of Sunwapta Valley and the Rocky Mountains generated several Facebook updates in a matter of minutes although I had to wait until later to post them. This whole area lacks Wi-Fi and cellphone reception causing social media withdrawal, but providing focus to soak in the experience.
Brewster expects some people will enjoy the Skywalk in as little as 30 minutes, but the glass and metal structure can have an unusual effect on people and cause them to take much longer. Our group of experienced travellers took the usual scenery photos and selfies, but then people started to shed the respectability of adulthood and rediscover their inner child. I knelt to eliminate the glass glare in my pictures and then sat on the Skywalk, basking in the sun and the view. Other people lay down — some facedown like starfish while they looked at the canyon floor. Others lay on their back to watch the clouds or make a snow angel, sans snow. One fellow showed breakdancing is timeless when he did the worm move across the Skywalk. A runner did a quick lap around the Skywalk for some impromptu video.
I was inclined to linger longer than I expected and found a seat in the wooden amphitheatre. Although there were no formal presentations, watching other people react to the Skywalk was entertainment itself. Parks Canada has suffered a seven per cent decrease in visitation over the last five years and it hopes attractions like the Glacier Skywalk will attract new customers. It is fully accessible for all fitness levels and mobility and has enough of a wow factor to appeal to even a plugged-in teen.
The idea for the Skywalk came from a Brewster bus driver. Passing by the Columbia Icefields several times, he felt the narrow Sunwapta Valley was the place for something different. He envisioned a suspension bridge across the valley. Brewster management rejected the idea as not practical, but it sparked a process to find new ways to engage visitors. The result is the $20-million Glacier Skywalk and the expectation that each year over 200,000 people each year will want to become a skywalker just like me.
MORE ABOUT THE GLACIER SKYWALK
Admission: Tickets to the Glacier Skywalk cost $24.95 for adults, $12.50 for children. A combination tour of the Skywalk and Glacier Adventure is $64.95 for adults. Details at www.glacierskywalk.ca.
Access: There is no parking at the Glacier Skywalk. There is a free shuttle bus to the Skywalk entrance, but to enter the Skywalk admission is charged.
Where to Stay: The only accommodation in the area is the 32-room Glacier View Inn at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre. Most people choose to stay instead in Lake Louise (a 90-minute drive away) or in Jasper (a two-hour round trip).