Last Chance to See

Columbia Icefield

The title is courtesy one of Douglas Adams’ non-fiction works.

While we were in Jasper, we decided to rent a car. This allowed us to see a number of attractions within driving distance of the town, without having to depend on the fickleness of shuttle schedules. We went to Whistler Mountain and took the cable car to the summit. We also went to the end of Fiddle Creek canyon and bathed in the Miette hot springs.

And then we took historic Highway 93 to the Columbia Icefield.

The drive alone (100 km) is worth the rental of the car. Following the Athabasca canyon, we saw some of the highest peaks in the Canadian Rockies, and had plenty of instances where we said, “how could anybody have forced a road through here?!”

Seriously, daunting only begins to describe the terrain. As (relatively) flat as the course of the Athabasca might be in the mountains, there comes a point where the river nears its source, and you are surrounded by massive peaks on three sides. I imagine the explorers commissioned by the Canadian government, forging the route of the country’s second transcontinental railroad, coming up the valley, muttering to themselves, “this looks promising, this looks promising… Whoa! Dead end!”. There is a pass to take the highway further south, but it’s not immediately apparent in the drive.

But it’s at this point that you get to the Columbia Icefield visitor’s centre. It’s here you can board the famous big-wheeled buses that take you onto the glacier itself. Looking across the valley, you can see the glacier in the distance. The wind has a definite chill to it. It was even snowing as we got out of the car.

You can walk up to the edge of the glacier, though Parks Canada sternly recommends caution (posting signs all along the path that basically say “this way! But be careful! We don’t recommend you do it! We really don’t!”). We drive about a kilometre to a parking lot and have to walk another kilometre, over a late winter snowdrift and mounds of gravel dumped by the glacier, before we even see the end of it. Walking on the glacier itself is NOT recommended, and we respect the warnings. Even about a hundred meters away, we can tell the thing is huge: six storeys tall at least.

The reason we have to walk so far, of course, is because the glacier is melting faster than it’s being built up. In 1884, the glacier was in what is now the visitor’s centre parking lot, almost two kilometres ahead of its current position. At the time, in the place I stood to view the glacier, the ice was piled about a hundred meters deep. Even twenty years ago, the ice was about a hundred meters ahead of where it is now. I’ve resolved to take Vivian and Nora to see this — everybody should see this — but how much further will we have to walk to get to the glacier in five years time? Or ten?

This is, of course, a concern with global warming. If the glacier retreats at its present rate, there won’t be much left in a hundred years time. And this huge mass of ice, which feeds the Columbia, Athabasca and Saskatchewan rivers, could have a tremendous impact on North America’s climate through its absence, if we’re not careful.

Visiting the ice sheet is an awe-inspiring experience. You feel dwarfed by the scale of the landscape around you, but you also see how rapidly the landscape is changing. And being so small, you can’t help but wonder how we’ll be affected by such massive change. Even though we may be causing, or at least accelerating, the change that is draining away the glacier, it doesn’t seem like a change we can control all that easily. Nature very definitely has within its power the ability to bump us around, and we must never forget that.

More photographs of this trip can be found here.

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