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September 16, 2001
The Icefield Parkway, extending 144 miles from Jasper to Lake Louise, is Canada’s equivalent to America’s famed Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier Park. Near the Parkway’s midpoint, the Columbia Icefield covers hundreds of square miles with live, continuously moving, glacial ice. Many tour companies make it easy to reach.
We weren’t able to traverse the main portion of the icefield, but we did drive more than an mile onto the Athabasca Glacier, just below it. The original ‘Sno-Coaches’ that pioneered this tour were crawler-treaded vehicles somewhat resembling World War II ‘halftracks’ and carrying relatively few people. To visualize today’s coaches, picture a city transit bus given huge picture windows and mounted on 10-foot-high snow tires. To reach the glacier, they need to negotiate a grade of at least 25% --- one foot down for every four feet forward. That’s as steep or steeper than San Francisco’s cable cars --- and we were on snow and gravel!
The journey on the glacier lasted only 50 minutes or so, but allowed more than enough time to contemplate how northern North America might have appeared during the Ice Age. The more venturesome of our passengers --- those with good footwear and balance --- had 10 minutes or so to actually walk on the glacier. Not feeling comfortable walking on wet ice, I stayed on the coach and shot my photos from the door.
(At least one of our passengers did fall, but apparently escaped injury. Walking the glacier without a professional guide who knows exactly where the crevasses are is extremely dangerous; unescorted hikers who fall into crevasses often die of exposure before they can be pulled out. A three-year old child who briefly wandered away from his parents was lost during the 2000 season.)
The scenic bus ride from Jasper to the Icefield Center offers frequent views of Mt. Athabasca and other glacier-capped peaks and several lookouts for photography. (If you see Smokey the Bear wearing a blue railroad cap, it’s the one the wind snatched off my head during one of those cliffside stops.) During the trip, our guide pointed out what’s thought to be North America’s only ‘triple continental divide’ --- a glacier whose outflow goes west to the Pacific Ocean, northwest to the Arctic Ocean, and northeast to Hudson Bay and thence to the Atlantic.
It isn’t necessary to use a tour operator to visit the icefield. Hostels and other low-cost overnight lodging options are available and hikers/backpackers are welcome. You must, however, have a Canadian National Parks permit. It’s not difficult to drive or hike to the rims of the glaciers. However, walking ON the glaciers without an experienced guide, though not illegal, is foolhardy. That said ...
The Columbia Icefield Tour was one of the most memorable experiences during my 14-day trans-Canada journey. It can be done from Jasper, Lake Louise or Banff.
From journal Alberta's Gem called Jasper
November 25, 2000
Among the many "don’t miss" trips around Banff and Jasper, the Columbia Icefields probably rank near the top. This immense accumulation of ice and snow occupies several hundred square miles and feeds several major glaciers. It’s certainly one of the most accessible glaciers you’ll ever encounter. But if you take the guided tour, be prepared to be part of a large crowd.
We visited the Icefields during a day-long bus tour of the Icefields Parkway, a road that stretches from Jasper southward to Banff. We arrived at the Icefields Centre at mid-morning and were immediately swallowed up in the crowds as we boarded our bus for the short drive across the road to the specialized "Sno Coach" that would take us to the glacier.
Our guide shared a great deal of knowledge about the Icefields and their surrounding glaciers. All of the glaciers are retreating, and in recent years, the retreat has become more rapid. We also learned that the Icefields are the hydrologic summit of North America. Their meltwater feeds the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, and the area is unique for that reason. It’s also one of the reasons that UNESCO has declared this area a World Heritage Site.
The Sno-Coach is a six-wheeled all-wheel-drive vehicle whose tires are higher than a person of average height. Capable of traveling up and down steep grades, it carries visitors the last few hundred yards to the foot of the Icefields.
Once we were actually walking on the ice, it was possible to move a little bit away from the crowd and spend our allotted fifteen minutes actually contemplating the beauty and immensity of what we were seeing. It’s Nature on a grand scale, dwarfing the visitor both in time and space. We were surrounded on three sides by granite mountains, each with its own mighty glacier suspended above us. Evidence of recent avalanches was everywhere, although we were viewing them from a safe distance. The ice was covered with snow, which crunched underfoot, and the footing was surprisingly easy.
Our trip back across the road to the Icefields Centre was brief. Once there we had an expensive lunch. There is an interpretive exhibit, but the crowds were simply too much for us, and we spent our remaining allotted time sitting on a sunny terrace looking at the Icefields.
IF YOU PLAN THIS TRIP: Take warm clothing, good boots, and gloves. In addition to the guided tour we took, there are hiking trails and campgrounds in the vicinity.
From journal Toronto to Jasper on "The Canadian"