The Columbia iCe­Field

Best ways to ex­pe­ri­ence a sur­viv­ing rem­nant of the ice age.

Where Canadian Rockies - - CONTENTS - By Lisa Stephens

So I ven­tured north of Lake Louise along the scenic Ice­fields Park­way (p 22) to that sur­real place that has drawn artists, moun­taineers and tourists for 125 years. Glaciers hang­ing off road­side cliffs and the ice scoured bedrock of moun­tain ridges an­nounced that I was get­ting close.

The Columbia Ice­field has long grabbed my at­ten­tion. A giant ‘lake’ of ice atop the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide with glacier ‘rivers’ slowly flow­ing into the val­leys. Snow Dome melt­wa­ters join­ing wa­ter­ways that feed the Pa­cific, Arc­tic and At­lantic oceans. Re­mark­ably, op­tions to step onto the ac­tive Athabasca Glacier. I had to ex­plore this mag­i­cal land of snow, ice and rock for my­self!

My first view of the Columbia Ice­field was from a Rock­ies Heli Tours – Ice­field he­li­copter. The goose bumps that formed when the engines roared to life re­turned when the Big Bend of the Ice­fields Park­way ap­peared far be­low. I was awestruck when the mas­sive, peak-stud­ded ex­panse of snow and ice that is the Columbia Ice­field came into view.

From this aerial van­tage point it’s easy to see that this mam­moth reser­voir of ice stores unimag­in­able vol­umes of the earth’s fresh wa­ter. As the he­li­copter turned to­ward a val­ley, I could vi­su­al­ize how mov­ing ice age glaciers had cut and shaped the land­scape be­low. Back on terra firma, both my tour buddy and I had grins a mile wide. “I’m glad we took this tour; so rarely am I ren­dered speech­less,” she said. Re­mark­ably, this state­ment mir­rored that of Rock­ies Heli Tours owner Ralph Sliger who had noted ear­lier: “From the first view of the Ice­field ev­ery­one quits talk­ing.”

As I con­tin­ued my drive to the Glacier Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre, I re­called what for­mer Brew­ster guide Terry Garner told me: “It’s tough to ex­plain the Ice­field; you need to ex­pe­ri­ence it.” In­deed. It was a thrill when the Ice Ex­plorer (with me aboard) eas­ily nav­i­gated steep piles of lat­eral mo­raine and drove onto the Athabasca Glacier. As I stepped onto the ice, I was awed. The im­pres­sive view of the glacier’s giant ice­fall was a rev­e­la­tion.

Next up was the Glacier Sky­walk on its inau­gu­ral day. I found the hand-held au­dio guide to be a foun­tain of in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion. It aptly noted that the glacier cling­ing to the moun­tain was “like ic­ing on a cake.”

I was cap­ti­vated by the story of how Bill Rankin’s ca­sual comment to a Brew­ster ex­ec­u­tive about a sus­pen­sion bridge at this lo­ca­tion led to this award-win­ning at­trac­tion.

Look­ing through the glass-bot­tomed walk­way I was dizzy with ex­cite­ment as I mar­veled how an­cient ice had formed the val­ley far be­low. I ad­justed my gaze out­ward and saw snow­capped peaks high­lighted by blue skies.

On the way home, I re­al­ized that in only a few hours I had wit­nessed the 500 year life­cy­cle of glacial ice and the im­pact of glaciers over mil­len­nium. The he­li­copter had hov­ered over the high­est points of the Columbia Ice­field where new ice is formed. On re­ced­ing Athabasca Glacier I saw old ice melt­wa­ters drain through mill­wells and be­gin their de­scent to far away oceans. Sun­wapta Val­ley depths seen from the Glacier Sky­walk pro­vided ev­i­dence of the power ice and wa­ter has over rock.

I cried tears of grat­i­tude as I drove around the Big Bend and re­called it’s rib­bon-like ap­pear­ance from the he­li­copter. Af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the im­men­sity of ice­fields and glaciers I felt “small,” just like Athabasca Glacier Ice­walks guide Peter Lemieux told me that par­tic­i­pants on his tours feel. But I also felt ex­cited, in­vig­o­rated and more knowl­edge­able about one of the great­est places on our planet!

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