The Columbia iCeField
Best ways to experience a surviving remnant of the ice age.
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!