This is the second in a three-part series about summer travel in the Canadian Rockies
By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
Stepping onto the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta, Canada, creates a rare sense of wonder that may be about as close as most of us will get to the feeling of walking on the moon.
That makes the Columbia Icefield Adventure an unusual and appealing travel side trip.
The setting is otherworldly on this icy tongue of the most accessible glacier in the Canadian Rockies, reinforced by the grainy crunch underfoot and stark contrast of the expanse of ice surrounded by rocky cliffs and mountain peaks.
Craigslegz Travels Canadian Rockies series:
But unlike the Apollo crews of a half century ago, this is not a solitary or silent trek. Fellow ‘glaciernauts’ are arriving by the score while others depart on a steady procession of giant snow coaches.
Instead of a single flag on a lunar landing site, there is a row of flags of many nations for visitors to pose for photos and selfies with the glacier as backdrop.
But the best distinction from the foreboding environment of the moon is the clear liquid pouring off the ice pack and flowing along a trough at the edge of the viewing area. If you have brought an empty container you are welcome to stoop and scoop some of the purest water you are likely to find anywhere.
Holding the plastic bottle in the stream is extremely chilling to the fingers and difficult to endure for long, but oh, so worth it for the fresh, thirst-quenching, mineral-rich treat. I wished I could have taken a case of it to go.
Many languages are being spoken on the glacier — Asian tourists dominate the demographic — but the translation is all discernible as pure joy. Curiously, a fellow traveler I asked to snap a photograph and offered a sip of glacier water happened to live 10 minutes away from my hometown in northeast Ohio.
Never know who you’ll meet on the glacier. From Asia, Ohio and all over, more than 800,000 travelers visit the Athabasca Glacier each summer. And with good reason — there are few places in the world to experience anything like it.
Climate change on display
Situated along the Icefields Parkway — 124 miles north of Banff, 62 miles south of Jasper — the Athabasca Glacier is the largest of six ice sheets that make up the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park.
Sadly, it is also an alarming display of the effects of climate change.
While the Athabasca Glacier has been gradually shrinking for 150 years, the pace has increased this century as the average temperature rises.
Glaciers undergo an ebb and flow throughout the year. But park officials have measured an annual net loss of 5 meters in recent years at Athabasca. It is happening throughout the Canadian Rockies.
Glaciers form when more snow falls in winter than melts in summer, and over time layers build up and are compressed — like the compacting of a snowball — into a massive icy pancake.
That was the case for at least 10,000 years in the Columbia Icefield. But now the opposite is occurring.
Scientists estimate that Athabasca Glacier has lost more than two-thirds of its volume and half of its surface area since 1870.
The Columbia Icefield tours provide an educational opportunity. For those who want to know more about the history of the glacier and its ecological implications, there is a 25-minute video and expansive display in the Glacier Gallery at the Columbia Icefield Center off Highway 93.
That’s the staging area for the excursions to the glacier and the nearby glass-bottom Skywalk viewing platform. (See below for tour details and pricing).
All aboard the snow coach
Much of the 80-minute tour is spent on the imposing six-wheel buses used to traverse the lateral moraine and deliver us onto the glacier. Described as “highway coaches on steroids” — the all-terrain vehicles would be ideal for lunar exploration — they convey an illusion that we’re heading into an ominous Mad Max sort of realm.
Our driver, Sam from New Zealand, looks the part and has the accent to match. But there’s nothing dystopian here. It’s all fun and friendly on the glacier, and Sam sets the tone with his commentary and anecdotes.
Sam left his job as an electrician Down Under six years ago to drive the 27-ton all-terrain Ice Explorers, which have been ferrying tourists to Athabasca Glacier since 1951. He still gets a kick out of the uniqueness of the job and hasn’t tired of repeating the same tales several times a day.
Nor of the reactions of passengers when he engages the front-wheel drive and starts the descent on a 19.5-degree grade on the way to the glacier, which he cheerily refers to as “one of the steepest unpaved roads in North America” — which requires a climb on the same incline on the return trip.
This is, essentially, a slothful rollercoaster, creeping along on massive wheels that cost $6,000 apiece. It affords plenty of opportunity to take in the spectacle of how 10,000 years of an advancing and receding mass of ice has carved through the sedimentary rock of the mountain.
Rare triple continental divide
Sam takes pride in highlighting the most unusual phenomenon of this confluence of rock and ice. He points out Snow Dome, one of the mountain peaks adjacent to Athabasca Glacier, which is known as the hydrological apex of North America.
Snow Dome is considered a triple continental divide. Melt water from it diverges in three directions, feeding waterways that eventually flow into the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.
“The triple continental divide is real, and this is where it starts. The only confirmed one in the world,” Sam says, and takes delight in adding. “The Americans said they had one, but they don’t. Not at all.”
The Triple Divide Peak in Montana also claims the distinction of feeding the same three oceans.
But Sam is steering our destiny on this excursion, so his word is gospel, at least for the duration. Thus, we nod when he points out features he has taken the liberty of naming, such as “Kiwi Lake.”
Little time to linger on glacier
If anything, the Columbia Icefield Adventure leaves you wanting more. There are only 20 minutes allotted for roaming the glacier and it goes too fast.
Everyone scurries to the row of flags to pose with their respective countries, take a healthy drink of melt water and snap a panorama of photos in every direction. It’s one of those places you want to freeze the mental images because it’s a scene you don’t see every day — or any other day.
Then it’s back to the Ice Explorer because San waits for no stragglers, and no one wants to be left on the moon, er, glacier.
For those who want more time exploring the glacier, guided hikes are available (details below) that provide a more authentic experience.
View from Skywalk
Part two of the excursion was a stop at the Glacier Skywalk, the U-shaped viewing platform that juts from the roadside cliff and offers stunning views of the glaciers and the canyon below.
A standard highway coach took us a couple miles north on Highway 93 to the Skywalk, which has a transparent glass floor that affords a clear view of the Sunwapta Valley base more than 900 feet below. It can be discomforting if you have height anxiety.
The weather is changeable there and often windy. We experienced both, as a rainstorm moved in and shrouded the view of the mountains. But within 15 minutes the storm passed and afforded a spectacular showcase of the mountain ice-peaks and glaciers.
There are interpretive displays along the quarter-mile walkway to the viewing platform, including an interactive 3D exhibit of the hydrological apex.
Visitors can linger as long as desired at the Glacier Skywalk and take any of the frequently arriving buses back to the Columbia Icefield Center.
Columbia Icefield Adventure prices
There is a 10 percent discount for booking 48 hours in advance, which we took advantage of. The visit to Athabasca Glacier, including the additional stop at Skywalk, was $103 (Canadian dollars) per adult in July 2019. The favorable exchange rate made it about $80 U.S.
There is an option to book just the glacier excursion or Skywalk only.
Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Center
The facility is along the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 N), 1 hour south of Jasper and 2.5 hours north of Banff.
There is a ski lodge-like cafeteria as well as a sit-down restaurant. Accommodations are available at the Glacier View Lodge, with mountain view rooms for $489 CAD. There are all-inclusive packages available including meals and tours.
Hike the Columbia Icefield
For those who want a more intimate experience on the Athabasca Glacier, three guided ice walks are offered, ranging from three to six hours in duration and ranging in price from $110 to $175 CAD.