September 29 – 30, 2014: If there was any question in our minds about whether to continue north towards Jasper National Park, the stunning scenery in Lake Louise made up our minds to keep going.
We realized we didn’t have much time before the weather was likely to turn but this was an opportunity we weren’t ready to pass up so easily. So, we departed Lake Louise and headed up the Icefields Parkway. At this point I’d like to once again thank the Canadian Bureau of Tourism for providing such fantastic literature about your lovely country and scenic routes. The United States could take a lesson from you for sure. Our destination was the Icefields Parkway Discovery Center which is about halfway to Jasper. Along the drive we stopped at Herbert Lake, Bow Lake and did a short hike to view Lake Peyto from a viewpoint located above the lake. Lake Peyto is yet another stunning opaque turquoise lake formed from glacier waters and, so far, this view took my breath away even more than the other vistas we’ve seen to date. Just look at that beauty!
The only place to stop between Lake Louise and the Icefields Parkway Columbia Discovery Center is Saskatchewan Crossing. This is the midway point and also the only place with food and fuel. We took advantage of both and arrived at the Discovery Center just in time to purchase the Glacier Adventure package. The package included a Glacier Discovery and Glacier Skywalk with the discovery portion of the tour leaving almost immediately.
This tour was incredible. We boarded a coach bus that took us to our Brewster IceExplorer Snocoach. The snow coach is produced by Brewster, cost $1.3m to produce and is specifically designed to traverse ice conditions. There are only a few vehicles produced in total and one of them is used by an American expedition team in the Arctic. The snow coach drove us out to the Athabasca Glacier on the second steepest traversable road in North America (the steepest traversable road is Pikes Peak in Colorado). The Athabasca Glacier is a three continental divide and is very important for the northern hemisphere’s water supply – water flows west into the Pacific, east into the Atlantic (via the Hudson), and north into the Arctic. It is one of the few accessible glaciers in the world. For the crazy climate change skeptics: something like 8m are gained each year but, with the current climate, another 15m are lost every year. And there are similar measurements showing the receding depth of the glacier. The glacier has had a 40% reduction in size over the past 125 years due to global warming. This glacier won’t be here forever and we were able to walk on the glacier, which is about 2% of the overall ice field in the area, and drink the water. The Columbia Icefield, from which the Athabasca Glacier spills down, is an area of ice that is so massive you could fit the entire population of North America on it with each person getting at least one square meter of space. I can’t imagine we are ever going to have this opportunity again in our lifetimes. And, there may be a future generation that will never have the opportunity at all.
Speaking of generations, our snow coach operator was a third generation ‘ice trucker’. His father and grandfather had more traditional ice trucker careers whereas he chose this more touristic career. He, along with the other Icefields Parkway Discovery Center staff, live onsite, produce their own electricity, and have their own water treatment plant.
We spent the night boondocking in the empty Columbia Discovery Center parking lot. Basically we slept at the foot of a glacier. amazing
The next day we did the Glacier Skywalk portion of our Glacier Adventure package. It consisted of walking on a newly constructed skywalk that is suspended over a large cliffside. The skywalk had an audio guide that explained glaciers, local wildlife, hydrology, etc. but the highlight was walking over the area that had a glass floor providing amazing views. Prior to the skywalk being constructed, this view would have only been accessible to rock climbers. The skywalk was neat but, in my opinion, the snow coach tour was the highlight.
Athabasca Glacier is an absolute must-see!
- Columbia Discovery Center parking lot at the foot of Athabasca Glacier, Alberta, Canada