Columbia ice-fields

As a geology student, and even before that, I used to look at illustrations of glaciers, and learned the names of the various structures, both on the glaciers themselves and the landscape formed by their passage. These words gained a special meaning for me, conjuring up images of far-flung and distant places. Moraine, lateral and terminal, bergschrunds, arretes and horns. Eskers and crevasses. None of this really helped me to get an idea of the scale of a real glacier. Standing on one did.

We drove for hours through the Rockies from Calgary, stopping for breakfast in Canmore. Normal Canadian Rockies scenery, that is to say, breathtaking in it’s expansiveness, surrounded us. For me, driving north of Lake Louise took me into new territory, as I had never been further from Calgary since I arrived. Aside from some unexpected tailgating from idiots with pickups, it was a ridiculously good drive north, with scenery that really did threaten to make you drive off the road. The mountains themselves started taking on a new character. The southern Rockies had all appeared grey, laminated, and well, if not smooth, then certainly less jagged than some of these. Reds and creams started to appear in the rocks, as well as the first icy intrusions of glaciers. As I said, I had never seen one up close and personal before. It was quite a sight.

Glaciers, for those who don’t know, are colossal “rivers” of ice, flowing down from an ice-field, carving a path through the surrounding rocks. They leave evidence of their passing everywhere, if you know what to look for. Typically, U-shaped valleys, and large piles of ground up rock tend to provide clues. Despite the enormous mass of ice in a typical glacier, it is in motion, albeit very slowly. We passed a number of glaciers on our drive north, the Crowfoot and Bow to name a couple. Vast hanging sheets of dirty ice, just to the west, above lakes of turquoise.

Johnson Lake

Johnson Lake

The Icefields Parkway is named after the Columbia Icefield, from which at least six glaciers extend (Athabasca, Castleguard, Columbia, Dome, Stutfield and Saskatchewan). The icefield is also surrounded by some of the largest mountains in the Canadian Rockies, including Mt Athabasca (3491m), Mt Andromeda (3450m), Mt Columbia (3747m) and Snow Dome (3456m). Snow Dome is apparently the hydrological apex of Canada. Pour a jug of water onto the peak, and the water will find it’s way into one of three oceans: Pacific, via the Columbia River, Arctic, via the Sunwapta and Athabasca Rivers, and the North Atlantic, via the N.Saskatchewan River and Hudson Bay. The North American counterpart is in Glacier National Park, Montana.

From the icefields visitor centre, it is possible to take a trip up onto the Athabasca Glacier. From the centre, the glacier is striking. GIven that the maximum recorded extent of glaciation was at the visitor centre in 1844, the glacier has lost about half of its mass. That said,  it is still very impressive, with another couple of glaciers running down almost into contact with it. The centre was also chock full of noisy tourists, but that’s my problem. I don’t deal well with crowds. From this vantage point, it was possible to see tiny specks moving up on to the glacier. These would turn out to be large, six wheeled tour buses, specially geared to allow safe operation on the glacier. There are 23 in the world, with 22 based here. The one remaining bus is stationed at McMurdo Base in Antartica. Cool or what?

Athabasca glacier from the visitor centre.

Athabasca glacier from the visitor centre.

A regular tourist coach takes you from the visitor centre to a handoff point, located on the left side of the photo above. Here we decanted into specially designed buses. Ours, curiously enough, was brightly decorated and nicknamed the “RastaBus”. Here’s why:

The RastaBus

The RastaBus

Close up, the glacier is something of a surprise. Due to the immense weight of ice, all of the air bubbles are squeezed out, resulting in a material that has a vivid blue colour. As would be expected, it is also very slippery to walk about on. I would have been far happier with my crampons and a walking axe, but would have looked quite out of place among the tourists milling about! There are numerous streams running off the glacier, and unsurprisingly, they are a little chilly to drink from. Where they cut through the glacial ice, more of that beautiful blue colour is exposed.

Glacial spray

Glacial spray

While I remember, credit where due. I took very few of the pictures in this post. Most were taken by my friend, Di, and her far superior camera. Standing on the surface of the glacier, it is impossible to gain a sense of how deep the ice is. In this instance, it is approximately 300m deep, or about the same height as the Eiffel Tower. Food for thought. Looking up towards the icefield, you really do get a sense of it being a river of ice. One recent survey counted 30,000 crevasses in its surface. Looking to the sides, the Andromeda and an an unnamed glacier both extend down towards us. Between us is also a barrier of lateral moraine. This is rock that has been ground up and pushed to the side by the motion of the glacier. In this case, it has resulted in the formation of quite a large berm.

Athabasca glacier

Athabasca glacier

Lateral moraine

Lateral moraine

Another thing you don’t realise is how far away the end of the glacier used to be. It extended all the way down to the visitor centre, as mentioned above, and can be seen in this shot looking back down the valley.

The visitor centre

The visitor centre

So, not bad for a day’s trip out of Calgary. We headed back down to Banff and found meat products in the form of Eddie’s burger joint. Slow initial service, during which time we were at risk of eating our own hands, but the food, when it came at last, was excellent. All in all, the Icefields Parkway can be thoroughly recommended. To finish, another couple of photos, showing Bow Lake and the Crowfoot Glacier.

Bow lake

Bow lake

Crowfoot glacier

Crowfoot glacier

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6 Comments on “Columbia ice-fields”

  1. Hermine says:

    Thanks again for sharing! Very informative and lovely pics. 🙂

  2. joanfrankham says:

    what a great experience to be on the glacier.

    • foinaven says:

      Thanks Joan,

      It was one of the best things I have ever done. To have studied these things and then finally be able to actually stand on one, it was fantastic.
      Its not a long drive from home, so I will be going back 🙂


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