The Icefields Parkway – Frozen Beauty

Here in Western Canada, winter normally means crazy freeze/thaw cycles (the Chinook, where moist, less cold air from the Pacific Ocean rolls over the Rockies, raising the temperature by up to 10C) and vast numbers of people for whom a steering wheel is an unfamiliar and unsettling object. The bonus is frequent days like today, with clear skies and bright sunlight. While cold, it is a great opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy the mountains. Last weekend, I took a trip up Highway 93, otherwise known as the Icefields Parkway. This Highway connects the TransCanada to Jasper, running through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The geology is varied, the landscape titanic, and the driving conditions quite interesting, in a don’t-lose-concentration-or-you’re-off-the-road sort of way. Early in the winter, the driving surface tends to be powdery snow, which then packs down and is polished, to an icy base layer. The actual route isn’t too bad to drive, as long as you think carefully about bends, and changing your speed without braking much. I didn’t realise just how slippery the road was until I stepped out of the car to take some pictures.

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Crowfoot Mountain

Being several hundred kilometres long, the weather along the Parkway can be quite varied. On this occasion, it was fairly cloudy, with snow falling through the lower reaches of the route. Where Highway 93 branches off from the road to Vancouver, infrequent traffic meant it was necessary to estimate where the lanes were. I love this turnoff though, as it always gives me a sense of going somewhere special, off the beaten track, as it were. The Smith-Dorrien highway out of Canmore to the Spray Lakes also does it, and Highway 68, down Jumping Pound way. On this occasion though, the drifting snow made finding the appropriate lane something of a challenge.

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The road goes ever on and on…

The drive follows a path between ranges in the Rockies, with lakes frequently to the side of the road. In summer, these are a vivid turquoise colour through the presence of ground up suspended minerals, termed “rock-flour”. Today, everything lay under a layer of ice and snow, though not everything had frozen. It was possible to see patches of unfrozen lake, though they were being swallowed up rapidly.

One of the things I really love about being up here in the winter time is the silence. Stepping from the car, often the only audible sound was the murmur of the wind through the endless pine trees. Occasionally, you might hear the gurgle of a creek that had yet to freeze solid. Proper silence, without any of the things that we normally tune out.

When you drive east to west (or vice versa) anywhere in the Rockies, you are weaving your way through successive waves of a geological car crash, literally waves frozen in stone. To the south, on Highway 40, Mt Kidd is a graphic reminder of this, with the waves plain for anyone with eyes to see. You don’t need to be a geologist to see how and where the forces that shaped that mountain range were applied. If it bakes your brain, don’t be concerned; we are no more capable of being blase about the forces and timescales involved. After many years, the specialist term that I apply for such situations is “Oh wow”. Works most times.

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Mt Kidd – not on the Parkway, but with folded rocks easily visible.

Back to the Icefields Parkway – here, we are travelling north-west, between successive waves of mountains. For me, the things of note change depending on the season. In spring and summer, the lakes dominate, with their beautiful turquoise caused by rock-flour. In winter, the mountains running alongside the road are dominant, brooding shattered crags, often rising into mist or low cloud. Then there are the glaciers. Frozen titanic masses of water, descending from immense ice sheets to the west, some hang down mountainsides, such as the Snowbird Glacier, while others extend to the east, such as the Bow or Athabasca Glaciers. The ice that makes them up has a vivid blue hue, due to the removal of ice bubbles that normally gives ice a whitish colour. This material has had all of the bubbles crushed out of it, and so looks almost synthetic in nature.

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Snowbird Glacier, on Mt Patterson (3197m)

The primary rock type up here is limestone, and the weather has eroded it into the kind of vertical structures that I’ve seen in pictures of karst topography in the Far East. Below is a picture of the crags on Mt Murchison which illustrated the landform quite nicely.

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Limestone crags on Mt Murchison

It is a long drive, and the landscape changes as you head towards Saskatchewan River Crossing. Ahead is Mt Wilson, with its large syncline (v-shaped structure, caused by rock beds being folded) and inclined beds. Beyond lies the Weeping Wall and the Sunwapta Pass. The aptly named “Big Bend” rises to the pass, with Cirrus Mountain on the right, with the Palliser, Banff and Rundle Formations all laid out for inspection. For my part, my concentration is focused on staying on the sharply rising curving road, and not driving into the thin armco barrier that really doesn’t look as though it would prevent a plummeting descent into the valley below.

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Cirrus Mountain in summer, from the Big Bend.

Past the Sunwapta Pass, the weather became quite a lot worse, with snow blowing in from the north, as well as off the icefields to the west. At the Icefields Visitor Centre, closed for the season, the snow lies in thick drifts. This is not a place to get into trouble, as I was shortly to find out first-hand. Here, on a clear day, the Athabasca Glacier descends from the Columbia Icefield, and several hanging glaciers push down from Mt Andromeda and Mt Athabasca. Vast quantites of lateral moraine (ground-up debris from the passage of the glacier) lie on both sides of the valley. In summer, special buses take tourists up and on to the glacier itself. Today, it would end badly. and to be honest, even if you could get out on to the glacier unharmed, the weather was severe enough to make you wish you hadn’t.

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Mt Athabasca (with lateral moraine in centre of shot)

This was not a good time to drive your car into a snow-filled ditch, but I did. Two of us proved unequal to the task, and thankfully we managed to enlist the help of a number of people passing on the road. For an hour or so, it was fairly unpleasant, and a tow-rope moved to the top of the to-buy list.

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Here it is on a better day, with hanging glacier on left.

Interestingly enough, one of the currently invisible peaks in this area, Snow Dome (3456m) is, according to Ben Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, the Hydrographic apex of North America. In short, water poured on the summit of this mountain flows into three oceans. To the south and east, water drains into the North Saskatchewan River, and by a meandering course, into Hudson Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. To the west, into Bush River, the Columbia River and ultimately the Pacific Ocean. To the north, water drains into the Athabasca River, Slave River, MacKenzie River and finally the Arctic Ocean.

So, all in all, a good drive. It’s worth remembering that it’s a long drive back to Calgary, and breaking the trip up somewhere like Banff or Canmore to have some food and decompress from concentrating on driving for a few minutes is a really good idea. This is one of my favourite drives, and certainly not one I’m likely to forget any time soon.

 

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