Glaciers of the Rockies

During our trip to the Rocky Mountains in August 2016, we set out from Lake Louise to visit the Colombian Icefields.  The road is rightly named as the Icefields Parkway as it offers a breathtaking view of the mountains, glaciers, rivers, waterfalls, lakes and valleys  as one winds the way up.   There is a high chance of encounters with wildlife enroute.

After about 30 minutes of drive, we were stunned by the beauty of  Bow Lake, with its cool true-blue waters and mist overhanging the water.  It offered a perfect picture-postcard shot with Crowfoot Glacier in the background, whose meltwaters feed the lake.  Bow Lake is right adjacent to the highway and is one of the largest lakes in Banff National Park.

After spending about 30 minutes at the Bow Lake, we drove off to the Colombia Icefield Discovery Centre to undertake out trip to the Athabasca Glacier.  The centre is operated only in summer (in winter the centre closes down) by Brewster Travel and located opposite the Columbia Icefields.

Straddling the boundary between the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia (BC), the Columbia Icefields situated on the Rockies, is the largest ice mass in North America, south of the Arctic Circle.   It is known as the ‘hydrographic apex of North America’ as the rivers emanating from these glaciers flow into three oceans – the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic.  In effect it becomes the centre of water distribution in North America. Only one other similar divide exists and it is in Northern Siberia.

The Columbia Icefield, at an average elevation of about 3,000 m,  covers an area of 365 sq km and has a maximum depth of 365 m. The highest points on the icefiled are Mount Columbia (3745 m) and Mount Athabasca (3,491 m).

Six large outlet glaciers flow from the Columbia IceField – Athabasca, Castleguard, Columbia, Dome, Saskatchewan and Stutfield Glaciers. Meltwater from the Athabasca Glacier feeds the Athabasca River which flows into the Arctic Ocean traversing about 4,000 km. Water from the Saskatchewan Glacier enters into the Saskatchewan River further flowing about 2,600 km into the Atlantic Ocean. Water from other glaciers flow into the Fraser and Columbia rivers leading to the Pacific Ocean. If these glaciers recede or disappear, it would result in a catastrophic effect on the water supply of North America.

We boarded the all-terrain Ice Explorer – a massive vehicle specially designed for glacier travel  for the Glacier Adventure – a ride onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier. During this thrilling trip, the experienced driver-guide shared a wealth of fascinating information about glaciers, icefields, flora, fauna and their impact on our environment.

The Ice Explorer crawled its way up and our guide showed us the trees growing close to the glacier.  She said they were almost 400 years old.  These trees have not grown tall as they have only two to three months of growing time.  Further, the cold winds blowing away from the glacier have ensured that the branches grow away from the glacier and the side of the tree closer to the glacier is devoid of any branches.

As the Ice Explorer entered the glacier,  we crossed the lateral moraines.  When a glacier recedes, large amounts of debris –  referred to as till – is  deposited as linear ridges called moraines.  As a glacier moves down a valley, the friction created by the valley sides forces deposition along the edge of the glacier. These depositions are referred to as lateral moraines. If a glacier is receding, lateral moraines provide evidence of how far the glacier has retreated.

After crossing the moraines, the Ice Explorer halted on the glacier and the tourists dismounted on to the glacier to walk on the ice and fill their water bottle with fresh glacier water. It was perfect time to capture the beauty of the icefield’s breathtaking mountain setting.

A glacier is compacted ice that is moving.  Glaciers can be divided into two zones, the zone of accumulation, and the zone of melting. Where a glacier develops near the edge of an ice field, it receives great accumulations of fresh snow. At this point the glacier appears clean and a bright white in color. The elevation is high enough and cool enough to maintain the snow throughout the year. This snow compacts as ice, which becomes part of the glacier as it moves down slope

As the glacier flows farther away from the ice field and downhill, it becomes dirty and rougher in appearance. It is entering the zone of melting.  Meltwater streams appear on the surface especially during the summer.

When a glacier melts more snow and ice than it receives, it begins to recede. The Athabasca Glacier is receding in length and shrinking in volume at an alarming rate. The melting rate is faster now than it has been in the last 40 years. It appears that a combination of warmer weather and a dirtier surface that absorbs the summer heat are the sources of the problem. The glacier is shrinking by 30 percent every 100 years. At this rate it would be gone in 300 years.

We boarded the bus at the glacier for the Glacier Skywalk, operated by Brewster.  We were dropped at the cliff-edge walkway that extends along the Sunwapta Valley.  The first 400 metres of the walk was along a cliff lined with six interpretive stations and an audio tour providing education about the area.

At the end of the walkway was  a glass-floored observation platform 280 metres over the Sunwapta Valley, that extends 35 metres from the cliff.  It offered a bird’s eye view and provided a unique perspective of nature at its finest.  Looking down was the deep valley with the Athabasca River flowing and many waterfalls that leap from the cliffs into the river.  One could see the birds flying below, feel the fresh air, relax and enjoy a one-of-a-kind experience.


Maligne Lake and Spirit Island


The first place we visited on our tour of the Rocky Mountains in our August 2016 trip was Maligne (loosely translated in French as wicked) Lake  and Spirit Island.   This magnificent lake is located in Jasper National Park, Alberta.  The 46 km drive to the lake from the city of Jasper is on a  road built along the glacier valley running between the Maligne and Queen Elizabeth mountain ranges. Towering glaciated peaks and turquoise coloured glacier lakes dot the route on the banks of rushing Maligne River.  The drive offers plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife such as elk, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer and bears.  The road ends at a Jasper National Park facility from where the boat cruises for Spirit Island begins.

We boarded a cruise boat for a  90-minute boat cruise to Spirit Island.  This cruise  was, named the “Best Boat Tour in Canada” by Reader’s Digest.  The boat was Captained by a young lady and our tour guide, also a young lady, gave us a lot of information about the lake and the surrounding areas as we cruised to the Spirit Island.

Maligne Lake, the second largest glacier-fed lake in the world and the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies. Ringed by snow and ice-capped mountains, the 22 km long lake stretches past serene Spirit Island up to the melt-water channels of Coronet Glacier.

The lake was carved out by glaciers and the lake is fed and drained by the Maligne River, which enters the lake on its South side and drains the lake to the North into the Medicine Lake. An open forest of pine and spruce around the lake is home to moose, caribou and many other species of wildlife. Hiking and cross-country skiing trails abound making this a popular destination throughout the summer.

Maligne Lake was originally known as ‘Chaba Imne’ or Beaver Lake by the native tribes who lived near Jasper. In 1907 Mary Schaeffer  learned of the mysterious lake and located it.  She later wrote about her adventures, making the area a popular tourist attraction in years to come. She first traveled to the Canadian Rockies at the age of 18 with her friend Mary Vaux.  Here Mary met Charles Schaffer, a medical doctor who was pursuing his passion for botany. They married a year later and returned to the Rockies each summer until Charles’ death in 1903.  The best vantage point from where the lake can be observed with all its beauty has been aptly named as Schaffer’s Lookout after this courageous woman.

The highest peak in the area is Mount Brazeau (11,386 feet), stands at the South-East of Maligne Lake. The East side of the valley is made of steeply dipping limestone beds which is part of the Queen Elizabeth Ranges, named in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as Canada’s sovereign.

Queen Elizabeth II became queen upon the death of her father King George VI on February 6, 1952.  Over the ensuing days, she received proclamations of allegiance from all of her realms – Canada being the first to do so, beating the United Kingdom by about two hours.  During the coronation year in 1953, Canada offered a grand gesture to mark the occasion by naming the mountain range after her.  The Queen has till date not set her foot in the area, but the mountain range stands testimony to Canada’s loyalty to the Commonwealth.

After about 14 km (30 minutes) cruise on the clear turquoise green waters of Maligne Lake, we reached the Spirit Island.   One of the most popular pictures in the Canadian Rockies is the image of Spirit Island in the middle of Maligne Lake. There is no road or trail access the island. Tour boats or private, non-motorised craft are the only means of reaching Spirit Island.

According to some accounts of First Nations (Aboriginal Canadians) mythology, Spirit Island gets its name from two young lovers from feuding tribes who used to meet secretly on the island. However, when the young woman eventually confessed her affair to her father, one of the tribes’ chiefs, he banned her from ever returning to the island. Heartbroken, her lover continued to return to Spirit Island throughout his life, hoping to meet his lover. She never returned and he eventually died on the island, where his spirit still resides.  The aboriginals still hold the island sacred and tourists are not allowed to step on it.  The aboriginals offer prayers and conduct rituals on the island.

The boat cruised at a pretty good speed, but had to slow down to reduce the wake for the passing canoes.  There were many adventurists who on their canoes were making a trip to the Spirit Island.  The Jasper National Park facility rents canoes.  When a tour boat crossed our boat, the Captain would warn passengers of the following wake.  As our boat traversed over this wake, it gave everyone a roller-coaster effect.  Had the boat not slowed down to a near stop, one can well imagine the plight of those canoes.

The lookout over Spirit Island, a small isle of trees linked to the mainland by a low, rocky isthmus, provides one of the most famous sights in the Canadian Rockies—and is surely one of the most recognised mountain scenes in all of Canada.  The cruise is a must do for all nature enthusiasts visiting the Rocky Mountains.