The Icefield Parkway, Alberta – A glacier pouring into three oceans

Night temperature was with 2° tonight just above freezing point. Generally on the Icefield Parkway there is always night frost except in July and August. The road takes us further north. We are ascending to nearly 2100 m, descending to 1400 and up again. Right beside there is Saskatchewan River, still a brook, having the strangest colour I ever saw in a river. It contains enough rock meal to be milky-opaque. On the other hand enough glacier mud is already deposited and set minerals free to give it a turquoise colour. Saskatchewan River is baby blue like tiles in Soviet-Russian bathrooms.

The famous Columbia Icefield is about 200 sq km, more than 250 m thick in certain areas, and feeds six glaciers. In an average year snowfall is seven metres. Glaciers form where more snow falls in winter than melts each summer. Over time and under pressure, the snow compacts into glacial ice and moves under the force of gravity downhill. Nowadays most glaciers are retreating. Athabasca Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world and focus of many visitors in the area. Since the end of the 19th century it has retreated 1.5 km, and has lost more than two thirds of its volume and more than half its surface area. Under the glacier 8000 years old forest was found. The more the glacier retreats, the more living nature captures back the terrain and new forest comes into being. Which part of climate change is natural development, which one is manmade? We are not going to know that in this age.

You can visit Athabasca Glacier in different ways: Special glacier busses bring the queuing tourists for few minutes to the ice field. It’s you to decide if it’s worth the money. Second option is a guided hike with a ranger, probably an interpretive way of discovering the ice. Another possibility is a short hike from a parking lot to the glacier toe. You are not allowed to walk on the glacier there due to safety reasons, but you can see it very well. The self-guided trail with many charts is very informative. Columbia Icefield is a hydrological apex, the meeting point of three continent-wide watersheds. Meltwaters flow into three rivers – Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Athabasca River – and into three oceans: the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Arctic Ocean. But before, its freshwater is a source of life for millions of people.

There is another opportunity to admire the ice field, and we started today with it. The most beautiful tour is a hike to Wilcox Pass. The first four kilometres lead through conifer woods of the subalpine zone into the treeless alpine area above around 2200 m. The first 335 m elevation gain is moderately steep, but still good to manage. Microclimate today is strange: The sun shines summerly warm, but the wind blowing down from the mountain peaks is pleasantly refreshing. Up on the top we walk on a plateau, a kind of upland moor, and have to cross a river hopping from stone to stone. The high plateau is a lovely landscape with small peaks growing from it. It looks like Scotland, but 2000 metres higher. In the end of the marked hike you definitely should put up with two more kilometres and a couple of metres of elevation, going cross-country over some hills and snowfields to get to the lookout. Use existing tracks and paths used by game to protect the fragile alpine fauna. The peak welcomes us with glacier-cold constant wind and a view to Columbia Icefield, more glaciers and the Rocky Mountain chain that was worth every metre. We think: one of the most beautiful hikes we’ve done.

Dress code is pretty interesting today. There are visitors on the glacier with knit cap, scarf, gloves, boots, and winter coat. I do well understand them. But there are lost tourist trudging through the snow with baby doll and sandals. This doesn’t seem easy because the wind tries to lift the short skirt and tries to show the slip. Is it possible to get frostbites on the bum?

In the Icefield Centre we do not only get better material for Jasper National Park with hints for the hikes and background information. The ranger is very knowledgeable and is willing to share her knowledge when feeling serious interest. In the end she betrays not only the best trails, but where we find elk, Rocky Mountain Sheep, mountain goat, and grizzly bear. She will be so right…

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