posted: September 29th, 2008 | by:Bert
©Bert Gildart: Tonight, we are camped in the most beautiful place in the world. We are pretty much alone, though earlier in the day, this place was packed with visitors from all parts of the world. But now as the sun dips into glacial-induced clouds, our only companions are a night watchman guarding the visitor center that sits in the shadow of the mighty Columbian Ice Fields; a few other campers who have straggled in from the road; and a lone raven, guarding this extensive sheet of ice as he has been doing through the ages. Or so this form of dark feathers and wise eyes appeared as he croaked out his presence.
This is glacier country, a land of lateral moraines, terminal moraines, arêtes, cirques, tarns, and polished rock created simply by the presence of ice. Specifically, these features were formed by a number of area glaciers, and together they testify to a timeless landscape that has come to be thought of, in part, as the reservoir of a continent.
WORLD HERITAGE SITE
But it is also because of its world-class beauty that Jasper National Park has been designated a World Heritage site, and our parking place for the night provides a wonderful place to reflect on all we’ve seen and enjoyed today in the special area of this great preserve.
Scientists believe the five glaciers forming the Columbian ice fields have been around in some form for three million years. Certainly, this is cold country, and we’re camped (parked) at well over 6,500 feet. As well, we’re far to the north, almost the same latitude as Edmonton, Alberta. In fact, the shortest distance for the raven perched outside our Airstream to the beginning of the ALCAN Highway at Dawson is but a few hundred miles.
But there’s more to it than latitude and elevation. As clouds move in from the Pacific, they encounter no barriers as there’s a gap in the western Pacific range, making the Rockies the first great obstacle to these moisture-laden clouds. Precipitation here at these lofty 10,000 foot-high peaks is immense, and so is the build up of snow. Snow here is then converted through pressure and winter cold into the ice that has become such a world-wide attraction. When the preponderance of weather in this specific area is cold the ice sheet grows; but when the reverse is true, it shrinks. Here, growth and recession has been ongoing for a very long time.
To celebrate this vast field of ice and snow, Parks Canada has constructed a large Visitor Center which provides perspective. There’s a replica of the Icefield and if you take time to study it as one Japanese group I photographed was doing, you see that several glaciers comprise the Icefields. The largest is the Saskatchewan glacier, but the one so clearly visible from where we’re camped is the Athabascan Glacier.
These two glaciers–and their three other counterparts–provide great quantities of melt water that flow ultimately to the Atlantic, Pacific and to the Arctic oceans. Together, this consortium of glaciers is huge, exceeding in surface area the size of Rhode Island. It’s thick, too, and in some places measures over a thousand feet deep. Because of this immensity, the icefield creates its own weather pattern–as Janie and I were discovering. Air close to this icefield is colder than air above it and so it weighs more and is constantly “sinking” because of gravity, creating winds that rocked us as we hiked.
EXPLORING THE GLACIERS
Earlier in the day we explored a portion of the Athabascan Glacier, disconnecting the trailer and making the several mile drive the road has cut through endless moraines to a parking area near a lake that has been developing because, as Parks Canada says, of global warming (my post on gw in Glacier NP). In fact, as Parks Canada points out, since 1885 the Athabascan Glacier has lost over 60 percent of its volume. That’s over 350 million cubic meters of ice.
This concerns Parks Canada–and this entity of the Canadian government suggests you take the “one tonne (sic) challenge,” and try to reduce your carbon output by one ton. Up here, they take global warming very seriously, and in more than one place herald their government’s official stance. “Glaciers on earth are receding rapidly,” proclaim their countless signs, “confirming that our climate is changing.” Then, without any equivocating, their signs emphasize that scientists believe this change is mostly due to excessive green house gases in the atmosphere.
In previous years I have hiked and skied these great glaciers, done so, in fact, for over a one-week stretch with good friends. David (my climbing partner from Mount Rainier), Dick and I had skied to the heart of the glaciers, the place where winters’ snows soon undergo the process of compaction and the conversion, then, into ice–and then more ice and yet more ice. Here, as the years unfold and these tiny flakes of snow solidify, aggregations begin to move, as is required by definition of all glaciers. Inexorably, they move toward their terminus, “the toe.” This, however, takes centuries, as movement is imperceptible and excruciatingly slow.
CASUAL EXPLORATION NOT ADVISED
My personal familiarity with ice of this famous area had been gleaned from a winter trip, when the ice was solid. We stayed in a tent and in winter huts. My friends and I were properly roped up, and both were knowledgeable mountaineers.
In the summer, however, conditions are different and as Janie and I hiked, we encountered numerous signs advising us not to go past the barrier ropes and not to tread out onto the toe of the glacier. “People have lost their lives,” proclaim the billboards.
From other readings I knew that one of the casualties was a young boy who had slipped into one of the crevasses. Try as he might, his father was unable to reach him, for he was just beyond reach. Though rangers soon retrieved him using professional gear, hypothermia had set in and the young man died soon after he was pulled free.
Still, there are safe ways to explore the icefields and we watched as a guide led a group around crevasses and over snow bridges previously tested for strength. Accompanying a guide, then, is one excellent way. You can also take a snow coach, and that is also a good way to safely immerse yourself in these massive expanses of ancient ice.
That night, we returned late to our Airstream. Our friendly raven was still around, settled now on a huge boulder. Every now and then he’d call out to let us know that he was still here, guarding the icefields, just as he’d been doing through the millennia.
In this ancient setting, where centuries are required before snow that has fallen on some parts of these Columbian icefields is ultimately released as melt water near the glacier’s toe, anything seemed possible. Back dropped by the sound of glacial winds and the croak of a raven, we fell asleep, knowing that if we could return in a million years or so, some part of this massive sheet of ice would, most likely, still be around.