Though born and raised in Montreal, author Lynn Martel has been living in the Canadian Rockies since the 1980's. She thinks of Canada's galciers as places that are wildly interesting and home to a breadth of unique activities, and her new book, Stories of Ice, Martel explore and examines Canada's glaciers and their place in the world.
Hands down, the most accessible glaciers in western Canada are those along the aptly named Icefields Parkway, or, in French, the far more romantic Promenade des Glaciers.
The first version of the Parkway was a federally funded work project to provide employment for hungry men during the Great Depression, the largest project of its sort in the country. Construction began in 1931 with work crews starting from Jasper and Lake Louise and labouring toward each other. At the height of the operation, 625 men felled trees, swung pickaxes, and shovelled gravel. Other than a single motorized tractor assigned to each camp, very little machinery was available to aid their efforts as they toiled in cold rain and snow through tangled forests and over steep hills to forge the 230-kilometre single-lane gravel track. At night, the labourers were sheltered in relief camps housing 50 men each, spaced 24 kilometres apart. The pay was 20 cents a day.
Finally, in 1939, the north and southbound crews met at the Big Bend near the toe of the Saskatchewan Glacier to complete the project. In 1940, the first automobile travelled the route, no doubt stopping at the Columbia Icefield Chalet, which had been recently constructed by the well-established Banff-based Brewster Transport company just a short walk from the toe of the Athabasca Glacier.
Tourism expanded rapidly; between 1939 and 1940 the number of visitors to Banff National Park tripled. In keeping with the times, and the traffic, the Icefields Parkway was upgraded in 1961 to the two-lane paved road it is today, accommodating at least a million vehicles annually, mostly in July and August.
In 1939, Alex Watt from Banff began offering tours on the ice aboard a Model A Ford rigged with metal tire treads. His efforts were sufficiently successful that the National Parks Service decided to grant a concession licence to a suitable candidate. To Watt’s dismay, the lucky bidder was Jasper local Bill Ruddy, who, in 1952, began providing motorized travel on the Athabasca Glacier, or, as it would become known, the Columbia Icefield tourist attraction.
Ruddy brought in a six-passenger snowmobile manufactured by Quebec creator of the Ski-Doo, Bombardier. Passengers parked on gravel at the glacier’s terminus and boarded the snowmobile for a scenic ride on the gently inclined glacier slope. Before long, the melting glacier left behind a snout that was too steep for the snowmobile to access. By the mid-1950s, the Canadian government acquiesced to building a gravel road on the lateral moraine that flanks the south side of the ice. The road served as access route to the glacier for many years, and by 1968 Ruddy was running 20 snowmobiles with a staff
of more than 100. In 1969, Ruddy sold his Snowmobile Tours Limited to Brewster Transport Co. (by then owned by Greyhound Canada). Brewster Travel recognized their need to replace the aging, noisy and rough-riding Bombardier machines.
Enter the era of passenger bus bodies fitted with track mechanisms that were originally developed for arctic exploration. Although the non-airconditioned, non-shock-absorbing snowcoaches were better capable of accommodating the ever -growing tourist numbers, the vehicle soon earned its unflattering nickname, “Shake and Bake.” It also became increasingly apparent that the metal tracks caused considerable damage to the ice surface. To solve this problem, Brewster partnered with Foremost, a Calgary-based manufacturer of industrial vehicles, to develop the modern Terra Bus, or as Brewster called it, Snocoach, equipped with giant low-pressure rubber tires. Now called Ice Explorers, these 20-ton coaches carry 56 passengers who sit back in comfort for their tour onto the steadily diminishing glacier. Running on diesel fuel, the vehicle has a top speed of just 40 kilometres per hour, but for the tour the average speed is just 20. With 6 x 6 all-wheel drive, its suspension can handle a 30 per cent grade sidehill, and it can crawl straight up a 60-degree slope. While the über-fat tires don’t cause much damage to the glacier, what the brochures don’t mention is how highway-sized graders and snowblowers plow a large cul-de-sac right on the glacier ice from April to October to maintain a safe area for passengers to disembark and room for the giant machines to turn around. Or that when you’re skiing on the glacier in the months the machines aren’t operating, you can still smell the diesel fuel they run on.
Riding inside a vehicle, however, is not the only safe and informative way for tourists to experience the Athabasca Glacier. Since 1985 Peter Lemieux has guided the hundreds, now thousands, every summer who seek a more up-close and personal experience through two- or five-hour walking tours.
On a typically sunny, cloudy, bluebird, snowy July day, I tagged along as Lemieux and assistant guide Mike Mariash led 11 guests on the glacier. Walking with spiky cleats attached to our boots, we listened as Lemieux shared his knowledge about the Athabasca and its parent Columbia Icefield. Facts about the size, depth and age of the icefield, about how water from its apex flows to three oceans, about how glaciers serve as Mother Nature’s water storage systems by releasing flow during warm summer months when rivers are at their lowest flow, all while we watched meltwater course and meander along the
troughs carved by meltwater into the ice surface.
Approximately six kilometres long today, the Athabasca advances about 15 metres every year – the ice mass moving slowly downslope under its own weight is a qualifying factor for any glacier. Since 1898, however, this glacier has shrunk back at least two kilometres. Not only the length, but its mass and depth have diminished substantially too. “See that big boulder?” Lemieux said, pointing to a refrigerator-sized rock sitting amidst a field of stones. “It used to be beside the edge of the glacier. The glacier has moved it 30 metres since last year. People used to ask, is it hard to tell the glacier is melting? It’s not hard to tell anymore.”