Friday, October 21, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 12. Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure and Skywalk

[ Continued from Part 11 - The Crossing Resort  ]

The Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre is roughly just under an hour's drive from the Crossing Resort. We checked out of our hotel early morning and headed for the Centre. This would be the only activity we would do in Jasper National Park, having spent most of our vacation time in Banff National Park.

It should be noted that some say Jasper is even more beautiful than Banff. However the activities in Jasper are mostly outdoorsy like hikes and walks, and require a lot of time. Moreover, unlike Banff, some of the attractions in Jasper are quite a bit off the highway. With kids in strollers in tow, a full exploration of Jasper would have to wait for some future time for us.

The Athabasca Glacier

As we neared the Centre we could see the Athabasca Glacier in the distance. Now I had only studied glaciers way back in high school in Geography, so it was pretty cool to think soon we would be on top of one. A glacier's a (very) slow and continuous moving mass of dense ice, formed where accumulation of snow is usually greater than the rate it melts.

The Athabasca Glacier is the most visited glacier in North America. It actually moves several cm per day, and has receded more than 1.5 km (0.93 mi) and lost over half of its volume in the past 125 years. We actually saw pictures of the glacier from the turn of the century compared to present day in the Centre. For those of you interested in the stats, the glacier is approximately 6 km (3.7 mi) long, covers an area of 6 km2 (2.3 sq mi), and is measured to be between 90–300 metres (300–980 ft) thick.

A view of the glacier from the Centre
You park at the Centre (which is on the other side of the highway as the glacier) and make your way to purchase tickets. We didn't have to purchase tickets as we were using up the final portions of our Ultimate Explorer Combo, which meant we could go to a special (express) line. We had used up the first portion way back when we were exploring the Banff Gondola and Lake Minnewanka Cruise.

One note of caution here: it could be a sunny summer's day at the base of the Centre, and yet it could be freezing up in the glacier. You are going into a giant freezer. We all wore light jackets (which was enough). The Centre was a relatively balmy 20C, but up in the glacier it was 9C. It sounds crazy, but each elevation of the mountain can have its own weather system.

You are boarded (very systematically and efficiently) into a large coach bus and this takes you across the highway and to the base of the glacier. And then you get into a special customized vehicle that is the snow coach.

Our guide driving the snow coach was a young lady who first came here as a tourist during her university years, fell in love with the place and had been here ever since. Her interesting (and funny) facts and trivia about the glacier almost made you forget that suddenly the vehicle you were in was tilted at an insane angle going uphill.
This picture of the snow coach is by Marilyn Peddle
from England - Athabasca Glacier, CC BY 2.0
The gradient is 30%! You could not do that with your average car. The secret was hydraulics, gears and something else she said that I can't now remember. All I know is that it was so cool.

Once you are on the glacier, you are allowed 20-25 minutes to explore at your own pace. They have marked areas within which you must stay, as crevasses and weak ice is always a possibility outside of the marked areas.

You can see one of the huge snow coaches in the distance

It's a desolate landscape that is beautiful in its own way

This is the glacier, or the massive "snow river"

The is a stream of glacier water - the freshest water you can ever taste!

We all took turns drinking this beautiful water from the freshest of sources
After we used the snow coach to return to the place where the bus had dropped us off, another bus took us to the Skywalk. I was surprised to find out that while we were up on the glacier, where it had been very sunny, it was actually pouring cats and dogs down at the Centre! As I said, different weather systems at different elevations.
The Skywalk is a glass floored observation platform built 918 feet (280 m) over spectacular glacier formed valleys and waterfalls.

Unfortunately it started to rain when we were on the Skywalk so while we could enjoy the view, there wasn't much we could do about photographs. That's OK, the main point of a vacation is to enjoy the experience!

The staff was constantly mopping and sweeping the glass floor so it wouldn't get slippery in the rain. Trust me, you don't want to fall here.

The canyon below is quite deep and the glass floor offers really great views of the Athabasca river as it flows from the glacier and into the park.

Every one in our family (even the little ones) were brave enough to walk the entire length on the glass floor, staring deep into the canyon below!

Once you are done (at your own pace) you can catch one of the buses that will take you back to the Centre.
It was a full 4-5 hours we were out, so everyone was hungry. I took a picture of the menu at the café in the Centre that I am including here. While the choices are a lot, remember this is really the middle of nowhere (and no cell phone service!). So no halal and very limited vegetarian / seafood choices. Nevertheless, greasy food usually tastes good!

Over all, this is a must do if you are in Jasper. Yes, it's somewhat gimmicky and touristy, but how often do you get the chance to walk atop a glacier? Most glaciers in the world are inaccessible, so no wonder this is such a popular thing to do in Jasper.

My boys waving good bye to Athabasca Glacier as we headed for Edmonton

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 11. The Crossing Resort

[ Continued from Part 10 - Lake Peyto and Bow Summit Lookout  ]

Where you wish to stay on your trips through these national parks depend on a lot of factors: budget, travelling group, needs, activities planned etc. For us, we had kids with us so we needed something that was convenient (close to the highway), on the way, and had all the amenities. For the first part of our trip we were based in Calgary and Banff, but as we headed north we needed to look at another place.

A lot of these lodges and "resorts" outside of Banff and Canmore are very barebones, made for hikers or couples or young people who will camp a lot. We chose one resort that had every thing on site - a couple of restaurants, a gas station, a convenience store, telephone and internet and of course, a comfortable place to bed for the night.

Welcome to the Crossing Resort.


This "resort" is a three and half star motel, with rooms in cottages spread throughout a huge area. As a bonus, it was nestled right in between several huge mountains, making for an awesome background. And I mean awesome. For once, the pictures on a hotel's site matched what you actually see.

There was also a BBQ area and a fire pit with a gazebo should you feel the need to take a guitar out and strum a few songs. Just watch out for the wildlife at night, though.

There were a couple of restaurants on site. Now you have to be prepared to pay a premium for everything, since this is right in the middle of wilderness, but it's pretty cool to wake up and be able to eat a full breakfast (albeit at a much higher price) right in the centre of what is essentially a Canadian jungle.

Now why am I posting what is literally an unpaid ad for this place on my blog?

First of all, this was a great place to stay as it was right in the middle of Banff and Jasper. A little north of this place was where Jasper National Park started. It was not too far from the Columbia Icefields that was our next destination.

Second, to wake up early in the morning after Fajr prayer and take a walk amidst some glorious mountain scenery was amazing in itself. Now I have used this word - amazing - a lot, but it's something you will find yourself saying again and again while in these parks.

The scenery? Amazing!
The mountains? AMAZING!
The lakes? Amazing!

And third, the convenience. There is a full service centre here for all your car needs. There is a convenience centre should you need something. The restaurant also takes orders for packed lunches on the go if you are going hiking during the day.


So, if you are looking for a place to stay near the Columbia Icefields, do check out the Crossing Resort.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 10. Lake Peyto and Bow Summit Lookout

[ Continued from Part 9 - Icefields Parkway  ]

To get to Bow Summit lookout point (roughly 40 km north of Lake Louise), you have to take a small detour off the Icefields Parkway.

Now I knew about this lookout point, I had seen pictures of the view online; so I was constantly promising my family that it would be worth it. But for all of that to happen, we would have to make sure we didn't miss this exit. As you can see in the map, it's really a small, almost hidden, exit.

And it's a small sign, so you can easily miss it if you didn't know about it. At this point we still had cellphone coverage, so we used Google Maps (and paid heavily for roaming data) to make sure we weren't lost. Once we took the small road, we found it to be winding, narrow and going steadily uphill. Finally we came to a small clearing that looked like a parking lot.

Another trail led up from the parking lot, but it was quite steep, so we decided not to drive there. We parked the car and got out. There was only one other car parked there, with nobody in it.

We soon saw this small gravel path. There were no signs or any other markings, and no other person around. We all looked at each other and said, "I guess we take this?"

We started to walk along the path, which was a steady uphill climb. Soon we wished we had brought water bottles with us. It wasn't a tiring climb by any means, but we were quite high above sea level, and the air was noticeably thinner, so you couldn't exert yourself as you normally would. Bow Summit is actually the highest point on the Icefields Parkway.

We met a woman walking downhill, in the other direction, after about ten minutes.

"Oh, you are halfway there." She told us. "Don't stop, keep going! It's definitely worth it."

And once we reached the view point ... OH YES! It was definitely worth it.

Lake Peyto lay below us in all of its glory. For a while no one moved. We were just happy to sit there and soak in the dream like scenery.

The lake has a very unique turquoise colour due to the flow of significant amounts of glacial rock flour. The outline at one end actually looks like a bear's paw.

And He has cast great mountains in the earth lest it shift with you, and (made) rivers and roads that you may be guided (Quran, 16:15) 

One interesting fact I discovered while hiking is that the colour of the lake not only changes with seasons (due to thawing and glacial rock flour) but also depends on the sunlight, as well as the elevation. This is why Lake Peyto looks particularly stunning, as its viewed from way up.

The lookout point tend to get crowded, but we reached there around 6 pm, when there was hardly anyone there. The sun sets here around 10 pm in the summer, so there was still a lot of time till sunset.

Once again, photos do not do justice to this. Please do go see this in person if you can. Your eyes will thank you.

Notice that you have to dress appropriately. Even though it's summer, we are now quite high up, so a light jacket at times is necessary. It's just a small detour along the highway if you are heading somewhere. The small road is a ten minute drive, and the hike is another ten to twenty minutes (depending on your walking speed).  But yes, definitely worth it.

Bow Summit and Lake Peyto is one of the highlights if you are visiting the Canadian Rockies.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 9. Icefields Parkway

[ Continued from Part 8 - Lake Louise and Moraine Lake  ]

The Trans-Canada Highway 1 continues through Banff National Park past Lake Louise.

As you can see in the map above, this highway veers West and goes into the province of British Columbia. To continue through Banff National park, and then onto Jasper National Park, you must take highway 93, also known as the Icefields Parkway, after passing Lake Louise.

The Icefields Parkway is often called the "most beautiful highway in the world". Now it's not definitely the fastest highway - speed limit is usually 90 km/hour throughout. It's definitely not the one with the most lanes - most of the time it's a single lane each direction and if you are stuck behind a slow moving car, you have to move on to the oncoming lane to overtake (when it's safe, of course).

Yet it's one of the most beautiful roads in the world, and a pleasure to drive through. You don't want to drive through it fast. You want to take in the rugged landscape of the Canadian Rockies on either side of the highway. In fact, just as we started highway 93, my brother and I wondered whether the hype - most beautiful highway IN THE WORLD - was justified. After we reached Edmonton, we had to agree that yes, the hype was justified.

This is not your dangerous mountainous highway with death defying cliffs on one side. No! For the most part this is one safe, easy to drive, completely non challenging highway with jaw dropping beautiful postcard scenery throughout on either side.

Most of the time people just stop on the right shoulder frequently to take pictures - so beautiful and serene is the wilderness. Every minute we were seeing something or the other that was just so amazing. You would think your eyes would get tired of seeing yet another lake, or yet another mountain, but oh ... my ... God ... this was a feast for the eyes.

Stretching 232km (144mi.) through the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, this highway offers access to a vast wilderness of pristine mountain lakes, ancient glaciers and broad sweeping valleys. We lost count of the number of times we came upon a beautiful lake, surrounded by tall mountains, that was so beautiful and so different from the last beautiful lake surrounded by tall mountains ... you get the idea. This highway winds its way through a unique and irreplaceable landscape rich in history and natural beauty second to none.

Of course, you have to remember we visited this place in the summer. The parkway is busiest in July and August with up to 100,000 vehicles a month. Although I have to say we never felt we were driving on a busy road - traffic flowed naturally.

Snow can be expected at any time of year though, and extreme weather is common in winter. A Canadian national parks permit is required to travel, and in winter, chains or winter-rated radial tires are required by law and road closures are not uncommon. I would NOT want to drive through this road during winter!

Interestingly, parts of the song Pyar Humko Hone Laga from the Bollywood movie Tum Bin was shot on the Icefields Parkway (and Calgary) during the winter. Although in typical Bollywood logic, they are driving an open top convertible with the top down and not wearing any jackets or scarves during the harsh Alberta winter.

There are so many places where we pulled over to take spectacular photos or sample the glacier water trickling down a waterfall. We just took our time, with both planned and unplanned stops along the way. One note of caution: You MUST remember to fill up your gas tank before leaving Lake Louise – there’s only one service station along the entire route.

Remember, this is really in the middle of nowhere.

Even though there's no hairpin turns or stiff climbs, signs were every where warning drivers to look out constantly for wildlife. We were hoping to see a black bear or two, and then all of a sudden we see the cars in front of us slowing down ... because ... of this. A mountain goat!

Yup! Mr. Goat decided this was the appropriate time to do an inspection of the highway. Even though there were natural bridges and wildlife crossing points all over, sometimes they do decide to use the highway like us humans!

Here's a tip: if you suddenly see a few cars parked to the side of the highway on the shoulder, you should pull over too. Chances are there's an animal everyone wants to see (and photograph) and this is why everyone has pulled over!

Of course this is where I must sound a note of caution, or two.

First, NEVER put yourself in danger when it comes to wild life. They are WILD life. This is especially true with black bears or moose, and particularly when they have their young with them. You do NOT want to mess with an angry mother bear.

Second, you will lose cell phone coverage once you go deep into the Icefields Parkway. There is NO cellphone coverage at all for large parts of the highway, especially in Jasper National Park. Your hotels (which are on the highway, and hopefully you have booked them in advance) may have a landline, but again - no cell phone coverage. So ... er ... don't break down.

The weather, as we were driving through the highway, was often spectacular. As we said, we stopped frequently. And sometimes, even when it rained, it quickly cleared up. Some of the best scenes were of lakes. Lakes there were virtually untouched and undisturbed throughout ages. Hopefully they are kept that way for future generations to enjoy.