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


nadia said...

Such a great experience to have, specially as a kid! Now when they study about glaciers in school, they'll already have first-hand experience seeing and walking on one. Love the snow coach!

mezba said...

I hope my kids realize how awesome I am :-D