IN CANADA'S KINGDOM OF ICE: TREKKING IN THE ATHABASCA GLACIER
 

 

MANILA, MARCH 4, 2013 (BULLETIN) PART 2 - By Emmie Abadilla - Steeling myself against fierce gusts of katabatic wind, I stood at the roof of the Rockies, gazing on a nest of glaciers, two thousand feet thick, which mantled Canada for millennia, when men still hunted with stone spears, when woolly mammoths, mastodons and sabre-toothed tigers roamed the earth.

Feels like an Antarctic expedition, only I’m in the Arctic, on the pole at the other end of the planet - and just a couple of kilometres from a highway, I thought, as I scrambled up a rocky moraine into the toe of the Athabasca Glacier.

In the native lingo, Athabasca means “where bullrushes grow” because grass used to cover the place before snowfalls built up the giant, blue-shadowed, ice tongue for 10,000 winters. Feathery snow that wafted down mountain peaks and survived countless summers crystallized and compressed themselves into massive ice sheets. As more snow fell, the ice thickened and spilled downhill into the valleys, giving birth to glaciers.

Of course, Athabasca is just a tiny finger of the Columbia Ice Field, which spans the size of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, and holds six major outlet glaciers. “Think of the ice field as the palm of your hand and your fingers as the glaciers,” the guide intoned as he bulldozed ahead of us.

A living, six-kilometer, viscous, white river, to be precise, only Athabasca is flowing imperceptibly slower at 400 feet per annum, advancing and retreating, cracking, melting and replenishing itself.

At my feet, meltwaters gushed from a crack – part of the hidden streams inside the Athabasca that join others to feed three great oceans – the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Arctic. Panting from exertion, I bent down and scooped a handful of meltwater to my lips. I was surprised, not about how cold it was - that’s expected - but how fresh the ancient water tasted and how sweet.


[PHOTO: Athabasca Glacier by chewy3326-from VirtualTourist]

Glacier-trekking resembles treading on greased, inclined glass. I was thankful the steel spikes of my crampons gripped the ice. No arguing I have to be on a guided hike though. I’m not familiar with the treacherous terrain, which shifts in seconds. Of course, it could be a lethal adventure, so everyone signed waivers.

“Walk in a single file, please,” the guide barked at our group, his breath vaporizing before him in a cloud. When I paused at the lip of a millwell to take a shot, he grasped the tail of my coat to make sure I don’t tumble inside the shaft.

As the glacier surface melts, water runs off in rivulets, gouging tunnels in the ice, spiralling down to bottomless depths. Hikers lured to peek in their slippery mouths often fall in, never to be found.

Everywhere, death lurks in the raw breathtaking beauty of this frozen vastness. If you don’t get devoured by millwells, you can be swallowed up by crevasses, buried in an avalanche or struck down by collapsing seracs.

Where the rivers of ice encounter cliffs and slopes, they buckle into a chaos of crevasses – fractures in the ice sheet hundreds of feet deep. When crevasses crisscross, they form pinnacles - seracs, which can collapse on unsuspecting climbers.

Signs planted on the glacier warned parents to hold on tight to their kids. Our guide recalled a 10-year old Japanese boy who ignored the warning and stepped inside a roped area. One step, that’s all it took. In a snap, the snow beneath him gave way and he plunged in a hidden crevasse. Rescuers fished him out in half an hour but he succumbed from hypothermia.

“At least, his folks got back his body,” the guide muttered. Normally, the glacier refuses to surrender its victims. “We haven’t even recovered those who died in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Yet, deep in the heart of the kingdom of ice, I felt safe. This glacier won’t hurt me, I told myself.

Just a few hours ago, I had boarded the bus at Lake Louise, Banff for Jasper. Just two kilometres beyond the hamlet, the road started climbing the backbone of North America on the 232-kilometer Ice Fields Parkway, “The Road Through the Clouds”.

The highway took me over the Great Divide – endless rows of the highest peaks in the Canadian Rockies stretching all the way to the U.S., past dozens of ice fields cradled on their saddles, atop 7,000-foot high passes - Bow Summit and Sunwapta, down glacier-fed turquoise lakes. It was one of the most scenic drives on earth.

We passed Hector Lake – the coldest in the Rockies, as it feeds from Vulture Glacier and the Waputik Icefield. Then Crowfoot Glacier, minus a toe, came into view. So much of its mass has melted away, it vaguely resembled the three talons of a crow, like it did when explorers named it long ago.

Bow Glacier, which created the Bow Valley and the Bow River as it retreated, came up next. “Bow” referred to the reeds which grew along its banks which native folks used to make bows for hunting buffaloes.

Over Mistaya River Valley, Mt. Chepren loomed, a purplish beehive tower of dark limestone banded with dazzling white snow.

Many peaks in the Rockies resembled pyramids. But in the last hundred years, they’ve called this one Pyramid Mountain until they realized Jasper Park has a peak with the same name. Quickly, they re-christened it as Chepren, after the son of Cheops, builder of Egypt’s Great Pyramid.

For a while, our bus stopped at Bow Summit, the highest point crossed by a major highway in Canada. I grabbed the chance to hike up Peyto Lake viewpoint to gaze at the glacial pool nestled in the alpine wilderness of Mistaya Valley.

Mistaya is the native word for “grizzly” and bears still roamed the area. But the lake and the glacier it feeds on took their names from “Wild Bill” - Ebenezer William Peyto, a former trapper, gold prospector and mountain guide turned park warden a hundred years back. Quite a character he was, too. In cowboy garb, with a white kerchief round his neck – probably a table napkin swiped from Banff Hotel – Peyto would barge in bars with a live lynx strapped to his back.

Banff was full of stables then and he guided people journeying from Lake Louise to Athabasca on horseback. It took one week, one-way, over rough paths strewn with fallen timber. And even in those days, people ventured on the glacier astride pack horses tied to each other.

Next, our bus pulled over at Mistaya Canyon, allowing me to revel in the sight of Snowbird Glacier spreading its wings across the face of Mt. Patterson.

On my way back from the Columbia Ice Field, I caught a glimpse of Stutfield Glacier tumbling down a 3,000–high massif to Sunwapta Falls where the river abruptly turns 90 degrees and plunges into a pot-holed limestone canyon.

Sunwapta means “turbulent river” in Stoney Indian.

At Goat Licks Point above the Athabasca River, a herd of mountain goats lapped up the pale mineral-rich silt deposits with gusto. The calcium, sulphate and salt must work wonders for their coat.

Once sated, the goats doze off on the rock shelves of Mount Kerkeslin. Sometimes, you can even see eagles dive-bombing the baby mountain goats, trying to knock them off the cliff

On Cirrus Mountain, a series of waterfalls 2,000 feet high made the rock face seem to cry. Hence, they called it “Weeping Wall”. They even tossed in the name “Teardrop” for the main cataract.

So many mountains, I thought. If I can only climb each of them, I’ll never mistake one for the other and remember all their names.

Last stop was Maligne Lake, which stretched past serene Spirit Island right to the melt-water channels of Coronet Glacier.

Maligne is French for “wicked”. Native tribes knew it as Beaver Lake because beavers used to build their dams there. But many French settlers must have drowned in the turbulent river that flowed from the lake as it joined the Athabasca River.

Beside the highway, I spotted a grizzly sow with two cubs. Their fur was much lighter, almost creamy yellow ochre. The pudgy babies darted beneath their mom’s belly as she grazed in front of a dozen tangled cars, with tourists snapping away like there’s no tomorrow.

“Another bear jam,” our guide sighed.

I sat back with a heavy heart as the endless miles of mountains and the sea of snow-capped peaks receded behind me. With much reluctance, I’m leaving Canada’s kingdom of ice

In a hundred years, geologists predict the ice fields and glaciers will be gone, melted away as the earth warms. But they will return with the next Ice Age in another 5,000 years. Once more, they will grind and carve the Rocky Mountains, gouge out valleys, feed the rivers and lakes, leaving moraines and alpine meadows on their wake.

My mind grappled with the immensity of time against which my life lasts shorter than a blink of an eye. No matter. I have touched the heart of a glacier. I’ve drank its waters. It’s part of me forever.

(For questions, comments, suggestions, etc. please contact the author at emmieabadilla@yahoo.com.)

EARLIER REPORT: PART 1


[Six mountain ranges visible from Sanson Peak]

In the cedar forest before me, the cinnamon mountain resolved into a sow grizzly. So perfectly did the bruin’s fur blend with leaf fall and bark, if her cubs have not stirred, I could have blundered on top of her as she nosed under the logs. I’m downwind too, so she failed to catch my scent.

Anyway, I never imagined I’ll stumble on my first grizzlies beside Lake Louise, the most photographed lake on earth, a stone’s throw from five-star Fairmont Chateau, Alberta’s “Castle in the Wilderness”.

I froze where I stood, 10 feet from the family. Too close. Rangers urged hikers to keep a safe distance from bears, at least 360 feet – the length of a football field. No use running if she attacks now. Grizzlies clock 66 kilometers per hour. The fastest Olympic sprinters only manage 45.

The sow lifted her head and faced me squarely. Our eyes met – hers, curious and intelligent. I tried not to stare without looking away.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you,” I uttered the worlds calmly, reassuringly. It seems the most natural thing to do. I can’t help adding, “You’re so beautiful. You and your babies.” Her ears flicked forward. Good sign. If she pins them back and makes chomping sounds, I’m done for. But her cubs reared up on their hind legs, assessing whether I’m a toy or a threat. If they run to me, the fiercely protective mom might panic and tear me to shreds. Just then, something crashed behind her – a dead branch falling or worse, another bear. Rangers say at least three grizzly families prowl around the lake. The sow took off like a shot, the cubs at her heels.

“She could have killed you,” my guide gasped when I told him about the encounter afterwards.

Wardens already cordoned off nearby Deer Lodge due to grizzly sightings. The sow I surprised turned out to be a four-year old first-time mom, a resident of Lake Louise. “Lake of Little Fishes”, natives called it because its 300-foot-deep glacial waters only sustain dwarf trout and stunted mountain white fish.

Still, it’s Banff’s wildlife corridor, cradled among the snow-capped Rockies, feeding from the meltwaters of Victoria Glacier above it and creating a scene so picturesque I felt like I’ve stepped inside a postcard.

Year-round, millions of tourists descend on the lake and its hamlet – despite grizzlies, wolves and cougars being part of the landscape.

Grizzlies even kill black bears for the right to feed in the premises. For several days, an immature male sparred with an adult black bear near the hotel. Another time, a wolf attempting to bring down an elk calf attracted a grizzly who took over the chase. Outside Banff National Park, hunting is still allowed, so prey animals retreat inside the refuge during hunting season and calve there. The predators follow.

While Banff grizzlies are smaller than their West Coast cousins who gorge on salmon and reach 1,500 pounds, they’re still formidable at over half a ton – voracious too, being virtual eating machines packing 10,000 calories a day for their winter sleep.

Massive as they are, these omnivores on top of the food chain don’t live long, 12-14 years, depending on the condition of their teeth. Bears love sweets and buffalo berries rot their enamel fast. A toothless grizzly is a dead grizzly. Once they lose their last set of dentures, they starve to death.

That is, if people and vehicles don’t kill them first. If they manage to elude trophy hunters, they run into trucks and cars when crossing highways. When they feed on grain spilled on railway tracks, they collide with trains.

One train which mowed down a sow doomedher twin yearlings outright. The first perished on the highway while a male grizzly slaughtered the other. Recently, a train killed another sow with three-year old cubs. One lived through the winter, denned up near the hotel, but his brother vanished. Cubs normally stay with their moms for four years before striking out on their own.

Rangers simply shoot aggressive “problem bears”, like the six-year old male who charged hikers at the Fairview Mountain trail which I’m tackling today.

Climbing the over 9,000-foot high Fairview, I looked out for grizzlies as I surveyed the panorama of forest, glaciers and emerald lake. Once sure the coast is clear, I hurried further up, past avalanche paths and snow-buried switchbacks to the peak.

Scrambling down, I heeded the sign warning hikers not to negotiate the rock bands where so many had been stranded overnight and had to be rescued the next morning, earning Fairview the nickname “Overtime Mountain”.

As if that’s not enough, I went up another peak to soothe my aching limbs in Canada’s highest hot springs in the aptly-named Sulphur Mountain.

For centuries, rain and snow have seeped in the lopsided slopes of neighbouring Mount Rundle and accumulated in rock sediments 6,000 feet below. There, they dissolved minerals and simmered in the heat of the earth’s crust before gushing out of gaps in Sulphur Mountain’s flanks.

As I lay back in the steaming waters of Banff’s Upper Hot Springs, I scanned the Bow Valley below and opposite us, Mount Rundle, which according to our guide, inspired the Paramount Pictures logo.

Aloud, I wondered if I’ll scramble up its Dragon’s Back limestone crags tomorrow and track wolverines – the elusive cousins of the weasel who are often mistaken for small bears. Or do I explore Minnewanka, the native people’s “Water of the Spirits” which early Europeans branded as Devil’s Lake?

My fellow bathers expressed more concern about fainting in the 40-degree Celsius pool we’re immersed in than in my itinerary. Being acclimatized to heat, I wasn’t affected. But one giddy guy spluttered, “Just do the three-hour Discover Banff tour, it covers everything.”

Hence, I returned to Sulphur Mountain the next day and hopped into the gondola which deposited me 8,000 feet up Sanson’s Peak observation deck.

Whiskey Jays and Nutcrackers escorted me, flitting on the railings, begging for food, as I ambled up and down the board walk. Underneath, bighorn sheep dozed, unmindful of chipmunks chattering and golden mantled ground squirrels scurrying about.

As I climbed, the terrain changed from the spruce and cedars of the moraine to the towering pines and firs of sub-alpine forests and finally, barren rock and ice.

Nothing loomed above me now but snowy skies, the flyway of 6,000 Golden Eagles. High winds raked my exposed flesh, so cold it burned like coals. Raptors must love it though. They ride updrafts that slam the Rockies’ spine to reach their breeding grounds in the Yukon, Yellowstone and Colorado.

For me, what followed was another gondola ride down the valley, a bus journey to Cave and Basin Museum and a stopover at Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

Alas, there’s no time to see its ghost bellman and phantom bride. I’ve to catch the boat to Lake Minnewanka though it’s too cold to dive there and explore the village and dam drowned beneath its waters when they built the current dam 70 years ago.

Yet, I managed a side trip at Tunnel Mountain to inspect Banff’s mysterious hoodoos – eroded rock fins which folk legend says were people turned to stone for the evil they did. It was still light when the tour bus dropped me off near downtown, where I rejoined throngs of locals and tourists on foot. You don’t need cars here, anyway. Banff is a ski resort town less than 500 hectares in size nestled 5,000 feet high on Bow Valley, within the confines of the national park.

At Lynx Street, I came across a historic log building which turned out to be the Park Museum. It’s still open so I browsed its collection of 5,000 natural history specimens, wandering among shelves of birds’ eggs, rocks and wood from Banff’s forests in olden days.

Taxidermists mounted hundreds of native fowl who perished after smashing on the museum’s glass windows. Along with stuffed eagles, wolves, foxes, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, cougars, black bears and grizzlies who once resided in the valley, they populated an eerie menagerie.

Upstairs, the founder’s office looked like he just took a break and could walk in any minute. A stuffed owl rotated slowly from his ceiling while specimens waited to be classified on his desk, among dusty letters and his journal, opened to a date over a hundred years ago.

Back outside, I strolled down Banff Avenue which runs straight into the Cascade massif. However, cruising past the tourist shops, I confronted the grim duality of conservation and commerce.

Alongside dream catchers decked with beads, feathers and amulets, turquoise and silver jewels, carved cottonwood replicas of native masked spirits – “Kachinas,” locals peddled the skins of lynx, bobcat, beaver, coyote and fox.

Saddened, I asked my guide about it. He simply shrugged. “I told you. Hunting is still legal outside the national parks.”

n the cedar forest before me, the cinnamon mountain resolved into a sow grizzly.

So perfectly did the bruin’s fur blend with leaf fall and bark, if her cubs have not stirred, I could have blundered on top of her as she nosed under the logs. I’m downwind too, so she failed to catch my scent.

Anyway, I never imagined I’ll stumble on my first grizzlies beside Lake Louise, the most photographed lake on earth, a stone’s throw from five-star Fairmont Chateau, Alberta’s “Castle in the Wilderness”.

I froze where I stood, 10 feet from the family. Too close. Rangers urged hikers to keep a safe distance from bears, at least 360 feet – the length of a football field. No use running if she attacks now. Grizzlies clock 66 kilometers per hour. The fastest Olympic sprinters only manage 45.

The sow lifted her head and faced me squarely. Our eyes met – hers, curious and intelligent. I tried not to stare without looking away.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you,” I uttered the worlds calmly, reassuringly. It seems the most natural thing to do. I can’t help adding, “You’re so beautiful. You and your babies.”

Her ears flicked forward. Good sign. If she pins them back and makes chomping sounds, I’m done for. But her cubs reared up on their hind legs, assessing whether I’m a toy or a threat. If they run to me, the fiercely protective mom might panic and tear me to shreds. Just then, something crashed behind her – a dead branch falling or worse, another bear. Rangers say at least three grizzly families prowl around the lake. The sow took off like a shot, the cubs at her heels.

“She could have killed you,” my guide gasped when I told him about the encounter afterwards.

Wardens already cordoned off nearby Deer Lodge due to grizzly sightings. The sow I surprised turned out to be a four-year old first-time mom, a resident of Lake Louise. “Lake of Little Fishes”, natives called it because its 300-foot-deep glacial waters only sustain dwarf trout and stunted mountain white fish.

Still, it’s Banff’s wildlife corridor, cradled amongthe snow-capped Rockies, feeding from the meltwaters of Victoria Glacier above it and creating a scene so picturesque I felt like I’ve stepped inside a postcard.

Year-round, millions of tourists descend on the lake and its hamlet – despite grizzlies, wolves and cougars being part of the landscape.

Grizzlies even kill black bears for the right to feed in the premises. For several days, an immature male sparred with an adult black bear near the hotel. Another time, a wolf attempting to bring down an elk calf attracted a grizzly who took over the chase. Outside Banff National Park, hunting is still allowed, so prey animals retreat inside the refuge during hunting season and calve there. The predators follow.

While Banff grizzlies are smaller than their West Coast cousins who gorge on salmon and reach 1,500 pounds, they’re still formidable at over half a ton – voracious too, being virtual eating machines packing 10,000 calories a day for their winter sleep.

Massive as they are, these omnivores on top of the food chain don’t live long, 12-14 years, depending on the condition of their teeth. Bears love sweets and buffalo berries rot their enamel fast. A toothless grizzly is a dead grizzly. Once they lose their last set of dentures, they starve to death.

That is, if people and vehicles don’t kill them first. If they manage to elude trophy hunters, they run into trucks and cars when crossing highways. When they feed on grain spilled on railway tracks, they collide with trains.

One train which mowed down a sow doomed her twin yearlings outright. The first perished on the highway while a male grizzly slaughtered the other. Recently, a train killed another sow with three-year old cubs. One lived through the winter, denned up near the hotel, but his brother vanished. Cubs normally stay with their moms for four years before striking out on their own.

Rangers simply shoot aggressive “problem bears”, like the six-year old male who charged hikers at the Fairview Mountain trail which I’m tackling today.

Climbing the over 9,000-foot high Fairview, I looked out for grizzlies as I surveyed the panorama of forest, glaciers and emerald lake. Once sure the coast is clear, I hurried further up, past avalanche paths and snow-buried switchbacks to the peak.

Scrambling down, I heeded the sign warning hikers not to negotiate the rock bands where so many had been stranded overnight and had to be rescued the next morning, earning Fairview the nickname “Overtime Mountain”.

As if that’s not enough, I went up another peak to soothe my aching limbs in Canada’s highest hot springs in the aptly-named Sulphur Mountain.

For centuries, rain and snow have seeped in the lopsided slopes of neighbouring Mount Rundle and accumulated in rock sediments 6,000 feet below. There, they dissolved minerals and simmered in the heat of the earth’s crust before gushing out of gaps in Sulphur Mountain’s flanks.

As I lay back in the steaming waters of Banff’s Upper Hot Springs, I scanned the Bow Valley below and opposite us, Mount Rundle, which according to our guide, inspired the Paramount Pictures logo.

Aloud, I wondered if I’ll scramble up its Dragon’s Back limestone crags tomorrow and track wolverines – the elusive cousins of the weasel who are often mistaken for small bears. Or do I explore Minnewanka, the native people’s “Water of the Spirits” which early Europeans branded as Devil’s Lake?

My fellow bathers expressed more concern about fainting in the 40-degree Celsius pool we’re immersed in than in my itinerary. Being acclimatized to heat, I wasn’t affected. But one giddy guy spluttered, “Just do the three-hour Discover Banff tour, it covers everything.”

Hence, I returned to Sulphur Mountain the next day and hopped into the gondola which deposited me 8,000 feet up Sanson’s Peak observation deck.

Whiskey Jays and Nutcrackers escorted me, flitting on the railings, begging for food, as I ambled up and down the board walk. Underneath, bighorn sheep dozed, unmindful of chipmunks chattering and golden mantled ground squirrels scurrying about

As I climbed, the terrain changed from the spruce and cedars of the moraine to the towering pines and firs of sub-alpine forests and finally, barren rock and ice.

Nothing loomed above me now but snowy skies, the flyway of 6,000 Golden Eagles. High winds raked my exposed flesh, so cold it burned like coals. Raptors must love it though. They ride updrafts that slam the Rockies’ spine to reach their breeding grounds in the Yukon, Yellowstone and Colorado.

For me, what followed was another gondola ride down the valley, a bus journey to Cave and Basin Museum and a stopover at Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

Alas, there’s no time to see its ghost bellman and phantom bride. I’ve to catch the boat to Lake Minnewanka though it’s too cold to dive there and explore the village and dam drowned beneath its waters when they built the current dam 70 years ago.

Yet, I managed a side trip at Tunnel Mountain to inspect Banff’s mysterious hoodoos – eroded rock fins which folk legend says were people turned to stone for the evil they did. It was still light when the tour bus dropped me off near downtown, where I rejoined throngs of locals and tourists on foot. You don’t need cars here, anyway. Banff is a ski resort town less than 500 hectares in size nestled 5,000 feet high on Bow Valley, within the confines of the national park.

At Lynx Street, I came across a historic log building which turned out to be the Park Museum. It’s still open so I browsed its collection of 5,000 natural history specimens, wandering among shelves of birds’ eggs, rocks and wood from Banff’s forests in olden days.

Taxidermists mounted hundreds of native fowl who perished after smashing on the museum’s glass windows. Along with stuffed eagles, wolves, foxes, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, cougars, black bears and grizzlies who once resided in the valley, they populated an eerie menagerie.

Upstairs, the founder’s office looked like he just took a break and could walk in any minute. A stuffed owl rotated slowly from his ceiling while specimens waited to be classified on his desk, among dusty letters and his journal, opened to a date over a hundred years ago.

Back outside, I strolled down Banff Avenue which runs straight into the Cascade massif. However, cruising past the tourist shops, I confronted the grim duality of conservation and commerce.

Alongside dream catchers decked with beads, feathers and amulets, turquoise and silver jewels, carved cottonwood replicas of native masked spirits – “Kachinas,” locals peddled the skins of lynx, bobcat, beaver, coyote and fox.

Saddened, I asked my guide about it. He simply shrugged. “I told you. Hunting is still legal outside the national parks.”


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