PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
Our adventure seems to be organizing itself into phases. There was winter in the Northwest. Much of our time was spent pretending that we were carpenters, plumbers, and painters. Some of it was spent exploring the forests along the edges of the North Pacific. Spring found us wandering the deserts of Indian country in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.
The transition to a new chapter came as we left Colorado. The deep red sandstone cliffs were gone. Yucca and cactus were nowhere to be seen, and the juniper and pinion pines had been replaced by lodgepole and sugar pine. Sagebrush was much less common, but it grew larger and was packed more densely where it found suitable conditions.
Our arrival in Wyoming also brought a return to rain. Our time in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone was touched by almost daily showers. Once we left Yellowstone the rain set in, and has not relented.
We would normally time our travels to avoid extended periods of bad weather, but we have made arrangements to visit family in Alberta and Saskatchewan. We haven't seen most of our relatives from this area in years. There are many that we haven't ever met. This will likely be the only chance for our immediate family to meet our extended family in this part of the world. It's a chance that we won't let the rain interfere with.
Our return to Canada started with a reunion with Barb's Aunt Gilda and Uncle Nelson. As fellow RV'ers, we had arranged to meet them near the Rocky Mountain national parks for some sightseeing before looking up relatives.
Our meeting place was a Bed and Breakfast in a small town called Radium Hot Springs. The 'B&B' is owned by an Austrian fellow who built the building himself. We had a delightful visit: eating great food, listening to stories of life in Austria and rural Alberta. We even had a black bear stop by after breakfast to snack on the neighbor's garbage.
We left Raduim Hot Springs in a mini-convoy with Nelson and Gilda. We were headed for the Ice Fields Parkway, which would take us north to the Columbia Ice Field. Our plan was to drive north to the Athabasca Glacier where we would hike out onto the ice in the company of an experienced guide.
The Ice Fields Parkway runs north/south near the spine of the Canadian Rockies. Most of the route parallels rivers and streams providing wondrous vistas. As soon as we started heading north, clouds settled in among the craggy peaks on either side of the road. The intermittent rain and dark gray canopy lent a foreboding mystical air to the landscape.
The Ice Fields Parkway was named for the many glaciers along it's route. Our first glimpse of one was near an emerald alpine lake. The glacier is just the rim of a larger ice field beyond view. It drapes over towering cliff tops, slowly creeping past the precipice. While we weren't fortunate enough to witness it, the glacier must occasionally put on a spectacular show when huge chunks of ice crash to the rocks below.
Our trek on to the Athabasca Glacier started mid-morning with the usual paperwork (liability wavers) and safety speech. The outfitters supplied whatever gear was needed, from rain suits to gloves to crampons.
As we paraded up to the toe of the glacier, our guide stopped several hundred feet short of the ice. He told us that he had been guiding hikes on the glacier for four years and that when he had started, the ice extended to where we stood. We've all heard about how the earth's climate is warming. Seeing firsthand how much a mountain of ice had melted in four years truly drove the message home.
As soon as we stepped on to the glacier, we paused for a short demonstration showing us the proper way to put crampons on our boots. Being on the ice with large steel spikes on our feet made the adventure seem very real.
A short walk uphill led us to a dark colored boulder sitting on the ice in front of light colored cliffs near the edge of the glacier. Our guide explained that this 'Glacial Erratic' had fallen from a cliff more than a mile 'upstream'. In the Ice Ages, huge boulders had been carried tens of miles from their source.
As we trudged uphill our guide explained that the section of the glacier we were on lay atop a flat section of bedrock. This meant that there were very few crevasse in the area. Large cracks in the ice weren't the only hazard on the glacier, however.
As we walked, our guide pointed out numerous streams running across the ice. Nearly every stream on the glacier dropped into the ice at some point. The places where flowing water finds cracks in the ice are slowly enlarged as the ice melts. As the process continues, these 'mill holes' sometimes drop hundreds of feet to rushing water at the bottom of the glacier. The azure blue walls are fascinating to peer into, though the icy rim demands caution. The mill holes are most dangerous when the stream is gone and the hole is covered with a thick blanket of snow.
Guided treks onto the ice aren't the only way to see the glacier. The most popular way to experience the sea of ice is to ride up in monster busses. The trip is 30 minutes up, thirty minutes outside near the bus, and thirty minutes back down. While it was clearly easier than trudging around on the ice in a steady rain, we wouldn't have traded places for the world. Peering into mill holes, fording streams coursing over blue ice, seeing pebbles melted into minute wells on the surface was pure magic.
Having finished our excursion on ice we retreated to the south, stopping to see the famous Lake Louise. It is a beautiful place, though it has lost some of it's natural magic to a large hotel, and wide gravel paths that rim the lake. The crush of civilization was tempered somewhat by the steady rain.
With relatives expecting us, it was time to move on. The road south and east lead down out of the mountains onto the plains. As the downpour continued we drove out onto flat land.