Sunday, July 27, 2008

Columbia Ice Fields Parkway: One of the World's Ten Greatest Drives

National Geographic calls The Icefields Parkway “one of the world’s ten greatest drives.” This endorsement alone made me persistent in my goal to travel this stretch of road through the heart of the Canadian Rockies.

Our motorhome “Dolly’s Pride” would stay parked in the Tunnel Mountain Village of Banff National Park site number 232. Driving our Toyota Corolla tow car would make it easier to maneuver into the numerous viewpoints and to see all that the travel books promised: “vast wilderness of magnificent peaks, ancient glaciers, diverse wildlife, waterfalls, pristine mountain lakes, and broad sweeping valleys.”

The Icefields Parkway stretches a full 144 miles between Lake Louise and Jasper. I would travel the only a segment of the road beginning at the Junction of the Trans-Canada Highway and the Icefields Parkway. I planned to head north 78 miles to the Columbia Icefield and Icefield Centre to visit the Athabasca Glacier. My first attempt to make this road trip failed, but I eventually reached my destination.

On Friday, July 11th, the Highway Patrol Officers diverted all northbound traffic from Banff off the Trans-Canadian Highway at Castle Mountain. We were five miles short of reaching the junction for the Icefields Parkway. A day later, word around the town of Canmore was that an accident shut down the Highway in both directions for nearly half the day. We had idled in that traffic jam for over an hour creeping along. Without a CB in the Toyota, we sat wondering why the route to the Icefields Parkway was as congested as Houston in rush hour. When we were forced to exit onto a secondary road near the Castle Mountain and head south on the Bow Valley Parkway, we turned back to the campground. We would schedule our Icefield trip for another day during our stay at Banff National Park.

Three days later, we tried to follow the route again. This time the journey took us to the Columbia Ice fields, a day-long round trip from Banff that ought not to be rushed.

Lake Louise was our first stop. This highly regarded community was way too crowded for me. People clustered around the turquoise colored lake photographing the towering backdrop of Victoria Glacier. The resort, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, dominated the scenery. This was definitely a hub for shopping at Samson Mall, eating and bumping into tourists. I need not have bothered to slip out of my embroidered, beaded Skechers sandals and lace up my Timberline boots for this brief visit. This was definitely a Skechers place. I secretly hoped that the rest of the drive would be less commercial, less crowded.

We hadn’t driven far out of Lake Louise before I realized my wish would be true. The pull-offs along the Icefields Parkway offered views of snow covered mountains and glacial lakes. The milepost guide from the National Park Service helped us decide which viewpoint to select for stops. Vehicles clustered in areas not designated as pull-offs gave us clues to wildlife viewing. We saw a black bear lunch on wild berries close to the highway. Another time, two grizzly bears quenched their thirst at a pond. We watched them a safe distance away with binoculars.

Our travel guidebook suggested that the drive from Banff to the Columbia Icefield would take 90 minutes. I suspect that must have been calculated at a rate of 55 MPH without stops along the way. By my calculation, we lollygagged nearly 3 hours.

At the Icefield Centre, visitors can opt for “Guided Ice Walks” or book a trip for Brewster’s Glacier Experience. We decided to take the 90-minute narrated journey aboard Brewster’s 6-wheeled Ice Explorer, a unique motorcoach shuttle bus that lumbered down a near vertical drop to the Athabasca Glacier.

Our enthusiastic guide feed our intellect with the cold historic and geological facts about the Columbia Icefield. She told us that the Icefield is the largest concentration of glacial ice below the Arctic Circle in North America. And, it is one of the last places in southern Canada where temperature, wind, and water continue to interact as they did during the last Ice age. She explained the extraordinary fact that snow melting from the apex of the triple continental divide on Mount Snow Dome is bound for one of three oceans: waters from the northern side flow to the Arctic Ocean, meltwaters on the west join the Pacific Ocean, and waters originating on the east will eventually make the journey to the Atlantic Ocean at Hudson Bay. Mount Snow Dome overlooks the north side of Athabasca Glacier, the glacier accessible from the mighty all-terrain Ice Explorer.

Before our group was allowed to set foot on the glacier, our guide warned us not to go beyond the bounds of icy surface. She pointed to some hikers in an area that could be dangerous for even the strongest of men. “One step into a crevice could land you deep below the surface of the ice. You might not be as lucky as one fellow who fell through the ice. He landed in a subterranean water passage. Fortunately, it had the force of an amusement park water slide. He slid out an opening at the base of the glacier. Others,” she paused effectively, “were less fortunate.” She promised we could easily and safely explore the glacier within the reasonable bounds of the ancient ice since in most places it measured 1,000 feet thick.

Then continuing in the spirit of her upbeat commentary on the Athabasca Glacier, she advised us all to take a taste of the glacier water running clear like a small spring. “Some say the water flows from a fountain of youth. One drink will take ten years off your life,” she winked.

Out on the glacier, I saw some old boys, 60+ take a hopeful sip. And, one fearful youngster complained, “If I take a sip, I’ll be back in diapers, Mom!”

I wandered around quietly on the massive ice field taking in the incredible, towering mountains. I breathed the cool air and felt content that I hadn’t given up on driving the Icefields Parkway, truly one of the world’s greatest drives.

Note: A Canadian Park Pass is required to travel along the Icefields Parkway #93

Brewster’s Glacier Experience 1-800-423-7433

Guided Ice Walks 1-800-565-7547

July 14, 2008

July 14, 2008

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