Friday, Apr 27, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Mary Alice Powell

Canadian icefields offer a preview of winter's chill

I couldn't believe it. I traveled thousands of miles by plane and bus to walk on ice. I even crossed into another country for the chilling experience.

Get with it, Miss Powell, I thought to myself as the thousands of acres of ice spread before me. Are you the same person who begins packing to head south when the first snowflakes fall - as they did last week? The same person who has bags of sand on hand in case ice forms on the porch and driveway before you escape? You hate ice, remember? You don't even want ice cubes in a drink.

So why did I sign up to tour the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park in British Columbia in western Canada?

The icefield tour came with the trip package.

I know: Just because you have paid for something doesn't mean you have to participate. But who wants to be a wimp and stay on the bus while fellow travelers brave the strong, cold wind and the slippery walk? I wouldn't be able to join the tour bus conversation afterward if I didn't go.

And there is something to be said for walking on and touching a remnant of the Ice Age.

We must have looked like a bunch of waddling penguins with so many thicknesses of clothing. Sheldon, our bus driver for three days, told us every day to dress warmly and to be sure to wear a hat, gloves, and sturdy rubber-soled shoes for the ice walk.

Being an obedient traveler, I invested in two thermal long-sleeved shirts and pulled a sweater over them. I had packed gloves, hat, and appropriate shoes and bought a heavy coat two days before because of a snowstorm.

The icefield is not something along the side of the road you can stop and see at your leisure. It is five times the size of Manhattan, and the ice is 1,200 feet thick.

It is a very organized tourist attraction. The Icefields Parkway that runs from Banff, Alberta, into Jasper National Park and to the Icefield Center parallels the Continental Divide. The center is the gathering place for the adventure. Once inside, you realize how many hundreds of other people are there when you wait in line in the cafeteria or gift shop, or when you try to learn something at the interpretive exhibits.

Bus numbers and departure times are assigned at the center. Buses take passengers to board Ice Explorers - six-wheeled vehicles designed for ice travel - that ply the steep roads to the icefield. The system runs quite smoothly if you remember your bus number. Eight Ice Explorers with 56 passengers in each were lined up at the icefield the afternoon we visited. From 2,000 to 3,000 people visit the icefield daily during the midsummer busy season.

A summer visit makes more sense, but anything about snow and ice in October is but a preview of what's to come in Michigan and Ohio.

The Columbia Icefield is claimed to be the largest accumulation of ice south of the Arctic Circle, and its melt water feeds into the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans.

Thirty minutes on the ice may not seem long enough to tourists who have traveled far, but believe me, it is. That is the length of time you can walk around and take pictures before the bus horn summons you back to your warm seat. Many people on our Ice Explorer returned long before the horn sounded. Because of a recent snowfall, the ice was more slippery than usual. We walked slowly and carefully, sometimes arm-in-arm, to keep from falling. Dangerous crevices were roped off.

Icefields are formed when snow falls year after year on mountain peaks and plateaus. As the snow builds up, ice forms on the bottom layers. As the depth and width of the icefield increases and more snow is added, it overflows downhill and forms a glacier. In turn, the glacier's melting feeds into rivers and lakes.

I stayed on the icefield to the bitter end of the half hour. I trudged over the slippery ice and studied the scene and color variations in every direction, and the beauty of the ice and glacier and surrounding mountains became more important than cold feet and hands. So this is one of the regions scientists refer to when they talk about the toll of global warming and the greenhouse effect.

Our driver/guide said that 200 meters of the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefield has receded in 20 years.

Did the adventure give me a new appreciation of snow and ice? Let's just say there are no future plans for the thermal shirts.

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