Just after I crossed into Jasper National Park at Sunwapta Pass, I was treated to one of the most spectacular scenes in the Canadian Rockies: Athabasca Glacier, an icy tongue sticking out from the massive Columbia Icefield. I was also faced with a dilemma: how cheap am I? Normally, I like to travel as inexpensively as possible — and this trip to Canada had already stretched my thrifty nature to the limit.
Here at the Athabasca Glacier, you can do something that can’t be done anywhere else on earth: you can ride on a specially-equipped bus out to the middle of the glacier. It’s not cheap, though: a ticket costs $49 (CAD) (as of 2009). The thought of spending that much money for a bus ride was too much for me to handle, so I decided, instead, to see how close I could get to the Glacier, for free — hopefully close enough to touch it, at least.
Before hiking the short trail that leads to the foot of Athabasca Glacier, I stopped by the Icefields Centre. It’s a beautiful facility…
… built on the Athabasca Glacier’s terminal moraine, the big pile of dirt and rock where the glacier stopped advancing, and started receding (back when global warming really started, back in 1843).
Inside the Icefields Centre, there’s a small museum that includes the original welcome sign, that stood at Sunwapta Pass.
The main level of the Icefields Centre feels more like an airport than a visitor center. You can buy your ticket, then watch the monitors on the wall to find out when you’re departing, and at what gate. In the meantime, there’s a restaurant and gift shop to visit.
The trail to Athabasca Glacier begins on the opposite side of the road from the Icefields Centre. It’s not a particularly pleasant trail — uphill, rocky, no shade…
… but it does give you an idea of where the Glacier has been, and how quickly it’s melting. This marker shows where the glacier’s toe rested in 1982 — a mere 27 years before my visit. From here, the glacier is still nowhere in sight.
As you get closer to the glacier, the warnings begin. Hey, if your kid is that ugly, you might want to lose him in a crevasse.
I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to get anywhere near the toe of Athabasca Glacier on this trail. The end of the trail is roped off, and dozens of strongly-worded signs advise you to resist the temptation to slip under the rope and get any closer. Even if it wasn’t against the rules, it would be incredibly foolish…
… because at the glacier’s toe, the ice has melted from underneath, creating crevasses, caverns, and a swiftly-moving river — all of which could make an attempt at a close-up encounter, quite perilous. But hey, at least you do get a relatively close view of the glacier from here, and it’s free!
The glacier is bigger than it appears at first glance. Only some of the ice is exposed. Along the edges, the ice continues, under a thin layer of dirt.
At least the hike back is mostly downhill. There’s that 1982 marker again. Notice the dirt hill in the background? That’s the 1843 terminal moraine, on the opposite side of the Icefields Parkway.