The Icefields Parkway represents the spine of Banff and Jasper National Parks. It runs a crooked line astride the Continental Divide for 140 miles between Lake Louise and the town of Jasper–rising and falling, twisting and turning–as it follows rugged mountain vertebrae, verdant river veins, alpine organs of opalescent waters, and at the heart of it all, the highest concentration of ancient glaciers in the Rocky Mountains.
While it can take 3.5 hours to complete the journey without stopping, most travelers will take their time, stopping along the way to inhale the majestic beauty. Unfortunately, we were in no position to stop and gawk. We were holding our breath, hoping to arrive in time for a prepaid tour of Athabasca Glacier.
It drove me crazy, passing up scene after scene, my shutter finger convulsing around the steering wheel as we pressed on toward our destination. And even if we had all the time in the world, nearly all the turn-offs were on the opposite side of the road, making it a logistical nightmare for the Airstream behind us.
“All I can say,” lamenting to Leah, “it’s a good thing we’re coming back the same way, so we can stop as much as we want to take it all in.”
Leah had no objections.
Having started from Banff Village, we were among the last of 56 ticket-holders to be scanned for the 2:30 tour, only to stand by for another half hour…
…until a bus could drive us to the Ice Explorer depot…
…where we waited another 15 minutes for an available Brewster behemoth of our own. I was excited to take the ride onto the glacier in this buggy, although the boarding sign caused Leah some anxiety.
We learned from Ryan, our twenty-something driver, that the tires are 5 feet in diameter, rated at 15 pounds pressure (half that of an auto tire) so they don’t harm the ice, and cost $3000 a piece.
Once we got rolling, we paused at the crest until Ryan got radio clearance to continue…
…down a 33% grade that pressed us against the front of our seats,
yet delivered exhilarating views of the glacial ridge,
and an ice tour in progress to the tongue of the glacier.
Before disembarking, Ryan delivered strict instructions: “I want to be clear about this. You walk onto the glacier at your own peril. You have 20 minutes on the ice, that’s it! This bus leaves at exactly 3:45 pm, no exceptions! Any questions?… Good! And don’t forget to fill up your water bottles. This is the purest water you’ll ever drink.
With that said, we climbed down the ladder stairs, and joined approximately 300 sightseers already on the ice.
Almost immediately, there was a surge to the rope line 200 ft. ahead, where a Battle Royale ensued for unobstructed “selfies” of the glacial mouth. We stood in awe of the competitive scramble,
which was a huge distraction from the awe of the terrain.
Of course, with the clock running down, we turned our attention to the glacial spring running through the middle of the pedestrian corral.
so Leah could fill her bottle with 200 thousand year-old vintage water.
After returning to the depot with all passengers accounted for, we boarded another bus that continued to Brewster’s Glacier Skywalk,–a glass-plated arch nearly two inches thick, suspended 800 feet above the valley floor–
giving us commanding views of Athabasca Mountain,
the corresponding run-off,
…and a local grazer, precariously gripping the mountainside.
Even now, I’m uncertain how the mountain goat turned itself around.
Not that l’m complaining, but one year ago, Leah and I had an opportunity to visit the Juneau Icefields by helicopter…
and step onto Herbert Glacier where nobody was waiting.
The remoteness gave us a completely different perspective and appreciation of nature that Brewster was unable to deliver.
But at the very least, we left with a bottle of chilled glacial water.