Smoke and Mirrors

Sadly, we were nearly out of time. Our visit to Banff and Jasper had taken our breath away, and now becomes the benchmark by which all future destinations will be judged.

Fortunately, our farewell tour followed the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff, and continued down the Banff-Windermere Parkway to Radium Hot Springs–our last Canadian hurrah before reentering the States.

But this road trip promised to be different, because now we would be the tourists we intended to be a week ago–when we rushed to attend our Glacier Adventure, and missed the Icefields Parkway party.

“Why does it seem like we’re always in a hurry?” I asked rhetorically.

But this time we vowed to linger longer, and savor the flavor of the Canadian Rockies.

3 peaks


The skies were overcast at the start of the day, but a favorable forecast seemed promising, with the winds working to defeat the fog.

a ray of light

Upon returning from Maligne Canyon…

canyon bend.jpg

we were breezing down the Parkway, when suddenly I felt compelled to pull over.

“Wait a minute!” I declared. “That’s wild! How is that even possible?”

People and pets were crossing the spiritual sea–each one having a “Jesus moment”.

people and dog

As it turns out, during the summer, Edith Lake fills with inches of crystalline water, making it possible to wade through the sand flat with nary a risk of getting wet… unless you’re young at heart.

walking on water

There were several unforgettable stops along the way to Banff:

Iconic views of Endless Chain Ridge…

Endless Chain Ridge.jpg

Sunwapta Pass, the dividing point between Jasper and Banff National Parks…

Big Bend Parker's Ridge

The Athabasca Glacier, clinging to the sides of Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda…

Columbia Glacier

and Peyto Lake, a band of shimmering turquise reflecting nature’s magic act.

Peyto paddler

As we neared the Castle Junction, we crossed our fingers that we could cross to Kootenay National Park. Recent wildfires had kept the road closed for days, while firefighters worked around the clock to control the blaze. To miss the turn would add four hours to a seven-hour trip.

To our delight, the Castle Junction roadblock had just been lifted, and travel over the Continental Divide at Vermilion Pass had resumed…at least for the moment. We rolled along a vacant highway that we claimed as our own–as if we had the only key to this part of heaven’s gate. But then the scene turned hellish.

We could smell it before we saw it. The smoke that surrounded us was infiltrating the truck cab, and I struggled to close the vent while I looked for the source along the road. And then we were upon it. As we drove deeper into the vanishing skyline, our thoughts turned to the scorched earth and charred pikes that smoldered across the barren fields.

Kootenay on fire

The hills were ablaze, with billows of acrid smoke surging up the slopes and penetrating the highest peaks.


Aerial firefighters were making frequent passes in a Sisyphean effort to control the damage,

while the distant sound of gunning chainsaws drowned out the occasional birdsong.

fire gear

But as we pressed on, the light at the broad end of the funnel gave us renewed hope that we had passed through the darkest part of our day,

beauty thru the haze

as we fled the fiery furnace to the boiling cauldron of Radium Hot Springs.

Radium Hot Springs valley


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.

Athabasca River (2)

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…

waiting in line

…until a bus could drive us to the Ice Explorer depot…

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…

Athabasca Glacier crossroads.

…down a 33% grade that pressed us against the front of our seats,

on the road of ice

yet delivered exhilarating views of the glacial ridge,


and an ice tour in progress to the tongue of the glacier.

ice tour

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.

explorers 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.

glacial ridge

Of course, with the clock running down, we turned our attention to the glacial spring running through the middle of the pedestrian corral.

flower and ice

ice water

so Leah could fill her bottle with 200 thousand year-old vintage water.

glacial 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–

glacier skywalk

glacier bridge

steel supports

giving us commanding views of Athabasca Mountain,

Athabasca Mountain

the corresponding run-off,


stormy river

…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…

flying over Herbert Glacier

and step onto Herbert Glacier where nobody was waiting.

landing on Herbert Glacier

Herbert detail

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.