Sep. 13, 2016
By Naomi Witherick
Enormous vehicles roved in the distance, large notched tires gripping the icy ground. White clouds hung low in the air, veiling the giant grey mountains behind them. Their misty edges touched the horizon, blurring the line between the sky and the frozen white ground.
This could have been another planet. But I was right here in the Canadian Rockies on the Glacier Adventure and Skywalk tour at the Athabasca Glacier.
I’d heard a lot about the tour so thought I’d check it out on a recent drive from Banff to Jasper. It includes a trip onto the surface of the glacier in an Ice Explorer vehicle and a ticket to the Skywalk’s glass-bottomed viewing platform.
I arrived at the visitor centre just after 10 am. It was already packed with visitors, creating a lively buzz as we made our way down a UV-lit walkway to start the tour.
We boarded a bus that took us to the glacier’s edge, where we met Sam, our driver and Susie, the 56-seat Ice Explorer that would take us onto the frozen surface. With enormous tires, flat metal sides and a 25,000-kg weight, Susie looked like something from a sci-fi movie, rambling across the surface of an extraterrestrial planet.
I climbed the steps to the vehicle’s bus-like interior, noticing the range of visitors the tour attracts. Families with young children and elderly couples were all getting on the bus too. Sam slowly backed the machine away from the boarding area and we were off.
We drove through a passageway between enormous piles of stones. Sam explained these were moraines; heaps of eroded rock left by the glacier as it decreases in size. He told us it retreats at a rate of five metres per year, a natural process caused by the climatic patterns in the area.
Pausing the vehicle, he told us to hold on. From my front-row seat I could see why. The moraine took a sudden drop in front of us, plummeting at a perilous angle to the ice’s level.
Everyone grabbed hold their seats, letting out excited “ooh”s and “aah”s as we rumbled down the terrifying drop. We splashed into a huge puddle at the bottom, which Sam explained was an intentional pool of water used to clean the tires before driving on the ice. Dark coloured debris on the glacier surface would heat quickly in the sunlight, causing it to melt.
We didn’t need to worry sunlight on this day though. By the time we reached the ice a thick covering of cloud had gathered overhead. Fog settled on the glacier, blocking sight of the main road and visitor centre at the foot of the mountain.
“You’re lucky,” said Sam. “Weather like this makes the glacier experience really unique. It feels like you’re on a different planet.”
He was right. As I stepped down onto the ice, I was met with chilly air and a panoramic view of white. The white icy surface of the glacier; the white clouds above and the misty fog in-between that blended the two together.
We had 20 minutes to explore. Having been warned of hidden crevasses in the ice, we stayed within a roped-off area, taking pictures and sampling the crisp water from the glacial streams. Then it was back in the Ice Explorer to return to ‘earth’.
Back on a shuttle bus we drove 10 minutes to the Skywalk. Though it’s located on the highway, the Skywalk isn’t accessible without purchasing a pass at the visitor centre. But the 1-km walkway offers plenty for your money, with interactive displays detailing the geology and wildlife of the glacier-carved Sunwapta Valley.
It was raining as we followed the cliff-edge walkway, but that didn’t dampen the view. Mist hung on the mountainsides, giving the valley an eerie grandeur. And the glass-bottomed walkway revealed the icy green waters of the Sunwapta River, traversing the valley floor with incredible force.
Looking at the scene from above was awesome. The platform offered views from an angle you wouldn’t get anywhere else. It felt like we were hovering above the earth, separated from but gazing down on a beautiful display of nature.
And that summarized the entire experience. The Glacier Adventure and Skywalk was a way of discovering breathtaking natural landscapes in a way that felt totally out of this world.
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