Friday, September 9, 2011

Frozen Secrets

Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
Frozen Secrets
travel essay
by Greg Larson

Ancient water unlocked
(photo courtesy of
     A cool breeze blew across my face while I looked at the dusty, rocky surface under my feet.  I could have been standing on another planet.  The rising slope in front of me was dirty ice, with streams of icy water scattered about the surface, flowing in earnest on a sunny August day.  The melting ice fed a rushing creek at the edge, or toe of the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.  The glacier flows from the Columbia Ice Field down a long curved valley between mountain peaks which are covered with snow and other glacier remnants.
Toe of Athabasca Glacier with Mt. Andromeda above
     The Columbia Ice Field straddles the continental divide in Alberta and British Columbia.  It is one of the largest ice fields below the Arctic Circle, covering over 130 square miles with a thickness that varies from 300 to 1200 feet.  Seven glaciers flow from edges of the Columbia Ice Field.  They create the headwaters of rivers that flow to three oceans:  the Pacific, the Arctic, and the North Atlantic.
     The Athabasca glacier is the most accessible of the seven glaciers, and is closest to the Columbia Ice Field Visitor Center and the highway.
     My wife, Gretta, and I walked towards our guide, Ron, and introduced ourselves.  He was to lead our tour group of ten people on a three hour tour across the surface of the glacier.  Yes, just a “three hour tour.”  His veiled reference to Gilligan’s Island made me realize that we were probably about the same age.
     We told him we were from Kansas.
     “Kansas!” exclaimed Ron.  “My relatives are from Kansas.”
     “What part of Kansas?”  I asked.
     “Oh, that’s the area where my great grandfather came from a long time ago,” answered Ron.  “It was after the Civil War, and there were carpetbaggers and lawlessness and such.  He roamed around Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma as a member of the Jesse James gang.”
     Ron’s story about his great grandfather intrigued me.  From what I could remember, there were somewhere between fifty and a hundred James Gang members, and most of them ended up face down in a ditch or at the end of a rope.  What other stories were tucked inside Ron’s past?
     “Wow!” I responded.  “How did your family end up in Canada?”
     “Well, once Jesse met his fate, my great grandfather didn’t stay long in those parts.  He high-tailed it up here to Canada to start a new life.  And here we are.”
     While we waited for the rest of the tour group to gather, I remembered the line from a song I once heard, “the dirty little coward shot the man named Howard [aka James] and put poor Jesse in his grave.”
     One of the tour members heard the trailing end of our discussion about Ron’s ancestors, and then asked the question, “Ron, what’s your background?  How did you become a tour guide on a glacier?”
     The sun reflected off Ron’s sunglasses as he looked up towards the frosty face of Mt. Andromeda.  His pause was uncomfortably long.  I wondered if he had heard the question. 
Our guide, Ron, gazing at Mt. Andromeda
     Finally, he took a deep breath and the words came forth. “I got a couple of degrees.  Then I lived in a cabin in the bush for many years.  I was into mountain climbing for a while.”  He pointed to Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda, “In fact, I’ve climbed most of the peaks around here when there was a lot more ice on them than there is now.  I was a ski instructor, and then I was a guide on some heli-skiing tours.  But now I’m older. I’m sixty.  There were a lot of young guys who wanted my job. They were young bucks . . . smart and strong.  So I decided to take things a bit easier and now I lead these glacier tours in the summer.  It’s a nice way to spend time outdoors in the summer and then take it easy in the winter.”
     His hesitation and response made me realize that we all have stories in our past that are frozen, untouched, not usually shared.
     With all the tour members gathered around him, Ron was ready to begin the glacier trek.
     “The most important instruction I’ll give you today is that you need to follow me in single file.  The glacier surface and its features change from day to day, and I’ll make sure we have a safe path.  I will take you to the most interesting features so that you can see them first hand.  The water in the gullies is one degree above freezing, so you don’t want to fall in.  You don’t even want your boot to slip into the water.  There are deep crevasses and waterfalls, and some of the edges have frost and snow that won’t support you.  If you fall into a crevasse or a big hole, it will be an experience of a lifetime.  In fact it will be your last experience of a lifetime.”
     “Any questions?”  There was no response.  “Then follow me.”  Ron turned and led us along a rushing creek at the toe of the glacier.  Eventually we crossed a bridge to the glacier surface.  It consisted of a narrow plank about 12 ft. long, situated about six feet above the rushing icy water.  Ron yelled before we crossed.  “Don’t look down at the water.  Focus on your feet and keep your balance as you cross.”
Walking the plank
(photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures)
     At last, our boots were on the icy surface.  The breeze was remarkably cooler.  Ron told us that the sun had been shining for the last four days.  The melting on the surface created tiny pockets that allowed us to grip the ice with our hiking boots.  We were lucky that we didn’t have to wear crampons.  They are required during cooler times when the surface is slippery.  According to Ron, when it rains, the glacier is like a sloped skating rink.
     The hike was slow and mentally taxing.  It was important to follow the person in front, but difficult, due to the slopes and streams we were constantly crossing.  Ron stopped every 200 yards to let us catch our breath.  He used the opportunity to share his knowledge about the glaciers and the ice field.
Our guide leads us single file
(photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures)
     He showed us the lateral moraines, which were piles of rock, gravel and ice pushed aside when the glacier flowed downhill.  These dirty ridges show the extent of the glacier in centuries past when the ice was much thicker.  The rock and gravel insulate the ice, thus it doesn’t melt as easily as the exposed glacier surface.
Lateral moraine with exposed ice
     Ron shared some historical photos of the glacier and explained that it was shrinking significantly each year.  We had also viewed plaques along the dirt road to the glacier which showed where the toe was located during different decades throughout the twentieth century and up to the present time.
     In 1844 the Athabasca Glacier and the Dome Glacier flowed to the opposite side of the valley and deposited piles of gravel past the current location of the highway and visitors center.  The amount of ice in the glacier is now a fraction of the volume that existed 170 years ago.  Ron said there are varying estimates on how long it will take before the Athabasca Glacier disappears.  Some studies estimate it will be gone in 70 to 100 years, other studies estimate longer time frames.  Natural global warming has continued for tens of thousands of years.  The question is: How much is man contributing to global warming, and has he quickened the pace of the melting process?  Ron didn’t have an answer but said, “It should be cause for concern and we should all have an interest in finding out the answer.”  He told us the Columbia Ice Field would remain indefinitely, due to its massive size and depth.
View up the glacier - it's two more miles to the edge of the Columbia Ice Field
     He directed us to a vertical pipe that had been installed to take core samples of the glacier.  Tape was wrapped on the pipe about two yards above the surface of the glacier.  It was where the surface existed at the beginning of spring.
     Ron then pointed to a long piece of pipe that lay horizontally on the surface.  “See the tape about six or seven yards from this end of the pipe? That pipe was vertical last year, and the tape marked the surface at the beginning of last year.  More ice is melting than is being replenished by snow and by the flow from the ice field.”
     There was always something interesting to show us, like the blue color of the solid, undisturbed ice that appeared when he scraped the white surface with his axe, or the clumps of ancient microbes that are considered a building block of life.  He also pointed out yellow patches of pollen that had been deposited centuries ago.
Our guide, Ron, shows us the microbes insulating a pile of ice
Ice cold drinks
(photo courtesy
     We stopped within fifty feet of an icy road plowed on the surface of the glacier.  It was created for people movers, which were large tourist busses with giant tractor tires.  Every few minutes a bus came by spewing out stinky diesel fumes.  The occupants waved to us as they leaned out the windows to take pictures of us hiking on the ice.  I felt like an animal at a zoo, but I was proud that we had walked an entire mile up the jagged surface to view the cracks and rivulets in intimate detail.
     The most unusual stop on our hike was at a feature called a moulin (French for millwheel).  It is a point on a glacial creek where the water finds a fissure or a break on the surface, and the water seeks the bottom of the ice instead of traveling on the surface.  The opening was about fifteen feet across, and the rushing creek fell into the bluish-white void.
     Ron yelled above the crashing noise, “This waterfall goes down 300 feet to the bottom of the glacier.  It continues to carve out the ice as it seeks a path to the bottom.”  He took his ice axe and chopped foot-holds at the edge, and then he said he would hold each of us if we wanted to take a photograph of the waterfall.
Water rushes towards the moulin
     I took my turn and leaned over the edge and snapped the picture while Ron held my other hand.  The waterfall gushed towards the hole and launched into the abyss.
Looking straight down into the moulin
     Then Ron shared, “One of my buddies climbed down a moulin that was near the toe of the glacier and he made it all the way to the bottom.  He said it was just like going down a giant, cold drain pipe.”
     He continued to share tidbits of what the glacier reveals, and pointed to his ice axe.  “I found this out here on the glacier one day.  Then one year, when the spring thaw was going pretty good, we found the better half of an army jeep sticking through the surface.  It was used during training in World War II, and must have rolled or was driven into a crevasse.  You never know what you might find out here.  Stuff just shows up.”
     Yeah, like bodies and stuff.  Surely people have fallen in out here.  Creepy.  How long does the glacier keep them, and what condition are they when they resurface?  I didn’t share my thoughts or ask Ron any questions about “stuff.”
     I came to the conclusion that people are like glaciers.  There are frozen secrets deep inside us.  On rare occasions they are revealed during a spring thaw to those who are intimate with what is on the ever-changing surface. 

     My focus returned to the mountains and glacier surrounding me.  It was a blue-sky summer day in a rare place, at one of the last remnants of the ice age . . . one of those days when you thank God for being alive, for the opportunity to experience a unique spot on the planet.  The receding glacier and the awareness of the centuries of melting ice gave me a broader perspective of nature’s time clock and man's relationship with it and each other.

1 comment:

  1. Greg,
    One of our most fascinating posts yet! You did something I could never do, but related it in such a way that I felt I was there! Well done.