Chris Yorath's How Old is That Mountain? enriched the beginning of our Rocky Mountain visit, but it doesn't treat the Icefields Parkway. We had just as good a guide to that most scenic road in an older book by Yorath and Ken Gadd, Of Rocks, Mountains and Jasper. This book is organized like its companion, and picks up our tour where the newer book leaves off. Also highly recommended.
The Canadian Rockies are not volcanic. In fact, the material on these
mountain tops was once on the floor of the ocean. As the Earth's tectonic
plates shifted, one plate rode over another, elevating the Rocky
Mountains. Sediment eroded ahead of this advance, and became incorporated
into later thrust sheets. The basic stratification of the mountains was
determined by several waves of this kind of collision, advance, and erosion.
Over several million years, glaciers also came and went, eventually carving
the Rockies into their present shape.
The drawing is adapted from Gadd and Yorath's book, where it was in turn taken from Ben Gadd's Handbook of the Canadian Rockies.
Our tour for the next couple of days was to drive the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper. Beyond all doubt, this is one of the most beautiful roads in the world.
It's 145 miles from Lake Louise to Jasper. Parks Canada has a wonderful long, narrow map (PDF 520K) that suggests places to stop, hike, or camp. Our story follows that route from Southeast to Northwest.
Glaciers move in one direction only, generally downhill. Ice accumulates at
the top and moves toward the toe,
If more ice is added at the source than what melts at the toe, the glacier is
said to advance. If the toe melts faster, the glacier retreats. Like all
glaciers here, Crowfoot is retreating. This crow's foot now has only two
toes. The older photo, when it looked more like a real crow's foot, was taken
in 1918. It's on a sign near the roadside lookout point.
Try to picture a 16-story building at the toe of the glacier. It would be about 50 meters tall, which is how thick the ice is there.
The Bow River runs along the Parkway, flowing through Banff and Calgary before it empties into the South Saskatchewan between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. Its name comes from the reeds that grow along it, which were used by the Indians to make bows. Even the Aboriginal name for the river means "river where bow weeds grow." The river begins at Bow Lake, one of our first stops. Crowfoot Mountain is behind the lake in the first photo, with its namesake glacier. In the second photo, Bow Peak is just left of center. All the peaks in the right half of the photo are part of Crowfoot Mountain.
If you weren't paying attention, you might think there's one long river
next to the Parkway, but there are several. On the northwest side of Bow
Pass, Peyto Lake feeds the Mistaya River. Here we're at one of the Waterfowl
Lakes that have formed along the Mistaya, with Mt. Patterson in the
Howse Peak and Mt. Chephren are directly behind the Waterfowl Lakes.
You can have a closer look at the scene above in the wider photo here.
The Mistaya River carves a deep canyon before it empties into the North Saskatchewan River, at the base of Mt. Wilson. The mountain is named for Tom Wilson, who discovered Lake Louise. We'll return to this area toward the end of this page, when we follow the North Saskatchewan for a while on our return to Red Deer.
This is the deep valley carved by the North Saskatchewan River near where it crosses the parkway. At least one family has decided that it's a beautiful spot to stop for a meal. Already we've climbed and descended quite a bit. Bow pass is 2000 meters above sea level. Here we're 500 meters lower, which is about as low as we'll get (over 4000 feet ASL) until we get to Jasper.
As we resume climbing toward North America's high-water mark, we pass the Weeping Wall on the west face of Cirrus Mountain. Just past Cirrus Mountain, the road climbs in earnest, taking a couple of heart-stopping switchbacks to reach the Icefield Center at the toe of the Athabasca Glacier.
There are several places to name in this photo, taken near the middle of the
Icefields Parkway. You might even want to look at the
larger version of the same scene.
There are two named mountains in the left third of the scene,
Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda. The Andromeda Glacier is barely
visible on the north face (right side) of Mt. Andromeda. Then there is
the star of this show, the Athabasca Glacier. We'll get a much closer look
at this masterpiece, very soon. Just right of the Athabasca Glacier is
Snowdome, the hydrographic apex of North America. To the right of Snowdome
is the Dome Glacier, and Mt. Kitchener spills off the right edge of the
frame. Just behind these mountains lies the Columbia Icefield, which feeds
all of these glaciers and more. Snowdome marks the place where some of the
meltwater may eventually end up in the Atlantic, Pacific, or the Arctic
Ocean, depending on just which part of Snowdome it uses for its descent. It
has been observed that a hiker on top of Snowdome is in a unique position to
pollute three oceans with a single act.
Sunwapta Lake is at the base of Snowdome. More on this unusual lake, in due time.
Canadians consider the Hudson Bay to be Atlantic drainage. Others, including the International Hydrographic Organization, think it drains to the Arctic Ocean. If you agree with this view of Hudson Bay, you might place the continent's triple divide at Triple Divide Peak (what other name?) in Montana's Glacier National Park. Any globe I've ever seen clearly shows the Hudson Bay connected to the Atlantic Ocean. Also, we're touring in Canada, so I'll stick with the earlier view that we have visited one of the two places in the world from where water flows to three oceans. The other one is in Siberia, although I've been unable to find out exactly where.
Of course, it's no accident that the Parkway passes this very spot. As we did, many others come here for the privilege of walking on the Athabasca Glacier. For organized tours, first there is the obligatory group shot. Some folks also want mug shots inside the visitor center.
We skipped the group photos, but we did take a tour coach to the surface of the glacier, 7000 feet above sea level. We rode a conventional bus part way up the slope, then boarded a special-purpose snow coach to get up on the glacier itself. Both of our drivers kept us well informed about what we were seeing and how it got to be the way it is.
Here's a closer look at Mt. Andromeda, and a much better view of its glacier. Notice the little waterfall in the first picture. These small streams form as the glaciers melt at the toe, becoming the source of all the mighty rivers in the Rockies.
Since the Icefield Center began operating after World War II, there have been three distinct kinds of snow coach, each one catering to the increasing demand for glacier tours. The oldest one could carry six passengers, which was fine for about ten years, but it became obvious that something larger was needed. So the tour operator switched to the modified Greyhound bus that was used in the 1950s and '60s.
Finally, they switched to the highly specialized snow coaches that we used. The tires are as big around as I am high. There are fewer than thirty of these vehicles in the world, each one being worth a few million dollars. Most of them are here; the others are used in Antarctica.
The coach drives down a hill and through a stream that has been channelled to use the meltwater as a "tire wash," so the coach will cause minimal ecological damage when it climbs onto the glacier. The glacier's surface is rough, and there are numerous crevasses. Walking there can be hazardous; but despite the dire warnings on the placards, it seemed nobody wanted to remain on the snow coaches when they stopped to let us out for a short walk on Athabasca Glacier.
Naturally, tourists want their "I was there" pictures here, too. Air temperature here is about 40°F, or 5°C. The guy on the right also had his shirt off, but for some reason he didn't want to stay undressed for very long. The girl with the camera was dressed for the temperature, except maybe for the part of her that was touching the ice.
The snow coach tour is expensive, but it's not the only way to get onto the glacier. There are a couple of access roads for those who prefer to get onto the ice by a different route, as this group has done. They need to be careful. It's hard to tell at a glance if the snow is solid, or if it's hiding a crevasse deep enough to swallow the whole group. Almost every year, a hiker gets trapped that way and succumbs to hypothermia.
But the coach tour goes right to the best view. We're looking from the rough surface, directly up the Athabasca Glacier toward the Columbia Icefield that feeds it. We're standing on a spot that is about 1000 feet thick. The guide explained that this is enough ice to bury the Eiffel Tower. The area where we walked is rough, but there are no man-eating cracks in the ice. Only little ones.
Turning around, we can barely see the Icefield Center beyond the toe of the glacier. Nigel Peak is high behind it, on the right. Athabasca Glacier is retreating about 2-3 meters per year. When Europeans discovered it in 1844, it covered the area where the visitor center now stands. We would not have needed a bus to visit the glacier then. Good thing, because there were no buses in 1844.
Glaciers are made of the purest water in the world. It absorbs the colors at the red end of the rainbow, allowing only clear blue to pass. Some people drank it from streams in the area where our tour group walked. You could also buy glacier water in the visitor center, $2.50 a bottle.
As the Athabasca Glacier receded, it exposed a shallow depression in the valley floor, forming Sunwapta Lake in the 1930s. This is the source of the Sunwapta River, which we'll soon follow as we continue our drive toward Jasper. The lake collects sand and gravel that formerly flowed downstream, and geologists expect that it will be filled within 30 or 40 years. That's a flash in the pan, born and gone in barely a hundred years.
Without the sediment load that fills Sunwapta Lake, the river has more erosive power than it used to have. It has been cutting deeper into the valley beside the parkway, and will keep doing so until the lake is full.
We've already seen the Dome Glacier on one side of Mt. Kitchener. On the other side is the Stutfield Glacier. Stutfield Peak is on the right, and the Sunwapta River braids its way through the flats in the foreground.
Below the Endless Chain Ridge,
a short trail leads from the roadside to Bubbling Springs, a clear pool with
a difference. It's formed by groundwater filling from below, flowing fast
enough to wash away all particles finer than sand. Air bubbles rise from
several places where the groundwater enters the pool, and water squirts up
briskly, forming small sand fountains.
The Sunwapta River ends dramatically. What started as a trickle at the toe of the Athabasca Glacier is now a torrent flowing over the 50-meter Sunwapta Falls. The plunge pool at the base of the falls is slowly claiming its limestone walls; so the waterfall is working its way slowly, relentlessly upstream.
For most of its 30-mile run, the Sunwapta River is shallow and meandering, bordered mainly by gravel flats. Not so the Athabasca. Athabasca is how the Cree say "there are plants one after another." As we look across the river to Mt. Fryatt, there are plenty of plants to be seen. There is enough water here to bring out the color it takes from the rock flour being carried from the river's glacial origin in the Columbia Icefield. From its source to Lake Athabasca, this is Canada's longest undammed river.
The tallest peak in the distance is 11,033 feet above sea level. It has had many names, including White Ghost, Duke, Fitzhugh, and Geikie. In 1916 it was renamed Mt. Edith Cavell to honor the courageous British nurse who was executed during World War I. The first daughter of the vicar of Swardeston (Norfolk), Edith Cavell was a nurse and teacher in Brussels when war broke out in 1914. She ran a clinic that became a Red Cross hospital, caring for soldiers regardless of their nationality, and stayed behind when the Germans took Brussels and commandeered her clinic. She soon found herself part of a team that helped British soldiers escape to neutral territory in Holland. When the Germans caught other members of her team, they interrogated Edith Cavell and tricked her into confessing her rôle in the escapes. On 12 October 1915, The German army executed Edith Cavell as a spy. News of her death caused a strong public reaction; In England, enlistments doubled for eight weeks. When the war ended, Edith Cavell was reburied in Norwich Cathedral. There was great ceremony all along the route from Belgium, including services at Westminster Abbey.
We stopped for another look at the Athabasca River, just before it takes a plunge. (There's a wider view here). In the distance, the first two peaks at left are Mt. Christie and Brussels Peak. Brussels Peak is very difficult terrain; its summit was one of the last in the Rockies to be reached, in 1948. The climbers used controversial new technology – drills and expansion bolts – and some purists still refuse to credit the conquest.
Mt. Kerkeslin presides over Athabasca Falls. Its Cambrian strata show the sliding origin of the Rocky Mountains. The edges of the peak are older than the center; this kind of warping is called syncline.
Rapid, pounding currents carve through the bedrock, forming channels like this. Once, the river flowed through here by Athabasca Falls. Later, the water worked its way through a different crack, rerouting the river until it left this channel completely dry.
Mt. Kerkeslin and Athabasca Falls.
There is a larger version of this photo here
As Lewis and Clark are important in U.S. history, so is David Thompson a key figure in Canada's discovery and development. Explorer and cartographer, he made the first map of western Canada in 1826. Working for the North West Company, he tried to find a suitable trade route from the interior to the Pacific Ocean. He had travelled through Howse Pass to do commerce with the Kootenay Indians in B.C., but a Peigan war party blocked his route in 1810.
Rather than call it quits, Thompson decided to find another trade route. He worked his way northwest to the base of Mt. Edith Cavell. Then, with 13 men and eight dogsleds, he began a trek to the headwaters of the Whirlpool River in the middle of winter. After several days the party reached the treeline, and realized that they had found their route. Persevering, Thompson and his party reached the Pacific Ocean by way of the Columbia River on 15 July 1811.
Athabasca Pass quickly became an important link between Edmonton and the West Coast, effectively connecting the Columbia and Athabasca Rivers. We're seeing the pass from 34 miles away at a roadside stop on the Icefields Parkway.
In 1811, Oregon Country was disputed territory, which did not stop the North West and Hudson Bay Companies from trading there. It was No Man's Land until 1846, when the Treaty of Oregon established the 49th Parallel as the southern boundary of British territory. This put the lower part of the Columbia River in a foreign country (the U.S.). The Hudson Bay Company found a new route to the ocean via Vancouver, and the route over Athabasca Pass lost its importance. But for 35 years it was the major link between Canada's prairie and the Pacific Ocean.
There are two quiet lakes on the outskirts of the Jasper town site. Patricia Lake is closer to town. The mountains behind it dominate Jasper. They all have names except the most distinct peak, the very angular one in the middle. Would you like to name it?
The large mountain on the left is called Whistlers. It's obviously popular as a ski resort. The lift cars run in summer, too, so visitors can have an easy ride to a spectacular view.
There are several peaks in the Pyramid Lake panorama that follows.
From the left, these are a few of them:
Mt. Edith Cavell is the tall one with the bands of snow. The massive
group in the center are the Whistlers, followed by the sharp point of the
nameless mountain. The rounded one is called Muhigan, and the last, sharp
peak is Roche Noire.
This is a very wide photo. If you'd rather see the screen-size version, it's here.
Too soon, it was time to leave the Rockies. We followed the same route David Thompson used, although it was much more convenient for us. Back over Sunwapta Pass near the Columbia Icefield, then along the North Saskatchewan River to the place where Mt. Wilson guards the river's sharp turn to the Northeast.
There's a good road that parallels the river here; it's even called the David
Thompson Highway. He probably travelled a little closer to the river itself,
where he would have had this stunning view as he prepared to head downstream
toward Lake Winnipeg.
There is a much larger version of this picture here.
In 1972 the Province of Alberta built the Bighorn Dam near Nordegg, turning this part of the North Saskatchewan into Abraham Lake. Mt. Michener is on the south side of the lake. It was named for Daniel Roland Michener, who was Governor General of Canada from 1967-74.
Our last stop in Alberta was at Rocky Mountain House, where there was an important trading post on the North Saskatchewan River. A map at the site explains how this place anchored a good water route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. We already know that the river defines a route to Athabasca Pass, and how other rivers connect that place to the Pacific Ocean. In the other direction, traders could get to Hudson Bay via the Nelson River, or to Lake Superior by Lake Winnipeg and Lake of the Woods. Either of these places is, for all practical purposes, directly connected to the Atlantic Ocean and therefore to England. A plaque at the visitor center explains further:
The Hudson Bay and North West Companies each built fortified fur trade posts here in 1799. The anticipated trade with the Kootenay Indians, who lived west of the mountains, did not develop; but these posts and their successors after the 1821 company merger drew in the trade of the Blackfoot, Peigan and Blood Indians, as well as that of the Stoney, Sarcee, Gros Ventre and Cree. The North West Company post was also used as a base for exploration and from it, in 1807, David Thompson crossed the Rockies to the Columbia River. The last fort at Rocky Mountain House was finally abandoned in 1875.
There is a short interpretive trail around the site of the Hudson Bay Company's last fort. It passes some artifacts that have been preserved from the days when this site was a trading post. It also passes a very lonely tree.
Like the York boat, some of the relics have been used as models to build
modern reproductions. The originals are near the short trail, and the new
versions are near the play fort.
The York boat is named for York Factory, HBC's headquarters on Hudson Bay. It was favored over canoes because of its stability in rough water, and its durability when moving through ice or over stones in shallow places.
The York boats were the workhorse of the fur trader's transportation, but the Red River carts were needed to move things around on land. The simple, all-wood design made for easy repairs on the trail. The large, dished wheels provided excellent stability. To cross rivers the wheels were removed and lashed under the frame; then the cart was floated across. The cart was pulled by a single horse or ox, and could carry up to 900 pounds. The wooden axles were never greased because trail dust would make them seize.
The chimneys from the Chief Factor's house are still standing at the HBC's last fort. The old word factor isn't used much, outside of places like this. A factor is a broker or merchant, and a factory (like York Factory) is the place where they do business.
Paul Kane passed through here on his 1846-49 voyage from Toronto to the Pacific Ocean. He returned with many sketches of the lives and customs of Indians and traders in mid-19th-century Canada. This painting, The Surveyor, is the most expensive painting by a Canadian artist. Sotheby's sold it at auction for just over $5 million in 2002. It isn't here, it's at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Other examples of Kane's voyageur work are Fort Edmonton and Encampment.
The buffalo herd came from Elk Island National Park, east of Edmonton. The Elk Island herds are the source of most of today's pure-bred bison, worldwide. They are descended from a herd of about 400 that was brought there in 1907-09. There is a short story about that herd on the park's web site. We were disappointed to see the animals from such a distance, but we didn't know yet what would happen at our next stop.
In 1979, when workers were building a gas plant nearby, they found the graves of twelve people who were associated with the 1835-61 post at Rocky Mountain House. They excavated these remains archæologically and reburied them here, slightly closer to the fort where they had lived.
on to Medora