Unfrozen in Time—Canadian Rockies

When planning trips, especially to wild places, I avoid looking at pictures of my destination in advance. When I finally get there, the experience is vivid and full of surprises. On a week-long hiking, biking and boating trip in the Canadian Rockies in 2003, I marveled at exquisite mountain vistas and weird natural adaptations on every leg of the adventure. Out of nowhere, alpine lakes appeared, glistening an intense midnight blue. Nearby, two to three inch faded green lichens clung to grey boulders. No big deal, right? We’ve all seen lichen. But this kind only grows a half-millimeter a century, which means the specimen we saw was at least 2,500 years old!

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This tour was one of those “work hard, play hard” vacations, organized by Austin-Lehman Adventures. After exerting ourselves “sportfully” during the day, we wined and dined every evening in a new locale. Our every whim was easily met down to the last smoked oyster. During the day we often ate gourmet meals streamside. It was easy to convince ourselves we’d earned it. Taking Class 3 rapids in rubber boats down the Kananaskis River, for example, requires a ton of adrenalin if not courage. After reaching the placid waters, we banked and I jumped off a 15-foot cliff into the river water below. The rafting scared me half to death. The jumping exhilarated me. Go figure.

The last stop of the trip in Jasper National Park offered us a chance to reach the Columbia Icefield. The Ice Age left the Athabasca Glacier behind when it evaporated some 11,000 years ago. We attached crampons to our boots, borrowed gloves and hats, and followed our guides over the frozen terrain. The turquoise wells and uncanny ice forms suggested an underworld of unimaginable ice colors. Being a bit of a claustrophobe, I was proud of myself for going into a deep ice cave, holding my breath in awe and fear, then scurrying out before it could swallow me whole.

The disturbing thing was that this mammoth mountain of ice, more than a half-mile deep and over three miles long, was melting at an accelerated pace. The evidence was clear. The point where we began our trek was a good quarter mile above the spot where tourists in the 1950s used to meet the glacier. Needless to say, we prized the opportunity to see this natural wonder before it succumbs to global warming for good. Could that be in our lifetime?

©Leanne A. Grossman

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