Well the drive from Banff NP to Jasper NP over the Icefields Parkway has to be one of the most beautiful mountain drives that I have ever taken. I don’t know that my photos or description can do it any kind of justice.
“You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world.” – William Hazlitt
This meandering 232 km (140 mi) road paralleling the Continental Divide and winding through the Canadian Rockies through Banff and Jasper has been called one of the most scenic drives in the world and I would agree. Completed in 1940 and named for some of the glaciers that can be seen along the drive. The first road in the world that could take people right to the toe of a glacier it sees over a million visitors each year mostly in the summer months, is more than just a drive, it’s a journey.
Historically the road is quite interesting. Before there was even a “road” the First Nations people and European fur traders regularly traversed the mountain passes and valleys to travel, hunt and gather and homestead in the area long before the highway was built. As the first Europeans started to arrive, indigenous groups took on a new role helping to guide scientists, surveyors and fur traders in the area.
In the spring of 1827, David Douglas, a botanist working on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company, crossed the Athabasca Pass, then a major trading route through the Rockies, north of the Columbia Icefield. It was during this expedition he decided to climb a nearby peak that he claimed rivaled the Himalayas. The peak he described remained a mystery for subsequent explorers until nearly 60 years later, when, in 1884, professor Arthur Coleman, a geologist with the University of Toronto, visited the Rockies in search of the legendary mountain. Using Douglas’s journals and famed maps, he negotiated the Great Divide from Banff to Jasper House, in search of the mountain. Although he was unsuccessful in his quest, he ultimately discovered what would become the route of the Icefields Parkway.
“Life is a highway – I want to ride it all night long” – Tom Cochrane, from his 1991 album Mad Mad World
In the early 1920’s with the area growing in popularity there was a push to build a road to connect Jasper and Banff. Even then described as a “wonder trail,” the highway was the brainchild of Arthur Oliver Wheeler, the principal land surveyor in charge of plotting the border between Alberta and British Columbia in the early 1900s. From his photo topographical surveys, construction of a single-track road began in 1931 as part of a depression-era public works program, putting men, machines and horses to work. To get the project going the federal government established relief camps using more than 2,000 unemployed men as a relief effort. Camps were set up about three miles apart along the proposed route with crews starting at each end of the road working towards each other. To build the road, a surveyor from each camp would work ahead of each of the men to figure out the best way though the valleys. It was said that the surveyors basically made up the road day-by-day. With the unemployment rate hovering around 30 per cent in Western Canada at the time, the government opted to have the men build the road by hand using pickaxe and shovel in order to keep them employed for longer. Workers were paid about $5 a month with a stipend for clothing and tobacco.
By 1940 the Second World War was well underway and the government brought in heavy machinery to finish the road. It officially opened later that year. While it took eight years to get from Jasper to the Athabasca it took only two years on the Jasper side to the Athabasca Glacier down to the big bend. The road then looked little like the paved highway today, at its widest point, the gravel/dirt road was 18 feet and cars regularly had to back up or pull over to let others pass. When the road first opened it would take seven to eight hours to drive the entire distance, with stops you can easily take the same amount of time today.
In 1960 it became a year-round road and was opened in the winter (although at that time only during the day). With the influx of visitors the road was paved and realigned in 1962, opening up the Great Divide to thousands of more visitors, with attractions popping up all along the way. Compare that with the million plus folks that drive the highway today.
“Roads were made for journeys not destinations” – Confucius
It is a great day trip climbing mountains and dipping down into valleys with beautiful rivers and lakes at the foot of spectacular mountain ranges. There are several stops where you can get out and stretch your legs on a hike to scenic points and waterfalls. Sunwapta Falls is a short hike from the parking area off the highway. The falls tumble into a deep canyon and the views are fantastic.
Another very popular waterfall along the highway as you approach Jasper is Athabasca Falls. Athabasca Falls has a drop of 80′ (24m) and a width of 60′ (18m). Although not considered the highest or widest waterfall in the Canadian Rockies, it is considered the most powerful due to the amount of water that flows over the falls. It is a popular stop along the route and the parking lots and paved trails were crowded with visitors even this early in the season.
“Forests, lakes, and rivers, clouds and winds, stars and flowers, stupendous glaciers and crystal snowflakes – every form of animate or inanimate existence, leaves its impress upon the soul of man.” – Orison Swett Marden
I certainly cannot forget the wildlife sightings that can be seen right from the highway. Deer, Goats, Elk and a Brown Bear were all out within view of the vehicles heading down the parkway.
The comparison of the road itself between todays highway and the meandering dirt road of the 1940’s isn’t the only changes that are apparent. To understand this a little glacier science…..
Glaciers form when more snow falls during the winter then can melt during the summer. When enough snow builds up the weight of the snow compresses and turns into solid ice. It can take hundreds of years for a large glacier to form. Although glaciers are made of ice and appear to be sitting still, they are actually moving. The weight of a glacier will cause it to move slowly downhill, sort of like a very slow moving river.
The part of the glaciers that are visible from the road is only a small portion of the Columbia Icefield, the rest of the ice mass is hidden beyond the mountains. There are six glaciers that it feeds. The three that can be seen from the parkway are the Dome, Stutfield and Athabasca. The Columbia Icefields is the largest mass of ice in the Rocky Mountains. It stretches 25 km’s across the Continental Divide. This is one of only two places in the world that forms a triple continental divide. The waters from the glaciers and melting snow flow across North America north to the Arctic Ocean, east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Pacific Ocean.
A must do stop on the parkway is the Athabasca Glacier, mentioned above this is one of the few places where the road will take you to the “toe” of a glacier (or at least it used to go there) and probably one of the easiest in the world to access by car. It is of course the biggest “tourist trap” along the parkway. For only $95 you can board a bus that takes you to another mega bus with giant tires equipped to traverse the glacier and take thousands of visitors out onto the glacier itself. I overheard one of the guides telling folks that they would have 10 minutes out on the glacier – after that ringing endorsement I decided to forgo the “glacier bus ride” as that would mean 80 minutes of the 90 minute tour would be on busses and being herded like cattle.
The Athabasca Glacier currently recedes at a rate of about 5 metres (16 ft) per year and has receded about 2 km (over a mile) and lost over half of its volume since 1844. This means that it keeps getting further and further from the highway making those glacier busses more popular as a way to have direct access to the ice.
Within the next three generations the glacier and the water it provides to communities downstream may almost disappear. Strong scientific evidence links this disappearance to human activities accelerating climate change. Of course, the Athabasca Glacier is not unique. Most glaciers are rapidly disappearing all over the world.
“Future generations are not going to ask us what political party were you in. They are going to ask what did you do about it, when you knew the glaciers were melting.” – Martin Sheen
But lets forget about the consequences for human and ecological welfare as the glaciers retreat and no longer provide steady water supplies through the summer. The imminent loss of the glaciers in the world’s mountains is a terrible blow to those of us who treasure the mountains for their cultural, recreational and aesthetic value. The glaciers that provide those awe inspiring views will soon be gone and they won’t be coming back on any imaginable human timescale. What else to say but it’s a damned shame.
“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
“We must not only protect the country side and save it from destruction, we must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities … Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.” – Lyndon B. Johnson
Resistance to the current administration’s position on climate change and global warming as well as potentially rolling back protections for some National Monuments is growing. Ironically Donald Trump and his administration has accomplished something beautiful — he’s awoken the democratic and liberty-loving spirit of millions of Americans and reminded us that it’s “We the People” who truly govern. It really is a beautiful thing.