The bus rolls over the ice field. The bus rolls over the ice field, full of not-Canadians who lean out its window to snap photos. The wheels of the bus crunch over the ice. Standing at the edge of the Athabasca glacier, staring up into its oozing ice field, the bus rolls along forty or four hundred feet away from us. Scale warps here, at the windy edge of the dirt-solid world. We stand and face into the wind, surrounded by tourists decked out in a spectrum of sundresses and head-to-toe Gortex, listening to the crack and crunch of these wheels rolling over ice.
Days before we inched our toes to the edge of this glacier, my sister and brother-in-law had picked me up at the airport in Calgary; together we drove into the Rocky Mountains to meet up with my parents. The landscape shifted from city to mountain through rolling wheat fields and grasses spackled with cattle. The colors changed from pastel to primary—undiluted blues tumbling over solid grey, tufts of pure green and bright white clouds.
Before I went to Canada, I had a very hazy idea of what constituted a glacier. I imagined sheets of ice shearing off cliffs. I thought of glaciers as great vertical beings shadowing a landscape—giant chess pieces frowning upon a rolling checkerboard below.
The Athabasca Glacier is part of the Colombia Icefield, an arena of hardpacked ice extending more than three hundred kilometers from side to side—and, in some places, top to bottom. As year after year of snowfall—up to seven meters some years—falls onto this elevated plateau, the weight of the snowpack compresses the ice. After thousands of years, this ice creeps into mountain canyons below, creeping along in great tongues of ice—glaciers.
Now, after a long drive along the famous Icefields Parkway, my family and I are standing at the edge of one of these creepings, at the edge of a spread of ice that took thousands of years to arrive here and will take tens of years to retreat.
As we had approached the glacier, we passed wood signposts erected by the road: 1980. A minute later: 1990. Four or five minutes later, winding up the road at 30 miles an hour: 1998. It is an impossibly long wait between each of these markers, impossible to consider, as we pass the 2000 marker, that ten years ago, the glacier extended this far. It feels like standing in an empty swimming pool, like walking out past a high tide line—it feels like absence.
In the Canadian Rockies, climate change is not an abstraction.
An informational sign at the edge of the glacier tell us that “If the glacier continues to recede at its current rate, there will be very little left in 100 years.” And then: “Strong scientific evidence points toward human activities as the primary cause of climate change.”
I’m surprised at how shocked I am to read these words in such an official position, in such authoritative language. In the U.S., climate change exists as rhetoric. In Canada, at least at the edge of an ice field, climate change is visceral. Up here, climate change is a verb—it is movement, it is dirt where there was once a glacier.
My dad wants to know more about the buses that adventure on ice, so we venture into the Icefield Interpretive Centre. It is packed—swarming with people, the density incongruous with the thin air and white space of the glacier’s edge. Due to its accessibility, located right off the famous Icefields Parkway, this glacier is the most visited in North America; we’re among the half-million who pass through here annually.
The Colombia Icefield Glacier Adventure—a ninety-minute ride on a crunching “snowcoach”—departs every half an hour and costs $49.95 a person. Pressed together in the packed visitor’s center, my family confers. Is it worth it—nearly $250 dollars for the five of us, worth it to probe our toes into disappearing ice?
The crunching tires, the cracking ice—the grumbling exhaust. Is this the way to approach a glacier—a being that should be, it seems, so sovereign, so rugged and independent of us?
We pass on the Colombia Icefield Glacier Adventure, don’t take a ride on the hulking snowcoach. Instead, we drive back down the Icefield Parkway for a hike on gravel and pebbles. We climb back into our cars and leave the edge of the retreating glacier behind—leave it to retreat in quiet dependence.
Athabasca Glacier Colombia Icefield explorer photo courtesy Shutterstock.