According to recent research people are looking to see three things when they visit the Canadian Rockies; a bear, a moose and a Mountie. That's a good list to start but those three things can be quite elusive. There is one exceptional place that has been amazing visitors for centuries - the Columbia Icefield. When you stand in front of these ancient glaciers, along the Icefield Parkway, time envelops you and awe leaves you speechless.
Just as the name implies these glaciers or “fields of ice” is the largest ice field in the Canadian Rockies and is the largest south of the Arctic Circle. They are 325km2 in area and 100 to 365 metres (328 to 1,197 ft) in depth and receives up to seven metres (275 in) of snowfall per year.
The Columbia Icefield was formed during the Great Glaciation, some 240,000 years ago. Due to its isolation and harsh weather conditions the icefield is one of the last major geological features in western Canada to be discovered by man. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that European explorers began climbing the adjacent Canadian Rockies’ mountain peaks. The discovery of the Columbia Icefield occurred in July of 1898 when British explorer J Norman Collie and and his friends Hugh Stutfield and Herman Wooley, set off in search for giant mountain peaks, equipped by the famous Banff outfitter Bill Peyto. On the morning of August 18, Collie and Wooley climbed the east side of Mount Athabasca, where they discovered an ice field that extended to almost every horizon. Collie later wrote:
“The view that lay before us in the evening light was one that does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers. A new world was spread at our feet: to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by the human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed and unclimbed peaks.”
Imagine that! Undiscovered, untouched pristine wilderness – uncharted territory. What a time that must have been. The Crowfoot Glacier, which can be seen from the roadside of the Icefields Parkway (highway #93) began its crow-foot formation back when humans were learning about farming and civilization was taking place in Egypt and the Middle East. It’s simply amazing to stand there and see it in existence today.
Today the Athabasca Glacier, a part of the grand Columbia Icefield, is the most visited glacier in North America. The Athabasca Glacier can be seen from the Icefields Parkway, on foot by walking up to and on it, by air via helicopter tour and even by all-terrain buses that are specifically designed for snow and ice travel. You do not need to book a tour to see the Athabasca Glacier. You can park opposite the glacier at the Icefield Centre and stroll across to the leading edge of the glacier which is within walking distance. However, the best way to experience the glacier is to book a Glacier Adventure tour with Brewster on the Glacier Adventure package. You can travel aboard the Ice Explorer; a massive vehicle specially designed for glacial travel. An experienced driver-guide shares a wealth of fascinating information about glaciers, icefields and their impact on our environment during this one hour and 20 minute journey. One of the most remarkable sites is the Snow Dome Mountain; one of only two peaks in the world that drains in three different directions. Melting ice from Snow Dome can end up in the Arctic Ocean, Hudson Bay, or the Pacific Ocean. That’s pretty amazing!
After spending time with the glacier, be sure to visit the Columbia Icefield Centre and its natural history museum. A large three-dimensional model of the Columbia Icefield clearly shows its extent (100 square miles/259 square kilometers) and its three meltwater drainages (Arctic, Atlantic, Pacific). Other displays examine wildlife of the alpine zone and explain how glaciers form, grow, and retreat.
Five travel tips to make the most of your Columbia Icefield tour.
- Bring clothes for cool weather, after all you are standing on a glacier with snow all around. Even if its a sunny day, dressing in layers and appropriate footwear is critical.
- Have your camera ready
- Gotta bring shades - don't forget your sunglasses. It can be really bright when the summer sun reflects off the glacier
- Try for a midweek visit. The summer can be very busy and often Glacier Adventure tours fill up quickly.
- Take your time. The ancient Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier will have you feeling like you are touching the world thousands of years ago.