GreenAroundTheGlobe - Part 10

Walking On Thin Ice

by Amy on September 23, 2010 · 3 comments

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed with the glaciers that are left in Glacier National Park.  It’s not that I hadn’t been prepared for how few glaciers remain in the park, or how far the few remaining glaciers are from the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Jackson and Blackfoot Glaciers

I had read all about how quickly the ice packs are melting, how each winter seems to bring less and less snowfall.  It’s just that I wasn’t prepared to be so completely underwhelmed by the sight of massive chunks of ancient ice slowing making their way down the mountainsides.

So we did what any glacier-hunter unwilling to hike 14 miles uphill to catch a glimpse of a glacier off in the distance would do: we drove north, to Banff National Park.   Our first incredible views of glaciers came as a reward for a 4.5-mile hike up into the mountains behind the unbelievably gorgeous Lake Louise.

A long but only moderately difficult hike up past the Tea House results in front row seats before the Victoria Glacier.  We even managed to time our hike just right to catch an avalanche of turquoise blue ice melting off the glacier and falling hundreds of feet to the valley below.

Not only are views of the glaciers much more accessible in Banff, but you can even walk right onto the ice itself. No hiking required.

For about $50 each, we were able to take a tour with Explore Rockies out onto the Columbia Icefields in a specially built bus-like vehicle capable of safely traversing the ice.

Once out on the ice, we were able to spend twenty minutes exploring the area of the Athabasca Glacier that had been safety tested that day, snap a few pictures and revel in the feeling of freezing in the middle of the summer.

Like many of the glaciers we saw, the Athabasca Glacier has been in retreat since the late 19th century.  It is estimated to have retreated 1,500 meters (4,900 feet), leaving behind a landscape of rocks and soil, some of which has been paved over into the Icefield Interpretive Center’s parking lot.

Why are the glaciers melting?

One interesting point of observation between Glacier National Park and Banff National Park was the discussion of the role of climate change in the retreat of glaciers.  Down in Glacier, the park rangers and private tour guides were both extremely careful not to link the melting of the glaciers to human activity.  While climate change was not denied, the message was clear that the National Park Service and the vendors serving inside the park do not take a stand as to whether climate change is a natural, cyclical phenomenon or an acceleration of change rooted in human-produced carbon. ( In fact, our guide on the Red Bus tour went so far as to qualify the age of the geological features in the park with the phrase “according to what the scientists believe…” so as not to offend any potential creationists on board.)

The Canadians have no issue with political incorrectness.  In Banff, the rapid retreat of the glaciers was clearly linked to the increase of greenhouse gas production by humans.  Natural cyclical fluctuations in temperature and precipitation were acknowledged as well, but in our minds at least, the message was clear that we as humans bear the bulk of responsibility for glacial melt.

Is the National Park Service missing an opportunity here to educate the public about the environmental repercussions our choices have?  Or are the Canadians just a bunch of tree-huggers trying to make us feel bad about our excessive first world western lifestyle?  What do you think?  Tell us in the comments below.

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Canada, Eh?

by Keith on September 16, 2010 · 1 comment

“Do you have any firearms with you?”
“No.”
“Does your car have a front license plate?”
“Yes.”
“Welcome to Canada.”

That was it, the extent of the immigration check into our 18th and final country, Canada.  We didn’t even get our passports stamped.  As we crossed the boarder on the Northeast edge of the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park we were back to kilometer per hour speed limits and government signs in a foreign language, French.  While there is also English on all the signs, by trying to read and understand just the French I was able to feel more like I was in a different country.

Just a quick note on this whole International Peace Park designation.  I found it a bit peculiar, I mean it is not as if we have had a recent war with those lovable Candians and needed a park to cement the peace process.  Waterton and Glacier parks were recognized as a single UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site in 1932.  In doing so they became the world’s first International Peace Park, symbolizing peace and friendship between our two countries. The result is that the management and protection of the land is shared between both the US Park Service and Parks Canada.

After crossing the boarder we headed into the town of Waterton.  Unlike National Parks in the U.S., in Canada there are full fledged towns located inside the parks.  We stopped for a couple of hours in Waterton to walk around but the highlight was taking in the view of the very colorful Price of Wales Hotel across the Lake from the city.

About an hour later though a massive thunderstorm rolled in to shorten our stay.  We decided to hit the road and keep heading north.

Prochain arrêt Banff!
(Translation: Next stop Banff!)

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Driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road

by Keith on September 13, 2010 · 1 comment

By definition, a long road trip has many hours behind the wheel.  Many of them are on flat, straight and boring interstate highways that seem to somehow stretch past the horizon.

When driving those roads, most which have speed limits of 75mph, the miles quickly passed under our tires without much thought or consideration. The Going-to-the-Sun Road, which winds through Glacier National Park, is the antithesis to that kind of driving.

Winding narrow roads in a large SUV can be nerve wracking.  But the views the Going-to-the-Sun Road offers as a reward for your patience and steady hands are well worth making this scenic 50-mile drive.

The Drive
We started our drive from the western side of the park.  The first 10-15 miles are quite flat and take you along beautiful Lake McDonald.  The crystal clear blue water is pretty, but very cold.

Shortly after we passed the northeastern edge the lake we heard the rushing water of an alpine stream, and after a quick stop for some pictures we started the long climb up to Logan Pass.

The road did get narrow with many curves along the way but generally everyone drives slowly and carefully.  I found that adjusting the passenger side rearview mirror to point down helped me to know how close, or not, we were getting to the edge.

On the way up we saw a sign that has made an appearance on nearly every road we have traveled on this trip, the sign indicating that the roadwork is being funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  I was glad to see that the National Parks were able to get some of this money and that my taxes are going to upgrade infrastructure and provide good jobs.

After making it to Logan Pass we began the descent into St. Mary’s on the east side of the park.

Before exiting the park we stopped to take in the beautiful St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island.

Not Up To Making The Drive Yourself?

There are other options that allow you to enjoy the scenery and wildlife of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. One that we can recommend is to take a tour on a Red Bus. As we were staying on the east side of the park we elected for the Eastern Alpine Tour.  It left from the beautiful Many Glacier Hotel

We then made our way up to Logan Pass and back down again.  Our guide/driver was great.  He added to the trip with many stories and legends about the history of the park as well as the Blackfeet Indians and early explorers.   I would recommend taking a tour with the Red Bus even if you do the drive yourself.  It gives you a chance to really take in the scenery and to learn quite a bit on the history of the park.

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