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.