Know your snow

Glacier tours offer a glimpse at our changing climate

// ©iStockphoto.com/lilly3// ©iStockphoto.com/lilly3

Daniel McKenna moved to Banff by following a familiar path: he came to ski for six weeks after graduating university and never looked back.

The mountains always captivated McKenna, but he stayed for the culture of learning in the bustling tourist town. Whether it’s keeping space between a mama grizzly and her cub or staying out of the way of an avalanche path, Banff residents continue to learn—from past mistakes, from each other and from the environment.

“I think living out here in the mountains is a constant education. Nothing is ever static,” McKenna says. “If you’re an outdoor enthusiast and you’re going out to explore in the mountains, one thing you can never do is become complacent … It’s just a continuous evolution of learning more about our environment. Because we’re this resort town in the national park, I think everyone here from the taxi drivers through to the superintendent of the national park, everybody has a passion for it.”

McKenna joined Brewster Travel Canada in 2006 after cultivating a penchant for ski and avalanche control. Eight years later, and he is now the interim president of the company.

Brewster hosts a handful of activities throughout the year to get a taste of the mountain air. The Banff Gondola, open year-round, offers a birds-eye view of the postcard-famous snow peaks at the height of ski and snowboard season. Open in the summertime, the Banff Lake Cruise takes guests around Lake Minnewanka. Daredevils on a mountain holiday can look forward to the Glacier Skywalk, scheduled to open in May 2014, which will give people the opportunity to walk on a glass skywalk and view the scenery from above.

But the best view of the Rockies’ glaciers and the best learning opportunity, McKenna says, is Brewster’s Icefield Glacier Tours, which opens every year in early April. After boarding a 56-person bus, guests make a five-minute trek up to the Columbia Icefield. Along the ride, Brewster’s staff give a quick run-down on how glaciers are formed, a primer on the geology of the area and the changes the company has seen in its near-60 years of operating on the glacier. This experience, McKenna explains, is a world exclusive to the Rocky Mountains.

“Very few people on the planet have the opportunity to actually walk on a glacier,” he says. “Lots of people can see them driving along the roads in many different countries and in some places like Africa, you can climb to the top of Kilimanjaro and the remnants of the old ice fields are there. This is really the only experience of its type on the planet where you can, very safely, go out and experience a glacier first-hand.”

Since glaciers are rarely seen from the passenger seats of cars or postcards, most guests don’t realize the immensity of the experience until actually getting up on the peaks, McKenna says.

“The biggest thing that people have the hardest time grasping is just the sheer size of what they’re dealing with out there,” he adds.

Guests are “dealing with” approximately 280 metres deep of ice—nearly comparable to the height of the Eiffel Tower. Glaciers are also one of the most dangerous areas in nature, McKenna notes. Though there’s “a bunch of crazy things that can happen to you” up on the glacier, such as the unpleasant prospect of falling into a crevasse (a deep crack) in the ice, McKenna says that Brewster does ample research and takes precautions to uphold its record of having no accidents occur on the glacier.

 

Size and danger aside, glaciers have become a point of attention for another reason: climate change. Though the glaciers have been in retreat since the “Mini Ice Age” 200 years ago, the climate temperature has steadily risen since the ’80s.

Icefields build as more snow falls upon the glaciers and “pushes out the glacier like a tube of toothpaste,” McKenna explains. But, as the glacier becomes exposed, the sun and warmer temperatures melt the glacier faster than the snow can push it out. With this process in mind, the company has seen glaciers retreat at a steady three metres per year.

But what does this mean for Albertans? According to McKenna, probably not much for the near future, at least. Glaciers in the Arctic, Antarctic and in the Rocky Mountains, though, are the largest freshwater reservoirs in the world, and years down the road the glacial retreat could hit close to home, depleting freshwater reserves to rivers like the North Saskatchewan here in Edmonton.

“It’s a big deal if you look at in a very long-term horizon, because this is a major source of our freshwater,” McKenna explains. “Without it, who knows what we’re going to look like. Without that water being trapped there it’s certainly going to be a lot different for people centuries from now.”

The future doesn’t necessarily have to be bleak, though. By getting out to the national parks and exploring their environment, McKenna says Albertans can become more mindful of how their everyday lives affect the delicate climate around them. And luckily, it can be fun. Getting in touch with Alberta’s backcountry can be as easy as exploring it by foot, gondola or a six-wheel glacier explorer.

“There’s a bit of a responsibility for Canadians to better understand their environment and try to get out of the city. More and more Canadians are urbanized now and I think our challenge is to try to get them out of the cities and see these wild places and appreciate them for what they are,” McKenna says. “I think if they understand the glaciers, and appreciate them, then they will have a vested interest in them for what they are now.”

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