Life in the Canadian Rockies
by Anne Martin -- August 31st, 2016
We decided to head east across British Columbia, winding through thick pine forests and past silent mountain peaks. Gradually, the wet world of the coastal areas disappeared, and we said goodbye (albeit temporarily) to creamy blue rivers and thick woodlands. Staring out the window, I watched slowly as shrub grass and open sky began to surround us. The bare hills reminded me almost of southern California, until almost abruptly we were back in the mountains again—passing in awe underneath the gaze of Mount Robson before entering into Jasper National Park (Alberta, Canada).
Mount Robson rises above the meadows and tops of the pine trees like an impressive signpost—alerting you to the beauty that you are about to witness in the park’s interior. The First Peoples called the mountain “Yuh-Lai-Has-Kun”, or “the mountain of the spiral road”—a name honoring the mountain’s colorful layers of sedimentary deposits encircling the peak at a striking downward slant. Lined up next to each other, the layers seem to form a looping path circling up the mountain’s steep slopes—a multi-colored string leading you up into the clouds.
We stopped the car for a moment to look up at the great peak, admiring the pockets of white snow settled heavily in her highest reaches. She stood like a natural fortress—beautiful in her aloofness, cloaked in cold and the colors of an incoming storm.
We were excited to explore Jasper National Park—to hike and kayak through all the mountains and valleys and rapids opening up further in. Lying just north of Banff, Alberta, Jasper is full of wild rivers, high peaks, sheer mountain slopes, summer thunderstorms, and afternoon rainbows. Both grizzlies and black bears roam her woods, sharing its valleys and alpine meadows with elk, caribou, and wolves.
Our first day there, we decided to drive from our camp towards Mount Edith Cavell to see the Angel Glacier. The path was steep and rocky, but we picked our way up across small patches of skree, happy to be out in the cold mountain air and enjoying the strain in our legs.
As we walked further up the slope, the glacier appeared directly across from us suddenly, filling a crack between the mountains across the way. It was beautiful—white and lined with shadow-grey crevasses. There was a signpost by the trail displaying photos of the glacier taken in the early 1900s. At that time, the tail of the glacier reached all the way to the valley floor, thick and white and formidable.
Now, although the upper part of the glacier is still impressive, the tail has completely disappeared. Where blue ice once stretched all the way down to the valley floor from the mountain like a giant icy tongue, a huge roaring waterfall has replaced centuries of thick ice. The waterfall cascades down the mountain slope like a torrent of change, carrying calving pieces of the melting glacier into aquamarine lake below.
As I stood listening to the glacier crack and shift, I could almost imagine the lake below expanding, in perfect time with the glacier shrinking. Watching the waterfall stream out from the belly of Angel, it almost felt as if I stared at an icy hourglass.
All of Jasper National Park’s glaciers are in fact now slowly receding. Amazing as it is to watch these wintry giants snap and calve, the trend is worrisome, as glaciers provide fresh water to some of the most significant river systems in North America. The eventual disappearance of Jasper’s glaciers means the potential demise of an important supply of fresh water, a supply that feeds not just the mountainous park, but also great tracks of farm and rangeland further east and south as well. Many places in Canada depend on mountain rivers to sustain them. These places face a much drier future.
For now though, the rivers still flow thick and strong, springing from the ice that remains to quench the thirst of dry prairies and thirsty farmland. We walked along one of these rivers, the Bow River, admiring its light blue waves and shores of white rocks. Beginning gently as glacier melt from the Bow Glacier, it winds through the Canadian Rockies and thrills those traveling down the Icefield Parkway with her beautiful sky-blue color.
As we walked, we wondered in amazement at all that its water would see. Throughout the spring and summer, the river picks up runoff from winter snows, swelling as it meanders through mountain valley after mountain valley until dropping out into the prairies. Merging with the South Saskatchewan River in southeastern Alberta, what had begun as single particles of ice on high mountain peaks eventually flows into the Hudson Bay.
The rivers here are beautiful and wild. They are life in motion—the stone upon which so much is built upon. As water levels in prairie rivers decrease, and human water consumption increases, it’s time to begin thinking not only about sustainable food production and land management, but also about how to conserve, reuse, and protect our freshwater resources. As we sat by the bank of a smaller rippling jewel, the Snaring River, we dipped our feet in her frigid waters and gently iced our tired calves. Fresh water is a gift, a resource that we can no longer afford to ignore.
Climate change is challenging other parts of this stunning park as well, particularly Jasper’s high elevation ecosystems, flora, and fauna. Disappearing alpine environments and the decline of lichen as a result of warmer temperatures have greatly reduced the park’s population of resident caribou. Pika, too, are in trouble. As temperatures rise, these small rodents must move to higher elevations, their habitat reduced to the very tippy tops of mountains. Recent research on the Colombia Icefield area has noted that trees appear to be growing at higher elevations than ever before documented. The area’s expanding treeline might well eventually mean the end of Jasper’s alpine.
I think about what that would mean for the world—the disappearance of the alpine….the loss of pikas and caribou and lichen and summer wildflowers.
While in the park, we went for a two-day backpack on the Skyline trail, a spectacular high-elevation 28-mile adventure. Hiking along remote rocky ridges, running from mountain thunderstorms, traversing alpine meadows littered with purple and yellow wildflowers, and hopping across shallow streams was like a walk through heaven itself.
I can’t imagine the mountains without huge open spaces, filled with intense summer life and kissed by billowing blue skies. I can’t imagine a mountain world without icy, gurgling brooks and muddy banks lined with grizzly paw prints. I can’t imagine high mountain peaks without their open expanses of spongy greenery and mossy boulders and piles of rocks home to huge waddling marmots. I can’t imagine a world without glaciers, or the shrieking cries of scurrying pikas as they scamper away in a flurry back to their dens.
This land is breathtaking and inspiring—wild and brave and open and freeing. It is a land that knows both hot summer sun and frigid winter winds, a place shaped by ice and powerful August thunderstorms. It’s a land that everyone who visits it falls in love with.
One day as we drove towards one of the lakes to go for a kayak, we stopped suddenly at the sight of an enormous black bear standing by the side of the road. We stared in awe through the window at his long gray snout, thick paws, and broad chest. He sniffed the air and opened and closed his mouth a few times, as if trying to inhale the stormy breeze moving in over the mountains. Apparently satisfied by whatever he smelled, the bear walked heavily over to a nearby bush and began plucking off leaves to eat, twisting his huge rump around until he had blocked our roadside view of his furry ears, his small tail waving for a moment between his thick back legs.
Hiking back up into the mountains the next day, we were taking pictures of the distant peaks when a couple of twigs snapped behind us. Turning quickly, we spied a young grizzly bear bounding down the slope above our trail straight towards us. In a state of barely-subdued panic, we retreated up and off the trail onto a pile of rocks. The bear came out of the woods and hit the trail where we had just been, but from there it turned away from us and began descending down the mountain. Only about 20 feet away from us, it nevertheless became apparent that he wasn’t at all interested in us, but in the colony of marmots inhabiting the rocky slope. Overturning rocks, it bounded after the poor furry creatures with amazing agility.
We stared in total amazement—laughing at the bear’s antics and glad that we were not in the marmots’ position. I have ever have I been in a place home to so much wildlife and filled with such natural splendor. It seems impossible that one area could be home to such beauty—emerald temperate forests and wild mountain ranges and whimsically-shaped rock and alpine meadows and powerful rainstorms and icy blue rivers and pristine marshes.
On our backpacking trip along the Skyline Trail, we stopped for a moment on the top of one of the ridges, letting the afternoon sun warm our backs and watching isolated thunderstorms storms kiss the tops of the distant mountains. Rain came down far away in dark, downward streaks. The wind blew gently. Water flowed over dark brown rocks. A Colombia ground squirrel stopped for a moment to look at us, a pinecone clutched in its paws.
This place feels like both the beginning and the end. It feels like coming home. I’m not sure where this life will take me, but I know I want to spend it protecting places like this. I want to spend it living in these places—drawing from their strength, their timelessness. I’m so thankful for their simple existence, for the gift knowing simply that they are there–the living essence of peace and power reminding us that we are nothing and also everything.