A wild, red-haired 19-year-old makes the journey from England to Canada in 1896. He guides scientists, mountaineers, and big game hunters through the little-explored Rocky Mountains. His tall tales and incisive wit makes him one of the most legendary pioneers in Canada.
We are at rustic log and stone Num Ti Jah Lodge, built by this pioneer guide called Jimmy Simpson, with brilliant red roofs situated on the shores of the pristine teal waters of Bow Lake. In the distance is Crowfoot glacier, where the ice hangs on a sheer cliff looking like the feet of a crow. The word Num Ti jah is a Stoney Indian word for a small animal like a sable! Today it is a rustic mountain lodge offering a true ‘in the wilds' experience. Soon after the lodge is our first up-close look at the legendary wild life on this road: a bear the colour of burnt cinnamon, lumbering in the bushes. Lest we be lulled into believing that it is harmless, John reminds us that bears can run as fast as race horses!
It's the journey... not the destination…. A symphony of rugged and craggy mountains piercing the skies, with glacial capes and evocative names, deep avalanches, emerald lakes, pines and spruce forests, thundering waterfalls vying for attention on both sides of the ribbon of tarmac... Throw in an extraordinary wild life of bears, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, the stealthy cougar and the elusive moose. Welcome to Alberta's Highway 93 dubbed the Icefields Parkway, which runs for 230 km between Lake Louise and Jasper in Alberta, Canada. Running parallel to the Continental divide, this is one of the most spectacular drives in the world, with more than nine glaciers and two national parks.
There are no traffic jams here. Only wild animal jams when cars stop by the roadsides to view these lumbering creatures. Towering peaks all around are named after people who have helped in shaping the history of Canada: Victoria, Edith Cavell and Mount Robson. It all began as a single track gravel road carved out by picks and shovels, by unemployed men during the Great Depression, who were paid the sum of twenty cents a day, as part of a relief project.
If you crave for exhilaration and adventure, it's all here in this wilderness realm: you can climb, hike, cycle or even raft the river rapids. We are in a Sundog tour bus, with amiable John, who is our driver cum guide and a rich fountain of unending facts! There is no mobile phone service along the road, so we forget texting or calling friends and instead press our cameras on the windows trying to capture the picture postcard scenery outside. Bow Summit is the highest point on the Parkway, and a great place to look out at iridescent Peyto Lake, named after Banff's first warden. We cross the river at the historic Saskatchewan crossing, where explorers and fur traders crossed the confluence of three rivers in the 1800s. At the Weeping Wall, is the amazing sight of snowmelts seeping on the sheer limestone cliffs of Cirrus Mountains, as if it were crying a river of tears. In the winter, this is a favourite with rock climbers. The road climbs steeply, taking us to a point called the Big Hill Lookout, from where we see the hairpin bend and majestic 360 degree views of mountains like giant clumps and cloaks of green fir trees.
The showpiece of the Rockies on this road is the Columbia Ice fields, a 325 sq km ice sheet which feeds six major glaciers. Its melt waters flow to three oceans: the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans. We take a bus to the beginning of the glacier and then take a Brewster Snow Coach tour to the Athabasca Glacier, a tongue of ice more than 400 years old. The red and white all-terrain Monster trucks have six gargantuan wheels and an amazing guide called Simon Trepanier who mixes factoids with humour, entertaining us throughout. He tells us to strap on our seat belts for the steep climb, till we realise that he's joking and there are no seat-belts! He points out geological features: we see spruce, fir trees more than 300 years old, some with ‘flagging' a one- sided growth due to the strong winds.
There is Mt Athabasca, which Simon says is a favourite with climbers, “After all, how many mountains come with a parking lot?” he says. He goes on, seeing the audience' response, “Good climbers climb down in 4 to 6 hours...bad climbers come down in 8 seconds!” We learn about lateral and terminal moraines, and see the rocks deposited by the glacier all along the sides. It is the great density of glacial ice which makes it act like a prism, refracting light to give it that blue tinge. We see glacial lakes like the Sumwatta Lake, green and murky with rock flour giving it that extraordinary colour. There is a marker where the glacier was 50 years ago: it makes global warming very real to us. The glacier has lost more than half of it volume since 1898! Maybe 100 years from now the glacier would have disappeared.
The snow coach drops us off at the glacier. In the glint of the afternoon sun, the glacier looks like molten metal. We romp gingerly, click a few photographs, drink the pure glacial water and breathe the rarefied air. The guide cautions us. "There are many hidden milky crevasses and you don't want to stumble into them. Just keep to the designated areas!" My hands feel as cold as the glacier itself as I bundle up and put on my sunglasses to cope with the blinding ice. No mean scene this—a remnant of the primitive Ice ages!
As we come down the glacier we see a line of bighorn sheep, like a frieze, posing on the edge of a precipice and licking the minerals on the rocks. Driving pass the Ice Fields towards Jasper Town, we pass Tangle Falls, with orange tinted rocks and firs skirting the waters, named because the first explorers had to plough through ‘tangle' bush and undergrowth to reach the falls! The best for the last: Just a few kilometres outside Jasper, John slows down and says, calmly,” Bear on the left.'' We reach hurriedly for our cameras just as a black bear lumbers around the bushes looking as if he just came out of hibernation. It's a magical moment. The drive could have been done in three hours, but that would have defeated the very purpose of the drive: we took a leisurely seven with many pull-offs and in the process enjoyed jaw-dropping vistas on a magical canvas and embraced the magnificent wilderness.
Published in The Week, 2011