On Thin Ice

Longlisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2023.

“Last chance tourist.” That’s what Glen calls me. He introduces himself with a handshake across a faded oilskin tablecloth, the smile tugging at the corners of his ginger moustache taking the sting out of the label. He’s a field geologist studying Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. Easily accessed from the Columbia Icefields Parkway, the glacier is one of the most visited in the world. 

‘More ’n’ more folks wanna see the icefield before it becomes an alpine meadow. Reckon we’ve got just shy of a hundred years ‘fore that happens.’ 

Glen is monitoring the effects of purple algae –‘looks like dark dust’ – which has been collecting on the surface of the glacier over the last few decades, accelerating the already precipitous melt rate.

‘I first came to Athabasca with my father and grandfather. If you stood Dad on top of Grandpa’s shoulders and me on top of Dad’s, that’s how much depth’s been lost in this last twelvemonth alone.’ 

He mistakes my gasp for disbelief rather than horror. 

‘Betcha think it’ll be all pristine ‘n’ shiny, huh?’ The words ‘just you wait and see’ hang unspoken as he ambles towards the diner door. 

Glen’s right in one respect. Though I’m not in Western Canada primarily to visit Athabasca, I do admit to a romanticised vision of one of the planet’s most vulnerable natural phenomena. I imagine its birth, after a gestation of unknown aeons. How many bleak midwinters passed, when snow fell upon snow, before the crystals in the tightly-compressed bottom layers transmuted to a packed ice known as firn? Until that first tentative lick of molten glaze on granite and its descent into the desolate valley? 

I picture its slow glide across millennia, creeping relentlessly forward, smothering the bone-hard earth. When eagles riding the thermals were the only witnesses to periodic snow-slides which swallowed gobbets of limestone and spat out chunks of shale, scattering them like apple seeds on the spreading snout, a snout gouged with crevasses and pitted with sinkholes, its meltwater bleeding blue. 

And the first human dazzled by that blinding white floe? It’s generally believed to be British explorer Norman Collie when, in 1898, he scaled the eastern flank of Mount Athabasca. Reading his diary, I can feel his awe radiating off the page as he writes of ‘a vast icefield spread before us in the evening light, probably never before seen by human eye.’ 

Just over a century later, a blink, a heartbeat in geological time, I’m at the Columbia Discovery Centre, waiting to board a giant-wheeled Ice Explorer. My gaze sweeps the horizon. In place of shimmering whiteness, a dun lunar landscape. Dirt-grey moraine boulders, tombstone teeth on receding gums, mark the path of the glacier’s shrinkage. Its withered tongue sends up a mute cry of despair from the valley’s wide throat. 

Our guide, Clara, tells us we’re standing on bedrock. The striations, slender as reeds, were caused by rock fragments grinding away at the bottom of the ice when the glacier first formed around 200, 000 BCE and have only been exposed this century. 

‘Should we even be allowed to come here?’ The young man standing next to me voices my guilty thought. 

‘It’s a delicate balancing act, sure,’ Clara responds. ‘But we’ve found that witnessing first hand such a graphic illustration of climate change often galvanises you guys into action when you get home, whether it’s spreading the word, signing petitions or joining activist groups. Take me, for example,’ she says. ‘I came here on a school trip eight years ago. Now I volunteer every vacation.’ 

We clamber aboard our vehicle and trundle another kilometre to where the glacier has retreated, before stepping onto its bed, pockmarked with rubble, scuffed with the imprint of countless boots. All around me “last chance tourists” haemorrhage from a fleet of red snow-coaches. 

I turn away from the crowds, picking my way over the scarred ice, until the only sounds I can hear are the groans rising from beneath the surface to hang trembling in the fragile air.