The Athabasca Glacier is nowhere near as large as the Salmon Glacier, but it has the distinction of being one of the world’s most accessible glaciers. For $50 you can ride a giant snowcat out onto the ice. You can also walk, of course. But the park service does everything they can to discourage it. There are warning signs and morbid drawings of frigid children trapped in crevasses. Better to pay the $50 and be safe, right? Bullshit, I say.
Glacier travel is not without its perils, frigid meltwater, shifting ice and hidden crevasses, to name a few, but any glacier stable enough to handle a hundred buses driving on it a day is probably solid enough for foot travel.
A hundred buses a day? Yeah, you read that right. In the height of summer tourist season more than 5,000 people a day travel by bus up onto the Athabasca. These aren’t little eco-buses either. We’re talking behemoths. My question: how much CO2 does that fleet produce? The irony was not lost on me, as I walked past the signposts mapping the retreat of the Athabasca over the last century.
The Athabasca is an impressive river of ice, but it’s only a fraction of its former glory. On foot, the shrinkage is shocking. I doubt you get the same effect riding a bus. One hundred years ago, when this valley was first being explored by white men, ice covered everything. At the current rate of melting, this glacier will be gone in 90 years.
When our great-grandchildren walk through this valley and find it free of ice, the loss will not be the glacier’s loss, but their own. The Earth is a dynamic place; in the past 500 million years, countless glaciers have come and gone. The Earth does not care about the loss of this glacier. The glacier does not care that it is disappearing. I love the Earth, but I do not mistake meltwater for tears.
But here’s the rub: If there comes a time when this valley is free of ice, it’s likely there will be no people around to see it. The Athabasca feeds three major rivers, which supply freshwater to several million people and it is only one of many rivers of ice that eventually flow down our throats.
Ice is the lifeblood of humanity: 69% percent of the planet’s fresh water is stored in ice. Without ice, we have no water. Without water, we have nothing. Bicker all you want about causes and effects, but most of the planet’s ice is disappearing, at alarming rates.
I walked from the highway all the way up the Athabasca. The busloads of people, safely insulated against any immediate threats from blue ice, looked out at me and waved, like I was part of the show. I wondered how many of them didn’t realize they could walk out on the glacier on their own two feet. How many of them felt duped? Everything you read about visiting the Athabasca implies the only way to see it – a disappearing National treasure! – is to buy a ticket and take the ride.
Buy a ticket and take the ride: this is the problem with our unsustainable society. Too many people are being duped. Too many people don’t realize that they have a choice. Our society is unsustainable, but our individual lives don’t have to be. We make choices everyday, in everything we do, everything we buy. Don’t just buy a ticket and take the ride. Think! Look! Walk! Someday, the rest of the world will follow, hopefully before our great-grandchildren go thirsty.