The Incredible Shrinking Athabasca

Hiking to Athabasca

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.

You are now off the trail! Caution!

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.

One of the Athabasca snowcats

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.

I was born in 1982. You can’t even see the glacier from here. That’s a lot of change within my lifetime.

The glacier was here when I was 10. If I live to be 120 (god forbid), it will be gone.

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.

Don’t believe the glacier was once here? Proof: Striations cut into the bedrock by scraping ice far below the glacier.

Glacial melt at the edge of the Athabasca

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.

Walking the plank onto the Athabasca Glacier!

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.

Tiny Man on the Big Athabasca

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.

Up the Athabasca

Bowie says glaciers are for eating! He loves ice. You’re not helping this whole glacial retreat problem, Bowie.

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.

Glacier dogs, looking back down the valley.

Athabasca’s Retreat. 100 years ago, everything you see was covered with ice.

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.

Crevasse self portrait. Time to turn back!

Heading back down the Glacier, on foot.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
This entry was posted in Beyond the USA, Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Sustainable Living, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to The Incredible Shrinking Athabasca

  1. Pit says:

    Sadly, you’re so absolutely right. And, btw, even if the buses were electrically powered, just taking tourists up there is detrimental to the environment as even walking on the ice will accelerate the glacier’s dying.

  2. Barneysday says:

    Very insightful, thanks for the observation.

  3. kzackuslheureux says:

    Another EXCELLENT Post, my Dear, Very True! My family and I didn’t buy the pass either… it’s too fun to look at rocks up close. Bolivia used to have the highest (elev.) ski run in the world, now their glacier has melted away so that, no one has the opportunity to ski in their country anymore. People never look at consequences anymore, it’s all about the burger and smile in 30 seconds. Too Bad, we’re so stupid, but just like this, we buy the con, and it becomes harder and harder for an individual to sustain one self anymore. Hope you’ve been having a great time! Best!

    • Dan Beideck says:

      Was thinking about that same ski resort and another glacier in Bolivia as I read this blog. My cousin’s husband took us to this wonderful spot in Bolivia that was covered by a glacier when they were also there 30 years prior. This time, however, it was nearly gone. It looked like another planet! Very little vegetation had yet to take root as the ground had only recently become exposed in a very, very long time. A beautiful scene in a way, but one made possible by lots and lots of bad choices that Mary has referenced.

    • Thanks for the tip about Bolivia! It’s on my list and now, so that’s glacier. 🙂 M

  4. ritaroberts says:

    OMG! How brave you are Mary, The glaciers look abosulutely stunning and your dogs seem to be enjoying themselves. I would be so nervous,How do you do it ? I enjoy your travels immensley so many thanks for this delightful post.

  5. Margaret says:

    Great photos! We were there about 5 years ago and hiked up the glacier with our then 8-year-old daughter. We had a guide. Walking made it so much more interesting; seeing, touching the ice, learning about the geology. You are so right about Think! Look! Walk!

    • That’s a great point, Margaret! If you’re new to glacier travel, you can also hire a guide to take you up on the ice! I have no idea how much it costs, but I remember seeing signs about it in the Icefield info center across the road.

  6. Janson Jones says:

    It’s been so much fun revisiting these places through your blog! I absolutely adored the pathos-ridden warning side with the cartoon kid stuck in the glacier. The Canadians know how to play the fear card for parents! heh.

  7. Gunta says:

    What a sad legacy we leave.

  8. I hope I get to see if before it disappears all together, but how sad that my kids, grandkids will not get to see if.

  9. Don West says:

    We bought the tickets lol! And I slipped into one of the meltwater streams anyway! The snow bank gave way 🙂 much to the entertainment of the fellow ticket buyers and my former spouse. But, seeing and standing on one of Mother Earth’s wonderful features was a real treat.

  10. Reminds me of watching a Grizzly eat a dead bison in Yellowstone. There was a film crew there, and people crowded around the tiny little reviewing TV instead of watching the Grizzly in real time with their own two eyes, what an indoctrinated society.
    Physically, the smaller an ice structure gets, the faster it will melt, simple matter of reduced surface area and the ability to retain cold, ie: the smaller an ice cube, the faster it melts. The glaciers have been melting for over 10,000 years, and as far as we know they will dissappear before the next ice age.

    • Yeah as an avid photographer, I sometimes have to remind myself to put the camera down and just LOOK. Life should not always be seen through a lens or on a screen! 🙂

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  12. Sartenada says:

    Awesome post with terrific photos.

  13. Reblogged this on Bluetyger – William J. Gibson's Notebook and commented:
    excellent article

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