Mountain Thoughts: Glittering Giants of the Canadian Rockies

“Mom, did you know it’s called calving when ice breaks off a glacier?”

Before I could reply, my eldest daughter continued her litany of facts.

It was a few weeks before our vacation in the Canadian Rockies, and my daughter brought home a non-fiction book from her summer reading program. It was all about glaciers, and she was fascinated by the facts and figures.

When we explained that she’d see glaciers on our trip, her mind immediately leaped to back-to-school bragging rights.

“I can’t wait to tell everyone about my summer vacation.”

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Our first glimpse of the glittering giants was through the windows of our rental van. As we drove through Yoho National Park and then up the Icefields Parkway, our daughters sat perched in their captain’s seats, craning their necks as we pointed out yet another massive glacier spilling over the mountain’s edge. The girls couldn’t quite comprehend the sheer magnitude before their eyes.

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It wasn’t until we made the short hike to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier that we began to fully grasp the magnificence surrounding us. With glacial wind whipping at our faces, we climbed from the parking lot, the moraine rising steeply on both sides, pulverized rock littered in the glacier’s wake.

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We crested the hill, and the sight of the glacier took our collective breath away. Even our 4-year-old seemed to understand she was witnessing Mother Nature at her most raw and powerful.

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On the way back to the car, we passed markers displaying the glacier’s retreat over the last century. I can’t explain the heartache I felt to see how much had disappeared in my lifetime and to think of what little would remain by the time my children were grown. I felt immeasurably sad but deeply grateful to be in this moment with them.

Back in the car, we continued our drive to Jasper National Park, and our girls chattered non-stop about how close they’d gotten to the glacier. Little did we know the best was yet to come.

Everything is flowing – going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood…in Nature’s warm heart. ~ John Muir

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Aptly named the White Ghost by natives, the snowcapped summit of Mount Edith Cavell looms more than 11,000 feet above the town of Jasper.

A steep and narrow road winds nine miles up the Astoria River Valley and ends right below the north face of the mountain. We arrived at the parking lot in late afternoon as a steady drizzle began to fall. Undeterred, we set out on the Path of the Glacier Trail.

Wings spread across the lower slopes of the mountain, Angel Glacier stands sentinel. We couldn’t help but feel a sacred weight to the air. As the path climbed, we walked along the barren moraines deposited by the receding glacier. When the trail crested, the view opened to one of the most sublime scenes we’ve ever set our eyes upon.

Sitting below the jagged summit of Mount Edith Cavell, turquoise meltwater from Angel and Cavell Glaciers filled Cavell Pond in a scene reminiscent of the last Ice Age. Floating icebergs of various shades and sizes dotted the water.

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The paved path ended, and we gingerly made our way down the slope to the pond’s edge. As we approached, the skies cleared, and the layers of Cavell Glacier came into stunning focus. Torn between hushed reference and childlike giddiness, we marveled as the landscape unfolded beneath our feet.

We were standing on the edge of creation.

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We fully engaged our senses to forever imprint these precious moments in our memories. We planted our feet on icebergs. We drank from the purest runoff. We grazed our fingers along the edge of the glacier. From somewhere high above, we heard the crack of the ice calving. The boom echoed off the mountain and reverberated deep within our souls.

Once again, I felt profound gratitude for being in this incredible place and time with those nearest and dearest to my heart.

When we finally – and reluctantly – headed back, we took the path between the moraine and the mountain. As we retraced the glacier’s retreat, we saw new life taking root in the rocky remains.

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By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs – now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life…. ~John Muir

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A few days later, we left Jasper and headed to Lake Louise. To break up the lengthy drive, we stopped midway on the Icefields Parkway at the Parker Ridge trailhead. Straddling the border between Banff and Jasper National Parks, this short (3.2 mile round-trip) hike was the perfect opportunity to stretch our legs.

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From the parkway, the trail climbed 900 feet to Parker Ridge. Well graded switchbacks carried us quickly above treeline to open meadows dusted with wildflowers. We even spotted a hoary marmot making his way across the trail.

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With a backdrop that conjured scenes from the Sound of Music, we crossed the ridge and then dropped down for outstanding views of the Saskatchewan Glacier.

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Yet again, we were blown away by Mother Nature’s majestic display. The largest glacier from the Columbia Icefield, the Saskatchewan Glacier is 1.2 miles wide and more than 8 miles long. Gazing across the icy expanse, I looked to my husband and daughters and wished the moment would never end.

The snow is melting into music. ~ John Muir

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cavell_iceberg_jumpBut all good things must come to an end, and three days later we left Canada and her glittering giants in our rearview mirror.

We couldn’t keep our hectic lives at bay. But, like the indelible impression a glacier leaves on the land it touches, the places we saw, felt and breathed were permanently etched into our very cores.

Three weeks later my eldest started second grade. Hand in hand we walked down the hallway to a new class and a new year. As we passed the first grade rooms, she paused and embraced her first grade teacher in a mammoth hug.

Excitement colored her cheeks and quickened her speech as she exclaimed in a torrent, “Guess what I saw this summer?!”

And my heart soared.

Nicole Goodman

Nicole Goodman is an avid runner and forever outdoor enthusiast. Her idea of a fabulous vacation involves lots of GORP while backpacking in the National Park system, although trail running and SUP-ing in Hawaii, Costa Rica, Croatia, and the Canadian Rockies are close seconds. She writes about travel, running, parenting, and her obsession with outdoor apparel for KÜHL.