Thursday, October 29, 2015

Glaciers revisited

One other noteworthy bit of information about the Columbia Icefield and its glaciers: This is the only place in the world that has a three-way Continental Divide. Water from here flow into the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic oceans. So as one tour guide said, "No matter where you go from here, the water from these glaciers will follow you. These glaciers are part of you."

Even home, in the ocean around Puerto Rico.

Like I said, mind-blowing!


Okay. After Mt. Edith Clavell, we started down the Icefield Parkway for the last time. So now perhaps is the time:  Let's talk glaciers.

Of all the amazing wonderful mind-blowing things we saw in the Rockies - and there were a ton of them - the glaciers were the most mind-blowing of all.

We hear a lot about glaciers now because of global climate change -- the melting of glaciers in Greenland and Alaska. We sort of get in an abstract sort of way: yeah, glaciers are "rivers" of ice that flow and ebb, advance and retreat. Yeah, one-half of the fresh water on earth is trapped in glaciers. None of that prepares you for walking in the valley left by a receding glacier.

In a land where immensity is the rule, the immensity of the glaciers -- not just their size, but their age, and what they've left behind and their SIZE.

 This is the Athatbasca Glacier. As recently as 1842, this whole valley, up to that snowline on the sides and all the way to where I'm standing to take this photo, was covered by this glacier.

Of course, this whole part of the Rockies owes it's very nature to glaciers. Some 240,000 years ago the whole area was covered in ice. During this period, the Great Glaciation, the Columbia Icefield was formed. Today the Columbia Icefield covers roughly 325 square kilometers (125 square miles). The ice ranges from 100 meters (330 feet) to 365 meters (1,198 feet) deep. The icefield receives 7 meters (28 feet) of snow each year.

But the icefield is not the glaciers, "merely" their source. The Columbia Icefield spawns some 30 distinct glaciers, the best known of which are Athabasca (above), Columbia, Snow Dome, Stutfield and Saskatchewan. Athabasca is the the most accessible.

In fact a company called Brewster has glacier walk tours. Giant buses called "ice crawlers" take you out onto the Athabasca Glacier.

 I don't know if this really helps the sense of scale but the tires on that ice crawler are nearly six feet tall.

The Athabasca Glacier is the most visited and one of the most studied glaciers in North America. It is currently receding at about 5 meters (16 feet) per year. Since reaching its greatest length in 1842, the Athabasca (don't you just love that word?) Glacier has receded more that 1.5 km (slightly less than a mile) and has lost half its mass.

That said, it is still 6 km (3.7 miles) long and covers an area of 6 sq km (2.3 sq mi). It has been measured at thicknesses of between 90 and 300 meters (300-980 feet).

As I wrote in the post about the glaciers on Mt. Edith Clavell, there is nothing abstract about these glaciers. They are a real, active, everyday part of life in these mountains, still changing and shaping the terrain after thousands of years.

And they are huge.

And totally mind-blowing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

September 16, Day 15, our last day in Jasper

Our last day in Jasper dawned much nicer than the day before so after breakfast in a local coffee shop we headed to Mt Edith Clavell.

We actually took a wrong turn but that was kind of serendipitous because we got to meet this guy on the wrong road.

He was just lying quietly by the side of the road but keeping an eye on three female elk gerazing nearby. A friendly park ranger had to warn some of the gathered spectators that there are two places you don't want to be during the rut - between a bull and a female and between two bulls. Eventually this big boy ambled off into the woods.

Mt. Edith Clavell (everyone always uses the full name, never "Mt. Edith" or "Mt. Clavell") is an impressive 3300 meter (10,590 feet) peak. The mountain is named for a British nurse who was executed in World War I for helping Allied prisoners escape from occupied Brussels. 

Mt. Edith Clavell Road is " a twisting turning 14 kilometer (8.7 miles) route." (Whoever wrote that has never been on a twisting turning mountain road in Puerto Rico!) It is relatively narrow with a steep drop on the passenger side (going up).

And then Elaine saw the "Imminent death" sign. She was sure this sign meant your car was immediately going to flip over, plunging you to your death in the stream below.

We didn't have as much time as we would have liked at Mt. Edith Clavell; our day still included our last drive down the Icefield Parkway and beyond to Banff. So we chose to walk the shorter Path of the Glacier Trail.

During the Great Glaciation, when ice covered most of this part of the world, this whole valley was full of ice up to that dark edge slanting in from the top left of the photo below. In fact that huge glacier carved this valley out of the mountains. It is impossible to get any true sense of the size of valley from the photos. "Huge" and "enormous" are just the beginning. And to try to imagine just how much ice was here and then to focus on the power of that ice, its ability to cave through granite on this scale - it is staggering.

Today the massive glacier is long gone but there are still two glaciers on the flanks of Mt. Edith Clavell.

Ghost Glacier is at the center left in the above photo and Angel Glacier is on the right.

I'll return to this theme in a few days when I write more about glaciers but we, or at least I, tend to think about glaciers in a kind of past tense abstract way. I lived in Michigan and yes, I know the great glaciers carved out the great lakes. I know when you fly south out of Michigan you can see in the landscape pretty much exactly where the great ice sheet ended. I know glaciers created much of what we've been looking at for the last two weeks. I know climatologists are tracking the world's remaining glaciers to measure global warming. But they are distant and abstract. Until you see one.

A waterfall - just a trickle at this time of year - drains the annual melt from Angel Glacier in to a small lake below. Photos taken before 2012, including the"official" photo on the Parks Canada page, show a much larger lake at the foot of the mountain.

On August 9 several "small" bits of Ghost Glacier slid down Angel Glacier and into the lake. There are videos of this on the Internet. Then about 5:30 am August 10, a massive amount of ice, estimated somewhere between 9,000 and 24,000 square meters, crashed from the face of the mountain into the lake below. The lake became a roaring tsunami pouring water, ice and rock down the valley, reshaping the valley and destroying parking and other facilities. The road was so badly damaged in places that it was closed for the rest of 3012. Officials estimate Ghost Glacier lost half or more of its mass in that one fall.

My real point is this: these glaciers are not abstract. They are active, constantly changing participants in our world. And that is just mind-blowing

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Life in Puerto Rico

There is still life in Puerto Rico - and still more Canada posts to come. But this week I did a little scuba diving, one of our best dives ever at Shacks:

some work with the horses and a whole lot of surf photography.

You can see more surf photos on our other website,

Right now at Ola Lola's we're gearing up to celebrate our 4,000th peanut butter burger. We expect to hit that milestone next weekend. Stay tuned for updates.

And as I said, there's still more Canada ahead.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

September 15, Day 14, Jasper, Medicine Lake, Maligne Lake

This was one of those days. It started out like this

cold, rainy, pretty much socked in. So we joined everybody else in Jasper (at least it seemed like it) at the local Laundra-bar and Coffee-mat.

We finished our laundry, putzed around Jasper for a while, had lunch in a little diner, spent a lot of time and a little money in a shop called Our Native Land (the specialize in First Nations artists), and then had one of those what-the-hell moments and headed out towards Maligne Lake.

Maligne Lake is the source of the Maligne River, creator of the Maligne Canyon.

On the road out the weather didn't look to promising. Our first stop was Medicine Lake, also known as the "disappearing lake." In the spring and early summer, fed by melting snow and the Maligne River from Maligne Lake, Medicine Lake overflows its banks. By late summer the lake starts to disappear. Which is even stranger because there is no visible exit, no creek, no river, from the lake. Where does the water go?

The answer is in the geology of the area. The water actually goes "out the bottom" like water down a bathtub drain through sinkholes in the limestone. It emerges nearly 16 km (10 miles) downstream near the beginning of the Maligne Canyon. The underground Maligne River is one of the largest sinking rivers in North American. It may be the longest inaccessible cave system in the world. (source: Park Canada)

All around the Medicine Lake pull-out we saw the remains of a pretty major, very recent forest fire. On July 1 a lightening strike started a smoldering fire near-by. By July extremely hot, dry windy conditions fanned the blaze to life. On July 11 temperatures cooled and there was rain, helping fire crews battle the blaze. By July 22 the fire was contained and the road through to Maligne Lake was reopened. In all, nearly 10 square kilometers were burned.

We headed off toward Maligne Lake and there were hints the weather was improving.

By the time we started hiking a trail near the lake we had sunshine.

And blue skies.

There were bear warnings in many of the areas we hiked in. We didn't see any bears but on this trail we did see very fresh bear scat so one was close by.

Maligne Lake, elevation 1697 meters (5568 feet), is one of the most photographed lakes in the Canadian Rockies. Cody Peterson's boathouse made a perfect postcard. I had fun playing with the image.

And I just couldn't resist:

On the way down to Jasper from Maligne Lake we were treated to a beautiful mountain sunset.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

September 14, Canada, Day 13 Maligne Canyon

 We learned a couple of things on this trip. For one thing, if there is curve in the road or the path or the trail, go around it! There's something way cool up ahead. This lesson was repeated over and over - in Johnston Canyon, on the Icefield Parkway, at Emerald Lake to name a few.

We also learned that even if the weather seemed dicey, what the hell - go for it. If it's bad, we could always turn around. So many days we started with so-so weather and wound up with something amazing.

Both of these lessons were repeated at Maligne Canyon.

After our trail ride, we still had time for more sight-seeing. Maligne Canyon is a short distance from our "home" in Jasper so, although it was fairly late in the afternoon, what the hell - go for it.

Oh my god! (again.)

We really had no idea what to expect but whatever we didn't expect, it wasn't this!

The Maligne River flows out of Maligne Lake, through Medicine Lake (more about these in a later post), then goes underground only to emerge just above Maligne Canyon. The river's drop is quite steep so it's waters are very fast, (The river, lake and canyon got their name "maligne" in 1846 when a missionary's horses were swept away in the fast flowing stream. He called it "la travese maligne." The river has carved a deep twisty narrow canyon through the bedrock. In places the canyon is 50 meters (168 feet) deep but so narrow squirrels can jump across it.

Every new turn in the trail revealed some new amazing view. Because it was late in the day, we only planned to do a bit of the trail. We couldn't stop ourselves: we walked the whole trail, downstream and up..

There are more photos of Maligne Canyon here on Flickr. Have a look.

Source: Moon Handbooks The Canadian Rockies

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Patricia Lake, Jasper, Alberta

 As I said Patricia Lake was not one of stops on this trip; we only saw a little bit of it as we skirted by on the trail ride.  (The photo above is not mine; it is from the Alberta Underwater Council.)

So now you know there is an "underwater council" in Alberta. There is also a scuba shop(!), Jasper Dive Adventures, in Jasper. They primarily dive in Patricia Lake although one source we read mentions other "dive friendly" lakes near Jasper..

Why? Because Patricia Lake has a secret. In fact, Patricia Lake's secret was once Top Secret.

Patricia Lake is a popular recreation area with hiking/biking/horse trails to the town of Jasper, Pyramid Lake, and Pyramid Mountain (in the background above). The surface of of Patricia Lake (which by the way was named for Princess Patricia of Connaught, one of Queen Victoria's granddaughters) is at about 1200 meters (4,000 feet). The average depth is about 30 meters (99 feet). Despite the fact that it is cold, Patricia Lake is popular for swimming, kayaking, canoeing and fishing. And scuba diving. To find that Top Secret secret.

The beginning of this story goes back to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. After that tragedy,
an international ice patrol attempted to destroy icebergs. They discovered glacial ice is almost indestructible.

Fast forward 30 years to 1942. German submarines were playing havoc with Allied shipping in the North Atlantic. One Mr. Geoffrey Pike, a science adviser to Lord Mountbatten, suggested making an unsinkable, nearly indestructible aircraft carrier out of -- ice. Well, ice and wood and tar and refrigeration pipes.

Code-named Habbakuk, the full-size carrier was to be 600 meters long (nearly 2,000 feet, more than 2-1/2 times the length of the Titanic) by 90 meters by 45 meters deep. Between January and April, 1943, working in absolute secrecy, a 1/50 scale model was built on Patricia Lake. It wasn't hard to keep the project a secret. Patricia Lake is a long way from anywhere, especially the North Atlantic.

By the end of 1943 convoy escort aircraft were with equipped with advanced anti-submarine technology and were able to fly longer missions form bases in Iceland. The tide of the North Atlantic war was turning. That, plus the high cost in dollars - more than $100,000,00 each - and manpower - it was estimated it would take 35,000 men to build each "bergship" - spelled the end of the Habbakuk. The project was cancelled. The Habbakuk model on Patricia lake slowly melted and sank to the bottom.

There it remained until a dive expedition found the remains in 1985. It lies on a steep slope between 26 and 43 meters (86 feet and 142 feet). There it is a "popular" dive destination.

You can see a video of a dive on the remains here. Information for this post came from the Alberta Underwater Council and Wikipedia. My thanks to both of those sources.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

September 14, Canada, Day 13 Jasper

At the end of the Icefield Parkway is Jasper and the welcome committee (of one) was waiting to greet - or ignore - us.

With a couple of hours available before our trail ride, we took our trail guide's advice and hiked (most of the way) up Old Fort Point, just outside Jasper. The trail climbs 130 meters (429 feet), The whole way up (and down) the trail offers fantastic views of the surrounding mountains, the Athabasca River and the town of Jasper across the river.

We didn't get all the way to the top of Old Fort Point. We were a little pressed for time because we had to get back to the other side of Jasper for our trail ride at Jasper Park Riding Stables. At least we thought we were pressed for time. Turns out I messed up the time and we were an hour early for the ride.  We had a great time talking with Gabby, Perin and Ginny. And Elaine got to hang out with horses.

The ride is beautiful through mixed forests, along lakes and one section called the "goat trail" which transverses  a steep hill on both sides.


The views are spectacular.

It's not your Tropical Trailride. This is my first taste mountain trail riding and I think I am addicted. On the other hand, they don't have beaches to ride on, and that is a special kind of incredible in it's own right.

This is the only photo I have of Patricia Lake, taken as we rode past the end of the lake. There are some fascinating stories about Patricia Lake so it will get a post of its own. 

Our railroad theme unexpectedly continued even on the trail ride. Our guide Ginny in her other life is a conductor on the Canadian Pacific Railway. I think that's wonderful. Back in my days on the railroad (god I sound old!), some 45 years ago, there were very few women in any capacity and no trainmen. She loves the job and I'm glad for her. And she rides horses in the mountains!

There are more photos from the Jasper trail ride on Flickr. Go have a look.