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Road Conditions

Icefields Parkway, Rocky Mountains

Itching to set that SUV loose on a road trip but thinking it might be a little too early?

No way. The tourists are still at home, the motels are a bargain and the Rockies are dressed to impress.

The Icefields Parkway, 230 kilometers meandering through the heart of the Rockies from Jasper to Lake Louise, is always magnificent. Majestic mountains strike regal poses, spectacular glaciers glisten against deep blue skies, stately firs frame the very lakes they use in all those Beautiful British Columbia promotions. That’s anytime. Now, in the late spring, the scenery surpasses even its own marketing material.

While the road is bare and dry for the most part, the landscape is all decked out in its winter wonderland look. Forests and glaciers are freshly dusted with fresh coats of pristine powder. Just beginning to crack open, tiny burbling brooks are breaking through the iced-over rivers, offering the promise of spring to come and a glimpse of the busy life beneath the ice.

Begun from either Jasper in the north or Lake Louise in the south, the Icefields Parkway winds through two protected national parks, Banff and Jasper. It was opened in 1940, the result of a make work project for unemployed men wandering the country through the 1930s.

The Parkway offers the opportunity for the non climbers among us to experience mountains and glaciers and higher-altitude wilderness with an intimacy that is normally reserved only for those who traverse glaciers on crampons. Carrying us from the valley floor at about 1000 metres, almost to the treeless alpine at 2200 metres, our interaction with these mountainous glaciers is up close and personal.

The terrain is rugged, but the road is easy. When we took it in April, there were a few patches in the higher passes where we found hardpacked snow, but the road was very drivable, just barely offering justification for throwing it into 4WD.

The Parkway passes directly beneath seven humongous icefields, and about 25 smaller glaciers. The largest, and the centrepiece of the park, is the Columbia Icefield which spills onto the Athabasca Glacier. It is completely accessible. Just park and get out. There, you are on a glacier. The Columbia is an impressive 325 square Snow Cat, Athabaska Glacier kilometers in size and from mid-May on you can take a ride up onto the icefield on a snow cat. Before that you’ll have to content yourself with clambering around in the parking lot area – an astonishing enough experience in itself.

Glaciers are formed when snow builds up without completely melting, year after year after year. Fresh snow is composed of crystals that have sharp protruding points. Since each crystal is unique, these points hold the crystals apart from each other, creating air pockets in the loosely-packed snow. But when the summer sun warms the crystals, the sharper points melt off and the snow crystals settle in around each other more snugly, squeezing out the air pockets and compacting ever more closely into the interlocking crystals, that we know as glacial ice.

The ice in some of the Rockies' glaciers is believed to be thousands of years old. As the process of snow falling, melting and compacting continues each season, the crushing weight from above causes the ice below to become more taffy-like in nature and it slowly begins to flow downhill. The Athabasca Glacier, at the foot of the Columbia Icefield, is moving at 15-20 cm a year.
Athabaska Glacier
Understanding the concept that ice can "flow", requires a little explanation. What it involves is accepting that every substance has an “elastic limit” and when material is stressed by an amount that exceeds its elastic limit, this “plastic deformation” that permits movement occurs. The example of toffee is used because like ice, toffee will fracture if stress is applied sharply. But when great stress is applied slowly but relentlessly, toffee becomes taffy and ice achieves the plasticity that permits it to flow down slopes, over boulders and around bends.

When we left Vancouver at 3:00 pm on a Friday afternoon, however, all this glacier watching was still ahead of us. That first afternoon we steamed up the Coquihalla to Kamloops, a remarkably scenic drive of its own. At this time of year, there were places at higher altitudes where the plows had thrown up walls of snow that towered over us, creating the sensation of barrelling down a luge run.

For someone who has been traveling the world for the past ten years, ignoring my own backyard, Kamloops was an eye opener. They have everything! All my “can’t live without big-box stores” and a university and well, just everything. The city sprawls over the banks of the Thompson River and up into the golden slopes that I heard one local describe as mountains. I don’t think so, but the views are remarkable – unique and extraordinary in their own right.

Driving out of town the next morning, we saw cowboys on horses rounding up cattle. I assumed they only did that in the movies these days, but no, in Kamloops it’s real.

Continuing on down Trans Canada Highway 1 we wound through the Rocky Mountains, noting all the “Don’t stop – avalanche area” signs. Sadly, just a week after we went through, a fellow on a backhoe, clearing a small slide just outside of Revelstoke, was swept into the river when a big avalanche careened onto him. The signs are for real.

At Lake Louise we had to make a decision: north and up the Parkway or east and on to Banff. Since the weather was overcast we decided to bet on better weather for the return and instead of doing the Parkway from south to north, decided to wait for the return lap, Jasper to Lake Louise. Presumably one could go up the Parkway, then turn around and come down again, within the same day. But we had opted to make it a four-day weekend, see a bit more of the country and make a loop through Calgary and Edmonton. We proceeded east.

Banff is a tourist town. All the shops, restaurants, and souvenir vendors you would expect in such a place are there. But it is very pretty and very alpine-looking and a great place to stop for lunch.

We continued on that day to Calgary where we tucked into a warm hotel for the night. And what’s a trip to cowtown without a carnivorous feed of the beef for which it's renowned? A generous plate of fall-off-the-bone ribs that I would pay at least $25 for in Vancouver was only $8.95 and absolutely delicious.

Price is another good reason to travel outside the summer tourist season. Calgary was our most expensive night, $79Cdn for a comfy room in a chain hotel that included a full bacon and egg breakfast for the two of us. In other towns, we paid from $45 to $55 per night and a light breakfast of toast and cereal was sometimes included. I should mention that we favour smaller, Mom and Pop type motels on the outskirts of town. Clean and safe are my criteria, ambience and great stories come free.

Calgary really hit the map when it hosted the 1988 Olympics. Canada Olympic Park, situated on a high hill overlooking the Trans Canada Highway has been transformed it into a public facility where you can learn to ski and snowboard or test the bobsleigh/luge track on the Bobsleigh Bullet. In the summer this track promises a 95 kph ride as the Bobsleigh Road Rocket. The park also features 25 km of mountain bike trails and an 18 hole miniature golf course.

One of the quirkiest things I noticed about Calgary is the advertising for their naval museum. I’m puzzled about how Calgary acquired a naval history, but it wasn’t open so it will have to remain a mystery for me.
In the morning we headed for Edmonton. There is really only way to do this – find Highway 2, point north for 300 km and be grateful for cruise control. The road is very straight and Albertans drive faster than Germans on the autobahn.

The road is not boring. One might think it would be, but I didn’t find it so. The landscape is scattered with interesting features: old farmsteads, complete with saggy old grey clapboard barns; high tech agricultural operations; and zillions of oil wells, some done up in humorous paint jobs. Just when I was starting to zone out a bit, a white-grey wolf woke me up by darting across the highway. It was the first one I'd ever seen in the wild.

Approaching Edmonton, the snow started to blow up from the sides of the road. It quickly became obvious that it wasn’t just blowing up, it was blizzarding down. So we just threw it into 4WD (“Told ya we’d need the 4WD someday, honey!”) and chugged along through town with everyone else.

Being the only woman of my acquaintance who had never been to the West Edmonton Mall, we had to go. It was interesting. I imagine if I hadn’t already been to the mecca of malls, Florida, and if it were 20 years ago, I would be really impressed. But these days, it is just another big mall.

They say 800+ stores and services, and I believe that. It is big. It’s also a bit Disneylandish, with a full-sized pirate ship, some poor dolphins leaping for their dinner and a huge wave pool and waterslide park in the middle of the mall. They do have some neat concessions, such as the water massage machine. For $15 I climbed into this device that looked like a cross between an iron-lung and a tanning table. They lock you in (head sticking out, but even so it would not be a hit with the claustrophobics). A plastic membrane settles in around you and keeps the water from actually making wet contact. The water pumps start chugging, kind of like a a shower massager on steroids, sweeping up and down your whole body. Very neat. I could get hooked on it. My $15 bought 7 minutes, which doesn’t seem like much but it was.

Coming out of that warm, wavepool environment and back into reality was a shock, but we needed to keep moving so we pointed the truck into the blizzard and headed west. With a wind chill factor, the radio guy said it was –28. I have never been in weather that cold. You shouldn’t come to the conclusion from this experience, however, that Edmonton is a deepfreeze. It’s not. I have also enjoyed Edmonton in May, wearing a light sweater.

By noon the next day we reached Jasper, just in time for a genteel spot of lunch at the Astoria Hotel. In the heyday of train travel, the Astoria Hotel across from the station was the place to stay and it retains that genteel, frayed carpet ambience.
Icefields Parkway, Rocky Mountains
Jasper is the northern entrance to the Icefields Parkway and fortunately, we now had a gorgeous clear blue sky. We had guessed right and this was the perfect day for a drive through the heart of the Rockies. It was a glorious afternoon, meandering down the Parkway, winding around and about the mountains, through valleys and up over the passes.
Coming out at Lake Louise in the late afternoon, we made Revelstoke for night. The next morning, under brilliant blue skies again, we pointed the truck for home and pulled into our lower mainland neighbourhood by mid-afternoon. A fascinating four days of pure Canadiana.

Road Conditions

Icefields Parkway and Alberta
(780) 471-6056

BC Rockies

Or call Talking Yellow Pages from your city and enter code 7623
Vancouver 604-299-9000
Victoria 250-953-9000
Kamloops 250-374-2929
Kelowna 250-861-2929
Penticton 250-492-2929
Prince George 250-564-2929
Vernon 250-545-2929

Carolyn Usher

This trip was taken in 2004 by Steve and Carolyn Usher. Info and contacts were updated as of August, 2005.



This article was first published in the Vancouver Sun newspaper as
A Cool Drive Through the Rockies.