Gazing at the dramatic views of the Canadian Rockies is a study of Earth’s response to climate change. Follow H.H. “Hank” Shugart as he shares his trip photos and describes his 2018 Alumni and Parent Travel adventure through the eyes of a scientist. Shugart is the W.W. Corcoran Professor of Natural History (Emeritus) in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia.
MONTANE WONDERS IN A LAND OF CHANGE: THE CANADIAN ROCKIES
On August 10, 2018, I boarded a tour bus from Calgary, Alberta, with the other members of the 2018 Alumni and Parent Trip to the Canadian Rockies. There was smoke in the air from 70+ wildfires burning right across the border in British Columbia; it seemed warm, and the temperature in Calgary that day would hit 97.7°F — the hottest day of any day in Calgary’s 134 year-long weather record. On the ride out of town to the high mountains, large patches of dead trees from insect outbreaks and wildfires were obvious elements in the landscape mosaic. It was an expected signature of global warming in what is likely one of the first places on Earth to expect a visible response to climate change.
Ironically, many of the mountain wonders we had come to see were themselves products of global climate change. The massive Laurentide Ice Sheet, up to two miles thick, covered much of Canada 35,000 to 20,000 years ago. It collided with the Cordilleran Mountain glaciers of the Rockies along a line that ran north and south through Calgary. At the same time, the Cordilleran Glaciers were chewing away at the Rockies and producing the dramatic landforms that we were soon to visit. We were driving to and through beautiful landscapes, which were being painted by climate change from human action but on a canvas of geological-scale climate changes.
Our first stop was Moraine Lake, a beautiful glacial lake with an easy-to-see terminal moraine. As glaciers grind along their paths, they pick up rock and carry it along with the flow of ice. The glacier acts like a giant conveyer belt bulldozing rocks as it flows — the longer the glacier is in place, the more rock is transported to the front edge. The resultant pile of rock at the glacier’s front (or snout) is called a terminal moraine. This particular moraine was a perfect example—a great heap of rocks damming the glacier-gouged lake behind it and with a log-choked spillway to high water on its side. A climb to the top was amply rewarded with the view, which is sometimes called the twenty-dollar view because it appeared on the back of the 1979 issue of the Canadian twenty-dollar bill.
After a drive long the Ice Fields Parkway to the Bow Summit and lunch, we headed out onto the Peyto Glacier in custom-built vehicles with huge tires and multiple axles designed to traverse ice fields — something of a niche market in the transport sector. To be walking on the surface of a mountain glacier is a rare adventure that is becoming rarer since 98% of the planet’s mountain glaciers are melting. The Peyto Glacier has lost 70% of its mass since it was first photographed in 1896, and its melting seems to be accelerating. It is the last of the five glaciers that once flowed from the great Wapta Icefield. Surreal in its seemingly alien vistas, Peyto Glacier was a stark world of ice and broken rocks. One striking feature was the moulins (or “ice mills”), which are deep, straight, ice-blue holes that can drop 50 yards or even all the way to glacier bottom. They form from meltwater running down cracks on the glacier surface, which then enlarge to form moulins. They are beautiful and potentially very dangerous.
What must be the most inappropriate place name in all of Canada, Lake Maligne (“Lake Evil”), sounds like a location from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Do not be fooled by the name; it is everything a glacial lake should be—a perfect U-shaped valley scraped out by its former glacier with clear water, mountains at the back of the lake, and dark boreal forests on the shore. In this region, one can quickly become a connoisseur of lakes. In the much-better-named-than-Lake-Maligne category, Emerald Lake also displayed the signature U-shaped valleys of a glacial lake and beautiful water. Lake Minnewanka, a large glacial lake in walking distance from the town of Banff, amply deserves its Nakoda name, which means “Water of the Spirits.”
When the streams in higher elevations run through boulder fields and flow over rough once glacial terrain, they produce surging waterfalls that can roar well out of their size class. As one moves from the higher elevations toward the valleys, the streams become stronger and their waterfalls larger. Bow Falls on the Bow River was filmed in Otto Preminger’s “River of No Return” with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. It was the set for several other movies as well. Bow Falls is a broad waterfall with lots of splash and a 30-foot drop, giving the stunt doubles the hope to get out alive if something goes sideways. For me, the most gorgeous waterfall was the Athabaska Falls. Its French name, Chutes Athabasca, conveys its nature. In waterfall classification, a “chute” features a large quantity of water being forced through a narrow, vertical passage. Chutes Athabasca drops 80 feet in two stages with a tremendous force of gushing water. You would never want to be in it, yet you can get close to it, feel its spray, hear its sonorous roar, and take its picture.
My discussion about this wonderful region has been from the view of an ecologist, but 2018 Alumni and Parent Trip to the Canadian Rockies also featured classic tourist hotels set in dramatic landscapes, great food, and genial comradeship. The participants shared their enjoyment of the sights and were all great travel companions with good tales to tell. We covered a lot of ground, saw many marvels, and had a ball.
If you’re ready for post-pandemic travel, check out UVA’s Alumni & Parent Travel trips scheduled for 2021 and 2022.
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