COLUMBIA ICEFIELD, Alta. — When it comes to the most visited glacier in North America, the journey is every bit as important as the final destination.
It's been 75 years since the Columbia Icefield has been readily accessible to the general public.
Before the Icefields Parkway was opened in 1940 the region was the haunt of aboriginal and indigenous people who were using the area for about 10,000 years as the glaciers receded. They were supplanted by fur traders and explorers.
"The national parks are such a big draw to so much nature and that drive has been dubbed one of the most beautiful drives in the world,'' said Gloria Keyes-Brady, interpretation co-ordinator at Jasper National Park.
The 230-kilometre parkway, which parallels the Continental Divide between Banff and Jasper, is busiest in July and August with up to 100,000 vehicles a month.
It also passes by the Columbia Icefield, a giant sea of white ice and snow to the west, which is impossible to miss. About 800,000 tourists visit the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre each year and many take a one hour and 20 minute snowcoach tour onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier.
"It's a tourist destination absolutely because we see a lot of tour groups come from Banff and they only come as far as the Icefield centre and then they return back,'' said Keyes-Brady.
The Athabasca Glacier is the largest of six ice sheets that form part of the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park. While it receives about seven metres of snowfall annually, the glacier has been slowly shrinking for about 150 years.
Some experts say it could be completely gone in a generation.
An American report has singled out the rapid melt of glaciers in British Columbia and Alaska as a major climate change issue saying they are "shrinking substantially.''
The U.S. National Climate Assessment said the trend is expected to continue and has implications for hydro-power production, ocean circulation patterns, fisheries and a global rise in sea levels.
The report said glaciers in the region are losing 20 to 30 per cent, as much as what is melting annually from the Greenland ice sheet, which has received far more worldwide attention.
The melting is clearly evident at the eastern edge of the Athabasca Glacier.
Markers dating back as early as 1890 show the toe of the Athabasca Glacier has retreated 1.5 kilometres, leaving behind a moonscape of gravel and rock.
"It's spectacular year-round and I have to say I've lived and worked here for about 30 years and I've never seen the parkway the same way twice,'' said Keyes-Brady.
"I have to pinch myself to say this is in my backyard.''
If You Go...
Take a snowcoach ride onto the Athabasca Glacier.
Visit Banff National Park.
If you make it all the way to the Icefield, Jasper is only 93 kilometres away.
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