The shuttle bus driver from the Great Divide Lodge had told us about an amazing ice cave that we could find in the Columbia Icefields, but we didn't know exactly where it was. There's only really the one road going through the Columbia Icefields, so we knew it was on the way to Jasper, and all we had was a time estimate for how long the drive should take. Suddenly we came across the Athabasca Glacier - a huge glowing hunk of blue ice nestled among the mountains, clearly visible from the road. We stopped to take a hike and see how close we could get -- neither one of us had been on a glacier before. But we figured this would be a good chance to stretch our legs before continuing our search for the cave.
The walk from the parking lot is downhill and easy going. Along the way, Parks Canada has posts noting where the ice was in various years -- signs showing where it was in 1938, or the 70s, demonstrated the rapid decline this glacier was seeing. We could see the glacier in the distance, and warnings posted cautioned us about falling into unseen crevasses, and recommended guided tours onto the glacier.
When we got to the main hub of tourist information, we were presented with a choice of following the seemingly main path, or pursuing a few other footprints which went in the opposite direction. I had seen an exposed blue sheen over a hill in the less trafficked area, so I dragged Mike that way, deciding we could always check out the other side afterwards.
Soon, we realized that the blue I had seen opened out onto the snow... it was a cave of sorts. Half hidden but peeking out, we became curious as to whether this was in fact the ice cave we had been seeking -- and it was! It's a good thing we decided to explore the glacier, otherwise we may never have found it.
Inside the cave, the ice was glossy. It seems to be a semi-popular place for local photographers and the bared ice was smoothed over, having melted softly and refrozen after being repeatedly exposed to warmer temperatures from human presence. In some places you could see layers of bubbles that showed the passage of time during formation; others showed stratified rock that had been encased for centuries. It was beautiful, and quietly so, as we were there with only one other couple for a long time.
The other pair were locals living in Banff, Bryan and Laura. Laura was there experimenting with her own photography. She climbed up high onto a ledge, and then found herself unwanting to come back down the way she had came, so she leaped over a crack in the ice. I followed up afterwards, but found the jump to be more terrifying, so I scrambled back down the same way I went up.
While a storm was starting to pick up outside, we were completely oblivious in our sheltered chamber. Here there was no wind. We were actually comfortably warm. We stayed to play in the light for a while, and only saw the darkening clouds as we were leaving.
While we couldn't really hear the wind blowing, we could hear the trickling of running water. Even in February, the glacier was melting. The ice was melting into a river underneath us. The lower part of the cave, enshrouded in darkness, had a much thinner layer of ice and posed a somewhat sketchier surface for walking on. But there was exposed rock there that seemed somewhat stable and allowed us to explore down below.
When we finally emerged from our cave of wonders, much of the mountains and the parts of the glacier which was previously seen outside were now grey. It wasn't time for the sun to set yet, but a mountain storm was starting. It was time to leave... but it had been such a wonderful time!
And we'll leave you with one funny image... this is what a Canadian toilet looks like!