Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Xingxing and the Athabasca Glacier (6)

The sun is shining and although we've barely sampled the delights of Jasper, it's already time to move on. Xingxing seems to be enjoying the bus, wagging happily when he sees it and bounding gleefully up the steps as soon as the door opens.
This morning we're headed east along the Icelands Parkway towards the Columbia Icefield, the largest ice mass in North America south of the Arctic Circle, where the ice is as deep as the Empire State Building is high.
Once again, we're all urged to keep our eyes peeled for bear along the side of the road. But the scenery is astonishing -- huge, snow-capped mountains, vast forests, incredibly blue lakes. This has to be one of the most spectacular drives in the northern hemisphere, and I'm glad I'm in a bus and can just sit back and enjoy it. I don't care if I see a bear or not. This is purely amazing.
The Athabasca Glacier is one of six glaciers in the ice field. This will be Xingxing's first glacier. It is also my first glacier, in the sense that although I've seen glaciers from afar, I've never actually walked on one. 
We begin at the Interpretive Center, across the road from the glacier. Glaciers form at the edges of ice fields. A glacier is compacted ice that is moving. If it isn't moving, it is not a glacier. The Athabasca Glacier moves a few centimeters every day. It is also receding at the rate of 6-10 feet per year, and is only half as long as it was 125 years ago.
Our Ice Explorer arrives, and we climb aboard.  Ice Explorers are big, specially-made four wheel drive, three-axle vehicles that weigh 33 tons.  The tires are enormous. We move slowly across the road, down the moraine and onto the ice. 
I have no idea of what Xingxing will do when he sets foot on the ice. If he hates it, we'll just come back and sit here in the bus. Just being here on top of a glacier is pretty incredible. We let everyone else go first, and then climb gingerly down onto the ice. No problems. To my surprise, it isn't all that cold. And Xingxing is delighted. He loves ice cubes, and this is the biggest ice cube he's ever seen. He licks it and nibbles at it.
Although we're only allowed to walk on a very small part of the glacier, there are longer excursions available that involve half-day hikes led by professionals. But this is enough for me --simply being here is awesome. The Ice Age must have been awesome, as well. And who knows what civilizations might have existed 15 million years ago? There would have been no stopping the ice, which would have obliterated everything. What, I wonder, will be left of our civilization, after the next Ice Age?
Back on the bus, the driver wants a photo.  Xingxing is the first dog he's ever brought out onto the glacier. Although Xingxing may not be the first dog who has every walked on the glacier, I'll bet he's the first Shih Tzu.

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