There are two extraordinary things about the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. One is how enormous it is. The other is how much larger it used to be—for instance, just last year. The glacier is receding more than 16 feet every year. 

It will keep on doing so until it and the 2,200 other glaciers in the Canadian Rockies just—poof—disappear into the wide, wild landscape of Canada before the end of the century.

This summer my wife and I stood at the visitor center on the Icefields Parkway and gaped at the glacier. Then we walked a few hundred yards across the gravel moraine, which until recent years was beneath the ice, right to the tongue where the glacier becomes a lake and the lake becomes a river that travels 765 miles to empty into the Pacific Ocean on the coast of Oregon.

Standing at the foot of the glacier, we were awed not only at what is but also what was and what will be—up to the day the Columbia Icefield, the largest expanse of glacial ice outside the poler regions, passes into history.

The Athabasca Glacier, one of the six main toes of the icefield, is the easiest glacier in the world to approach by car, a fact that accounts for it being the most visited glacier in North America. In fact, the current parking lot used to be beneath the ice. The glacier has lost half its volume and a mile of its length in 125 years, including more than 200 yards just since 1992. In a hundred years it will be only a meadow and a memory.

Its dimensions today are still spectacular. The river of ice (for glaciers are just slow-moving, frozen rivers) is 3.7 miles long, covers an area of 2.3 square miles, and in places is nearly a thousand feet thick.

The Columbia Icefield on the Continental Divide in the Canadian Rockies has been called “the mother of rivers” because its waters flow into the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans. As big as it is, the Columbia Icefield is only one of 17 icefields bordering the 144-mile-long Icefields Parkway that runs through Jasper and Banff national parks.

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Canada is a mystery for many Americans. It has a low crime rate despite having one of the highest percentages of gun ownership in the world. It has more open, undeveloped space than the U.S.—more parks and forests, mountains and plains, lakes and glaciers—while 90 percent of its people are crowded into the 100-mile belt just north of the U.S. border. It has immense fertile lands (made even more fertile in summer by 18 hours of daylight) but Canadians live mostly in three huge cities.

Tourists in the distance crossing the vast and disappearing Athabasca Glacier. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

It’s easy to travel in Canada, which has an excellent transcontinental railroad, a good highway system (many of its roads are better than those they connect with south of the border) and a prosperous economy with job openings almost everywhere; yet Canadians are far less likely than Americans to move from one region to another. (Nearly all the cars we saw in the Canadian Rockies were from the two adjoining provinces.

While many Canadians seem not to think of themselves as especially rich or to boast of their wealth, their median income as of 2016 became slightly higher than Americans’ for the first time.

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Despite both countries having English as their predominant language (French is also an official language of Canada), everyday locutions often differ in subtle and humorous ways.

Canadians seem to be both more polite and more formal than Americans. “Please” and “sorry” may be the two most common words in the Canadian vocabulary. Motels apologize for their success in filling their rooms with “Sorry No Vacancy” signs. Motorists driving though quiet residential areas are requested, “Please Avoid Use of Engine Retardation” rather than the brusque “No Engine Braking” commands south of the border.

Instead of warning “Cows on Road” signs proclaim “Stock at Large.” The cattle guard that keeps stock from roaming is called a “Texas Gate.” I also saw, for the first time in my life “Mountain Sheep Crossing” signs.

Highway improvements are “Ameliorations.” Bad weather, which is common in the mountains, provokes warnings to “Expect Adverse Conditions.”

Some place names hint at entire narratives: Pincher Creek, Crowsnest Pass, Premium Lake, Whiteswan Provincial Park, Top of the World Provincial Park, Kicking Horse River.

But no sign in Canada could top one in a small, remote town at the foot of the Windriver Mountains in Wyoming: “Welcome to Pinedale—All the Civilization You Need.”