The Canadian Rockies
In the blue Canadian Rockies spring is silent thru the trees
And the golden poppies are blooming
Round the banks of Lake Louise.
Composed by Cindy Walker, sung by Hank Snow
We anticipate surprises ahead of us leaving Saskatchewan. The surprises however take a while in coming. The constant prairie has been a companion for 1,000 kms already, Winnipeg to Swift Current. Leaving Swift Current, we roll on westward smug in our comforting Canadian assurance of a near endless tract of food producing fields for another 500 kms between Swift Current and Calgary.
That prairie grain production is abundant is banal, a bit of information easily torn from school textbooks or reported ad nauseum in periodic agricultural media releases. The esthetics of the scale and scope of the region’s monoculture however take us a bit by surprise. Moving at the level of the fields of grain the simple, small beauty of a single stalk of grain becomes the grand beauty of a crowded bustling cohort of grain. Each individual stalk is cloned and multiplied a trillion times over an expanse of terrain. The landscape thus produced, transposes this expansiveness to human consciousness, induces a sense of expansion, a sense of peace. The non-variable landscape, athough unnatural and contrived, seems to reduce anxiety and tension at least for the passing voyageurs who are unconcerned by the vagaries of weather, of markets and of mortgages and the costs of machinery.Those tensions belong to the farmer. Today we skim through Canada’s ample food basket heading for our rendez-vous with the Canadian Rockies.
Brooks, Strathmore, Calgary. Passing “cowtown” still relatively small and parochial in 1969, we salute the home of the Calgary Stampede and the Stampeders, we tip our white Stetson to Pete Liske, Jerry Keeling “Granny” Liggins and Terry Evanshen of the Stampeders and cruise on towards the looming presence on the western horizon, 80 kms to the increasingly imposing blue-grey prominences ahead. The Rockies are in sight.
There comes a time in human awareness when landscape emerges from the role of convenient backdrop to the activities of mankind, a period when some elements of time and space in symbiosis with the geological features of earth allow you to go philosophically beyond the parochial concerns of place, of city, province, country even beyond the concerns of the global community. At such times we are afforded a glimpse into the forces of the cosmos, a glimpse which challenges mankind’s arrogant notions of its dominion over nature. Astronauts returning from space have attempted to explain this glimpse, this new found enlightenment to a skeptical world much more concerned about the details of our individual existences or of the existence of our communities. Given the many limitations of language and the narrowness of our individual and collective frames of reference, these bits of enlightenment tend to be dismissed quickly as a sort of gratuitous overlay, an innocent if interesting by-product of space travel somewhat like a symptom of a mild disease from which the astronaut will soon recover and resume her/his natural self-interested perspectives once back on earth for a day or two.
July 1969, 1500 kms of Southern Canadian Prairies have lulled you into extrapolating a continuous flat or gently rolling geography. Although in the abstract you know that this gentle expectation of flatness will shortly be modified by a feature named “Rockies”, in practice even with the transition evident in the foothills, you are surprised and awestruck by the feelings generated while you are traveling cocooned in a small vehicle in a narrow valley, between two continuous walls of jagged stone stretching upwards, going forward, receding behind.
We leave Banff after lunch in this delightful alpine community and deciding not to leave the enchantment of mountains and rivers too quickly, we take Highway 93 north, 300 kms to Jasper. Lake Louise is our first stop. The colour of the water, is an unreal green iridescence, a chilly mist behind is rising from the perpetual ice and snow cradled in the cracks and crevices halfway up looming vertical walls. There is an other worldly quality, a static, idealized poster scene in technicolor from a Hollywood film starring Nelson Eddy and Janet McDonald.
Further north on Highway 93 we stop at the Columbia Icefield where the Saskatchewan Glacier is accessible after a short hike from a parking lot. In mid-summer the presence of ice and snow adds another welcome layer of novelty to our increasing repertoire of experiences in our new neighbourhood. We are less than a leisurely day’s drive from our destination in Prince George, British Columbia. We will make this trip to the Columbia Icefield Parkway at least a dozen times over the next 20 years, so enthralled are we with the powerful ambiance of spirituality present in the mountains.
A couple more stops at Sunwapta Falls and at Athabasca Falls and we arrive in Jasper, a jewel slightly less refined than Banff its southern sister. Nearing Jasper we see evidence of the fauna which was the initial attraction of our pull to come West. We see a coyote, many Bighorn Sheep and a small herd of Elk. The size of beauty of the Elk astounds us. No doubt in the long period of its evolution it was inspired by the power and majesty of its mountain habitat and in evolving, it over-achieved in size and power assuming the qualities of its hosts. The Elk here have an easy manner about them as they amble about beside the highway, unconcerned with the traffic. This country is rich in so many ways.
Post Script 2012: Mountains and Prairies
On a recent trip to the Columbia Icefield Parkway the result of rapid climate change was made obvious. We compared the distance we walked in 1969 from the parking lot access to the toe of the Saskatchewan Glacier to the expanding distance between the same two points 35 years later. The difference was over 1 kilometre of glacial retreat in those years. The rate of retreat is on the increase. The total length of the Saskatchewan Glacier is 18 kms, meaning that this geographical feature has a questionable long term future. So what…….?
The Columbia Icefield is the biggest ice mass in North America south of the Arctic Circle and feeds an elaborate network of waterways with its melt water. It holds a reservoir of ice as well as the 7 metres of annual snowfall and redistributes moisture to the Prairie Provinces and to parts of Montana. The Icefield as the hydrographic Apex of North America, occupies a favoured location on the Continental Divide and sends its water and its nutrients to three oceans. Through Rivers and Lakes, water from those glaciers flow 4000 kms (2500 miles) to the Arctic Ocean, 2600 kms (1600 miles) to the Atlantic Ocean by way of Hudson’s Bay, and 2000 kms (1200 miles) to the Pacific Ocean.
The abundance of the Prairies depends to a great extent on the waters of the Saskatchewan River which has its headwaters at the Saskatchewan Glacier in the Columbia Icefield. Up the road a few hundred kilometres form the Columbia Icefield a development is underway to coax petroleum from the bitumen loaded Athabasca Oil Sands in North Central Alberta. What impact will expanded development of this resource have on the fragile equilibrium of the Saskatchewan Glacier? What will become of the Prairies in the absence of its life blood of water? Can Prairie communities, the small and the large survive as desert outposts without a viable agricultural base? “And what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” And what shall it profit mankind if it shall gain the whole world and lose its own home planet?
Highway 93, Columbia Icefield Parkway
The smiles we left behind
Although we now live on the east coast of Vancouver Island where the Pacific Ocean is the welcome constant feature, the dark profiles of the Coastal mountains topped deliciously with sparkling white whipped cream still dominate the window frames of my living room. In memory even forty plus years after the first encounter, the simple act of recall of the Rockies in the Columbia Icefield Parkway from Banff to Jasper still provokes smiles of awe at the glory of mountains. The smiles are probably part of the context of endorphins which attended the impressions (imprinting) of the first reactions to the grand spectacle of the mountains while laying down the memories.Those memories still come back faithfully from the “corners of my mind” with “the smiles we left behind” in 1969 still embedded there. (The Way we Were, Hamlisch, Bergman, Bergman, Marilyn)