A Walk on Thin Ice
Subject: Walking on Thin Ice
Place: Columbia Icefield, British Columbia, Canada
A skinny woman with spectacles and an unusually high voice offered to make us a cocktail.
“And as we’re in the National Park, let’s call it a glacier cocktail shall we?”
She placed a cocktail shaker firmly on the table and produced a tube of squirty cream.
“This is the snow. A thin layer of autumn snow to form the base of the glacier cocktail,” she said, blasting some of the cream into the shaker.
“What’s the lady doing?” asked Matthew.
“Putting the snow into the glacier cocktail,” Stuart whispered.
“Because it’s a glacier.”
“What’s a glacier?”
“Listen and you’ll find out.”
A glacier cocktail
“Then winter comes, and more snow,” the ranger squeezed another dollop of cream into the see-through plastic container. “Some of the snow melts sometimes,” she said.
To demonstrate this she put her nose into the cream and licked off the top layer, “…but as long as more snow falls than you drink, the cocktail will continue to form.”
She paused to wipe the stray cream from around her mouth. “Now, here’s the next step. The snow compresses and turns to ice.”
She pushed the glacier down with a stirrer. From a cooler, our bespectacled bar tender pulled out a plastic bag and took out a handful of ice. She packed this into the shaker.
“Then rocks fall in..” she picked some gravel off the floor and added it to the cocktail. “….and the bottom of the glacier grinds away into rock flour, so we need some of that too.”
She pulled a packet of flour out of her bag and chucked half of it in the glass. Flour puffed into the air and gave her a powdery halo.
“Then of course there are other things that go into a glacier cocktail. Ash for example.” She flicked in some assorted cigarette butts. “A moose perhaps? Or a man?”
A man fell into a cocktail?
“Why a man?” Matthew asked.
“Because they fall into glaciers sometimes,” Stuart answered.
“Why do they do that?” Matthew said, screwing up his nose.
“Because they don’t have the proper equipment.”
“Does a moose fall in with a man?” Cameron stopped doing roly polys long enough to ask his question.
“Not usually no.”
“Then why did they go into the cocktail together?” queried Matthew.
“Because they fell in.” said Cameron, crashing into the stone bench beside us.
“So,” said the park ranger with the high voice and squirty cream on her chin. “Next time someone offers you a refreshing glass of glacier water you might think twice about what you are actually drinking.”
“Can I have a glacier cocktail Dad?” said Matthew in a tired whingy voice.
“No, You cant. I want one. I want a glacier cocktail. Can I have one with a moose AND a man?” Cameron pushed his big brother off the bench in the rush for light refreshment.
Out onto the ice
We had become very familiar with ice from our nights in American motels. Most have an ice machine on every floor, and through the night you can hear the clatter of people filling up their buckets. If you are partial to a cube or two in your gin and tonic, it’s a nice luxury. But I found it impossible to grab one cube. No matter how softly I pressed the button, the machine spat a bucket of ice at me. A large bucketful, because everything is bigger in America. It was like attempting to play tennis with a Wimbledon champion; it just kept on serving up ice cube aces.
The ice vehicle pulled out onto the ice field. Kitted out like a bus, it drove like a tank. There were less than twenty of these glacier buses in existence, and all but one of them negotiated the Athabasca glacier each day. The other was based in Antarctica, negotiating polar bears at the base station.
“Put on your seat belts, it’s compulsory ,” said the driver.
A bus full of people reached out for seat belts.
“Ha, ha, only kidding, there aren’t any,” said the driver as he launched the tank down a vertical bank of ice, “shall I put my foot down and we can see how fast this baby goes?”
The baby inside me lurched around. I had been wary about taking the glacier tourist trip as the baby had been giving me some grief recently, pressing down onto several nerves in my back and stomach. But the Columbia icefield was the highlight of this part of Canada, so I felt I’d be missing out by remaining in the car. And surprisingly the bumping and grinding of the tank was providing effective pain relief, relieving pressure on the sore parts of my body. I cuddled up to Cameron, who had his head through the window, peering out for cocktails. He seemed convinced we’d find a cocktail bar on the icefield, complete with moose on stools, and jars of squirty cream.
Exploring glaciers with kids
On the glacier the tank stopped.
“Please feel free to get out and walk around,” said the driver, “but watch out for crevasses. We don’t want to lose any of you.”
We gingerly stepped out onto the mountain, and once the kids had got their confidence they were sliding around joyfully. The glacier stretched back up the mountain for miles, and was coated in a layer of dirt.
“It picks up pollution from as far away as California,” someone commented from behind, as I took the tiniest of steps away from the bus.
It was freezing cold, I had no coat, and was fearful of slipping over, so I took tiny steps and half walked-half skated around. To my left there was a crash; Cameron had tried to climb up Stuart and pulled him down onto the ice. They lay in a heap, surrounded by a huge audience of eager tourists, delighted to see someone else falling over.
“Come on guys, let’s go back and get a hot chocolate,” said Stuart, picking himself up and wiping ice off his clothes..
“I want a glacier cocktail,” said Cameron, chunks of ice stuck to his chin, hair and nose.
Did you drink that?
“Did anyone drink the glacier water?” asked the bus driver?
A couple of people, including Cameron nodded their heads.
“Are you feeling the effects yet? If you test the water on a glacier, it can tell you a lot about a place. They hold all sorts of things deep in the ice pack. Radiation from nuclear plants, years of smog, dust, it’s all there.”
Cameron licked the ice of his chin, perhaps testing for ash or radiation.
The driver then continued casually. “See the ice dome up there? Its’ melt water supplies water to towns and cities across the US and Canada. But through global warming and other environmental changes, we estimate something like sixty five per cent of the ice pack in this area has disappeared in the past one hundred and fifty years.”
He carried on with his speech, as Stuart and I glanced at each other alarmed. Canada’s ice was melting, and we were sitting on a bus that was making it melt even quicker.
“Can we have a hot chocolate now?” Matthew asked when the tank docked and tipped the tourists out.
“Yes. Only hot drinks from now on. No more ice,” I said, firmly taking the boys hands.
The water crisis
Over coffee I became distracted and couldn’t concentrate on the kids. I was thinking about water. Sixty five per cent of the ice in this region has melted in recent years and no one seems bothered.
Now, I’m not the greenest person in the world when it comes to water; I’ll happily put the dishwasher on when it’s not quite full, and have a bath every night. But travelling has made me much more thoughtful about how we get our water and more importantly how we waste it.
In Samoa, we were reduced to bathing the kids in a plastic bucket of rainwater; showers were rarely available and usually just dribbled water.
In New Zealand, homes in many rural parts were also serviced by rainwater alone, and many people only washed up and flushed their toilets once or twice a day.
In the campervan, as we had to collect and empty our own water, we were fully aware of how much we were using; and when cycling we had to carry it ourselves between towns so never wasted a drop.
After coming from Samoa, it seemed sacrilegious to visit Vegas, a city set in the driest of desert lands, where every hotel bathtub was the size of a small swimming pool and every bathroom contained two sinks.
On the water
The following day, we took a canoe down the river in the Columbia wetlands. There was no shortage of water there as it had rained a lot recently and the rivers were high. As the owner of the canoe hauled it onto the van at the end of our journey, I told him what I had learnt about the neighbouring glacier.
“I know,” he said grimly. “At the moment all wars are about politics, oil or religion. But just you wait. Some time in the future people are going to realise that they can’t live without this stuff.”
He shook the freshwater off the paddle.
“And by the time they do, it might just be too late.”