Canada presents unsurpassed facilities for the study of the pleistocene deposits. Extending across the American Continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in the widest part of that continent, and reaching from the latitude of 45 to the polar regions, possessing great plains covered with drift material, and mountainous districts heavily marked with the action of land ice, and having in many places abundance of fossil remains in its more recent deposits... (John William Dawson, The Canadian Ice Age)
My interest in the Ice Age prehistory of North America began many years ago when I found a 400 million year old fossil brachiopod - a type of marine shell - in Late Cretaceous swamp deposits only 70 million years old, long after that type of brachipod went extinct. The most plausible explanation is that it had been picked up by the glaciers in the Canadian Rocky Mountains (where they are ordinarily found) and survived the ice and elements to be found by me, thrown out of its native time and space. I also had the pleasure of visiting the fossil-rich La Brea Tar Pits on one of my excursions to Los Angeles. Some day I hope to visit the near-Arctic goldfields of the Yukon Klondike, with a side-trip to the Yukon-Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse. Until then, we took up Dawson's challenge, deciding to scratch beneath the surface of grass and gravel to uncover the remains of the last great Ice Age and its glaciers, what lurched with inconceivable slowness from mountain peaks and across a continent. The whole landscape of Western Canada is shaped by glacial forces only 10,000 years past, its indellible mark tracable, the evidence leading us to its last remnant, the Columbia Icefields in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Our quest began, for the sake of inspiration, at the Calgary Zoo. Another point which impressed me was that the North American savannah of 10,000 years ago was so recent that many of the familiar species we see today in the Arctic, or even our local lakes and forests, were contemporaries of the woolly mammoth and sabre-tooth cat. We saw the musk ox - a true Ice Age holdover - and the caribou, the modern bison - a short-horned relative of the long-horned Ice Age varieties - and the grizzly bear. In the Eurasian exhibit we saw bactrian camels and Przewalski's Horse, Mongol relatives of formerly native North American species.
The Musk Ox, Bison and Przewalski's Horse.
Heading south, we passed through the town of Okotoks, so named for the largest glacial erratic in the world. The ancient boundary between the ice sheet that formed in the Rocky Mountains and that which formed from the Arctic and the Canadian Shield is marked by a chain of boulders stretching through Southern Alberta and into Montana. These boulders originated in what is now Jasper National Park, falling onto the ice sheet during a land slide, being drawn along with the glacier to where it butted up against the other, larger ice sheet, and then dropped when the Ice Age ended and the ice sheets retreated back into the mountains.
The Big Rock.
The Blackfoot First Nations have another story about the Okotok, or "Big Rock". They say that the Old Man, Napi, was walking along one day when he saw a lone and cold stone. As a gesture of generousity, he offered the stone his buffalo robe. However, cold soon set into Napi's bones and he returned to the stone, asking for his cloak back. The rock refused, so Napi took it, teasing the presumably immobile stone. However, he wasn't so immobile and soon started rolling after Napi. As he ran, Napi summoned the animals to help him, and though they could chip off pieces of the rock, no one could stop him. Finally a pair of nightengales dove in an split the big rock in two right down the centre, and there he came to rest.
Whether from the Big Rock that chased Napi or the retreating glaciers, the chain led us back to Calgary and locations like Fish Creek Provincial Park and Nose Hill Park, home to other alien boulders. Hitting the Trans-Canada Highway, we drove towards the Canadian Rockies, the origin of the glaciers. Along the way, strange teardrop and sinuous hills guided our progress. Though covered with a thin layer of soil, grass and a few windblown trees, these gravely mounds are themselves remnants of the Ice Age. Unlike the erratics dropped from their perch on top of the icepack, these drumlins and eskers formed at the bottom, pushed up and shaped by the glacier scraping the land as it moved over it.
A short hour from Calgary, the rolling foothills give way to the Canadian Rocky Mountains and Banff National Park. Unlike the American Rockies, one of the distinguishing features of the Canadian arm is the dramatic, craggy appearance of the mountains, caused to a large degree by the glaciers. The tell-tale signs of their passing are visible, from Matterhorn-like peaks to cirques and hanging valleys. One of the best places to see these is from high above, at the apex of the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. This bird's eye view shows valleys that the mind's eye can easily fill with a vast flowing mass of ice.
The jagged peak of Mount Rundle.
The Canadian Rockies from above.
The highway continues on, transforming into the Icefields Parkway, widely regarded as one of the world's most visually stunning drives. Now we can see the few, dwindling glaciers hanging precariously off the peaks of mountains. Beneath them, waters pregnant with fine powdered rock drain into blue-green lakes nestled into virgin pine forests. The gem of the Rockies, Lake Louise is among them, fed by the six glaciers resting on the eastern face of Mount Victoria, marker of the Continental Divide. So to is Peyto Lake with its distinctive three-toed shoreline, and Bow Lake, headwaters of the Bow River that quenches the thirst of Banff and Calgary.
Lake Louise, Peyto Lake and Bow Lake
Up, up through the mountains the Icefields Parkway took us until we finally arrived at our destination. We stood at the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, spilling out from that last great, desolate expanse of ice and snow on the horizon, the Columbia Icefields. This is as close as we could come to the Ice Age that once swallowed up the Northern Hemisphere tens of thousands of years ago.
The Athabasca, Dome and Andromeda Glaciers,
originating from the Columbia Icefields.