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."
"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
"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
"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
"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.
The Athabasca Glacier Cocktail
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
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.
Cameron looks for the missing
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
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 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.
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.
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."
The Columbia Wetlands.... but
for how much longer?