Mountain News 

Flowers in October at the snout of glaciers

LAKE LOUISE, Alberta - The snapdragons and other flowers at the entrance to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise were still in bloom on Saturday. They had, a concierge explained, been covered the night before, in case of frost, although it had been an exceptionally warm and pleasant autumn so far.

The Fairmont Chateau is among North America's most storied hotels, a lingering testament to a bygone era when the economic elites traveled in passenger trains to see the national parks, both in Canada and the U.S. It's part museum, with panels telling the story of explorers and of the drive to preserve the extraordinary landscape, both its plants and animals, and to celebrate its exceptional natural assets.

For the leisure traveller, there are also wondrous windows through which the diner can admire the scenery while sipping tea. Rooms, of course, are also available, but at rates that pose no competition to Motel 6.

The railway through Banff National Park remains, exporting the bounteous grain harvests from Canada's plains provinces to the ports near Vancouver, but only the occasional excursion train.

People now arrive in cars and buses via the TransCanada Highway, which is like Colorado's Interstate 70 or Utah's I-809, but prettier, less busy, and especially, without the steep inclines. It being Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, the lakeshores were crowded. The buses seem to contain mostly Japanese tourists, who excitedly posed for one another, starkly contrasted against the lake's come-hither emerald.

The color of Lake Louise and many other lakes in Banff National Park result from the rocks ground finely by the glaciers up above. Lake Louise, at 1,737 metres, is only slightly less than the elevation of Ketchum, Idaho, or of Glenwood Springs, Colo. The glacier is but a few hundred metres up the valley, and like most of the other glaciers in the park, receding steadily.

This recession of glaciers has been occurring since the time of settlement. The largest, located on the border between Banff and Jasper national parks, is called Athabasca. In 1844, at the end of what is called the Little Ice Age, it pushed down from the summit and across the valley floor, to where a famed lodge exists. Now, a road down to the valley, below the snout of the glacier, paints a picture of retreat: 1890, 1908, 1924, 1942 and so on, the life of a typical baby boomer marked off in several more hundreds of metres of now ice-free trail.

Shrinkage of glaciers has, of course, been linked to global warming, and the accelerated emissions of greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels. The Parks Canada signs at the various glaciers in the Bow Valley noted the obvious loss of ice, but remained neutral as to the cause.

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