The history of western Canada is a history of glaciers and mountains. Lynn Martel’s latest book, Stories of Ice, is a comprehensive look at how these features have shaped the ways people have traveled through and populated the land. Martel shows that we still have much to learn about the now-disappearing bodies of ice from the community of adventurers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and artists who have explored them.
Martel is at her best when telling stories about people interacting with glaciers. The book begins with the pre-colonial history of western Canadian glaciers and describes how Assiniboine, Blackfoot, and the Ktunaxa tribes travelled east over the glaciated passes of the Continental Divide to hunt bison on the plains. Martel also mentions Julie Cruikshank’s groundbreaking book, Do Glaciers Listen?, which discusses Tlingit, Tagish, Ahtna, and Southern Tutchone elders’ perspectives on glaciers that flow from the apex of British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska toward the Pacific Ocean. These groups saw glaciers as animate objects, “capable of interacting with human social groups.” In addition, Martel shares with readers JB MacKinnon’s award-winning essay for Hakai Magazine about the shrinking Comox Glacier, on Vancouver Island, which is called Queneesh (the whale on the mountain) by the local K’omoks First Nation. As the glacier retreats, K’omoks wonder, “if there is no glacier, is it still Queneesh?”
Martel describes the early nineteenth-century explorations of David Thompson, who mapped the northern Plains and the Columbia watershed. She describes how railway travel made the Rockies more accessible to a wealthy white clientele and explores the impacts of increased tourism on the region. She details the creation of the Alpine Club of Canada in 1906, and the ongoing recreation around remote glaciers and peaks in western Canada to this day.
Glacier change is a key component of the book: many people Martel interviews discuss glacier retreat as being one of the most troubling things they’ve noticed in their time in the backcountry. Martel makes clear throughout her book that glacier change is a function of human activity, not the “natural cycles” of climate. On a trip across the Wapta Icefield, she observes, “it breaks my heart to think younger generations might miss out on these unmatched enriching experiences.” She also notes that glaciers are more than sites of adventure or commerce; they’re also an integral part of our ecosystems. This is important, as many communities rely on glacier melt in autumn for their water supply, as do ecosystems fed by melting ice, such as salmon-bearing streams. “I see glaciers and icefields as alive the way a tree is alive,” Martel writes, “or more completely, as an old-growth forest teeming with 800-year-old trees is alive and supporting an intricate ecosystem.”
Martel demonstrates that glacier change also forebodes significant changes to the outdoor industry, in particular to the work done by mountain guides and heli-ski guides. Trip reports penned by members of the Alpine Club of Canada, and observations made by guides for heli-ski operations, highlight changes in glaciers and the impacts on glacier travel. As the custodian of Sorcerer Lodge in the Columbia backcountry tells Martel, “Every summer we go up to the edge of the ice and get to walk on new land we’ve never seen before.” Mark Klassen, an ACMG mountain guide, tells Martel that “Mountain guiding, as I’ve known it, is a dead profession…a hundred years from now it will be a completely different game.”
I was fascinated by the stories Martel collected about the grueling travel undertaken by those skiing the “grand traverses.” These are multi-week trips that involve, for example, traversing glaciers for 271 km from the Bugaboos to Rogers Pass in the Kootenay region of BC, by connecting several glaciers from south to north. And, of course, the well-known Wapta Icefield traverse, a three-day affair (though some are now doing it in one day) in Banff National Park. These traverses offer skiers an immersive experience of western Canadian glaciers for weeks at a time. I was particularly taken by the traverse done by mother-daughter pair, Tania and Martina Halik, along the Coast Mountain icefields from Squamish, BC, to Skagway, Alaska, (approximately 2000 km) and called “the most ambitious ski traverse ever.” It was an especially daring proposition to travel as a team of two, as most skiers seek safety in numbers and travel in groups of four or five on the same traverse. The trip took them five and a half months.
Martel includes a section on the use of glaciers for commerce, exploring the monetization of ice, from glacier tours to heli-skiing to mining. Martel references the Brewster (now Pursuit) ice tour that drives visitors up onto the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park in specially designed glacier buses. Martel finds that Pursuit’s Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, a tourist center across the highway from the Athabasca Glacier, doesn’t seem to factor human-caused glacier retreat into their main interpretive panels: instead, the subject has been relegated to an outdoor panel at the back of the building. And in the heli-skiing world, companies often fail to keep track of the percent of glaciated terrain in their ski tenures. One would expect that those making money from glaciers via ice tours and heli-skiing would want visitors to be more aware of how glacier change might affect their future.
Martel’s section on glacier studies was especially interesting to me, as she profiles not only the early twentieth-century glacier scientists such as the Vaux and Wheeler families, but also introduces a number of my former colleagues and their work. This includes my former PhD advisor, Dr. Martin Sharp who rappelled into a glacier mill with ice climber Will Gadd to look at microbes growing inside the glacier. Martel’s lively field interviews with a number of glaciologists made me miss my time as an academic scientist doing the same kind of work. The research conducted on Canada’s glaciers is critical to understanding how much water they have left to provide to downstream users and ecosystems, and to determining the quality of that water, as glacier ice concentrates contaminants from the atmosphere.
I was surprised that Martel didn’t talk about tree-ring work in the Rockies and Coast Mountains to mark the timing of the last advance of those glaciers and the speed of their retreat. The retreat of the Athabasca Glacier, in particular, was dated by Dr. Brian Luckman using tree rings. Dr. Dan Smith has studied the retreat of glaciers in the BC Coast Mountains, and has published extensively not only on their current status, but on their past movements, by dating buried fossil wood.
Martel’s section on glacier creativity was a fascinating look into the minds of Canadians (and other early Americans) who have used glaciers for inspiration or as subjects for their art. Martel covers not only the photographers, from the turn of the twentieth century onward, who have captured iconic images of glaciers, but also painters and writers. This group includes Thomas Wharton, who wrote one of my favorite novels of all time, Icefields, with the Athabasca Glacier (called the Arcturus Glacier in the book) as a key character. Artists are also focused on glacier decline; as artist Jan Kabatoff notes, “the message that glaciers worldwide [are] under threat from warming global temperatures…[isn’t] being heard nearly well enough.”
One thing that’s missing from the book are maps. There is one map at the beginning, but it’s quite small, and there are no maps to identify the location of specific mountain ranges mentioned in the text. While Canadian readers may know where iconic glaciers are, like Illecillewaet in Yoho National Park or Athabasca in Jasper National Park, others may not be so familiar to outside readers. It would also have helped to see a map outlining the ski traverses that Martel discusses in the adventure section. The book includes many fabulous images from a range of photographers, whom Martel takes the time to acknowledge individually in the beginning of the book. Unfortunately, most of them are printed in a small thumbnail size. It would have been nice to see bigger images that the reader could enjoy.
Taken together, Martel’s stories exhibit the sense of community among glacier-lovers alongside the precarious nature of these changing landscapes. While some of the glaciers Martel describes in her book likely won’t recover in our lifetimes, she notes that there is still time to take action against climate change. “This is no time for despair,” Martel writes. “There is so much work to be done and so much teamwork required to initiate the changes we have to make…. There is so much to learn, to explore, to discover, to accomplish.”