By Karlie Marrazzo
The Icefields Parkway, which connects Jasper and Banff National Parks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, is arguably one of the most gorgeous drives in the world. Two hundred and thirty kilometres of smooth asphalt pass by the feet of towering mountains, ancient glaciers, and crystal clear streams and, lined with wildlife, it makes every list of ‘Best Drives in the World.’ It was on this road that our rag tag group of writers and bloggers traveled on the last day of our Rocky Mountain exploration.
The Icefields Parkway is usually enjoyed by hoards of people from around the world in the summertime, when the weather is pleasant and the days are long. It was early October when we traversed this ribbon of blacktop, and there was nary another car in sight. A light snow had fallen the night before, covering everything in a paper-thin blanket of white. Everyone on the bus fell silent, mouths constantly agape, rushing to the front of the bus to press camera lenses against the glass in order to remember every breathtaking moment. I’ve been to some of the most spectacular places in the world, and the beauty along the Icefields Parkway still leaves me in awe every time.
Two hours after leaving Jasper, with a few stops for sightseeing, we arrived at one of the Park’s newest sights, the Glacier Skywalk. Jutting out perilously over the Sunwapta Valley, a thick piece of glass is all that separates you from a 280m (918ft) drop. This went hand in hand with a jaunt onto the Athabasca Glacier with Brewster Canada. We slowly rolled onto the ancient ice in a lumbering beast known as the Ice Explorer, a four-meter long, 15m high vehicle designed specifically to drive on glaciers. It drops visitors right on the ice, which is up to a kilometre thick in some spots. I remember a time years ago when I took the tour and was encouraged to fill my own water bottle with the coldest, freshest water I had ever tasted, but it wasn’t allowed this time.
Once we got back on our bus and continued the drive south, nerves came over me. The fear I had been trying to suppress for weeks and in the days leading up to that moment came rushing over me. Our last and final activity, the most epic, a once in a lifetime experience, was also causing me major anxiety – a helicopter ride over the Rocky Mountains with Rockies Heli. Flying is one of my greatest fears, one that I have to conquer each and every time I step onto an airplane, and this was to be my first time in a helicopter. When we arrived at the Icefields Adventure Base, we were told that they wanted to wait for some clouds to clear before we took off. Even though this was a safety measure that, realistically, made me feel better, the irrational part of my brain felt more nervous as this meant I had to wait longer to board.
We passed the time and I tried to distract myself with a cowboy-run barbeque at McKenzies Trails West, a family-run outfit that offers horseback riding trips. As we approached, an orange kitty appeared on the walkway and sauntered towards me. One of my good omens while traveling, a kitty snuggle helped temporarily alleviate my fears.
The time had come. We stood on the platform with two helicopters awaiting us. A Rockies Heli staff member went over all of the safety procedures with us, weighed us all on a giant scale and even gave us boarding passes. I insisted that I board the first flight, before nerves got the better of me. Six of us climbed inside the Bell 206L Longranger aircraft. Another Rockies Heli staffer buckled me into the bird and placed a giant headset with mic over my ears so the passengers and captain could all talk and hear each other during the flight.
Without warning, we were hovering off the ground. It took me a split second to even realize what was happening and that I was no longer firmly on land. We quickly rose straight up into the sky and I silently burst into tears, trying to hold them back. The landscape opened up beneath me in a way that I had never experienced. We hovered around 10,000ft, just above the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Whisps of white clouds left shadows on the valley floor, covered by a dense carpet of dark green pines. Rivers carved their ancient path through the towering mountains and the shocking blue of Abraham Lake pierced the landscape. We rose up through an almost indiscernible baby cloud and the helicopter bounced – quite the contrast to flying in a mega jetliner and being able to soar through clouds with the greatest of ease. As we rose, jagged tips of mountains peaked through fluffy white blankets in the sky, a seriously awesome sight. The Rocky Mountains have always felt like home to me; peaceful, relaxing and a meditative place. But seeing them from above, seeing the glory of nature spread out in every direction below, gave me an even greater appreciation for the land that I call home.
The flight lasted 30 minutes, and when we landed back on solid ground, I was proud of myself for conquering yet another fear, and appreciative of the marvelous world I had just seen. We boarded the bus one last time and headed east: home.