Brewster Travel Canada sees their Glacier Skywalk as a ‘visceral edge-of-the-wilderness experience strengthening visitors’ connection to the national parks,’ but the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sees it as a ‘high threat’ to the ecological integrity of this World Heritage Site.
Opposition to it was certainly ‘visceral’: 190,000 people signed an on-line petition against it in a six-week period in 2012 and Parks Canada admitted it received over 2000 letters opposing it – but then approved it anyway.
It is now open for business beside the Icefields Parkway and this member of the JEA decided to take a look at this ‘awe-inspiring experience featuring the only unobstructed, completely accessible glacier view in the world!’
Let’s get this straight: the only glaciers visible from the skywalk are two small ones remaining on the sides of Mounts Athabasca and Andromeda, seven km further south. The major Athabasca Glacier can only be seen from the Icefields Centre, not from the skywalk.
So, harbouring a certain amount of skepticism I drove down the spectacular Icefields Parkway. About 90 km south of Jasper at the top of the steep Tangle Falls hill, where visitors heading south once caught their first sight of Mounts Athabasca and Andromeda, and where motorhomes with overheating engines could pull off onto a large parking lot, a futuristic-looking bus shelter now blocks the view and a chain-link fence runs the length of the ridge. No stopping allowed.
So, on down the hill, 6 km to the Icefields Centre and a long climb up the stairs to purchase a ticket. The shuttle bus with 55 passengers took 10 minutes to grind back up the same hill I had just driven down. At the left turn into the drop-off area the bus waited for oncoming cars climbing the hill to pass. It will be interesting to see how long the wait will be in summer with bumper-to-bumper tourist traffic.
In a cloud of diesel exhaust fumes from two tour buses with idling engines I started along a 400 m concrete walkway. I was handed an audio self-guided phone system so I could join the other zombie-like figures listening expressionlessly to remote voices from the phone system’s headquarters in Toronto describing fossils, mammals, birds, vegetation and glaciers of Jasper National Park.
At the end of the walkway I found myself having to face the ‘Flat. Out. Awesome’ skywalk. I have a strong dislike of heights so my first step onto this structure hanging 280 m above the slopes of the Sunwapta canyon was cautious. I need not have worried. It was easy to ignore it.
Halfway round I took in the scenery instead and photographed Mounts Athabasca and Andromeda. I later compared them with images taken from the old, now obliterated, parking lot. They were virtually identical – only this time they cost $26.20.
I searched the slopes for mountain goats but they were not there. Brewster describes the site as a place ‘where it’s so hard to survive that adaptation never stops.’ Maybe the goats will have to adapt to this unfathomable addition to what was once part of their important habitat by going somewhere else.
All of the free-standing exhibits on this site are constructed of a kind of weathering steel that eliminates the need for painting but it still has the same unattractive, mottled effect of rusty metal. The life-size incarnations of Jasper’s mammals are almost grotesquely comical. How is this pile of what looks suspiciously like scrap metal meant to “strengthen visitors’ connection to the national parks”?
One can only hope that in future those in charge of the stewardship of our national parks and World Heritage Sites will examine more carefully the spin-doctored flowery language of business interests that just want to use these irreplaceable protected places as cash cows for their shareholders.
This Glacier Skywalk is purely a thrill-based attraction and is so far removed from anything natural that it is a relief to look up over the discoloured metal walls at the glorious snow-covered peaks and know they will still be there when this $21m monument to the hubris of a corporation has finally collapsed into Sunwapta Creek.