Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada’s Glaciers

By Cailynn Klingbeil

by Lynn Martel Rocky Mountain Books 2020/$40.00/336 pp.

In Stories of Ice, Canmore-based author Lynn Martel explores glaciers in Western Canada from numerous angles. While many Albertans may not give these huge masses of ice much thought—aside, perhaps, from stopping at a highway viewpoint and admiring a mountain glacier from a great distance—Martel convinces us to care. Through stories from adventurers, entrepreneurs, scientists and artists, she takes us deep into the captivating and overlooked world of ice.

Martel is an expert guide for this journey, having lived in and written about the Canadian Rockies since the 1980s. The book shines when Martel includes herself in the story, eagerly leading readers where many will never go themselves—from backcountry skiing through an enchanted ice canyon in the western Rockies to observing scientists studying at a glaciology research site on the Wapta Icefields. Martel’s short interviews with a wide cast of mountain characters are also engaging, including a mother–daughter duo who spent half a year skiing the Coast Mountain traverse, a man who survived a fall into a crevasse and recovered his gear 12 years later, and a professional adventurer who led a team of scientists to explore a giant ice cave deep inside the Athabasca Glacier, discovering “this whole world going on down there.”

Stories of Ice is also packed with mountain history, covering topics from the foundation of the mountain guiding and rescue professions to an introduction to Canada’s first family of glaciology. While this abundance of information will appeal to readers with a close connection to the subject, those who are less seasoned may find the book exhausting at times, simply because of how much ground Martel traverses. The many words on glaciers are interspersed with photographs by the author as well as by nearly two-dozen professional photographers. Unfortunately these striking images are printed quite small.

A constant theme in the varied stories is glacier change. “Moving, mysterious, mesmerizing. And, yes, melting,” writes Martel. This fact is detailed through her own observations from three decades of outdoor adventures, as well as insights from glaciologists and snow hydrologists, whom Martel has been interviewing since the early 2000s. Jaw-dropping photos taken by the Mountain Legacy Project, for example, illustrate how extensively mountain landscapes have changed over the past century, while adventurers and entrepreneurs interviewed by Martel lament disappearing adventures, and livelihoods that won’t be possible in the future.

In addition to individual stories, Martel also examines the collective consequences of melting glaciers. “Glacier ice is nature’s savings account for water, and modern man has structured our way of life by relying on that service nature provides without any help from us, for free,” she writes. Our pivotal role in all this is clear, with Martel describing how humans burning fossil fuels and living energy-intensive lifestyles cause climate change.

Readers are likely to share her frustration that not everyone understands that message. This ignorance is vividly illustrated when Martel describes her 2019 trip to Athabasca Glacier, North America’s most visited glacier, which is accessible from Alberta’s Icefields Parkway. There, Martel joins tourists riding a bus with giant tires right onto the glacier, to snap photos and drink freshly melted ice. Martel writes about her tour guide reciting impressive reams of facts and information, but failing to mention the role human-induced climate change has on the shrinking glacier the group stands on. Ultimately, Martel’s definitive look at Western Canada’s glaciers will leave readers with a deeper appreciation for these incredible masses of ice in our backyard, alongside more fear for their future—and ours.

—Cailynn Klingbeil is a freelance journalist based in Calgary and the co-author of the weekly email newsletter, Go Outside.

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