Knees shaking, heart racing, I inch closer to the glass platform overlooking the rugged valley 300 metres below.
I’m in the Canadian Rockies near the Columbia Icefield, about to take my first step onto the Glacier Skywalk — a U-shaped glass-floor observation platform hovering high above the steep Sunwapta Valley in Jasper National Park.
I can hear the sound of rushing water far below, and take a minute to soak in the towering mountain peaks drenched in snow, sparkling against the clear blue sky. It’s some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth.
With that thought, I step onto the 3.81-cm-thick glass and peer down at the craggy, unwelcoming rocks below. It feels like I’m going to fall as the platform bounces ever so slightly — a strange sensation that takes some getting used to before I can relax.
"It’s creepy," says my boyfriend Chris as he jumps on the platform, a smile plastered across his face. Another couple does the same with much enthusiasm. Other visitors aren’t so sure.
The $21-million Glacier Skywalk officially opened May 1. It’s an effort to get more people out of their cars and engaged with the natural environment around them.
The first 400 metres of the walk are along a cliff lined with six interpretive stations and an audio tour providing education about the area. By the time I reach the observation platform that extends 35 metres from the cliff, I’m well informed about what I’m looking at, which is exactly what a Brewster Travel Canada bus driver wanted when he came up with the idea for the skywalk seven years ago.
From that idea, the company formed a committee with Parks Canada to talk about how to revitalize the Icefields Parkway, which sees more than a million people drive through each year.
But the project wasn’t met without opposition.
Some Jasper residents and environmentalists voiced concerns about commercialization in the national park and the impact on wildlife. After much public consultation and environmental monitoring, however, the project passed a federal environmental assessment in 2012 and was fully endorsed by Parks Canada.
"The wildlife habits haven’t changed, which is great because it means that anybody out there can see them in their natural habitat," said Brewster spokesperson Juliette Recompsat. "We want you to connect, learn about the glaciology, learn the biology and the ecology of the area. The Sunwapta Valley was formed over three million years. If you just look at it you never realize that."
The Glacier Skywalk truly offers a unique perspective of the Canadia"n Rockies, but for the ultimate bird’s eye view I hop on a helicopter operated by Icefield Helicopter Tours near Nordegg.
Within minutes I’m travelling at speeds of 178 km/h, soaring 2,896 metres over the Cline Pass. Instead of looking up, I’m now mingling with the rugged, gnarly mountain tops drowning in snow. The sea of trees coating the valley along the Cline River looks like a carpet. The beauty of the Rockies from the sky is intoxicating."
"It really makes you feel small," says pilot Blake Emsland as he points out frozen waterfalls and glaciers clinging to some of the highest peaks. I couldn’t agree more.
NEED TO KNOW
— Glacier Skywalk is just minutes from the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre on the Icefields Parkway; one hour from Jasper and 2.5 hours from Banff.
— The Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre is the departure point for free shuttles to the Glacier Skywalk that depart every 15 minutes. Tickets for adults are $24.95 and $12.50 for children age six to 15. Children five and under are free. See brewster.ca.
— The skywalk was designed by Calgary’s Sturgess Architecture and Edmonton’s Read Jones Christofferson Engineering to be an extension of the surrounding landscape. PCL Construction Management built the skywalk. Many of the pieces were made off site and brought in for installation to limit the impact on the environment.