Photography and Writing by James McCarthy

Athabasca Glacier

Mother of rivers



Columbia Icefield, one of the largest accumulations of ice and snow south of the Arctic Circle, straddles the Continental Divide of North America in Alberta and British Columbia. It completely covers a peak called Snow Dome, a triple divide where glacial melt feeds rivers flowing into the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

Seen from the Parker Ridge Trail, the Saskatchewan Glacier flows east from the Columbia Icefield, which is mostly hidden from view by a mountain ridge. The glacier, a narrow tongue of ice receding up a deeply incised valley to its source in the icefield, is approximately 8.1 miles long and covers an area of 11.5 square miles. It is the primary source for the Saskatchewan and Nelson rivers that flow eastward for 1,600 miles into Hudson Bay. Hudson Bay feeds the Hudson Strait, which flows eastward into the Atlantic Ocean.

Glacial ice melt from the Columbia Icefield also flows to the Pacific Ocean via Bryce Creek and the Bush and Columbia rivers. Ice melt from the Athabasca Glacier flows to the Arctic Ocean, via the Sunwapta, Athabasca and Mackenzie rivers.

The Columbia Icefield feeds eight major glaciers and is about 125 square miles in area. It has an ice depth of 328 feet to 1,197 feet, receives up to 275 inches of snowfall per year and is a primary source of water in North America.

It is sometimes called the “mother of rivers.”

so much depends

the flow of
ancient ice

snowmelt trickles
cascading rivers



The Athabasca Glacier, one of eight major glaciers that make up the Columbia Icefield, covers an area of about 11.5 square miles. It is about four miles long, descending from its source in the icefield at an elevation of 9,186 feet to its terminus at 6,315 feet, which is not far from Canadian Highway 93.

Athabasca Glacier has advanced and retreated many times: In 1715 the glacier would have been spread across what is now Canadian Highway 93; but it is now in a period of rapid recession, having retreated almost a mile in the last 125 years.

An interpretative sign just below the glacier’s toe states: “If the glacier continues to recede at its current rate, there will be very little left in 100 years. A new forest will begin to grow where the ice is now; a large lake may even form where you are standing today. Within the next three generations the Athabasca Glacier and the water it provides in communities across western North America may almost disappear. Strong scientific evidence points toward human activities as the primary cause of climate change.”

Evidence of its movement is present in the lateral moraines, the parallel ridges of rock debris deposited along the sides of where the glacier had once been. The debris is of two types: rocks scraped off the mountainside as the glacier advanced, and rocks that have fallen from the valley walls in landslides that collected alongside the edge of the glacier. Unless you look closely, it’s easy to overlook the recessional moraines — the debris deposits created during temporary halts in a glacier’s retreat — that run perpendicular to the lateral moraines.

holy water
moving ice
mother earth

gives birth

rivers and mountains




More than 70% of Earth’s surface is covered by water. But only 3% is fresh water and of that 77% is frozen in ice caps and glaciers, 22% is groundwater and 1% is in rivers, lakes and wetlands. The Columbia Icefield is one of the world’s major storehouses of fresh water. As such, it should be cherished and revered.

Meltwater from the Athabasca Glacier runs in rivulets to form a small lake a short distance from the toe of the glacier. Sunwapta Lake is the source of a river by the same name, which is one of the headwaters for the Athabasca River.

Small rivulets just below the lake create a complex network of branches that continuously separate and reunite in the upper Sunwapta River as a result of variable sediment loads deposited in the river’s channel during periods of high water: A braided river.

carry rocks
to the sea

lay them down

to be carried
another day

John McPhee, in his fascinating book on geology, “In Suspect Terrain,” says braided rivers carry so much sand and gravel they do not meander through a valley like most streams: They testify, he says, “to the erosional dissembling of raw, young mountains.”

“Rivers come and go, they are younger by far than the rocks on which they run,” he writes. “They wander all over their valleys and sometimes jump out. They reverse themselves and occasionally disappear — their behavior differentiated by textures in the solid earth below.”

Sunwapta is a Stoney Indian word meaning “turbulent river.”



The Sunwapta River eventually merges with the Athabasca River, which flows northeast across Alberta for roughly 760 miles before converging with the Peace River to form the Peace-Athabasca Delta, the largest inland freshwater delta in the world.

The Athabasca’s journey to the sea continues through the delta to Lake Athabasca, its waters flowing northward via the Slave River to Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean — a journey of more than 2,400 miles.

It is the longest undammed river in the Canadian prairies. Its watershed comprises 94 rivers, at least 150 named creeks and 153 lakes.

A little more than 18 miles south of Jasper the river makes a 90-degree turn and dramatically narrows at Athabasca Falls, a 75-foot waterfall
that has carved through a layer of hard quartzite and softer limestone below to form a small gorge. The force of all that falling water is conveyed by a thunderous roar as millions of gallons of glacial meltwater take the path of least resistance, pouring into a swirling chasm carved out of sedimentary rock on its way to the sea.

Fed by melting glaciers
the falling river
makes a rainbow

setting sun
falls behind



After making its sharp turn and sudden drop at Athabasca Falls the river flows northward. Bluish-white water — saturated with “rock flour,” the powdery sediment created by the slow grind of the glaciers on the underlying rock — swirls out of view through a mountainous landscape of wild boreal forest on its way to the Arctic Ocean.

En route to Fort McMurray, 550 miles to north, the Athabasca runs through a gauntlet of municipalities that dump treated sewage into its waters, as well as several pulp and paper mills that also discharge into its waters. It is no longer a pristine wild river, and will soon become even less so at Fort McMurray, the Ground Zero of the rapacious extraction of tar sands oil from Alberta’s massive bitumen deposits that are estimated to contain 169 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

Call it “tar sands” — or “oil sands” as the oil companies prefer — there’s no disputing it’s a messy job to extract crude bitumen from a mixture of sand, clay, silt and water in order to fuel our world’s addiction to oil.

The mining process requires massive amounts of water — on average two to five barrels of fresh water from the river for every barrel of oil produced — which is heated to create the steam that’s injected underground to separate the bitumen from the sands. A witch’s brew of mine tailings, containing water, sand, silt, clay, acids, ammonia, lead, mercury and other metals and unrecovered hydrocarbons is pumped up with the bitumen. On average, for every barrel of bitumen mined from the oil sands, two to four barrels of tailings waste is produced.

This toxic soup, the consistency of yogurt, is stored in vast reservoirs awaiting reclamation in some future time by the oil companies.

spring migration
returning waterfowl
sink in foul water

Here’s how Jeff Gailus, author of the engaging small book, “Little Black Lies: Corporate and Political Spin in the Global War for Oil,” sums it up: “[T]he transformation of tailings ponds into healthy end-pit lakes was dependent on the development of future science and technology.” He also makes clear, it will take gobs of money to accomplish that. A reasonable question is whether the oil companies will have any incentive to spend billions cleaning up after they’ve extracted all the tar sands oil from Alberta that’s feasibly and economically possible.

1,600 dead ducks
Syncrude Canada 
pays $3 million fine

Alberta’s provincial government reported in 2013 the tar sands tailings ponds in the Alberta covered an area of about 30 square miles.
The tailing ponds leak. Estimates range from 2.86 million to 3.28 million gallons per day seep back into the Athabasca River. The tailings seepage includes bitumen, naphthenic acids, cyanide, phenols and metals such as arsenic and cadmium within the water.

There are at least nine First Nation peoples with historic connections to the Athabasca watershed. The name ‘Athabasca’ is derived from a Woodland Cree word meaning “where there are plants one after another.” The First Nation peoples’ traditional understanding for the term “river” accounts for both the water and the life it supports as well as its cultural roles as a travel route and a place of significance in terms of fish and waterfowl harvesting and in the use of plants found along its banks.

Traditional knowledge of the river is derived from a deep and extended conversation with all the plants, the fish, the winged and four-legged brothers and sisters, all their relations, that live within its watershed.

First Nation peoples notice changes in the flow of the river, in its color and taste, in the fish, in the nesting and migration habits of water fowl and consider them signs or messages from their relations … in effect, voices of the earth that is always talking with us. People who derive sustenance from a river that flows through their neighborhood have a natural vested interest in that river’s health and well-being.

If the land
is not healthy
how can we be?
— Cree native speaker

First Nations peoples living downriver from Fort McMurray say the Athabasca River is no longer a “big river” with lots of water. It is now full of sandbars. Travel by boat to traditional lands has become more difficult. The river water is silty, muddy and has an odd bitter taste. When you boil water it leaves a scum on the pot.

Dip your cup
into a pot of tea
outer cup turns brown

‘It didn’t used
to be like that’

Fish species valued as traditional food are fewer in number.
“There are more skinny fish than there used to be; the fish are unhealthy looking. … Whitefish don’t taste as good as they used to; they taste ‘mossy.’ Fish flesh is softer than it used to be … Horror stories about grossly deformed fish downstream of the tar sands developments abound”

— Report of the Athabasca Watershed Council, May 2011

‘The government tells us
there is no pollution

We say they are wrong

we have seen the changes’

First Nation peoples have always understood the health and well-being of their ecosystem is linked to their own survival and that of their culture. “Take only what you need” is a deep-held traditional proscription and is the foundation for taking the long view when considering present actions: “What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?”

Wendell Berry tells us in his essay “Watershed and Commonwealth” that the flow of water in a river “shows us that the golden rule speaks to a condition of absolute interdependency and obligation.” He says:

‘Do unto those

as you would have
those upstream
do unto you’

Time is a river, too.