"Columbia Icefields, 1905"
There are markers on this path. Dates. Points in time. Perhaps you’re standing at 1905 looking forward, towards the present. The present is up there, a kilometre up hill towards the toe of the glacier. A hundred years ago, the toe of this glacier was here, where you are standing, next to the small, curved signpost bearing the number “1905”. A hundred years of push and pull, and general retreat and now the present is up there. Humps of scarred granite bear witness to the glacier’s passing.
Your grandparents were still in Poland when this glacier’s terminus was at 1905. They were young. Your grandmother was a nurse. There are stories about money disappearing. And there was too much death. It was the beginning, or the middle, of too much death in Europe. And too much hunger. Too much cruelty. Your grandfather somehow made it to Canada, and came to Alberta, worked at building bridges—helped build the Dawson bridge in Edmonton—farmed, repaired shoes, did whatever he could to make the potential of a life.
Perhaps you will turn around and look across the desolate valley at the far slopes where snow still clings. Mountain peaks contain this valley, rock strewn and wild. The sun long gone behind the peaks. The broad melt-water lake that seems to extend until it drops off the edge of this place towards Jasper. You might feel small. Insignificant.
After a year, your grandfather sends a letter to his wife that says: sell everything and come. And so she does. She sells everything, gets to England with two small kids in tow. Boards a ship. Travels the Atlantic. Then, travels by train across Canada—probably gets a mind-blowing understanding of how vast this country is—speaks only Polish—arrives in Calmar, Alberta, with money in her pocket. Raises a family. Has three more children. Never learns English. And eventually, it becomes too late for her to learn English. One of her boys marries a woman who develops ovarian cancer, and so these two adopt children, because they have love to give. And cancer can be beaten. And so, you are chosen by your parents. You are chosen from among many others. Babies in rows for the picking. This Polish history is not yours, and at the same time, it is yours. You are not connected to this history by blood—not really. But there are other threads that bring you into existence. And coming into existence is always a bloody business.
Even at a kilometre away, the icy-cold vastness of the Columbia Icefields reaches out and makes itself known. Even in June, you’re bloody cold. Pull up the zipper of your fleecy. Hesitate at 1905. Light’s fading. Check your pocket for the flashlight. You’ve been here in July with snow flying. You always bring a parka to the Icefields camp.
Your birth-mother came from B.C., to Alberta, to give birth to you. Because that is how it was done back then. She went “away” for a few months, gave up the child for adoption, and came back almost as good as new. Almost, because she spent almost forty years looking for you until five years ago, you got a call from a private investigator who said, Are you sitting down? Your birth mother wants to meet you. And you insisted on writing a few letters first because you didn’t want to meet a complete stranger. And so her history becomes yours as well. Seventy years ago, your birth mother’s father worked for the railroad. Lived in a small British Columbia town. Wore fedoras. Liked to wear suspenders. Stood with his hands in his pockets. Had a Hamilton pocket watch that needed winding. Was good friends with a Saskatchewan Premier.So what are you doing here in the Rocky Mountains, standing at 1905, halfway between a small railway town in B.C., and a prairie city in mid-Alberta? And halfway up to the toe of a glacier. What are you afraid of in the present? What’s up there? Well, you’re not going to say but you bear down and start the grunt up to the toe of the glacier before the sun sets. One foot in front of the other. The path winds its way across the striated rock, and around terminal deposits, and up a steep incline. At the top of the incline, is the birth of your daughter. She’s up there at 2000.
You stop to catch your breath at 1967. You were a kid going to a day-camp at the YMCA. You remember peace signs on little buttons. Volkswagens. Hippies. You were too young to understand the summer of love. Your mother makes ham sandwiches for your lunch every single day. At the heart of the hippy, free-love revolution, you were most concerned with a ham sandwich. Somewhere around this date Elvis died. Marilyn Monroe died. A lot of people died in Vietnam. Nixon is not a criminal, your father says. He’s the greatest president they’ve ever had. He made friends with the Chinese.
At 2000 you stop and remember the birth of your daughter. No other experience in your life has come close to this one. Suddenly your protective circle—the one we all throw around our own hearts—was expanded. Your capacity for love was exploded. You found yourself standing in a car dealership looking at minivans.The shadows thicken. Darkness moves from the valley bottom up the slopes. It will be dark on the way down. You’ll need the flashlight. Perhaps you could just call it a day and head back to camp. Start a fire in the cookhouse. Have a cigar and a wee dram of whiskey out of the tin camp cup. Read for a while. But you’ve come this far; why not finish it? When you arrive at the present terminus, the ice is slushy and there are pools of melt-water. The future is hidden. Behind you, down towards the highway, is 1705, and 1605 and across the highway is 1405, and up the valley is probably 1105. And who knows after that?
You take a step up onto the ice. Turn around. You can see the lights of the hotel across the highway. Thirty-two rooms. Not much of a hotel. You haven’t seen another soul on this path. Nobody else is stupid enough to be out in the dark and cold.
You step up onto the ice. Turn around.
Two weeks ago, ovarian cancer caught up to your mother—the mother who was there every morning—the one who chose you. She taught a final life-lesson—she taught all who would watch, how to die with grace. Only here, where time is measured in the slow and plodding movement of glaciers, water, and ice, does it make any sense. Here in the present, at the hundredth anniversary of the birth of a province, life goes on. Next year, there will be a few more steps to get to the toe. And who knows how big this icefield was 500 years ago, a thousand years ago? A hundred years is nothing to mountains, or glaciers. And perhaps, with a very small shift in temperature, this glacier will turn itself around and begin to push down this valley again.