Glacier National Park, British Columbia

A celebration of Canadian winters

By James W. Coates

As much as Canadians hate to admit it, winter defines us. And while some grumble and complain, outdoor enthusiasts embrace the richness of our vivid white season. Glacier National Park in British Columbia is an ode to that love affair. As Canadian as snow shoes, this park is literally the last stop on our trek across Canada.

Glacier National Park lies within the Selkirk and Purcell Ranges of the Columbia Mountains. Geologically and climatically different from the Canadian Rockies, these mountains form the first mountain barrier east of the Coast Mountains before reaching the Rockies. Roger's Pass, one of the most significant mountain passes in Canada is now a national historic site, commemorating the role the tunnel played in linking this last western outpost to the rest of Canada.

Skier's Paradise

Established in 1886 after the Canadian Pacific Railway completed its transcontinental link (stitching Canada together), the founders created Glacier National Park to attract tourists to this overwhelmingly beautiful location. Hotels and lodges were thrown up in the hopes of attracting Canadians and Americans from the east and south. However, it evolved into something quite different.

Glacier National Park's 4,425 square miles (7,121 km) of summits, glaciers and forests span three distinct biospheres: rain forest, snow forest and no forest. The higher the elevation, the more likely the guaranteed precipitation will turn to snow.

Skiers adore the park's magnificent terrain, which includes glades, alpine bowls and ice fields. Some descents plummet more than 4,500 feet (1,220 meters) at an almost 90-degree angle. And since Glacier's bunny slopes descend even steeper and faster than most black-diamond hills elsewhere, skiers are advised to wear avalanche transceivers and be self-sufficient in case of emergencies.

Avalanches are as common as unstable weather and severe storms. Weather originates from the Pacific Ocean, bringing heavy rain in the summer and massive snow accumulations in the winter - often without much warning. It's common for meteorologists to see rain in one valley, sun in another and snow in between. Dressing in layers with everything waterproof is a no-brainer for outdoor enthusiasts who frequent the area.

If you're hoping for a promenade in the woods, think again. Glacier National Park is a hiker's paradise, but the mountains are steep and untamed. Many trails were created at the same time as the building of the railway and have retained their primitive feel. As you pant your way over the high peaks and through deep crevices, you'll soon feel like a trailblazer. The Illecillewaet-area day hikes alone scale 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) of elevated trails, but they are well-marked with lookout points that make the climb worth your efforts.

Half of Glacier National Park sleeps above the tree line and 12 percent never thaws. Though tundra may not be your idea of ecstasy, mountain caribou, goats and grizzly bears make this their permanent home. Because of unpredictable bear activity, hikers must travel in groups of six when the park posts a "Restricted Activity Notice." While attacks are seldom, some paths are feeding zones for bears at certain times of the year.

Not long after the park was established, the first recreational mountain climbing expedition in North America set out to explore it. Today mountain climbing, hiking and skiing attract tourists more than anything else. You never know when you might stumble on a piece of uncharted land.

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