Gazing at the pillar of ice before me, I try to imagine the rushing glacial waters of Grotto Falls in warmer months. The frozen waterfall is now a playground for professional ice climbers wearing brightly colored winter jackets and hats. Warm light from the late-morning sun washes into Grotto Canyon, creating a spectacular effect. My children, of course, are keenly focused on the hot chocolate and buttery maple cookies our guide Alan is handing out.
We let each of the kids choose a new winter activity for the family to try. Yesterday we spent an afternoon at the Canmore Nordic Center learning how to cross-country ski. It was our first time visiting the 1988 Winter Olympic Games venue, but surely not our last. This morning we’ve embarked on a Grotto Canyon Icewalk – about a 10 minute drive east of the town of Canmore in the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies.
A Lesson in Geology
Discover Banff Tours provides a shuttle service from hotels in Banff and Canmore. Upon arrival, our guide Alan gave each of us a pair of ice cleats and hiking poles to help with grip and balance on the slick surface. The route covers 2.5 mi (4 km) and has minimal elevation, which makes it a comfortable walk for almost all fitness levels. Children are welcome, but must be at least eight years old to participate. As we walked along the winding frozen creek bed, past a forest of small and unusually shaped trees, Alan talked about the area’s geology. Millions of years ago, the canyon’s uniquely curved limestone walls were far below sea level. The further into the canyon we ventured, the narrower the passageway became.
Rich in Aboriginal History
While I’d been anticipating fresh alpine air, spectacular scenery and outstanding views of the Three Sisters peaks, I was truly surprised when we stopped at a cliff wall displaying time-worn Indigenous pictographs. The artwork is estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500 years old. It’s thought that the Hopi, from the southwestern United Sates, are responsible for the paintings that include both animal and human forms. One of the images is said to be a Kokopelli (flute player) painted in ocher – a natural earth pigment used only by the Hopi. It’s fascinating to think that people indigenous to Arizona might have traveled thousands of miles on foot to the Canadian Rockies.
My mind wanders back now to the ice climbers above. Perhaps next year we’ll give it a try.