Freezing Time


The concept of time has fascinated and captivated humans since, well, the beginning of time. Time is, at the same moment, both fleeting and eternal. It fills many clichés and sayings. When personified, as in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the concept of time makes for some great ironies. In the film, Alice steals a machine that allows her to travel through time. The ability to travel back in time would mean the ability to avoid future mistakes and avoid painful experiences, an idea that has captivated the imagination for years. But, that’s science fiction. All we can do is learn from the past.
One of our common clichés about time is how we like to say that “it was like a walk back into time”. We mean that the place has a sense of nostalgia. We are drawn to places that remind us of different times. People flock to museums to see dolls hidden behind glass doors. All in an effort to “walk through time”.
But museums are just fabrications. A curator searched for specific items to include and crafted displays to fit their tastes: it’s not real or natural. What if you could actually walk through time?
Glaciers have stood the test of time. People argue about how old they are whether that’s thousands of years or hundreds of millions of years, but they all agree that glaciers have been around for a long time.
As glaciers move forward, they push a layer of dirt with them. It’s similar to when you push your hand through the sand at the beach and a ridge of sand piles in front of your hand. Except glaciers are powerful enough to grind up rocks and dig away mountains. As glaciers retreat also, they will leave a pile of dirt in a mound. That dirt may be accumulated from particles on the surface or larger rocks it has pulled from the mountain. Both the soil the glacier pushes and the soil it leaves behind form into ridges called “moraines”.
Walking through a moraine field is literally walking through time as each ridge and hill shows different time periods when the glacier was growing or shrinking.  
The Athabasca glacier flowing from the Columbia Icefield is perhaps the most accessible glacier in the world. A well-maintained road runs right between the moraine field so visitors can stop and explore the passage of time through the valley.
At one time though, there were no roads in the area. All exploration had to be done by foot or horseback. This is how Norman Collie explored the area. He came to the Canadian Rockies in search of new challenges. Most of the mountains in the Alps had already been explored and rumour had it that there were mountains in the Canadian Rockies that were as large as some in the Himalayas. But as time went on, he couldn’t find the fabled Mt. Hooker and Mt. Brown. As his search went on, things got harder and harder. At the end of their rations and with no further ideas, he decided to climb a mountain to get a better view of the area. The climb up Mount Athabasca is generally about eight hours. When Norman Coolie got to the top, he was awe-struck. He recorded in his journal seeing “a vast expanse of snow, as far as the eye could see, surrounded by mountains, unnamed and unclimbed.” He is the first person to have recorded seeing the Columbia Icefield and the six outlet glaciers.
But chances are that the indigenous people of the area knew about the icefield well before Noman and his crew. In fact, they have an oral tradition about the seasons that reflects knowledge of glaciers.
They say that at one time, the people of the earth only had cold winter. There were no other seasons. But the people knew that just beyond the horizon, through the veil of the sky, the other warm seasons were selfishly kept by the Keeper of the Seasons. So the people made a plan. They got the bloodsucker to poke a hole in the horizon, then the strong wolverine clawed his way through and made the hole larger. Finally, the moose pushed through the hole and made it much bigger. All the people then rushed in, grabbed the other seasons and escaped. They then found a way to distribute the seasons evenly between people so that there was both warmth and cold.
It’s unique to see the progression of this story. It starts with only cold and ice and then ends with even seasons. We know from studying glacial striations throughout the world that large ice sheets once covered most of North America. Anyone living at that time would only have known cold, glacial ice. But as time went on and, the ice retreated, plants slowly came back as the earth warmed. It is unique to see how a story formed over generations from external situations. 
Time can hide the truth through layers of meaning, but it can’t change the truth. The glaciers have a special method of preserving truth. If you ever get the chance to look at a glacier, you might be surprised at how dirty it looks. Glacial ice is formed from compressed snow and each snowflake forms around a particle of dust in the atmosphere. As the glacier melts, the dirt is revealed. But deep within the glacier, each particle is still intact, it remains unchanged, preserved by the cold ice. Time has little meaning within a glacier. Because they are so small, often these particles can stay suspended in the atmosphere for long periods of time and travel extremely long distances. Each particle can be studied to figure out its history. If could be that the wind has eroded a small particle from the Great Wall of China and carried it on the wind. It could be that the wind picked up a piece of dust from a rock slide in the Andes and carried around the world. Each particle has a dirty little secret.
Scientists don’t just study these particles from past times though. They also study the air. As the ice is formed, most of the snow’s air is pushed out. But some isn’t, that air is trapped in bubbles within the ice. That air can be used to study what the atmosphere was like at a different time.
Time marches on. But in some places, it seems just a little slower. You might not be able to travel back in time, but if you slow down enough, you might just learn something. You might be able to learn something from a tiny speck of dirty, an invisible air bubble or a nugget in an ancient oral tradition. You just need to take the time.


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