While standing on the Columbia Icefield, Bow Valley author and storyteller Lynn Martel and ACMG Hiking Guide Tim Patterson contemplate how the layers found in a glacier mirror the complex layers of storytelling that make up our history. Words :: Lynn Martel.
From foothills to rocky summits, mountains are experienced in layers. First-time visitors are awed by the grand landscape, the expansive vistas and majestic peaks. Those who return, or who stay, see layers that reveal themselves over time and with familiarity. They recognize the individual character of lakes and creeks and aspen stands. Those who explore the ridges, the cliffs, the summits and the glaciers nurture deeper connections—the feel of limestone under fingertips, the scent of splintered spruce in melting avalanche debris in June, the deep blue of a bottomless crevasse.
In the Canadian Rockies, the mountains were formed of layers of sediments piled one onto the next in a shallow seabed, and then thrust upward as tectonic plates pushed layers atop others. Successive ice ages brought more layers to the landscape, when cold temperatures persisted over centuries, millennia, causing snow layers to pile up until the accumulated weight compressed that snow into ice. Swelling glaciers bulldozed their way along the terrain, pushing rocks and earth, grinding on bedrock. When the glaciers melted, they left behind rock piles, called moraines, and more layers of our geological history.
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Every individual glacier is formed of its own unique layers, influenced by the bedrock supporting its mass, and the substances that fall from the atmosphere. When glaciers flow over a steepening slope, the ice splits and cracks into crevasses and seracs. Those chasms and unstable towers reveal layers that tell stories of the glacier’s life, like the rings of a tree trunk. Amidst stripes of glimmering glacier blue and frosty white, a dark layer of soot announces a volcanic eruption, or an intense wildfire season. Those ice layers trap natural gases and manmade chemicals, sealing them in a time capsule.
Those chasms and unstable towers reveal layers that tell stories of the glacier’s life, like the rings of a tree trunk.
Just like the layers of ancient ice that form a glacier, the layering of narratives is especially true in Indigenous storytelling, says Tim Patterson of Zuc’min Guiding. Patterson is a member of the Lower Nicola Indian Band that belongs to the Scw̓éxmx (people of the creeks), a branch of the Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) Nation of the Interior Salish peoples of British Columbia. He grew up in Revelstoke, B.C., within the Sn-səlxcin (Sinixt-Lakes) territory, exploring the Selkirk and West Kootenay mountains.
Indigenous stories, he explains, have three layers: the individual, the family or community, and the greater world. And, just as glaciers are dynamic and constantly changing, the knowledge shared in those stories is never static, it’s cumulative, and they continually add to dimensions of a place, and to the story of people, and time.
In Indigenous storytelling, Patterson explains, the meaning extends deeper still.
“In Indigenous experiences, our significant places are only genuinely recognized by the individual or family that contributed to the narrative of that specific place,” he says. With each Nation, another story layer is formed.
Indigenous stories often encompass the critical role of water. For the Shuswap people, water provides a vehicle for renewal. Those stories hold personal, individual experiences, which, like water flowing downstream, merge with stories of family connections to water and community life. Similar to how a river expands when fed by tributaries to ultimately pour into an ocean, the stories expand to encompass the larger landscape and extended community—the grand story.
Just as glaciers are dynamic and constantly changing, the knowledge shared in Indigenous stories is never static, it’s cumulative, and they continually add to dimensions of a place, and to the story of people, and time.
Today’s stories incorporate another layer, that of melting ice. Scientists predict that Western Canada’s glaciers will decrease by 90 per cent by 2100. The melting peels away layers, erasing established mountaineering routes, making them impassible. Sometimes gear or bodies melt out, exposing evidence of past events.
As we stand together, our boots touching the surface of the Athabasca Glacier, thousands of years of history frozen in time below us, Patterson adds, “Now we’re part of the story.”
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