“I’m scared...but it’s a good thing!”
Calgary’s Jessie Cayabo is walking towards the newly constructed Glacier Skywalk. Cayabo has been invited, along with a dozen other media types, to tour Brewster Canada’s newest attraction before it opens to the public on May 1.
Cayabo’s healthy fear of heights is on display; with every three steps that bring her closer to the cantilevered platform which extends out over a precipitous 918 foot drop to the valley floor below, she lets out an involuntary peep. She’s making her way toward the end of the “chicken walk,” to where the clear glass floor begins, but just barely.
“Oh my God!” she squeals.
As the Rocky Mountains’ newest tourist attraction, the Glacier Skywalk has been hyped up as an adrenaline-pumping way to learn about glaciology, geology, and the unique ecosystem of the Columbia Icefield via a structure that matches the iconic landscape in which it was built.
“Are you brave enough?” screamed the headline of the UK-based tabloid, The Daily Mail, last week. “Vertigo-inducing Skywalk opens in Canadian Rockies.”
On the other hand, the project has raised the ire of environmentalists who say wildlife movement will be compromised; it’s spawned criticism at Parks Canada for not listening to a strong voice of opposition from Canadians; and it’s been ridiculed as a profit-hungry tourist trap which takes away from Jasper’s true wilderness—the entire point of a national park.
“When you have commercial interests whose objectives are at odds with [the park being left in a natural state] it can be detrimental,” Sean Nichols, of the Alberta Wilderness Association, told CBC recently.
Hoping to draw its own conclusions of the Skywalk experience and find out whether the $21 million structure will be more likely to engage or enrage,
The Jasper Local scored an invite to the April 27 sneak-a-peek. There, Brewster’s general manager Rusty Noble led a group of camera-toting broadcasters, bloggers, writers and reviewers through the six interpretive stations along the cliff-edged walkway before escorting us to the precariously-perched promenade itself. While shutters clicked in the foreground and ravens squawked from the air, Rusty played ecosystem interpreter, talking at length about trilobites, Pleistocene epochs and the symbiotic relationship between whitebark pine and Clark’s nutcrackers. He waxed on about the incredible feats of construction required to put the vista point structure in place and pointed out the milled rock and hand-packed gabion walls that blend into the environment. Trying to put myself into the shoes of a first-time Rockies visitor, I tried to stay interested in the interp, but with the sun poking out and shining on Mt. Kitchener, I became less inclined to read the puny font on the slapped-together panels and more anxious to step foot onto the “Flat Out Awesome” walkway. As opposed to that of a “studier” or a “stroller,” I was exhibiting symptoms of what Brewster calls a Glacier Skywalk “speeder.”
“Some people will take more than an hour, others will zip right through and have this thing done in 20 minutes,” Noble said.
Whatever they’re called, however long it takes them, there will be hundreds of thousands of Skywalkers in 2014.
Brewster is projecting more than 200,000 people per season will pay for the experience ($25 for an adult, $12.50 for a youth) while another 150,000 will take the free shuttle to the public viewpoint but opt out of the attraction (they can always change their mind and pay). Compared to the 300,000 customers who hopped aboard an Ice Explorer for a $50 Glacier Tour last year, Brewster’s interim president predicts the Skywalk will be more popular.
“This is for people travelling on a budget,” David McKenna said.
It’s also for people travelling from Asia. The 39-minute audio tour via headset (free) is available in English, French, Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. When asked why not German or Dutch, for example, Noble said Brewster’s stats tell them their main clientele are groups from the world’s largest continent.
“We saw these languages as our most in-demand,” he told us. “But it’s easy to add other languages.”
Before the Skywalk was erected—a process which took two years—80,000 visitors per annum used the pullout at the Mt. Kitchener viewpoint. Ironically, when the Skywalk is officially unveiled in the coming weeks, the structure will be hidden from sight. The chain link fence that currently cordons off the facility from the Icefields Parkway will be covered in vinyl, effectively blocking the entire Skywalk from the road. Brewster’s interim president, David McKenna, said the cover will inform visitors that the area is a no stopping zone and that free parking is available at the Glacier Discovery Centre. Brewster staff will monitor traffic and by doing so, will make that stretch of road more safe, McKenna said.
“That was a not a safe pull out before,” he said.
Whether it will become more safe is a claim which remains to be seen. When summer ramps up and the motorhomes start flailing down the Parkway, who can say if rookie Rockies road trippers won’t be more inclined to rubberneck when they spy a buzz of shuttling and shuffling along Tangle Ridge’s tight turns? McKenna is confident Brewster’s engineers have planned for potential problems but current signage is in short supply, especially considering drivers are used to pulling off anywhere along the 232 km long Icefields Parkway.
Travel writer Lisa Monforton is definitely familiar with the iconic highway.
As a Rockies veteran visitor, she knows that up and down the parkway there’s at least a dozen pullouts where you can dip your feet in a lake or throw a stone in a river or get an even better view of a glacier than the one afforded at the Skywalk—have an engaging experience for free, in other words.
“But not everyone is like me,” she says. “Not everyone has climbed a mountain or walked in a canyon or seen a glacier.”
Those people are perhaps more like Cayabo, who, after psyching herself up for the heady experience of the Skywalk, is finally inching her way onto the glass platform. After experiencing the initial shock of looking down and seeing nothing but air between her shoes and a valley bottom 280 metres below, Cayabo is starting to calm down. She’s actually enjoying the ride.
“This is the perfect amount of thrill for me,” she laughs.