The modern traveler’s moral dilemma

Tina at Travels and Trifles set this week’s challenge, ‘Pick a Place,’ to show somewhere memorable we have visited. My place was memorable not only because it’s an iconic site but also because of the feelings it awoke in me.

Mark Twain said, “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” Or in simple terms, travel broadens the mind. And he was right of course. Travel also puts you in your place, it shows what a small space you really occupy on earth. It shakes your appreciation of your self and your countrymen and puts your preconceived ideas right where they belong. And above all else, it’s fun. 

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Snow coaches on the Athabasca Glacier.

But with growing awareness of the catastrophic effects of climate change, how does the environmentally responsible person travel? We live at the bottom of the world and the places we most desire to travel to are at the top. Our days of hitch hiking and roughing it are mostly behind us leaving long haul flights the only option to get to far flung places. Less than two years of electric car use have off-set the emissions of two long haul flights, which made our trip to Canada carbon neutral but only really helps the planet on paper.

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Coaches have to take tourists further now to reach the Athabasca Glacier.

And then there are the places you visit. Places like the Columbia Icefield, located in the Canadian Rockies astride the Continental Divide along the border of British Columbia and Alberta. It covers 225 square kilometres in area, is 100 to 365 metres deep and receives up to 7 meters of snowfall per year. It has been diminishing since 1844 and has lost 100 kilometers of area in the past 25 years. The Athabasca Glacier on the Icefield has receded 1 1/2 kilometers since 1890. Heavy snow years don’t make up for longer, hotter summers and it is losing 5 meters of depth every year.  There are fears it could be gone completely in a generation.

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The ever diminishing Athabasca Glacier from the visitor centre.

How much does tourism contribute to this recession? On our trip we learnt that ash from successive years of forest fires has settled on the ice, attracting more heat from the sun and causing more melt.  Why then do they fill their ‘snow coaches’ with tourists and drive them on to the ice? In the hour we were there, coach after coach disgorged 50 pairs of boots to slip, slide and clamber on the Athabasca Glacier. Every turn of the coach wheels churned the surface up into soft flakes, that melted under those boots. What were we doing there? What was to be gained by being on the ice? 

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Nothing, nothing at all.  I have stood awestruck at the edge of our own Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and never felt the need to walk on them. It didn’t feel good to stand on the Athabasca Glacier while it bled. Every drop of water that flowed out from under our feet had been locked in ice for thousands of years. And as I watched it flow away, I couldn’t help feeling I shouldn’t be there. 

 

24 comments

  1. That’s a really interesting perspective for this week Wendy. We’ve done the same as well as ice-hiked on Franz Josef after helicoptering to the top. Both trips were a dozen years ago and honestly it never occurred to us to even THINK about the damage we were doing with our adventures back then. At least now we do think before acting but we definitely have a very long way to go before ecological sanity becomes the norm.

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    • Being there and seeing the impact of all those vehicles had a profound effect on me, Tina and demonstrated how little respect we sometimes have for our natural world. Of course, there is more to climate change than what we as humans do and there are some things, like long haul flights that we can’t undo but keeping off the glaciers seems like such a small thing we can do. The tragedy is that we’ll end up hastening the end of the very things we’re all clamouring to see. You’re right, we’ve got a long way to go but we have to start somewhere and the seed has been planted.

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    • And because tourism earns more than dairy here, we aren’t as protective of our place as we could be. I don’t know what the answer is, Su. We can’t shut the world down but the balance needs to tip a little further towards restraint.

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  2. This is such a hard one…I feel soooo guilty about the amount of time I spend in a plane. I travel every week for work – EVERY week….then I travel for fun. Given all of this, I do try and minimize use of single use plastics, we recycle, I travel with bamboo forks so I don’t use the plastic utensils, I bring my own shopping bags to the grocery store, I don’t get my hotel room cleaned every day….we have solar panels on our house….we try….but dang, it doesn’t seem to be enough. I hate to see the glaciers disappearing – we were recently in Patagonia and got to see the Perito Moreno glacier that seems to be getting larger every year – that was refreshing. We were supposed to hike on one on the same trip – Gray Glacier – it has so many fractures in it, we weren’t able to…..this post makes me realize this was the best thing that could have ever happened on this trip!!

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    • I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty, Pam. We can’t shut the door on technology. As long as we demand more efficient and cleaner ways to do things. It’s happening but we’re a reluctant species. Some of us still need to be convinced. Even our little efforts are worthwhile. Thinking about and minimising our impact, that’s something we can all do.

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  3. Wow! Great thoughts and eye-opener! Hope our earth can tolerate the abuse we are doing on it daily. It’s a complex issue, and I feel only nature will have the right solution! (but we may not like what nature has in store for us!)

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  4. A great post Wendy and I haven’t traveled abroad for nearly twenty years because of the impact of air travel. We stay close to home and over-tourism is having a detrimental effect on nature in some parts of the Highlands too. We can all do our bit by being mindful and looking after our beautiful planet 💜

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    • Thank you Xenia. It’s a real dilemma for kiwis because we’re so isolated from the rest of the world that flying is almost our only option. And there’s so much money to be made from tourism, here as well that it will be a hard ask to see changes made. Tourism is NZ’s biggest money spinner after farming and we fear for the wellbeing of our precious places too. We CAN all do our bit and more of us are every day. We live in hope. Thank you for your comments.

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