The Jewel of Jasper
By: Mudeeha Yousaf
Nestled in Alberta`s treasured Jasper National Park rests the Glacier Skywalk – the newest attraction that awakens the adventurist in all visitors. With the vision of providing a unique experience like none other and bolstering Western Canada`s tourism market, the Skywalk has become controversial with its melding of environmental-consciousness and daring platform experiences. The $21 million project uses a glass-floor observation platform that extends 30 meters above the Sunwapta Valley to provide spectators with breathtaking views, and is fully endorsed by Parks Canada.
When envisioning the landmark, Brewster Travel Canada (the travel company that built and operates the project) wanted the uniqueness of the Skywalk to match its environment, and submitted a comprehensive proposal to Jasper National Park, the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies, for its central location. “Many years ago we had a conversation with Parks Canada and we both recognized the fact that the Icefields Parkway, where the Columbia Icefield [the largest ice-field in the northern hemisphere south of the Arctic Circle] is located, is the greatest drive in the world,” said Director of Marketing for Brewster Travel Canada, Mark Hendrikse. Having a strong connection with Jasper National Park and operating the Glacier Discovery Centre since the 1950`s, Brewster recognized the fact that over 1 million people drive the route between Jasper and Lake Louise, though only a few made the stop on the site of the viewpoint where the Skywalk sits today. The Skywalk aims to create a more meaningful destination and “we like to layer on an educational component to help people understand what’s happening in the natural environment.”
Jasper National Park`s rich history, established more than 100 years ago, is the perfect stage for this engineering marvel. Part of Parks Canada’s core mandate is to take a balanced approach to protection: looking after Alberta’s mountain vistas and ecological integrity and providing opportunities for visitors at the same time. “The sky’s the limit in terms of the options that people have available here,” advocates Kevin Gedling, Promotions Officer for Jasper National Park. Canada’s second most visited park in Canada with over two million annual visitors, Jasper allows guests the opportunity to experience the Rocky Mountains and to make use of its diverse recreational areas and infrastructure. Jasper invests in campgrounds, hiking trails, picnic sites and new educational programs as well as protecting cultural heritage sites to retain the character of the surrounding community. Jasper boasts more than 1000kms of trail and hosts one of the most complete inter-connected multi-use trail systems in North America, ranging from sunny beaches on blue water shores to Bighorn Sheep habitat, just minutes from each other.
After passing a federal environmental assessment in 2012 and being approved on their proposal from Parks Canada, Brewster Travel Canada set out to find the best architects, contractors and engineers to assemble the attraction that would be awed by the world, and eventually enlisted PCL Constructors and Sturgess Architects for the job. “The Skywalk creates a new opportunity for people to get a good look at the landscape in an exciting and different way,” says Gedling. The concept behind the attraction is for people to step out into a windy landscape and not only be physically connected to nature but mentally liberated, creating a euphoric feeling. “Anybody from any walk of life will be able to walk out on it and feel part of the wilderness weather.” Those that may not have previously had the opportunity to lead an active lifestyle will have access to a thrilling platform with the feeling of security still intact. “It will turn a few heads for people who are living busy lives in the city and lure them out to the park – once they have that taste of what Jasper National Park is all about, it will make them want more.”
Not only providing a refreshed visitor experience, the Glacier Skywalk commits to a low environmental footprint. Brewster Travel Canada, through contractor Golder & Associates, carried out wildlife monitoring studies prior to construction in June of 2011, and are committed to maintaining those studies today. Meeting Parks Canada`s environmental standards, they built the landscape in an area that does not have a huge impact on its surroundings. “While building in this unique area, there was a lot of consideration poured into meeting the environmental standards,” says Hendrikse. “From a construction perspective, building on a cliff edge and transporting materials to the top was challenging as well.”
The structure is cantilevered deep into the bedrock, rather than being supported from the cliff edge and “from an engineering technology perspective that is a big deal in terms of weight capacity and scale of the structure.” Though the levitating glass floor adds to its individuality, the true intent behind the attraction is for visitors to be acquainted with nature and experience an educational connection that lasts longer than a 60-second adrenaline rush.
As well as promoting Canadian tourism, the structure tells a tale of Albertan resilience. “The unique thing about living and working here is these places never get old. It provides one more reason to take the big step and come to the Rockies,” says Gedling. “The Glacier Skywalk is a launching pad for people to get excited about the rest of the park and we want to continue to reach out and bring Canadians to the Rocky Mountain landscape.”
The Glacier Skywalk opened its proverbial doors on May 1st, and has already exceeded its expected visitation rate.