10 Things I Learned as a Tour Guide in the Rockies

  1. Running water and flushing toilets are a gift. (I also have a strong appreciation for all buildings that don’t have mice)

2. Someone on your tour will absolutely do that thing that you told them not to. They will let go of the dog sled, and they will step in that ‘puddle’ on the glacier you warned them about that turns out to be 4 feet deep.

3. Always have a few stories or jokes saved in your back pocket. My tour bus once had an unexpected delay, and I found myself entertaining my guest two hours instead of the five minute planned ride.

4. Pack extra of everything. Have extra pairs of mitts, toques, and most importantly, snacks. Most of the people you are working with have travelled a long ways and are now in a new environment, and its not uncommon for them to feel unwell as a result, an extra Gatorade/granola bar in your pack could save your tour.

5. Tour groups love it when you sing. I personally can not sing, but the musical guides that I worked with were by far the most mentioned on TripAdvisor reviews.

6. Plenty of snacks are better than packing a full lunch. There’s not often time to sit down and eat a full meal, so it’s good to have things you can eat on the go.

7. You will clean up pee, poop, or puke more often than you think.

8. You will always be learning little lessons and anecdotes from your guests. I had new stories every day about interesting tourists I spoke with and loved meeting so many new people.

9. Squirrels are not afraid of sled dogs. They will break in to your pack and steal your lunch while your 8 dog team watches.

10. You will work long hours and be out in the elements all day, but you will enjoy every minute of it.

Happy touring!

Driving an Ice Explorer on a Glacier

One of my proudest moments was the day I got my class 2 drivers license, it was also one of the most nerve wracking days of my life. I had been hired by a tour company in Jasper to be a driver/guide for their excursions on the Athabasca Glacier, so failing was not an option.

Earlier in the day, four other newly hired staff members and I stood in our hotel room in Edmonton, taking turns walking around an odd stack of furniture, pretending to do our bus pre-trips. We had already written our air brake exams, and now was time for the driving test. Although we would be driving coach busses and Ice Explorers at work, our road tests were done in school busses.

We went for our tests one at a time, and I anxiously waited for each person to walk back with a smile on their face to announce that they had passed. I was up last, and to be honest I couldn’t even tell you how it went because I was so nervous that I hardly remember. All I know is that I passed, and we drove back out to the mountains that night, proud as punch and ready to learn how to drive the big busses.

A perfect day at work with the Athabasca Glacier in the background

Before you are allowed to drive an Ice Explorer, you have to be extremely comfortable with the coach busses.We went through a fair bit of training on just driving, and then added a talking tour on top of it after to entertain guests as we shuttled them from attraction to attraction.

The tour part was my favourite, and I loved spitting out facts about the wildlife and the landscape to anyone who would listen. And the coach busses were quite fun to drive, especially when guests were shocked that their bus driver was a short blonde woman in her early twenties. But I was ready to move on to the Ice Explorers. I spent a week training one on one with a few of the managers, and had to do one final tour while driving and talking before I could start taking groups out.

Ice Explorer on the Athabasca Glacier , I was the last tour driver on the glacier that day and my guests had the ice to themselves.

Driving an Ice Explorer is quite different from driving a coach bus. There are only 24 of them in existence, each weighing in at about 55,000lbs, and able to carry 56 passengers. They are HUGE, and it was a climb to get into the driver seat. Although they are built specifically for travel on ice, we had to be confident and cautious drivers, while giving a full tour and telling jokes at the same time.

Looking up at my explorer during my morning pre-trip inspection

Drivers are equipped with radios, and constantly communication among each other and with dispatch to make sure things are running smoothly. All of the staff lives together at the Icefield, so your coworkers are also your roommates, and everyone looks out for each other.

Ice Explorer driver controls

My Ice Explorer slipped on the ice road one day as I was bringing a full bus back to the transfer bays. My driving style can certainly be described as ‘slow and steady’, but even if you are going slow, you can still slip up on the ice road after it has been warming up in the sun all day. There are always oncoming Ice Explorers sharing the same road, and especially as the summer warms up and the ice road thaws out, you wouldn’t want to get hung up in one of the deep ditches or piles of ice.

I started to feel the back end of my bus sway out and I immediately shifted into neutral as I continued to slide. Our driver trainers were great at explaining to us what to do in these situations, but it is always nerve wracking when it’s actually happening to you. I was still mid tour, explaining what makes glacial ice look so blue when I saw my coworker approaching up the hill in another Ice Explorer. I knew at that point that I was still not stopping and she was moving quickly up the roads towards me. Fortunately she looked up and saw me sliding, then stopped her bus even before I could ask her to slow down over the radio. Another coworker, who was behind me, saw what was going on and called over the radio with some words of encouragement, which helped to ease my nerves a little as my machine continued to slowly slide down the road. I took a deep breath and controlled the slide until I felt the tires finally gaining a little traction.

With a sigh of relief, we were fine. I quickly resumed my tour and make it back safe and sound with my guests. Good training and guidance meant I was prepared for the situation, but as a driver your passenger safety is a top priority and there is nothing quite as nerve wracking. I radioed my manager and and the road was graded so that no one else would slip in the same spot.

View from the front seat of an Ice Explorer looking down the lateral moraine

One of the things about living and working in the mountains is that you never know what weather you will be driving in. It could snow any month of the year, even through the summer, and especially as we neared the fall we had plenty of snow days. And although the fleets of busses and Ice Explorers look the same, they all have their different quirks. I still smile when I think about unlocking my bus for the day one morning and reading the comments from the previous days driver, “wasp nest somewhere in bus, live wasps may blow out when you turn the air on”.

A glacier rainbow with an Ice Explorer at the end

Working as a professional driver and tour guide has helped me build on so many personal skills. My driving improved of course by trading in a little car for a big bus for a few months, and I developed my public speaking and presentation skills by building and presenting my own tours to guests. I appreciated that the company gave us talking points we were expected to touch on, but we were free to build our own tour in whatever order and with whichever stories we preferred.

I also took great delight in working a job that is stereotypically male-dominated. Nearly every day I would get comments like, ‘are you sure you even know how to drive this bus?’, or ‘wait, YOU are driving?’. On the flip side, I also received overwhelming support from plenty of guests who were happy to see so many young female bus drivers.

I am so grateful for my experience working as a driver/guide and being able to live in such an amazing part of the world.

Until next time, happy exploring!

My Top 3 Full Day Hikes in Alberta

There is no better feeling than standing at the top of a mountain, cracking a summit beer, and looking down at the landscape around you.

The thing about hiking is that once you catch that first amazing view that makes you fall in love, you can’t stop. The search is always on for the next adventure, the coolest trail, and the hiker’s high after a long day of trekking.

Alberta is home to many breathtaking hikes and adventures, here are my favorites.

Tent Ridge Horseshoe (Hard,10 km)

I set out with a group of friends one morning and made the 40 or so minute drive up the Spray Lakes road from Canmore to find Tent Ridge. The first section of the hike is in the forest, so be sure to make some noise and carry bear spray. Once we hiked in closer to the ridge, we began scrambling up the left side and moved clockwise (as suggested by AllTrails, this was the best route).

Tent Ridge

We then followed the ridge around, amazed by the incredible views as we stood above the clouds. We stopped for two breaks as it was pretty exhausting moving along, but became less tiring for the second half as the ridge flattens out.

Tent Ridge

This hike is absolutely worth the drive out of Canmore. Be aware and check the trail conditions before you go, because there is often quite a bit of snow in spring and early summer, so you can pack accordingly.

Wilcox Pass (Moderate, 9.3 km)

Wilcox Pass is a all about the views without the strenuous trek up a mountain. It is located on the Icefield Parkway very close to the Athabasca Glacier and the Icefield Discovery Centre. You’ll find the most difficult parts of this trail are at the beginning and end as you gain and lose most of your elevation, but it flattens out nicely in between.

I recommend going as a group with two vehicles if possible. Leave a vehicle at Tangle Falls and drive over to the Wilcox Campground to begin, or you could try to hitchhike your way to the campground (not uncommon practice on the Icefield Parkway but certainly not the safest).

Wilcox Pass and Bighorn Sheep

This is a great trail to bring your dog along with you, but make sure you keep them on leash as you are likely to see bighorn sheep and maybe even some mountain goats.

Wilcox Pass, a quick cool down nearing Tangle Falls

I enjoyed admiring the glaciers, and trying to identify all of the different types of fungi we passed along the way. Pack a delicious lunch and enjoy the day!

Cirque Peak via. Helen Lake Trail (Hard, 16.1 km)

Cirque Peak is an out and back trail that also begins on the Icefield Parkway, however it is closer to Lake Louise and begins on the Helen Lake Trail. The hard work pays off as the views at the top are among the best I’ve ever seen.

You will likely see plenty of marmots. Much to my delight, they ‘yelled’ at us most of the way. The adventure is moderately difficult until you reach Helen Lake and begin to move up past the tree line. As you move up the mountain, take plenty of breaks and continue on, the summit is worth it.

Expect to do a little scree skiing on the way down and be sure you have a windbreaker, and of course a beer for the summit, if you plan on hanging out up there for a while.

Every bit of that trail amazed me. It was such an incredible experience and I am eager to get back out there and hike again as soon as we are able to travel.

Some Quick Day Hiking Tips

** It’s a good idea to check AllTrails or other hiking apps for trail conditions. Especially in the Rockies, you could be hiking through snow even in the middle of summer. It’s also important to make sure there aren’t any trail closures or restrictions due to maintenance or wildlife.

**Pack layers, you may be warm when you start but things will cool off fast when you stop for a break half way up a mountain

**Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back

Happy hiking!