Visiting Waterton Lakes National Park after the Kenow Wildfire: How pie, Paul Brandt, and salamander scientists are restoring the park …
The big boat slowed as we headed north across the watery Canada/U.S. border on Waterton Lakes. Passenger chatter stilled as a famous voice soared across the wild lake. Paul Brandt, the most awarded Canadian country music artist in history, crooned, “I have been Alberta Bound for all my life.”
He’s also been Waterton bound several times and was headlining a cruise of pie lovers with foodie Julie Van Rosendaal to encourage people to visit Waterton Lakes National Park after the 2017 Kenow wildfire.
The fire scorched 38% of the park, killing at least 40 large mammals and unknown numbers of smaller critters. Viewscapes were changed, infrastructure destroyed, and many tourists went elsewhere. Now I was back to see if the park I’d loved for so many years was still a good place to visit.
Lighting up Waterton Lakes National Park
During the summer of 2017, Parks Canada staff was concerned about hot dry conditions and in early August closed the backcountry. Three weeks later lightning ignited a fire on Kenow Mountain. As fire spread, the decision was made September 8th to evacuate Waterton residents.
On September 11th, 2017, at 3 p.m. the Kenow fire reached the west boundary of the park, by 10 p.m. it was at the east side. “The speed of this fire and its behavior as it moved across the landscape was extraordinary,” recalled Kimberly Pearson, a Parks Canada Ecosystem Scientist.
Firefighters had the battle of their lives as they struggled to save the town site and the historic Prince of Wales Hotel. Embers rained down on them, heat toasted their faces, muscles strained to shoot water at flames advancing within meters of buildings.
On September 12th the hotel’s General Manager received news the hotel had been saved but 80% of the park’s trails had burned and much of the infrastructure was damaged.
Every local I met recalled where he or she was when the fire came to town. “I remember packing my pictures, my computer, my cat. When the wardens knocked on our door and told us we had to leave, it was real,” a yoga lover on a nearby mat had told me earlier that day. One year later when the Boundary Fire forced another evacuation she packed a smaller box. “Now when July or August comes around you just have a box packed (in case of evacuation),” she sighed.
How different is it?
On my drive into the park, I noticed two popular roads, Red Rock Parkway and Akimina Parkway, were closed, where the visitor center once stood were an industrial trailer and construction equipment, and the popular Bear’s Hump Trail was under repair.
Right after the fire, firefighters described the view near the Prince of Wales Hotel as grey scorched earth. Two years later I stand in the same spot and wildflowers dot the grassy ridge, green growth visible among charred pine trees.
Parks Canada is busy rebuilding infrastructure but letting Mother Nature heal the land. Scientists monitor ecological processes but will not replant trees or interfere except to stop the spread of invasive species and remove hazardous trees.
Long-toed salamanders survived the fire but fences that directed them away from roads did not. An innovative scientist came up with the idea of reusing the guardrails no longer road-worthy as salamander fences. “The guardrails have gone from protecting visitors to protecting salamanders!” Pearson enthused.
Will you still love a park after a fire?
“How can we get people to stop and appreciate landscapes that at first look burnt, but when you look closer have a renewal?” expounded Christy Gustavision, External Relations Manager, at an information session I had attended earlier. And some changes may be permanent.
“Not every place that was a forest has seedlings in it (after the fire),” explained Pearson. “(Research shows) before 2000, 85% of previously forested sites that burned regrew as forests. Since 2000, 70% of previously forested sites that burned regrew as forests.” It seems with changing climate conditions, there may be less forest cover and hikers and bikers will need to get used to more open terrain.
In addition to outdoor adventure Waterton is known for its bears. Many left the park last year searching for food. As vegetation regrows more bears have been seen back in the park. I didn’t see any grizzlies but as I stood near the Prince of Wales Hotel, I glimpsed a black bear with a rainbow-coloured trio of cubs – one black, one cinnamon, and one light-brown – romp through lush green grass.
What’s open in Waterton?
Red Rock Parkway has been opened to bikers and hikers, and will open later this year to cars. This road is my favourite place to look for bears and I’m usually successful, so I didn’t feel brave enough to bike it and definitely too nervous to walk it.
After the stable burnt in the fire, horseback riding will resume this summer (2019) and the Bear’s Hump Trail will open this fall.
Akimina Parkway with many burnt guardrails and dead trees will take longer to repair (expected re-opening 2021). Popular Crandall Campground will get a redesign and a wildlife corridor before reopening in 2022. The downtown campground was not damaged and is open.
All town site hotels and restaurants are operating normally.
While Parks Canada nurtures habitat for wildlife, Waterton businesses are working hard to bring back two-legged critters, letting people know there’s still fun to be had in the park. Which is how I came to be motoring down Waterton’s Upper Lake with Paul Brandt, part of the Taste of Waterton food festival. This event plus June’s Wildflower festival, and September’s Wildlife festival offer reasons to visit even when trails are being rebuilt.
“I’m Alberta Bound, this piece of heaven that I’ve found, Rocky Mountains and black fertile ground, everything I need beneath that big blue sky,”
sang Brandt as fleece-wearing tourists balanced plates of pie on their knees and sang along. Watching the forests slip by, some traditionally beautiful, others wonderful in their burnt starkness, I knew I’d found everything I needed under Waterton’s big, blue skies. Emerging from the fire’s blast, the park was still one of my favourites.