Fire in 2017 and then plague in 2020
This summer it felt as if Waterton Lakes National Park was really back as a travel destination. Like all national parks, Waterton had to close then gradually reopen due to Covid-19, but the pandemic added to the challenges of rebuilding after the massive Kenow Fire of 2017. Well over a third of the park burned. Forest and grass fires are natural forces that bring renewal to the environment, but they also destroyed much of the park’s infrastructure such as roads, trails, and the Crandell Mountain Campground. Reconstruction would take years.
Bit by bit, more of the park became accessible to visitors as renovations progressed. But it was this summer’s reopening of two of the park’s top attractions that really made the difference. The 15-kilometre Red Rock Parkway along the scenic Blakiston Valley to famous Red Rock Canyon had opened earlier to bike traffic and hiking, but only recently opened to vehicles.
Composed of iron-rich red argillite, the rocks are a shocking pinkish-red. If you look at photos you can’t help but wonder if those colours are for real or if someone just got carried away with Photoshop. But they are real, and stand out in all their glory when the sun shines through the water flowing along the shallow creek bed. Trails line both sides of the canyon, plus another kilometre-long path leads to impressive Blakiston Falls where newly constructed lookout platforms provide a variety of vantage points for photography.
The other biggy to reopen was the Bear’s Hump Hike. Named for the mountain shaped like the hump on a grizzly bear, this is simply the most amazing short hike anywhere in the Rockies. It’s only 2.8 kilometres return and not difficult, though it’s a steady steep climb with a 225-metre elevation gain. From the top you’re treated to breathtaking views over the townsite far below and the wide valley, Lower Waterton Lake, and the mountainous wilderness beyond.
Other hiking trails abound covering some 200 kilometres, ranging from easy to challenging. The all-day Crypt Lake Trail, rated as difficult, often makes the list of Canada’s top hikes. A short hike that we especially enjoyed went to Lower Bertha Falls. The 5.2-kilometre return walk treated us to sweeping views along the edge of the lake, then headed inland to a picture-perfect bridal-veil waterfall.
Waterton isn’t simply an extension of other parks in the Canadian Rockies. It’s unique in so many ways, something that became apparent as soon as we arrived. One minute we were crossing wide open grasslands then suddenly we were surrounded by soaring mountain peaks. That abrupt change is its most defining feature. In this southwest corner of Alberta, the prairies hug the edge of the mountains, with no gradual transition through foothills – an important factor contributing to Waterton’s exceptional biodiversity.
Though it is the smallest national park in the Canadian Rockies, it has more plant species than any other park and is home to over half of the plants in Alberta, including many rarities. With Alberta’s highest rainfall yet mild temperatures, plants thrive.
Waterton has long been known as Canada’s Wildflower Capital. Displays reach their height in spring and early summer, but even during our August visit, splashes of colour were everywhere. It was the peak of the fireweed bloom, with large areas of previously burned forest now carpeted in bright magenta. Wildflower enthusiasts who frequently visit the park told us that the displays they see now are even more impressive than before the fire.
As photographers, we were concerned that the park might not be as photogenic as before the fire. But we shouldn’t have worried. Not only are the wildflowers as glorious as ever, but the vegetation re-growth is progressing faster than even the experts had anticipated. We do have to contend with a lot of dead trees, but often they make for some compelling photo possibilities. The fire did not reach the townsite, main campground, or the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel though it’s scary to see just how close it came. In many places where we pointed our cameras, it wasn’t immediately obvious that a major fire had been through.
For businesses in the park, Covid-19 caused as much disruption, if not more, than the fire. Physical distancing, lower restaurant capacities, and a host of other health precautions are challenging at the best of times, let alone during the short, busy summer tourist season. But we got the impression that everyone seems to be coping. The popular boat cruise recently started up again, though with reduced capacity, a shorter itinerary, and everyone wearing masks.
Some businesses are thriving. Dark Sky Guides is a relatively new business started by Keith Robinson and his three brothers who were born and raised in Waterton. Capitalizing on Waterton’s designation as an International Dark Sky Park, they started guided excursions to help visitors take full advantage of what the night sky has to offer. Despite Covid restrictions, this has been their best summer.
We accompanied Keith on one of his trips, starting at 10:30 at night with a drive to Red Rock Canyon, everyone on the bus spaced apart and wearing masks. Keith wanted to get as far away from light pollution as possible, so we walked another kilometre from the parking area to the overlook for Blakiston Falls. With lights turned off in total darkness, we gazed up at the million of stars overhead that shone with a brilliance we wouldn’t normally see. As a bonus, our visit coincided with the Perseid Meteor shower, so we were treated to dazzling flashes streaking across the sky.
Keith related stories of the stars, planets, and constellations, occasionally using his special laser pointer that seemed to reach the heavens. Most of us know constellations as named by the Greeks and others in the ancient world, but are less familiar with fables from our neck of the woods. A nice touch was Keith’s stories such as the Blackfoot legend on the origin of the Big Dipper. Our experience wasn’t a simple matter of just looking at the night sky, but rather really appreciating what we were seeing. The Robinson brothers have more plans, and soon will be opening a state-of-the-art planetarium on the edge of the park.
A few parts of the park were still closed during our visit including the Akamina Parkway leading to Cameron Lake, although reconstruction was nearing completion. Rebuilding the popular Crandell Mountain Campground along the Red Rock Parkway will be a longer-term project.
The closing of the border with the United States has made this an ideal time to visit. The park joins Glacier National Park in Montana with the two together making up the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Normally there is a lot of cross-border traffic, but not now. One morning we drove along the Chief Mountain Highway towards the border. In both directions we never passed another vehicle, ideal conditions for travelling at a leisurely pace with lots of photo stops.