Waterton Lakes National Park, September 2022
These are the traditional homelands of the Blackfoot peoples in all of their diversity, as well as the traditional hunting territory of the Kutenai people. The Kutenai were most likely driven out of these areas by the Blackfoot when they expanded their range thanks to rifles and horses. The Blackfeet themselves are still present in these lands, but have no official standing within the park. I undertook this adventure because I wanted to challenge my body, expand my mind, and explore a different part of the Rocky Mountains than I am used to. I also wanted to be in communication with nature, immerse myself in her late summer bounty, and say hello to my brother birds and sister trees. While it is not the same as the link Indigenous peoples have to this land, I feel a strong connection to the mountains. My hope is refreshed here, my soul is filled, and my energy stirred to continue fighting for the stewardship of nature everywhere.
While I don’t want this becoming a travel blog, I had some big travel moments this summer, and travel is easy for me to write about. It’s got a simple beginning, middle & end, lots of photos, and uncomplicated facts and opinions. Huzzah!
ACCOMMODATIONS AND TRAVEL
Y’all, this is the boring part. Boring, but necessary. We rented a hotel room in Pincher Creek, which is a 30 to 40 minute drive from Waterton Lakes National Park. This meant it was a bit cheaper, and there was more availability. And to be honest, I have low expectations on short trips like this with Dan. My must haves: clean, a bed, a fridge, a bathroom. Heritage Inn Hotel and Conference Centre stepped right up! Our view was the yard for a tow truck company, so every morning I would push back the curtains and breathe in the exotic burnt out Winnebago. It’s fine. It’s great even. It’s not Maui.
To get even more exciting, we drove down after work on the Friday night. From our home in Edmonton it is a 6-ish hour drive down to Pincher Creek. Even leaving immediately after work, we rolled in around 11 pm in the pitch black. The QE2 is a super boring and annoying highway, but it’s also the most direct. On our way home, when we had more time to sight-see, we took Highway 22 – The Cowboy Trail – before cutting back on to QE2 (and getting stuck in an enormous traffic jam). I personally recommend taking either Highways 22 or 2A to head south from Edmonton if you are not pressed for time. They are way more chill than QE2, more scenic, and sometimes even faster.
HIKING HIKING HIKING
All I want to do on these trips is hiking and more hiking. I need to recognize my limits however, and on this trip the weather pushed back so I had to take it easy on that first full day. I found these trails through a variety of sources: All Trails, the book Canadian Rockies Trail Guide by Brian Patton and Bart Robinson, and the Parks map from the info centre in town. I love those maps, by the way. That was our first stop in town, to pick one up. A National Park info centre or visitor centre is a great place to visit if you are new to the park, or want to try something new. You can chat with the super helpul park employees, or ask for a map with minimal eye contact and hoof it out of there for the least amount of social interaction. I’ve done it all.
Red Rock Canyon & Blakiston Falls
This was the super touristy portion of our trip. Yikes yikes yikes. These places were packed. Thankfully, the Park knows it and has built a huge parking lot to accommodate the vehicles. I have been traveling to Jasper my whole life, and the waterfalls there are bonkers. So much so, that the Parks Service definitely doesn’t want you getting too close. But here in Waterton those rules are out the window (which was very confusing to this Jasper gal). The main trail above Red Rock Canyon is under construction, but that doesn’t seem to be important at all because literally everyone is in the canyon. The instructions seem to be “bring your bathing suit and water shoes and use the canyon like a waterpark.” We did a bit of wandering in the water, but it was so busy that the novelty wore off quickly.
The hike from here out to Blakiston Falls is about 1km. It was 34 degrees C that day, and so few people were carrying water! Fewer than were carrying bear spray. I have FEELINGS about this, but let’s get to the scenery! There is a lot of infrastructure around the falls, which are teeny. Reading about the fire that spread through this area 5 years ago (more on that later) I think that a lot of the bridges, paths, and viewing platforms were probably destroyed. This metal monstrosity looked fairly new. And it did allow us to get some nice views and pictures of the falls. But just like the Canyon, folks climbed right down to the creek and got in above the falls. It was all super picturesque if you didn’t mind having other folks feature in your photos. And it is much more accessible for people who want to see nature, but don’t want to – or can’t – do a long or challenging hike. Kudos to Waterton for providing that option.
There are two access points to this lake, and one of them was on our way to Red Rock Canyon. And that parking lot was practically empty, which we took as a sign that this trail was more our speed. The lake is about 3.8km from Red Rock Parkway, and can be accessed from Akamina Parkway as well, about the same distance on foot. I would classify it as “easy and short”, and totally doable with kiddos. Folks who are less active might find it a nice challenge. Most of the walk is through burnt sections of forest, but there is still a lot of (low) greenery this time of year. And I fell in love with the shiny, white, dead aspens. These “ghosties” were a favourite sight throughout the trip. I primarily wanted to check out the lake so I could go for a swim. It was cold, really fricken cold. And I didn’t have my boogie board so I didn’t want to go too far out in the water.
Rowe Lakes and Lineham Ridge
Ooh baby, this is the hike I had been looking forward to. The description in our trail book was in plain language, and really painted a picturesque picture of the area. Two lake options and a more challenging hike up to a Ridge to overlook some other lakes. Easy peasy, right? To be honest, you could do the hike to the Lower Rowe Lake and call it a very rewarding day. The fire took out a big chunk of this mountainside, but not all of it. We crossed through burnt trees, then came out onto a huge space filled with saskatoon bushes! I was dumbstruck! And bear-aware! We hit a lush green forest, then Lower Rowe Lake (1960m) at mid-morning, so the sun was peeking through the haze. It was just us and a deer up there.
At the next junction we decided to tackle Lineham Ridge over Upper Rowe Lake because my priority was the Ridge and I wasn’t sure I would have enough energy to do both. It was so windy as we got out of the treeline and started to cross the inner bowl. I was using both poles by now and taking a lot of breaks. Both to catch my breath and for pep talks. All those scary moments were made totally worth it when we got to the ridge and could see over into the next valley and the Lineham Lakes. It made me giggle and cheer! Climbing mountains will never get old.
Back down the mountain, where we encountered the same family group of big horn sheep and a few women hikers looking to make the trek up. I cheered them on! Telling them that it might look scary and tough, but it’s worth it. We decided to pass on the Upper Rowe Lake, because while it was only a 1km detour, it was a steep incline of switchbacks. And my legs were not excited about that. We did stop at Lower Rowe Lake again on the way down. And I got to go for a swim in another mountain lake. It felt like a bonehead move to carry my boogie board up a mountain, but it was 100% worth it when I hit that water. The freezing coldness cut my swim down to only a few minutes, but they were minutes equal in happiness to making it to the top of Lineham Ridge.
We did a few of what I will call “side trips” during our time down south. I am not including the drive to the Pizza Hut, although that was fun too. The bison paddock was very rad, as I love bison. And Frank Slide was a dud, even though I love rocks. We also saw a pet goat named Boots walking around the Wateron townsite. And I got a selfie with haybales while I was trying to get closer to a wind turbine. So many of my favourite things in one vacation!
MY VALUES ON VACATION
It’s weird to be an activist of any stripe and go on vacation. The systemic problems that we face don’t disappear, they just take a different shape in a different place. Waterton Lakes and Pincher Creek gave me a close up look at my climate values. Our hotel has “eco” branded soap, but individually packaged coffee in the room. There are wind turbines surrounding the town of Pincher Creek, but plans for a coal mine in Crowsnest Pass.
In August 2017 (almost 5 years to the day of our trip), a massive wildfire entered Waterton Park from the province of British Columbia By the time it was controlled and extinguished it had burned over 19,000 hectares and destroyed a lot of the built infrastructure within the Park as well, despite the “best efforts of facility protection crews” (Source). The source of the fire was an intense thunder storm, and Parks Canada notes that 2017 was the third driest year on record for Waterton. We know that as our world gets hotter and drier, our forests are more at risk for events like this. Especially considering the other pressures on them – pests and industrial deforestation for example. It was wild to wander through the dead trees, and see the bare mountains around us. As John Hammond says, “life finds a way”, and there are already a lot of plants coming back in – raspberries, saskatoons, pigweed, and even some baby pines – but there were few birds and small animals.
I enjoy travel, and I probably won’t stop any time soon. But there are ways I can make my vacation more in line with my values. Dan & I pack our own lunches for our hiking trips for example. And I want to get into the habit of bringing my own coffee pot and hand soap. This reduces some plastic packaging, which is a drop in the bucket compared to so many other choices that are unavailable to me. For example, I would love to carpool to a trailhead or take public transit of some sort. The National Parks in our Province offer shuttle service, or group transportation (for a fee) to many popular destinations within their borders. My dream is to see high speed electric train service between Edmonton and Calgary, the larger city to the south. That would make me happier than a pig in a puddle. It’s been discussed for years, but always with some nonsense price tag, or imaginary impediments. If we want to meet our targets to save human life on this planet, we need to get working on these big, seemingly impossible projects. Our provincial government reported a $14 billion “surplus” this fiscal year and chose to use it to pay down the “debt”. Y’all, debt is already meaningless, but it will be even more so when humans are extirpated from these lands.
FURTHER READING AND RESOURCES
- Crandell Lake Trail
- Red Rock Canyon
- Blakiston Falls
- Lower Rowe Lake and Lineham Ridge
- History of the Park