I pretty much drove right past Waterton Lakes National park on my way down to the border, kicking off my 2017 summer road trip through the western United States. In my original plans, I had hoped to spend a night in the area, and see the park that I had been missing for so many years of living in Calgary. Alas, I was so excited to get across the border and hoped to spend so much more time down in the American parks, that I flew past thinking "it's so close to Calgary, I can come back to it any time I want to; I'd rather spend my time in parks I can't get to so easily", and I skipped it.
Two months later, driving back towards Alberta, I shuddered to think of all the destruction wildfires had caused in my absence, including the fire that tore across the British Columbia / Alberta border and burned through Waterton Lakes National Park.
I knew I would be visiting the park for Thanksgiving - my family planned a trip to the area for the long weekend. They rented an AirBnB to hold us all, and I think we all had ambitious plans for the weekend, or at least I did! I hoped to get out and hike, whether I had to go solo or drag someone kicking and screaming to come with me. I didn't do any of that. Everything was closed.
By a feat of sheer strength and determination by the heroic firefighters and parks staff, miracles were had in keeping the townsite safe and cool from the flames. Everything except for the small visitor centre still stood at the beginning of October, though it was hard to believe how. It's clear to see, even before you've crossed the park boundary, just how much of this park was touched by the hot kiss of nature's resolve. It's obvious that the fire reached up and over entire mountains, and we could see the contrast of remaining black trunks against winter's earliest signs of white snowfall. The flames crept around creeks and ponds, to edges of lakes, over roads and trails.
I was told by a park representative that in some areas, they still weren't sure that the fire had stopped burning. In other areas, determinations of safety still hadn't been made on deadfall, debris and air quality. That's why almost every road and trail that wasn't the main road and inner townsite was still closed. And even in town, the severity of the fire was apparent. A couple of gals in the confectionary told my family and I that it got so hot in town that all of the chocolate had to be removed because it was melting. There was no candy left in the shop because it had melted into its plastic covering and had been deemed unfit for consumption. And lord knows what happened to the ice cream! Most shops were boarded up early for the season, as shop owners had no ambition to return after the fire, only to close back up again.
I know that fire is all part of Mother Earth's cycle, I know that it is a necessary evil. I know that things will grow back with a vengeance next spring. But it is difficult to see the people affected. I hope that they can take it in stride, and that this fire can prove to somehow be just as good to them as it is to the lifecycle of the surrounding forests and ecosystems.
Despite the destruction, the park was still beautiful; perhaps even more beautiful. The contrast of blackened, twisted wood against the brilliant colours of a long and slow autumn was so striking. Cameron Falls was just as beautiful as I'm sure it ever could have been. And the hot dogs at Wieners of Waterton were so damn great (I had the falafel dog, because yes, I'm a vegetarian, and we can enjoy hotdogs too).
Truth be told, I actually came away from Waterton Lakes National Park kind of excited about it. Now that I've seen it bare and stripped down, I get to watch it grow back. Not having known it previously, I have nothing to compare it against, and I have no expectations. I'm curious to see it in the spring, and next fall, I'm even more curious to see how one full year will have already changed it.
Do you have any favourite memories of Waterton Lakes National Park? Which hikes or trails are you most curious to get back to and see how they might have been affected? Give me a shout via the contact page or Instagram - I'd love to hear from you!
Photos are my own. Please do not reproduce without my written permission.
First: Cameron Falls 2017 | Second: Lower Waterton Lake + Vimy Peak 2017
Third: Panorama of Waterton Lakes National Park from the Prince of Whales Hotel 2017