2020 has set its own travel and tourism agenda. While we wait for flights, domestic and international, to resume we can staple the places we want to visit and revisit. For me it is Waterton and I was looking to fill in the blanks of my 2019 amble in the Park.
WATERTON, ALBERTA: Place names entice visitors with romantic connotations, macho ruggedness or Elysian visions. On my three earlier visits to Calgary, Alberta, Waterton never figured on my visiting list and this was a blunder I regret. When i did, in August 2019, it turned out to be a pastiche of all three categories… an Elysian, picturesque romantic all season get-away preserved by the rugged Rockies. There was one minor glitch….the visit was inconclusive as the Park was under reconstruction due to devastation of 2017 Kenow wildfire. The fire, said to have originated from British Columbia, encroached into Alberta flaming northeast from Cameron Valley along Akima Parkway scorching nearly 38,000 hectares, including 20,329 of Waterton Lakes National Park. The burnt out mountains stood testimony to the devastation that had stopped short of Waterton town and the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel. Other structures including Alpine Stables, the Visitor Centre, Crandell Campground were not so lucky. Most major hikes were closed, but being end of summer (2019) the town and its environs were swarming with visitors and nature lovers. The reason ‘..nature is already renewing itself by weaving the mosaic anew–and perhaps by adding novel, unexpected patterns’. (Parks Canada blog).
Visit of 2019: Summer is the time for beaches and national parks and on a bright sunny morning, perfect for a 2 hour plus drive to Waterton in southern Alberta bordering Montana’s Glacier National Park. we set out from Calgary, Alberta. The Park was created in 1932 as an extension of Waterston-Glacier International Peace Park (IPP), a symbol of peace and goodwill between Canada and United States. Both Parks are UNESCO declared Biosphere Reserves and, together, a World Heritage Site.
The Drive from Calgary: The 158-mile drive from Calgary is no Big Sur (California) panoramic adventure but is still one of Canada’s most scenic drives. We took the spartan meandering route from Calgary through flat prairie land passing Okotoks till Nanton and then onto Hwy 2. On return preferred the picturesque Route 22 or the Cowboy trail (part of Hwy 5) following the scenic Rockies overlooking ranches and farmlands, eateries and pubs and included a detour to Franks Slide and stop at Nanton (an hour’s drive from Calagary).
The Glacier National Park, on USA side, offers 700 miles of trails ghosted by pristine forests, alpine meadows, spectacular lakes and mountains and the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. The popularity of the Parks, Waterton and Glacier, is tied to the connectivity accorded by Canadian Pacific Railway and Trans Canada Highway. All one needs is proper documentation (passport). Visitors are trusted unlike during Depression when bootleggers ruled the roost.
History: Canada is dunked in history, First nation and Colonial, and this lake town is no different. From little I could gleam from brochures and Google is that the Park is Canada’s 4th National park and the smallest in the Canadian Rockies. In 1858 one Lt. Thomas Blakiston, a member of the Palliser Expedition, in search of possible site for construction of a railway pass through the mountains, crossed through North Kootenay Pass and the continental divide into what is now British Columbia and Montana (Tobacco Plains). In the course of his journey, Blakiston met with Kutenai tribe who guided him to South Kootenay pass through which he recrossed the divide, travelling along Blakiston (Pass) Creek and to a chain of three large lakes and a spectacular natural meeting point of the mountains and prairies that was a blend of unusual geology, mild climate, rare wild flowers and an abundance of wildlife . On Sept. 6, 1858, he wrote….’The scenery here is grand and picturesque….game is abundant, including Grizzly bears…and we obtained fresh meat and fish’.
Destination: We reached Waterton around lunch time and made straight to the Main road. The town was filling up and judging by the cars and tour buses it seemed everyone had the same idea of extracting the best of last day of official summer month. The the burnt out stumps dotting the surrounding mountains were reminders of 2017 devastating Kenow Fire. I suppose it was and is the resilience of the residents and visitors that Waterton was striding towards its former natural picturesqueness. The popular hiking trails, including the scenic Red Rock parkway had opened to foot and bike traffic. The Akamina Parkway, the road leading to the popular Cameron Lake day-use area, was expected to be ready by 2021.
We talk of sustainable and responsible tourism, fewer footfalls to preserve the ecological balance, but on the flip side a tourist spot looses its desirability if there are no or few admirers to appreciate nature’s bounty. Rules and regulations help, signs to ‘wipe your soles (shoes) to not carry pores to endanger natural habitat’ but then how many of us follow these rules. Persistent efforts are bringing in results and Waterton Park is again the wildflower capital of Canada. Summer is the best time to view nearly 900 species of wildflowers and plants along the lakeshores and from ‘Prairies to Peaks’.
Beargrass and the Pygmy Poppy are unique to Waterton Park. We were visiting at fag end of summer (Mid August) so missed out the wildflower festival, held in June every year, including display of rare orchids and more than 30 varieties of flowers. Summer workshops on photography, guided hikes and field classes are some of the other activities to indulge in. The ‘bear grass’ pic is from Waterton parks webpage while other two we managed while walking around the foothills. My hopes of roaming the meadows in 2020, taking flower pictures, are now hostage to Covid-19.
But there is tons of water, Water-ton, and the soothing aqua of the larger Upper and Middle lakes, flanked by the obtruding Rocky mountains, straddles the landscape. With all its natural resources The Park is a paradise for hikers, bikers, nature lovers, animal watchers and water enthusiasts. Park brochures and website list bisons, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, elks, moose, bears, grizzly and black, coyotes etc. as perks of visiting. One can kayak or paddle across Cameron lake (on the border) to view grizzlies in their natural habitat. As usual our negative animal luck did not favour us with any sightings. We did not take the kayak ride but all through the drive along the mountains I hoped to sight…..even a Big horn.
Walking the Village: “If the heart of Waterton Lakes National Park is its rugged natural beauty, then Waterton Village is its pulse”. I fully agreed while devouring pizzas at the popular pizza place ‘Pizza of Waterton’. The eatery was selected more for the outdoor seating (WindFlower Avenue) and carefree touristy ambiance. The main street, there are only two streets, is bustling with boutiques, eateries, book stores, coffee places, ice cream parlours and most important, benches to relax. The entire village/town is walkable and someone suggested the 2 mile Townsite Loop, the paved comfortable walk around Waterton Village that follows the Upper Waterton Lake and Emerald Bay. It is an hour long leisurely walk that runs from the Bayshore Inn Resort to the river running into the lake. Another diversion for children is the play area for kids.
We crossed over to the Lake front. It was windy and water too cold to dip toes. Spend some time watching the play of waves with pebbles and strolled towards the Marina where cruise ferries, private boats dock. The idea was to take the Shoreline Cruise, a two and half hour round trip crossing the international border from Canada to United States in the Upper Waterton lake. Did not bargain for the summer rush and queue, our turn would have come on third round. The cruise, in service since 1927, would have been worth the wait to learn about the Parks rich history, wildlife and topography. It was a case of ‘not proper planning’ and time being in short supply ticked it for our next visit. There are other watersports such as Waterski, windsurfing and sailboarding for the adventurous.
Surprise is a waterfall Cameron Falls a short distance from Town center, Evergreen Avenue, across from the parking lot. It is an amazing sight of cool, sparkling mountain waters flowing down over layers of billion years old Precambrian rocks that showcase Waterton’s geological uniqueness. The Viewing bridge is a perfect place to feel the cool mist on your face. There are walking trails around to observe the Fall from different angles and perspectives.
Hike and Bike: Another must in Waterton are the hikes, short and long, as there are nearly 255 km of hiking trails. The main hikes were closed, still under repairs after the 2017 fire, though visitors are allowed upto a certain limit. A popular one is the Red Rock Canyon hike. For easy jaunts, especially for walkers like me, there is the Prince of Wales Trail, a 1.2 mile route that loops around the hill below the Hotel for a fantastic view of Upper and Middle Waterton Lakes. It is a 45 minute walk and we did more for the view and to ‘fly’ with the strong winds.
There are more…. the Bear’s Hump Trail, a 1.8 mile round trip trail to emerge onto a summit for sweeping views of Prince of Wales hotel. It was closed, during our visit. Then there are the difficult ones, the 10.7 mile Crypt Trail that starts with the boat ride from Upper Waterton Lake, a trek past waterfalls and mountains, tunnels and a steep climb of more than 2,200 feet elevation. It is a long, nearly full day trek.
The outdoor activities cater to different choices. Rent a bike to ride the Red Rock Parkway, a 9 mile route that traverses numerous scenic vantage points and rolling grasslands. If a water person rent a kayak (Pats Waterton) for a day out on the lakes.The Akamina Parkway was open to hikes and bike traffic off and on since November 2018 but closed again till end of the year for construction. The Crandell Mountain campground, that had been levelled in the fire, was to reopen by 2022.
Afternoon Tea at Prince of Wales Hotel
The dénouement of the trip was in sight…the iconic British Afternoon Tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel visible on the grassy knoll from Upper Waterton Lake. Again a mis-step. We had not reserved a table before arrival and so had to await our turn to nibble on ‘scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam’. In meantime strolled the grounds and the interior to acquaint ourselves with historic and social importance of this stately Hotel. The Prince of Wales, constructed in 1926-27, was the last in a chain of luxury hotels built by the Great Northern Railway for affluent tourists arriving by train from across the border, Glacier National Park, and from within the country for vacations and stay-cations. The Hotel was named after Prince of Wales ( King Edward VIII), in an attempt to entice him to stay in the hotel during his 1927 Canadian tour. But the Prince preferred a nearby Ranch.
The present Prince of Wales Hotel, managed by the Glacier Park Company, is a seven storied Rustic style landmark situated on Upper Waterton lake and bordered by Alberta Highway 5, parklands and lakes and Emerald Bay. The hotel was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1992. History aside it is a pleasure to walk into the majestic Swiss chalet throwback with high-ceilinged, timber framed lobby with natural wood detailing and antique furniture adding to its Victorian charm. The perpendicular lobby and the Royal stewart Dining Hall, with two-storey windows overlooking the Upper Waterton Lake, is perfect setting for the Afternoon Tea. We took an exhaustive round of the Hotel, a look-in at the Princess Gift shop and the ‘Red Elevator’ and stepped outside to the bluff, the magnificent green lawns with panoramic view of the lake and surrounding mountains. Somebody exclaimed that the exterior was more mind-blowing than the interior. He was right as the strong chill winds do not let you stay rooted in one place, more of a flying exercise.
Now the choice was to go inside for tea or stay outside. We had to wait for a table near the window so decision was to move on. After nearly an hour just gazing across the waters, we bundled into our car to return to Pincher Creek for overnight stay. Waterton was fully booked, weekend, and so the only booking available was at Ramada Hotel, Pincher Creek. Here too we must have been the last ones as the hotel was over flowing with guests.
Next day was return to Calgary via Highway 22 or the Cowboy Trail for an amazing ride past the Rockies and swaying green fields. On way we stopped at Franks Slide, to watch the transformation from ‘bounty of nature to fury of’ nature and then to Nanton, once known as the ‘Tap Town’. The reason for the moniker was that this small town provided passing motorists with free wate, from its foothills, via a stand tap on the northbound highway. Later this water was bottled and sold in Canada as Nanton Water & Soda Ltd. It is said to be a thriving business today.
For a boutique town Nanton has awesomely remarkable touristy landmarks. The walk down village lanes, the before-lunch stroll, revealed quaint antique and art shops including Because I said So a store for everything from coffee, used books (purchased 2), cards, gifts, stunning pottery, homemade soap, candles, jewellery, trinkets and information. The owner suggested lunch at Wild Thyme Cafe for home cooked meal and I am glad we took her advice. Next was the aviation museum, formerly the Nanton Lancaster Society Museum and now the Bomber Command Museum. We were in luck as the Museum was celebrating the 5th anniversary of the Twining Agreement between the Village of Senantes (France) and Nanton. As part of the celebrations they fired up the Lancaster to honour Ian W. Bazalgette who had crash-landed his Lancaster in Senantes to save his crew during World War II. It was an emotional tribute to Bazalgette on his 75th death anniversary.
A day well spent and perfect ending to a two day end-of-summer break.