From Cameron Lake, Valerie leads me up through the forest to Summit Lake, and beyond, for the final steep grind to the Carthew Summit pass. Below, its namesake cluster of lakes lie in their improbable bowl. This is stunning country, the heart of Waterton Lakes National Park, the narrow waist of the Canadian Rockies that abuts Glacier National Park at the Canada-United States border, not two miles away from where we stand on the rocky trail. We're loaded for bear, literally, as Waterton has probably the most intense grizzly bear mojo you'll find anywhere. With our bear spray at the ready we're both enjoying the outrageous scenery as we work above 7,500 feet to crest the pass and start down to the Carthew Lakes.
We're doing the Carthew-Alderson Trail, 20 kilometers of pure mind-blowing mountain scenery, and one of the signature hikes in the Waterton area. We'll see two dozen species of wildflower in six hours of hiking, reminding us we're in one of the richest eco-tones in North America, an overlapping of prairie and mountain bio-diversity zones that gives us flora and fauna in wild abundance. Everybody in Waterton has wildlife stories, and Valerie shares a few with me over our al fresco backcountry lunch at the lower lakes. Like the time she surprised a grizzly bear in the brush and found herself not twenty feet from a charging animal. She stood her ground and let fly with a well aimed burst of bear spray, a potent deterrent, and so is here with me to tell the tale.
"It's just part of living here in Waterton," Valerie Haig-Brown tells me with a knowing grin. "You know pretty quick if this is the place for you. I certainly did." Valerie arrived in Waterton about 30 years ago working as an editor to talk with writer Andy Russell about an introduction he was doing for a book her late father (the famous writer, outdoorsman and conservationist Roderick Haig-Brown) had written. It turned out to be a life-altering experience. "I met Andy's son John Russell and the rest is history. "
Valerie had a good reason to tarry, but you don't have to fall in love and get married to fall hard for Waterton. The place is magical. Valerie, a writer and naturalist of acclaim, agreed to go hiking with me as part of her outreach work with the local institute, Trail of the Great Bear, seeking to preserve the natural beauty and ecosystems of the Canadian Rockies. A day in the backcountry with Valerie is an experience in good humor and deep ecological expertise. As luck would have it, the Carthew-Alderson Trail that we hike today takes us directly back to the townsite on the shores of Upper Waterton Lake.
Waterton Park (everybody just calls it Waterton) is one of those places, where, when you finally arrive you could kick yourself for not having come sooner. The immediate question is: How could I have been so dumb? The hamlet of Waterton itself, relaxed and low key even in the heart of a mid-August summer, stands in marked contrast to its busier Rocky Mountain sister cities of Kalsipell and Banff. Waterton is major league laid back, truly end-of-the-road uncrowded, and friendly beyond belief. Visitors, many who have been coming for decades, stroll the mellow town site spread out along the banks of the lake, the few streets lined with restaurants and shops. The landmark Prince of Wales hotel towers above the hamlet high on the hill to the north.
Unlike Banff and Jasper national parks farther north, Waterton hides from the real world at the end of the road deep in southern Alberta. The crowds of tourist just south in Glacier National Park seldom venture north through the quirky, closes-at-dusk Big Chief border crossing, and the tourists farther north are well entertained by the majesty of the better known sights of the Canadian Rockies. That leaves Waterton as something of an undiscovered diamond in the rough, and one that powerfully seduces with world class hiking, unrivalled wildlife and wildfowers, and an easy going ambience that is frankly unbelievable. And it's not just people who can't bring themselves to leave. The town is over-run with deer, who hang out on the lawns and green spaces of the town in such numbers that human-deer interactions can turn dangerous. Waterton has to be the only town in North America with signs warning of injury from aggressive deer behavior.
And when you at last hit the trail for that first foray into the stunning mountain landscape rising all around the town site, your appreciation for this out-of-the-way jewel goes off the scale. The day hiking is so good here that people forget to go backpacking. Legendary full-day classics like the Carthew-Alderson Trail, the Akamina Ridge walk or the unique Crypt Lake Trail and its storied natural tunnel can reset your threshold for what constitutes world-class alpine hiking. These are beautiful and challenging routes, a good way to get acclimated to the wildness and steepness of the impressive Lewis Range that runs from Waterton down into Glacier National Park, just across the international border. To really steep yourself in the unique landscape of this, the narrowest part of the Rockies, where the mountains just pop up out of the plain without bothering with foothills, you’ve got to hit the trail. But there is a lot going in Waterton besides world class hiking
The park is unusual in other respects, including the fact that Waterton Lakes National Park, and Glacier National Park on the other side of the U.S.-Canadian border, were joined in 1932 to create the first International Peace Park. This collaboration of adjacent parks is not just window dressing, but a practical way to protect the exceptionally diverse habitat within its boundaries. Parks Canada and the U.S. Park Service work together to manage the unique environment within both parks, along with the wildlife, and the humans who come to visit. The two parks are managed as one, so you can actually hike from Canada into the United States and back again, or vice versa.
A standard feature to any visit here is the day long voyage on the venerable M.V. International (in service since 1927) down Waterton Lake, the deepest in the Rockies, from the town site of Waterton to the landing in Glacier National Park at historic Goat Haunt. The half day run gives you a majestic perspective on the peaks that crowd this international convergence of wilderness and beauty. The distinctive mountain-prairie interface protected by these parks, and the innovative international management of them, resulted in the Peace Park’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The accolade is well deserved, as a week or so spent roaming the ridges and valleys of this unique landscape quickly reveals why this part of the world is deserving of unconventional protections.
But there’s an element to any hiking trip to Waterton that is unique: You’ll be sharing the trails and the backcountry with lots of grizzly bears, and black bears. No other park I have visited, not even Denali, comes with bear activity so intense. This is a place where at the end of the day, you can say, “Hey, let’s go see some bears,” and within a 15 minute drive enjoy a handful of sightings. Those close encounters feel a little different, a little scarier, when you’re out in the backcountry, miles from the safety of the car. But you have to deal with it because the fact is: in Waterton, bears come with the territory.
The bears are here, along with the sheep, moose, elk, mule deer, cougar, wolf and coyote, because Waterton sits on a one-of-a-kind pinch point in the Rocky Mountains, a waist if you will, that creates a natural wildlife corridor. And because the mountains rise so abruptly from the plain, blurring the line between mountains and prairie, an incredibly diverse range of flora and fauna exists here. Almost 50 different eco-zones converge in just a few miles, from grassland to aspen forest, from wetland to alpine zone, from tundra to sub-alpine meadow. A coastal influence blowing in from British Columbia adds yet another environmental element to the equation. The result is a place so abundant and biologically diverse there are more species of wildflowers in Waterton than in Banff and Jasper national parks combined. It’s yet another external accolade for a truly exceptional landscape, but what’s more important is how much fun it is to hike here.
For such a wild place, the park is easily navigated. Two main roads leave from the Waterton town site to the features and trailhead in the park, the Red Rock Parkway and the Akamina Parkway. Between the two roads, access to most trails takes only a half an hour or so from town, with each drive being a wildlife viewing opportunity. I finished up my stay here with a hike up Lineham Ridge with Carey Tetzlaff, a guide with Tamarack Outdoor Outfitter, the main purveyor of outdoor gear and trailhead services in the hamlet of Waterton. Carey picked me up at my accommodations, the comfortable Waterton Lakes Lodge, and together we drove down the Akamina Road to the Rowe Lakes Trailhead, the start of another signature Waterton hiking route.
The spectacular 19-kilometer round trip hike gains 3,000 feet in elevation as it takes us through the pretty subalpine meadow of Lower Rowe Lake before contouring out of the high country basin up Lineham Ridge. At almost 8,500 feet, the open ridgetop offers stunning 360-degree views of the Waterton Lakes high country, including the deep trench of the Blakiston Creek Valley, where the Tamarack trail makes perhaps the best overnight hike in the park. Carey, a native Albertan who now calls Waterton home, points out the virtually inaccessible Lineham Lakes, a view that by itself is worth the effort to get here.
As we sit over our trail lunch and take in the view, I realize that it soon will be time to pack up and hike out, and for me that means not just the end of the hike but the end of the trail explorations in these unique mountains. It's time to go home. I found Waterton is such a hard place to leave that the only way to face it is to promise yourself you'll be back.
Waterton is about three hours by car from Calgary's airport, a little farther from Kalispell, Montana. For information on Waterton Lakes National Park, check the official park website
. Hiker shuttle services and hiking guides can be found at Tamarack Outfitters, 403-859-2378, and from Trail of the Great Bear, 403-859-2663. Check the visitors website
for Waterton for information on restaurants and lodging. The Travel Alberta website
can make planning a visit to Waterton much easier.