Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2021
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Banff Lite

Waterton National Park has the best of the Rockies -- without the hordes

"Please don't write about Waterton," said a Calgary friend. "It's the way Banff was many years ago -- and we like it that way." But at the risk of losing a friend, Waterton National Park is just too good a place to keep to myself. Much smaller and less crowded than either Banff or Jasper, Waterton is, in fact, a little isolated. But its stunning scenery and quieter pace are well worth the detour to get there. Tucked into the extreme southwest corner of Alberta, the 518-square-kilometre park forms the Canadian portion of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park straddling the border between Alberta and Montana. The international park was established in 1932 to commemorate goodwill between the US and Canada. Waterton's western limit is the Alberta-British Columbia boundary along the crest of the Great Divide. The first recorded outsider to reach the area was Lt. Thomas Blackiston, leader of a section of the Palliser Expedition that travelled from the Tobacco Plains of Montana to the prairies between 1857 and 1860. Following a Native American trail, Blackiston crossed the South Kootenay Pass on September 6, 1858 and descended into the valley which he named in honour of the British naturalist Charles Waterton. The area was declared Canada's fourth national park in 1911, mainly through the efforts of George "Kootenai" Brown, the valley's first permanent white resident. Brown had a colourful past, including being captured by Chief Sitting Bull -- and escaping. He sang the praises of Waterton to his rancher friends, one of whom successfully lobbied the government into setting the area aside as a natural reserve, with Brown as its first superintendent. The approach to Waterton from either Cardston or Pincher Creek is spectacular, with the Rockies rising sharply from the grasslands. Further north, rolling foothills provide a transition zone between the two elements, but here the change is dramatic. It's as though prairie suddenly encounters the Rockies, tries to sweep upwards for a few metres and then gives up, leaving behind a few balsam and aspen trees.

Smaller is better
As a small park, Waterton has far fewer visitor facilities than Banff or Jasper. The tiny townsite, with only about a dozen places to stay, is a quiet haven compared to the boutiques and shopping malls of Banff. Nonetheless, it's wise to book ahead especially in July and August, particularly as there's very little accommodation outside the park within easy reach. While Waterton is well supplied with campsites -- available on a first-come-first-served basis -- they usually fill up by mid-afternoon. The park office at the townsite entrance has information on the 160 kilometres of hiking trails and other Waterton activities. Most trails are day hikes leading to alpine lakes nestled in hanging valleys. A good first stretch for the legs is the fairly short but steep hike up Bear Hump which gives a spectacular view over the townsite and Upper Waterton Lake. Heading westward into the mountains from the town of Waterton, the Red Rock Canyon Parkway is the type of narrow winding road common in Banff years ago -- before the park made concessions to increasing numbers of visitors. On a sunny August morning, hardly any other cars are in sight in the valley that Lt. Blackiston immodestly named after himself. At the end of the road a short self-guided walk takes you into the Red Rock Canyon where a small stream has carved its way deep into the soft red argillite. Another easy trail from this point leads to Blackiston Falls. A second road into the park, with access to other walking trails, is the Akamina Parkway which ends at Cameron Lake. This road is less scenic than the one to Red Rock Canyon but offers great views of Mount Custer, just over the border in Montana at the south end of the lake, especially in the morning sun. Canoes can be rented here but the lake is very cold even in midsummer.


The world's easiest border crossing
A more relaxing trip, which most visitors do at some point, is the cruise on Upper Waterton Lake from the town of Waterton to Goat Haunt visitor centre in Montana. The international boundary on the 49th parallel is marked by concrete monuments and an open swath cut through the steep wooded slopes bordering the lake. At Goat Haunt, passengers can disembark for half an hour to see the visitor centre or hike and return on a later boat. Another option is to take a four-hour walk back to Waterton along a lakeshore trail. The one-way boat trip takes about 45 minutes. On the eastern side of Upper Waterton Lake, the dramatic Crypt Lake Trail can be reached by a ferry shuttle. This trail has been called the most spectacular day hike in Canada and is not for the faint of heart. Beginning with a switchback climb, the nine-kilometre hike involves climbing ladders, crawling through a 20-metre natural tunnel and working your way along a precipice with a cable for support. As the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide puts it: "the last 800 metres to Crypt Lake is not well-suited to those suffering from claustrophobia, acrophobia or obesity." Buffalo roaming

On our last evening in Waterton we drove to the buffalo paddock just outside the townsite. Rumbling over a cattle grid onto a gravel road, we were on the edge of the prairie looking over Lake Maskinonge to Bellevue Mountain, one of our favourite Waterton views. The soft evening light threw ridges and clefts into sharp relief, so with no one else in sight we stopped the car on a gentle rise and turned off the engine. Below us, on the edge of a small pond, a group of 20 buffalo had come to drink. Their occasional growls were the only sounds to reach us in the still air. We felt transported to another time when the image before us would have been common across the western plains of North America. Back in town, we stopped for a drink at the Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton's landmark building. Built in 1927 as the Canadian part of a chain of first-class hotels in Glacier National Park, the hotel is built entirely of wood. Its soaring lobby has an alpine feel and the dining room is a great place to splurge on dinner with a view. That said, I had one of the best steaks I have ever tasted at the Lamp Post dining room at Kilmorey Lodge, the only hotel in town open all year. It was the next morning, our last, when I realized exactly what I liked about Waterton. Sure, the scenery is beautiful, but there's just something about its size, its intimacy and low-key atmosphere that makes it special. Before we left, we stopped for breakfast on the main street and parked right outside the restaurant. Try doing that in Banff.


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