I was told of the wildfires in British Columbia and had seen many updates from friends commenting on the smoke in Vancouver, but the severity of what was happening became instantly apparent once we arrived in Calgary. As our plane descended, an unmistakeable smog-like layer blanketed the landscape, thick enough to obscure the vastness of the prairies. Safely on the ground, we linked up with our Dutch friends Koen and Natascha who had arrived on an earlier flight from Amsterdam. Awaiting transport to our cookie cutter airport hotel, the distinct smell of campfire tinged our nostrils as we caught up on what was then, and what likely awaited us on our great Canadian adventure.
Picking up our RV the next day, hopes of clearer skies were now but a pipe dream as the smoke had become even worse. With our visibility already at an all time low, our RV stocked up and the sun reduced to a Beijing-esq hue, we headed for Waterton Lakes National Park, 264 kilometers south of Calagary.
Much of the drive was claustrophobic but when it wasn’t, nondescript towns appeared through the haze but for mere glimpses. “Normally”, as I explained to Koen, “you’d be able to see mountains forming to the West”, as if to quell any growing concerns I sensed he might be having. Several hours later however, on the fringe of Waterton National Park, the rugged cliffs of the Rockies finally appeared, literally materializing out of the smoke filled air.
Unlike Banff and Jasper National Parks to the North, Waterton Lakes is significantly smaller and from what I gathered, not as popular on the tourist trail. So when we were told that large areas of the park were closed due to last year’s devastating Kenow Wildfire, we soon realized that most of what we wanted to see and do within the park would no longer be possible. We were informed however that the Crypt Lake trail, a popular black diamond hike rated by National Geographic as one of the world’s most thrilling trails, was in fact open.
This was an exciting proposition for most of us but posed a serious conundrum for me. You see, I’m not good with heights and having done some initial research about hikes in the area, I knew that this trail incorporated aspects of steel cable aids and cliff face traverses. When I relayed my fears to our helpful Parks Canada Guide, without hesitation she replied, “I sobbed the whole way up. At one point I curled into ball and just sobbed.”. Not wanting to risk the possibility of re-enacting similar scenes in front of my wife and friends, I most gracefully convinced them that it probably wouldn’t be worth it considering the smokey conditions and other poorly formed excuses I made up on the spot.
Highly recommended, the hike to Bertha Lake was a sensible replacement considering most other options we hand in mind were no longer options at all. Listed as a more moderate hike, the trail consisted of a little bit of everything (minus the sheer cliff traversing non-sense) that as one could formulate, ended at a lake. Occasionally eerie and somewhat devoid of life, the trail switchbacked its way through areas of scorched earth, affording beautiful views of the lake and townsite that would have otherwise been restricted by lush forest.
Having filled our quota with a trail and some lakes, we found solace in regular jaunts to Waterton, a townsite that boasted an exceptional number of eateries claiming to have ”world famous” somethings. Our starkly planned but well equipped campground allowed for regular deer sightings and, when quite enough, hoards of Columbian ground squirrels could be seen basking in the sun. No stay in Waterton would be complete until venturing up to the bluff where the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel is perched. Built by the Great Northern Railway, it’s the only one of it’s kind with a beautiful corridored view of Waterton Lake. The foyer is impressive and worth a gander, but considering that the hotel is a National Historic Site, the exterior could use a little tender love and care.
Next stop, Radium...Hot Springs.