Wilderness untouched in Waterton

ISOBEL KING
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2013
Waterton-landscape

RAW ATTRACTION: Waterton Lake and the landmark Prince of Wales Hotel.

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Waterton is a mere speck in the middle of a gargantuan Canadian wilderness, a town with a permanent population of about 50 and a winter so bitter it virtually shuts the place down.

Tucked away in the south-western tip of Alberta, it's the frontier town you could blink and miss as you steer towards the US border.

Deer wander freely through the handful of town streets. On the road driving out, I nearly took out a black bear that was nonchalantly crossing the road as he lumbered from the thick scrub on one side to the shores of the lake on the other.

He didn't care someone had plonked a strip of bitumen in between. It made previous sightings, squinting through binoculars at a fuzzy blur, almost comical. It is this "up close and personal" rawness that attracts more than half a million visitors to Waterton in the warm window between May and September.

Yet surprisingly, few Canadians outside Alberta have even heard of it. If wilderness hiking is your thing, this is your place.

The 500-square-kilometre Waterton Lakes National Park borders Glacier National Park in Montana, just across the border, and together they make up the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which is jointly managed by the US and Canada.

The twin parks were declared a World Heritage site in 1995, permanently safeguarding them from intrusive development. The town has a sprinkling of accommodation - nothing flash but totally serviceable - and a limited restaurant offering.

The rambling camping grounds on the edge of town, teeming with the oversize RVs Americans are so fond of, reveal how most visitors choose to experience Waterton.

By noon, the town has virtually emptied out as hikers disappear deep into the pine forests, alpine lakes, prairies and rocky peaks that fan out in every direction, following any one of the various marked trails.

The most famous is the full-day return hike to Crypt Lake. A shuttle boat from town drops hikers at the start of the trail mid-morning and picks them up late afternoon.

It's not a trek for the faint-hearted because much of it is uphill, and part of the trail hugs the edge of steep drops and involves crawling through a narrow, but short, tunnel.

A fit-looking Irish couple I met had just done the trek and were staggered by how precarious parts of the trail were.

But the reward is heart-stopping views, terrain that varies from waterfalls to thick forest and the glacial Crypt Lake as the finale.

The less ambitious could settle for Bear's Hump, near town. It's a decent half-hour steep slog to the top, but the views over lakeside Waterton and its mountainous backdrop are worth it.

A visit to the small museum on the main drag (you've covered its length in five minutes) shows the footprint of the town has remained largely unchanged since 1932, when it was declared the world's first international peace park.

The buildings are just newer and a steady procession of RVs has replaced the quaint vintage cars, bogged in snow, that are captured in the many old black and white photos on display.

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Sitting up on a shaven hill overlooking the town is the original Prince of Wales Hotel, built in 1927 and used as the mascot for just about every Waterton tourist shot you see.

Its views straight down the centre of the glacially carved Waterton Lake are undeniably impressive, especially at dusk, as shadows edge their way across the grey, crinkly mountains that rise up from its shores.

Manager Maher Ahmed proudly showed me through the rooms, which are largely in their original state and perhaps not to everyone's taste, especially if you're partial to television or Wi-Fi.

The hotel has neither. My recommendation would be to pop up for a meal or their famous high tea and simply drink in the view.

Just beyond the hotel, a few hundred metres down the road before you hit the national park gates, is a field where herds of elk gather in the early evening to graze.

Or so I'm told. All the signs point to it and others had seen them, but the elks were obviously fasting the day I was there.

The least strenuous way to appreciate the park's rugged terrain is to take the cruise up Upper Waterton Lake, which crosses the border into Montana and deposits passengers at Goat Haunt for a brief walk around the visitor centre before returning.

I took the trip on an unusually cold, misty September morning, which gave the already dramatic landscape a particularly haunting veil. At one point we pulled in close to the shore to observe a bear that was hovering over the corpse of another, its lifeless paws pointing bolt upright like a bloated Winnie the Pooh.

There was debate about whether one bear had killed the other or simply stumbled across it and was now poised for a good feed. Either way, it was a rather confronting brush with nature.

Cameron Lake is another popular spot and the twisty drive up there from town winds through thick forests of pine, poplar, spruce and cedar, and parking bays on the way indicate the starting point of several walking trails.

The lake is quite magnificent, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, even in summer. You can paddle out on little boats or hire a kayak or canoe to explore its fringes.

In fact, you really can't drive, walk, bike, boat, horse ride or scooter (yes, you can hire them in town) anywhere in this vast wilderness without being occasionally awestruck by the sheer extravagance of nature.

Even the three-hour drive south from Calgary, along an almost perfectly straight road, is quite hypnotic and a reminder of Waterton's catchphrase, "Where the mountains meet the prairie."

Dubbed the Cowboy Trail, the road follows the long, eastern face of the Rocky Mountains in the distance, with perfectly flat prairies stretching out as far as the eye can see, and the occasional ranch sighting. Some of the most iconic scenes from the film Brokeback Mountain were filmed in these parts.

There's no downhill skiing in Waterton; in fact, the town pretty much closes for winter as temperatures dip to minus 35 and lashing winds keep out everyone but the diehards who risk avalanches to ski the trails.

Waterton is for those who like their wilderness untouched and are willing to forgo luxury hotels and fancy restaurants to experience it.

The writer travelled courtesy of Travel Alberta and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

FOUR MORE THINGS TO DO CITY HIGHLIGHTS

A walking tour of Calgary's downtown area is also a good way to delve beyond its cowboy roots, see the towering testaments to Alberta's mining boom and view the city's impressive support of public art. See calgarywalks.com.

LASSO FINE FOOD

Calgary's lively food scene is overshadowed by the city's cowboy image. Karen Anderson, who runs Calgary Food Tours, opened eyes to some great food experiences in a very short window and runs tailored food tours for those with a little more time to explore Calgary's ethnic neighbourhoods. See calgaryfoodtours.com.

LACE UP

In Waterton, Tamarack Outdoor Outfitters runs shuttle buses to various hiking trails, has gear available for hire and the guys know everything about hiking in the area. See hikewaterton.com.

CRUISE CONTROL

The two-hour cruise around Upper Waterton Lake, stopping at Goat Haunt, costs $49. Shoreline Cruises also runs the boat shuttle for the Crypt Lake hike. See watertoncruise.com.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION www.canada.travel

GETTING THERE

Fly to Vancouver and then to Calgary (1hr 23min). See aircanada.com. Hire cars are available from several companies in Calgary.

STAYING THERE

If you're overnighting in Calgary before driving south to Waterton, the boutique Hotel Arts is located right in town, with rooms from $215a person a night, double/twin share. It's walking distance to the shopping and entertainment district. See hotelarts.ca.

In Waterton, rooms at the Waterton Glacier Suites are $195 a person a night, double/twin. See watertonsuites.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald