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WONDERFUL WATERTON

A Boat, Bears, and Bison in Southwest Alberta
By Karoline Cullen

There's a folk song that goes "Four strong winds that blow lonely ." and it's in my head. On the deck of the M.V. International, I grab my hat, just before the buffeting wind whips it into the lake, and silently sing another chorus. I'm thinking Ian Tyson's song might well have been about the winds in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Strong winds or not, the M.V. International has been continuously ferrying tourists between Waterton, Alberta and Goat Haunt, Montana for the last eighty years. Under a clear blue sky, it heads south on the deepest lake in the Rockies. The vista is fjord-like and we're passing pristine, untrammeled wilderness. The shoreline is densely wooded, crowned by mountain peaks, many dusted with snow. Only some commentary from our interpretive guide interrupts the silence.

As we pass Mount Bertha, the guide tells us about a kindly town pioneer, who has that mountain, a lake, and some waterfalls named after her. In prohibition days, seems Bertha supplied prescriptions for "medicinal drink" and the townsfolk were clearly appreciative of her generosity. At Sleeping Chief Mountain, he carefully points out how the peaks form the profile of a man's face. I should be glad I am not here in winter, when the winds on the lake can reach hurricane force. The Blackfeet Indians believed the wind was cursed and while they came to the lake to hunt and fish, they would never live on the shore.

We cross the 49th parallel, the border definitively marked by a cleared swath snaking up the mountains on both sides of the lake. Through the efforts of local Rotary Clubs, Waterton National Park was linked to Montana's Glacier National Park in 1932. Together, they formed the world's first International Peace Park, and it is one of thirteen worldwide. On our boat, we have the easiest of border crossings and soon we disembark at Goat Haunt.

It would not take many mountain goats to outnumber the few rangers that man this lonely outpost. Other than the station, some trailheads, and the winter boathouse for the International, it is a pleasant spot for a leg stretch on our short stopover. Some hikers emerge from the backcountry and board for the return trip.

Cruising back down the lake, the venerable Prince of Wales Hotel soon comes into sight. When it was being built, the construction crew returned after a winter to find the building had blown off its foundations. To anchor the hotel, guy wires running from rafters to ground were installed. The hotel has withstood the weather and overlooked the town since 1927.

While people are eating their ice cream on the town's main street, their eyes widen and mouths grin as tame deer amble past without a care. It is almost as if the deer are people watching or window-shopping. As one passes, I hold out my hand and it gives me a gentle "snoof" with its soft, wet nose.

The deer are a good start to our Waterton wildlife viewing and, encouraged, we drive the Red Rock Parkway at dusk. Here, prairie meets the Rockies as golden swaths of grasses abruptly give way to steep walls of ancient rock. From these mountains come black and grizzly bears to feed on the berry bushes. Sighting a "bear jam", a bunch of cars pulled willy-nilly off the road, we stop too. It is easy to spot an enormous cinnamon colored black bear. Totally oblivious to its rapt audience, it moves from shrub to bush and its long, pink tongue quickly licks up dark berries. When it disappears in the distant shrubs, we continue until the Parkway culminates at Red Rock Canyon, where the rocks are the colour of bricks. On our return drive, we are rewarded with several more bear sightings until the dusky light makes it impossible to spot any more.

A visit to Waterton would be incomplete without a stop at the bison paddock north of town. Here, descendents of the craggy, shaggy, massive creatures that once ruled the plains in the millions, shuffle along. One look at the thick fur around their faces and it is easy to see how adapted to life on the prairies they are. The four strong winds of Alberta are no problem for them.

Sidebar:

Waterton Lakes Chamber of Commerce www.explorewaterton.ca
Prince of Wales Hotel www.glacierparkinc.com/PrinceofWalesHotel.htm
This hotel, while historic and with marvelous views, does not offer modern room services such as televisions or fridges or Internet connections. There is no elevator service to the 5th and 6th floors.
International Cruise www.watertoncruise.com

Photos:

1 The author on the bluff of the Prince of Wales Hotel at Upper Waterton Lake. The M.V. International is returning from Goat Haunt, Montana.
Photo by Gary Cullen
2 The M.V. International docked at Waterton, Alberta.
Photo by Karoline Cullen
3 The Prince of Wales Hotel seen from the M.V. International.
Photo by Karoline Cullen
4 Where Upper and Lower Waterton Lakes join.
Photo by Karoline Cullen
5 Big bear in Waterton.
Photo by Karoline Cullen
6 Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Lakes, and mountains.
Photo by Karoline Cullen

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