“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” Georgia O’Keeffe, New York Post, May 16, 1946
Imagine the flowers Georgia O’Keeffe would have painted had she traded the red rock canyons of New Mexico for those in Waterton Lakes National Park. The choices she’d have! More than half the wildflower species in Alberta lavishly dab the mountain trails with colour—175 species listed as rare in the province, 20 that grow nowhere else in the world.
Magellan and I had frequently talked about visiting Waterton during its annual Wildflower Festival. Never happened. After sixteen years, the festival ended in June 2019. So we created our own little flower fiesta this June, beginning with a hike to Blakiston Falls and continuing along Red Rock Canyon.
Our first stop was the temporary Visitor Centre—just window service, and not much at that, until the gorgeous-looking new facility opens.
“Sandy,” I think that was the name the young male attendant called out to his colleague in the back, “Where are the best wildflowers now?” He didn’t know the answer to my next question either. “Sandy, is there a bookstore in town?” Or the third. “Sandy, are there swans around here?” But he did say he couldn’t give us maps because of COVID. Maybe when the new facility opens, it will be staffed with more people like Sandy. Until then, do your homework or rely on the assistance of locals like Mary Ann and Barney Reeves who grew up here, live in Barney’s 100-year-old family’s home thrice-added to, and over the years have hiked every trail in the park.
Waterton, unlike Banff and Jasper and many other national parks, has not sold its soul to jade-and-jaded chain shops proffering jewelry, fudge and junk. Only Waterton Avenue and a few side streets have commercial activity. For the most part, the rest of the town looks and feels like a smaller version of Banff fifty years ago.
Starting out in 1898 as Kootenay Lakes Forest Park, it was the fourth National Park in Canada. It was renamed Waterton Lakes National Park In 1911. Only 64 people visited that year. Today there are 500,000 annual visitors, about one-tenth the number of Banff National Park.
Sandy recommended Red Rock Canyon for flowers. Sandy also said Pat’s place would be best for books. That would be Pat’s Waterton Gas & Cycle Rental. I took my chances instead on Akamina Gifts on the main street, Waterton Avenue, where it may have been the owner Dave Cruickshank himself who sold me a map, backpack patch and the book Wildflowers of Waterton Park, in which Red Rock Canyon was listed among the park’s ten best hikes for observing wildflowers. “Akamina Gifts is in the building that used to be Barney’s grandmother’s and then his aunt’s china and gift shop,” Mary Ann said in reviewing this blog. “Before that it was a Chinese café that served gin in teapots during prohibition!” Since Red Rock Canyon was also on Mary Ann’s list (though lower down than other trails), it’s a short hike and we were starting late, off we went.
Now is a particularly wonderful time to visit Waterton if you’re interested in wildflowers.
Following an intense lightning and thunderstorm on August 30, 2017, the Kenow Wildfire broke out ten kilometres west of the park boundary in British Columbia. Fuelled by hot weather, strong winds and extremely dry conditions, the fire spread to the park on September 11, burning 38% of it, including infrastructure such as both the Red Rock and the Akamina Parkways and their associated bridges, guardrails, signs, picnic areas and parking areas. Plus Crandell Mountain Campground, buildings at Canyon Youth Camp, the Alpine Stables, and, as mentioned, the Visitor Centre.
“Wildfire is a reoccurring event once every 125 years or so and is especially worse now since Indigenous people, the K’tunaxa and Pikani, were removed from their traditional lands,” says Barney, who was the mayor of Waterton when this devastating event happened. “They set controlled burns to maintain the valley grass lands and local herds of mountain bison. Today, numerous causes contribute to the increase in wildfires and their severity. The practice of controlled burning is gaining support, but more political will is required.”
The Kenow fires came within 20 metres of Barney and Mary Ann’s home. “But with the expertise and determination of the fire-suppression team and Parks Canada, the only building in the townsite that was lost was the Visitor Centre that was set for demolition,” Barney explains.
The fire affected 80% of the park’s network of hiking trails but as we know, fire-obligate species await such conditions, spring up in the aftermath and flourish.
Red Rock Canyon is one of the park’s most popular trails. Especially this year because a new viewing platform opened at Blakiston Falls, an accessible 2.4 kilometres in. An overwhelming number of people were frolicking in the rock gardens of Bauerman Creek near the Red Rock Canyon parking lot but not many of them ventured to see the 15-20 metre cascade.
Even fewer continued past the falls—as we did for another 4.2 kilometres—following Blakiston Creek along the deep canyon carved in ochre-red rock and climbing to open meadows and rocky slopes, all along the wildflowers achieving “five-bud status” as promised in the book I purchased.
Trees, leaf-naked from the Kenow Wildfire, stood tall and straight, hairy Giacometti spires, a stark backdrop to the multi-coloured chroma of wildflowers.
And two bonus events, exquisite butterflies and a safe-in-Rove-Inn encounter…
We didn’t know it then, but Red Rock Canyon was merely a spark in the blaze of flowers we would see over the next two days.
Lavoie, Jacinthe and Wilson, Ian. Wildflowers of Waterton Park. Canmore: Hyacinth Press, 2014. A great resource for flower enthusiasts including which trails you’re most likely to find each flower.
Porsild, A. E. Rocky Mountain Wildflowers. Ottawa: National Museum of Natural Science, National Museums of Canada and Parks Canada Department of India and Northern Affairs, 1974. Our wildflower bible for hiking but less valuable for wildflower identification in Waterton than Jacinthe’s and Ian’s book.
Shaw, Richard J and On, Danny. Plants of Waterton-Glacier National Parks. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1979. Wrinkled, pages looking for freedom, this book was hidden away, a treasure I discovered in our library after we returned from Waterton.