scorched but waterton will recover

I shouldn’t have stopped where I stopped and I shouldn’t have walked where I walked.

I was just outside the Waterton townsite, not far from the turn to the golf course. There was a stand of aspens there, their trunks stained brown with smoke, the forest floor around them burned black. I wanted pictures.

So I stopped to take some.

Waterton is a changed place now. The firestorm that blew through there couple of weeks ago has rearranged the face of the little national park tucked down in the southwest corner of the province. It will be a long, long time before it looks again like it did barely a month ago.

You can see the edge of the burned area easily as you head into the park. Coming in from the north and rolling around the corner at Pine Butte, the burn is pretty obvious as you look south toward the park. The Cottonwood Creek valley is pretty much intact, at least at the north end, but as you follow the highway south you come across areas where the fire burned across the grassy valley and up into the stands of aspens on the east side.

Back in the summer of 1985, my dog-boy Ansey and I lived in a rented trailer right there, right where the fire caught the aspens. The trailer itself was already long gone but the aspens that surrounded it are now scorched and scarred.

Down the valley and closer to the park, the burn widens and the whole west side of the valley is burned from the beaver ponds down by the creek all the way up the mountain slopes. Most of the grassland has been burned off, down across the buffalo paddock and up to the Blakiston Creek valley. The trees on the lower slopes are burned but in a strange patchwork pattern, islands of bright autumn leaves and still-green trees surrounded by a sea of blackened trunks. Weird.

Coming in from the east, it looks like the fire stopped itself right at the park boundary. A lot of the grassland along the north side of the road is burned but the south side is nearly totally untouched. Down along Crooked Creek, the willows and aspens with the wettest feet are unscathed while the rest of the shallow valley is burned off. Over the ridge where the Waterton River runs out of the park, the fire burned more thoroughly, jumping out of the park and into the ranchland next door. That’s where, unfortunately, several historic buildings were lost.

I hovered around the edge of the park for a bit checking out the places where I used to fish and trying to get photos of the burn. I could still see a blue haze as I looked into the park and I watched helicopters flying by with water buckets slung beneath on their way to hit hit spots that were still smouldering. The wind was blowing up the valley and it carried the scent of wood smoke. I’d grown so used to the smell over the last few months that I barely noticed it.

The main road into the park is open to the public and you can see the extent of the fire in the big valley clearly as you drive in. None of the other roads are open, however, so I couldn’t see what the fire had done to the areas around Red Rock or up at Cameron Lake. I doubt the roads will be open any time soon.

The townsite itself is untouched but it was a close call. Burned trees sit right in the back yards of some of the houses and there are several blackened trunks around Cameron Falls. In spots, the fire spread right down to the big lake and the slopes above town have burned nearly bare. It’s absolutely amazing that the only structure that was lost was the visitor’s centre.

Up until now, I had seen very little wildlife. There were a few birds out on Maskinonge Lake by the park entrance - a family of blue herons huddling in the reeds to get out of the wind - but nothing beyond that. Not a surprise, of course. Anything that could have would have fled the fire and now that all the grass and underbrush has burned off, there’s no reason for the moose and elk to return.

The mule deer, though, are full-time residents of the the townsite and I found a couple of young ones wandering around with sooty backs and nibbling on smoke-flavoured leaves and berries. They really seemed to enjoy them, too.

I headed back out of the park and turned up the Chief Mountain road. The fire had burned close to it but had stopped by Maskinonge Lake so this road was still open. I headed up through a lush forest of aspens just starting to blast out their autumn colours and stopped at the viewpoint at the summit. Looking down across the valley I could see the Prince Of Wales Hotel below the naked bulge of Bear’s Hump and beyond that the Cameron Creek valley leading up to Akamina Pass and the place where the Kenow Fire began just over the B.C. border. Smoke was still rising.

But it put me in mind of another Waterton fire, this one right over the hill from where I was.

The Sofa Mountain fire blew up late in the summer of 1998 and burned the valley along the Chief Mountain road. I remember it very well and I remember heading to to the burn area the next year to see how it looked. It was, in fact, pretty amazing. But not as amazing as it looks now.

While the forest hasn’t entirely renewed itself up here, it ain’t for lack of trying. Aspens have replaced the pine and spruce in a few places and a lot of the dead trees have blown down but the past 19 years have been kind to the burn area and it is now lush and colourful.

And as I was driving back into the townsite, I was thinking about that, how this place will look in another 20 years or so. The grasslands will come back first and they’ll be screaming green again by next summer. There are great swaths of intact aspen forest in the main valley and they’ll be green again next year, too. The mountain slopes will take a lot longer to bounce back, of course, but they will.

Fires might destroy but they also renew.

So that’s what I was thinking about as I pulled off to the side of the road to walk to the edge of a stand of scorched aspens. I figured to get pictures now so I could come back next year to photograph the changes. But a passing park warden politely killed my plans.

For one thing, I was pulled off on the side of the road, not at a pullout. Shouldn’t have done that. And second, these burned trees are very unstable. Any of them could fall at any time, especially in that gusty Waterton wind. A pretty dumb place to go for a stroll.

So, chastised, I hopped back into the truck and rolled on.

Waterton is a changed place now and it is going to take a long, long time for it to recover. But it is going to be a fascinating thing to watch as it happens.

And I’m betting that Waterton will be back and better than ever.


SEPTEMBER 25, 2017

Photographed with the Canon EOS M5, the Canon 7D Mark II, with the Canon 70-300 and the Sigma 150-600C.

Please check out my new book!

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.