Great Alpine Lakes of the West: Waterton, Cameron, and Bertha

This is the story of three lakes all found within Waterton National Park; Waterton, Bertha, and Cameron.  Waterton Lake, at about 4000’ altitude is the lowest and most accessible of the three.  Whereas Banff and Lake Louise appear over crowded with tourists in a rush, Waterton National Park is all about the loitering traveler.  Spend less than a weekend and you will feel cheated.  We came thinking we would spend a couple of days and spent four nights.  I could have stayed the rest of the summer.  Lake Waterton is large, frigid from its mountain stream sources, and stunning in its beauty.  It’s also is surrounded by boat docks, cottages, diners, a quaint movie theater, and good coffee shops.  Being a Canadian National Park, each business is run by a different entity and a lot of them have a mom and pop feel that is lacking from our own National Parks.

Cameron Lake is a drive.  In fact it is a windy, uphill drive that is sometimes closed due to snow into June.  But because it is so absolutely drop dead beautiful most tourists venture the climb.  At this lake there is only one bait/canoe rental/ ice-cream/ tourist shop available and a decent size parking lot.  The lake is high (at about 5400’ elevation) and the water is cold.  When we were their last summer the boat house had just been clear to open and there were still floating patches of ice in the water.  We were also told to stay clear of the American side due to grizzlies having been spotted there (we went closer to our country’s side than we probably should have and saw no bears). 

Berth Lake is a hike.  From our campsite and back it is over eight miles.  Up switchbacks, past waterfalls, through snow patches, and into the clouds the trail is wonderful and strenuous.  Henna did not complain until the very end when she plopped down on the trail and said she could go no more.  At Bertha Lake there are no shops, food, or ice cream so the three of us dined on the remainder of the snacks and tried to ignore the biting bugs.  Being that the trail was just recently opened for the season, I was seriously concerned about meeting up with a bear and we spent no more than twenty minutes on the shore.  But for that short amount of time we owned the prettiest lake in all of Canada.

Banff, Lake Louise, and The Frasier Valley in a Day

As Corey wrote a couple of days ago, we left Canmore and drove Highway 1 through Banff.  Highway 1 had changed a lot since the last time we rode that trail.  Last I saw 1, she was an understated two lane road winding through the prairie.  When I left the road to go south of Medicine Hat, there were just hints of the coming mountains.  Now, meeting 1 after K County, I found a force of a road speeding through the heart of the Canadian Rockies.  Still, I sensed the country boy in the beast and it was not long before there were checkpoints (one needs a pass to enter into Banff NP) and, a little bit down the road, it was a two lane route again with stoplights, intersections, etc.  Corey talked a little yesterday about Henna’s eye and it really put a damper on our mood.  Rain came too and we did not get to play much in the great Canadian wilderness.  We did see Lake Louise and it was a shock to our system.  Waterton and Cameron Lake are by no means untouched, but Lake Louise was an amusement park in comparison.  Four mega parking lots were needed to accommodate the daily tourists.  A massive hotel was at the lake shore and people by the hundreds lined the shore to snap a picture, eat some ice cream, and buy a t-shirt or a postcard.  What made us really laugh was the sign directly in front of the lake stating how delicate an ecosystem the surrounding lake was, and how people should tread lightly here.  Hmm.

After leaving Lake Louise we drove some more and for the first time this trip, road construction seriously impeded our progress.  The scenery was beautiful and as Corey mentioned we found a great boardwalk trail and  picnic area were we cooked up some fish.  The fish was good, but there was no way to do dishes afterwards and our car reeked (still reeks) of fish.  Shortly after lunch we pulled into Revelstoke and I was immediately won over.  Although obviously influenced by tourists, it had a very genuineness that we found refreshing.  We had some dessert (I had a tasty Nanaimo bar) and coffee and our mood lifted.  Shortly afterwards the clouds began to lift and we camped at a KOA in Sicamus.  If it was not for the loud highway noise and mosquitoes it would have been heaven.  Henna and I swam in the outside pool (60 degrees outside but the pool was heated).  This morning I woke up and the trip continued.  Drove to Kamloops where I had an oil change and then took 5 (a true interstate where one can drive 110 KPH or about 70) and the scenery again amazed me.  This time the view was of deep valleys that we seemed to both be in and above at the same time.  At Hope I talked Rambo with the kids at the visitor center (First Blood was filmed here) and then hiked the Othello Tunnels which consist of former railroad tunnels and bridges overlooking white water and a valley.  I write these words now at a semi-private campground with too much loud music coming from my neighbors.  Tomorrow we hope to see Vancouver and then Monday we will take a ferry to the island. 

Enjoy the ride……..

While on a trip, there are the natural ebbs and flows of normal life, the ups and downs, the highs and low.  But when miles from home, encased within a mountain range, the lows tend to feel ” Low low low low…”.  Yesterday Henna awoke with a small bite mark below her eye, a little red and slightly pufffy.  No big deal right? Well, throughout the day this area of her eye continued to grow in it’s dough boy puffiness.  I watched her begin to look like a child who should flich when we raised our hands near her.  I, of course began to worry.  That unsettling feeling began, the electricity of some gloom in the forseeable future. So this morning when she woke up, with an even bigger shiner, I began to feel a bit more anxious and so I wanted to talk to my mommy.  Very badly.  Mommies have that almost instant soothe..kind of like whiskey.  But with calls to the states so costly I did the next best wonderful thing., I texted my sister Audra a picture and description of Henna’s eye.  Her wonderful advice, as it was sent through space, made me feel sooo much better. That feeling ebbed a bit and the nice pharmacist at Safeway also maylayed my fears.  We were feeling better.   

As we left Canmore, the weather was dreadful!  It was about 50 degrees outside and rainy.  Yikes!  Our drive west (Ouest in french..which I love better cause it looks like quest) on highway 1 through  Banf, Glacier National Park, and Revelstoke was doomed to be wet, windy and cold.  No hiking for us.  sniff..sniff.  A new low.  Our spirits were down as we drove through construction and rain.  But Harry Potter kept us up, as he battled the fight at Hogwarts ( I won’t spoil it for anyone…)  and Henna’s endless love of verbal games kept us entertained.  This scenary should have been breathtaking, but after yestedays drive through K country I found it to be second best.  I was beginning to feel a little bit at ease, less nervous and when I looked back at Henna the swelling had gone down.  That miracle of modern medacine, Benadryl had done the trick.  Yea!  There is nothing better than when your child  gets better.   

Later we stopped at a way side picnic area with a hike through old Cedar growth forest, repleat with a shelter and board walk trail.  We brought out our stove and cooked up some white fish and ramen noodles for lunch.  The hike was perfect and for a short while we were transported back in time when these trees were seedlings and Christopher Colubus was sailing across to the new world (the plaque at the trail head referenced him).  I felt a bit small at that moment next to these trees that would out live me and my highs and lows.  We had so much fun that Henna and I raced through the hike again just for the sake of it.  The flying squirrels and voles that keep these trees fed must have thought we were nuts.  But I was happy to be riding this high…my daughter looking good, our spirits high, the look from the top is nice.  Tonight we are camping and hoping for no rain…….

Bar U Ranch and K County

Woke up today to another chapter on the road.  After four days in one place it was time to shift off.  We had planned on following some lower digit routes (3 and 7) west in a snake like fashion to Vancouver Island.  But after listening to assorted neighbors and the RCMP we decided to head straight north to Kananaskis County (K County or K Country).  We took the Cowboy Trail (Route 22) and it looked more western than west.  The route traveled in a low valley with cattle ranches strung out on both sides of the car. The Canadian rockies followed along our western side.  Although a valley, the ground rose and lowered in such a way that it resembled waves more than ground.  Towering mountains ringed the valley.  Along the way we stumbled upon the Bar U ranch which is a working ranch/ national park.  Everything was restored beautifully and had enough staff present to answer any questions we had but not enough to prevent us from wandering freely. We especially enjoyed meeting sixteen year old Tate who worked as a ranch hand at the U Bar Ranch.  He also helped his family manage their own ranch.  At sixteen he had already worked as a hunting guide and appeared quite confident in what he wanted out of life (to manage and then own his own ranch).  He was exceedingy polite and answered all our questions about his high school, ranching chores, etc.

After leaving the ranch we took a gray road into K County.  The best way to describe K County is a beautiful mountain paradise that no one outside of Alberta has heard of.  At least that is what it felt like.  Henna was still recovering from our monster Lake Bertha hike so we did not get to venture far into the paradise.  We did hike to a cool waterfall along Cat Creek (about a mile and half hike with a modest elevation gain). 

After the hike we drove to the highest point along a public road in Canada and admired the scenery.  Corey was driving and did a good job of not running over any big horn sheep.  We gave into a hotel in Canmore and are about to plot our next drive tonight.


Gossip Sheet

Before I catch everyone up with our day, I want to talk a little bit more about my neighborhood.  I will end with Earl, Jackie and Jeffrey who took their awesomeness to a whole other level today.  But first, let me catch you up with the neighborhood gossip. 

Here in loop E things were given a bit of a jolt when the men’s bathroom (a mere ten feet away and closer than any cluster of trees) was suddenly closed “until further notice.”  On the plus side I was given the chance to branch away from my neighborhood and make new friends.  However, the other loops tended to have more RVs and friends were harder to make.  I did find out that the bathroom closest to the entrance (the A loop) was nicer than my bathroom at home.  It had corian or some type of granite counter tops, newer tile work, and more stalls than the bathroom closest to mine.  It also was hardly used since it was in the midst of RVs.  Despite the longer walk, I was actually quite pleased with my discovery.

The next day an official Ford Transit pulled up to the closed bathroom and sat for a while eyeing the locked door.   Then one teenager got out, unlocked the door, and immediately walked back to the car.  One by one, three other teenagers did the same only to return back to the car.  Then the Transit drove off.  Later, upon returning from the nice bathroom I saw the Transit parked.  I asked the kids what the heck was wrong with my bathroom.  He told me and later a group of kids descended on the bathroom with mops. 

Other goings on included two very large tee-pees put together in the C loop with the red cross label on one.  Very long poles were brought in on a trailer and at least eight persons put together the one we saw being built.  A very large group of kids and adults hung out by the tee-pee the four days we stayed at Waterton.  There was also a very large, extended Indian family camping across from us for most of our stay.  They ate a lot of food, laughed, and rode bikes throughout the campground.  We never got to know them, but I wish we did.  We did meet the owners of the unusual pop-up that I posted a picture of a couple of days ago.  They were a very nice couple, maybe in their 50s from France (him) and Switzerland (her) and now Banff where they have lived for the past ten years.  He works HR for a hotel complex there and we swapped hiking ideas for the four days we stayed. 

There was a bit of scandal here too and I am happy to report that Corey was in the middle of it.  I left Corey and Henna to get ice from town and was surprised upon my return to see a police car at our site.  A lot of neighbors were pointing and whispering.  Turns out that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer was eating ice cream at the same time we were earlier in the day and overheard us talking with another couple (who were teachers, had one daughter, and spent each summer camping in exotic places- for some reason we did not click as one might expect) about our trip possibilities.  He was out of uniform and we did not notice him.  Later he drove around the campground (we had talked with the other couple about where we were camping) until he found Corey and presented her with a hand drawn map of “K county” and told us why we should consider spending time there.  Sometimes Canadians live up to their stereotypes.

As for our awesome neighbors, they first lent me a grill pan so that I could give my brats the respect they deserved.  Later Earl took me, and then Corey, out on the lake in their inflatable kayaks.  After hiking to several vantage points above, taking a boat tour on, and also skipping rocks, photographing, etc., it was amazing to me to be on the lake on my own terms.  Jackie described her husband as a shepherd and he lived up to that nickname by never venturing more than a foot from our kayaks.  He also detailed exactly what to do if we ended up in the water (which was 7 degrees Celsius or, in Fahrenheit, really cold).  Other safety precautions included a leash extended from our inflatable life jackets meaning that if we ended up in the water, we were still hooked to the boat.  The whole experience was exhilarating and reminded me of the time we met someone on the road to Alaska who took us up on his Cesna.  Sometimes the road delivers good. 

Later that night we decided to follow the RCMP’s advice (which was echoed by Earl and Jackie as well as the gentleman from Banff) and set off the next day north on Canadian 22 (The Cowboy Trail).  It lived up to its name and will be described in some detail later.  Other things to note- a temporary crown fell out of my mouth, my entire scalp is sun burned (sometimes I forget that I am half bald) and a bag of charcoal costs $24 in Waterton Park.  Here’s to the road ahead.


The slow down

Here I am, at the sight of our last posting.  Pearl’s cafe.  Noel entrusted me with the post for the past two days, the 4th and 5th and has taken Henna down the block for some ice cream…buying me some time.  This out door cafe comes with beautiful mountain views and so so thai food.  I must get on with it though….they’ll be back soon.

The past two days have been our slow down.  We have kept our tent in one spot and have enjoyed doing things with minimal driving.  As noel’s last post explained, we have met the nicest folks ever and are lucky to call them our neighbors.  We have shared many stories and glasses of ginger wine.  We spent yesterday hiking to a breath taking view of the waterton area and canoeing on a lake.  This canoe trip, as Noel joked was successful….mainly for two reasons.  1. we did not tip over and 2. we did not divorce.  This lake was not the biggest lake ever, but being between two mountains it tends to get a harsh wind across it.  Mine and Noel’s experiences together on water  are varied and hysterical, so I always am a little nervous heading out.  We were pushed off from land just as a strong gust of wind settled on the lake…….it took us to the dock as we manically paddled to exit through a very narrow outlet.  Our exit was met by giggling from a young group sitting on the deck.  We did make it, finally, out into the lake.  As we argued about our paddling strokes, and Henna yelled from the middle, we were given the best views ever.  The farthest end of the lake still had snow and ice on it, and every now and then we paddled past mini ice bergs.  Our goal was to not settle on top of the ice and need rescueing.  In the middle of the lake we entered into Montana, USA and there we had our July 4th celebration together.  The rest of our day included a bear on the side of the road, good coversation and a never ending sun.

Today we hiked up to Bertha Lake.  This hike was 8 miles round trip and lasted 5 hours ….but man it was amazing.  Noel and I have done this hike two times before, but with Henna it was so much more remarkabtle.  We take our time on hikes to notice every detail of our surroundings.  This hike took us from the town through a meadow and up countless switch backs through a. partial snow covered trail to Bertha Lake.  Henna was so much fun to watch playing in the snow, thankful that she put forth the effort to get to this site.  It feels good slowing down, taking in every step along the trail, talking about nothing in particular.  The hike down from a trail is always the hardest.  Henna was begging for it to be done and at one point stopped and said she’d go no further.  But we made it, and we are so glad that we did it.  We’ve decided to stay here another night and enjoy the beautiful blue skies for a bit longer.  We are liking the slow down. 


Corey called dibs on describing our 4th of July day, so I will instead write about our neighbors.  Camping is a much more individualized and less certain proposition than hotels.  Weather and/or neighbors can shape ones experience in a campground much easier than it would in a more solid dwelling.  In 13 years of car camping, I can only think of only a few truly annoying or even possibly dangerous neighbors.  And even among those few negative experiences, over time I have grown to appreciate the stories generated from those encounters.  My neighbors here, at the Waterton Town Campsite, make for a wonderful neighborhood (rather than the tidy refugee camp it might look like from above).  Our closest friends here are Earl, Jackie, and their son Jeffrey who is not quite two.  Jeffrey has a thing for older woman and has spent a fair share of his time chasing (or being chased) by Henna.  They also have a couple of games they have made up together that mostly consist of throwing grass in the air.  Earl introduced himself and his family to me as we were setting up camp.  Earl is a large man with tattoos over much of his body including his head which is shaved bald.  I found his coolest tattoo to be the feet inked on one arm.  His wife has the same feet tattooed on the alternate arm.  As a retired Canadian Army soldier, Earl had many stories that he doled out only if he thought the listener was interested.  Jackie, although less gregarious than Earl, also proved friendly and was equally easy to strike a conversation with.  Over the several days we camped next to them we became friends and they generously shared their ginger wine and rum (both tasted well) and gave us a small Canadian flag, a Deet bracelet, several glow sticks and other little toys to Henna, and great conversations.  Conversations discussed included taxes, the military, border crossings, health coverage, immunizations, parenting styles, Druidism, Judaism, Canada vs. the States, labor laws (one reason Canada’s labor force seems young to me is that in some provinces children can work as young as 12), tenting, and kayaking.  I sincerely hope that they take a road trip to Chicago some time where they can stay duty free at our house.

Other neighbors included friends from near Calgary who came together in a converted 1958 passenger bus as well as more traditional trailers.  Henna made friends with one of their daughters (Hanna) and they introduced themselves to us as well.  I should say that some places beg introductions and others breed solitude.  The comfy confines and lack of fire rings at Waterton seemed to push people together in what was, thankfully, a friendly manner.  Below and around us also lived hundreds of Columbian ground squirrels whose frequent hole digging, near constant squawking, and opportunistic food thieving left their mark.  

Waterton National Park

I am writing this post at a nice coffee shop/ bar/ “Thai inspired dinner menu”/ international gathering post in Waterton National Park.  Canadian national parks have townsites- think Banf, Jasper, as examples.  Sometimes the town came first (like Jasper) but here I think the park spawned the town or as Henna called it a “really nice neighborhood.”  There are homes and rental cottages, several hotels, a few coffee shops, ice cream stores, and a couple of resteraunts.  Nothing too fancy and there are no gaudy tourist shops or loud bars.  It is actually very nice and comfy.  Just off to the side of this town is a very large and a little crowded campgroud operated by the national park.  And by national park I mean several teenage boys and girls.  These teenagers run the show here- at the visitor center, at the gate letting you into the park, and at all the eating establishments.  There is also another campground but the fifteen year old we asked questions to (maybe he was closer to twenty) said that “bears come through there every night, but so far there have not been any problems.”  That was enough for us to go for the townsite campground.  Everyone goes to the townsite campground and the more rustic, absolutely more beautiful, and bear ridden campground is half empty (or eaten).  We got to this place yesterday after a final push out of the prarie and into the mountains.  Halfway through the drive we spied the mountains for the first time since leaving Cincinatti a week ago.  They were snow capped with clouds circling them and we forgot the beauty of the prarie.  Our new neighbors were very friendly and consisted of a dad, mom, and a little boy not yet two.  They were also tenting and we made friends fast.  We decided at once to spend three nights here.  Last night we settled in.  Today we hiked, canoed, and then wandered into town searching for wifi.  Awesome photos and a description of today to follow soon.  Happy 4th of July!

The Drive to Cyprus

Just before dark and with a smoky campfire helping out, I looked up to see hundreds of mosquitoes circling at a point maybe a foot above my head.  Thirty minutes later and they were gone. Canadian mosquitoes, I thought. So much more polite than their American cousins.  They retire at night and leave happy campfires alone.  The sun set, but never fully settled.  It kind of sat just beyond my sight and lit the bottom of the night sky.    This was true when we finally retired (Henna included) at 1 AM.  A few miles east and it was 2 AM.  We were tired from another epic drive through the former Canadian prairie, but stayed awake to count shooting stars (Henna and I each saw one, Corey two).

Where we were was Cyprus Hills Provincial Park, Alberta.  It seems that Canada loves to name parks after 90s rappers.  The night before we camped at Beastie Boys National Park.  Just kidding.  The Cyprus Hills were a culminating event established after 15 hours or so of driving on Transcontinental Highway 1 just west of Winnipeg to just east of Medicine Hat.  The change in scenery was gradual, but I think it became more Western/ badlands scenic after Swift Current.  The towns (Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Regina which is pronounced in a way that made us giggle, and Brandon) all come out of nowhere.  It is grasses, occasional cows, and big sky then boom, a city of maybe 15 or 20,000 people.  No suburbs or sprawl, just these cities out of nowhere.  And Transcontinental Highway 1, the only major thoroughfare through this landscape, is intersected by roads, railroad crossings, and sometimes stopped by traffic light.  Occasionally a sign stated “Important Intersection Ahead” and Corey and I would wonder what the big deal was as we passed an access point to a gravel road leading into a cow pasture.

At the visitor center just east of Medicine Hat the teenage boy working the place (Canada, by the way, is run by teenagers one time I passed the Canadian equivalent of CSPAN and was amazed to see grownups in suits discussing politics.  Maybe all the teenagers running the national parks, visitor centers, hotels, and restaurants are eventually promoted into leadership positions) stated that there was one remaining campsite at Cyprus Hill Park.  I had stared at the same map for days now and knew this park was maybe 30 miles south of Highway 1 and I was longing to get lost in the scenery. Corey, who was driving the last leg of the trip, did not think it was prudent to knowingly drive 30 extra miles only to have to drive those same miles back to the highway the next day.  But I won the argument and off we went, south on a narrow road into a ranchers’ paradise.  A few miles into the road there was a sign stating that we were also headed to the Wild Horse border crossing near Havre, MT.   A strong sense of déjà vu hit and I remembered being on this road ten years past with Corey.  I remembered asking the custom agent if it was a good idea to take route 2 (the Hi Line) home and he said everyone should do it at least once.  It was my first experience with a route and I have been in love with the idea of routes ever since.  I also remembered spying antelope playing in the tall grasses at the side of the road and I was suddenly in a state of euphoria.  Corey was still annoyed and I tried to lighten the mood by asking deep questions (“Do you think Rock and Bullwinkle were both Canadian  or just the moose?”).  

When we finally got to the park I knew something was not right.  It was massive.  There were very expensive homes surrounding a lake and a restaurant, gas station, store, and a boathouse.  A movie was being shown at the pier.  People were everywhere and I realized that Cyprus Hill was more like Disneyland than the ranch over the hill I imagined.  And the mosquitoes were bad.  Really bad.  Until that almost total dark and they went to bed.  And Corey, Henna, and I stayed up telling stories past our bedtime.