Story by Jody Robbins
WATERTON, ALBERTA — We know we’re close to Waterton Lakes National Park when synchronized red lights poke through the night sky on the tops of windmills near Pincher Creek. We’ve made this trek, driving south from Calgary hundreds of times during the summer, but never in the winter. At 5:30 pm, it’s pitch black and we narrowly miss hitting a cow wandering along the highway as we pull into the Twin Butte General Store-cum-Mexican Restaurant. The bartender knows exactly which rancher to call after being told about the rogue cow. Only 17 people are registered in this hamlet, but southern Albertans know to stop here for an Enchilada ($5.95) or Cholesterol Burger ($13.95) on their way to Waterton.
This may be Canada’s smallest national park, but it’s also one of the sweetest. Crammed into the southwest corner of Alberta where Canada and the US collide, it’s the only park in the world that’s a Biosphere Reserve, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and International Peace Park.
Finding Solitude in Waterton Lakes
Teaming with tourists and seasonal staff during the summer months, many folks assume Waterton shuts down in winter. With main street boarded up, no local Mounties on patrol or grocery stores open until May, it looks like a proper ghost town. The 2011 census reveals 80 winter residents, but every local I talk to estimates the number closer to 40 (including resort staff).
“It’s really remote here in winter,” says resident Julie Millar. “We’re down to one snow plough.”
Fortunately, two hotels and one restaurant remain open, allowing non-residents the opportunity to have an entire national park to themselves. With few tourists, die-hard winter warriors can peacefully cross-country ski, ice climb or snowshoe to their heart’s content, in this wilderness wonderland.
“People come here in winter for the peace and quiet,” confirms Sheri Wasylowich, our waitress at Waterton Lakes Resort.
Rocky Mountain High in Alberta
Getting away from it all is exactly what drew us here. Grinding our way up Bertha Peak, a popular hiking and snowshoe route at the base of town, we suck back invigorating alpine air and peer through copses of lodgepole pine, douglas fir and aspen, leading down to Upper Waterton Lake. The vacant Prince of Wales Hotel looks ominous and haunted in the flat afternoon light. It’s still, almost too quiet, but I feel less alone once I hear the call of winter birds.
Woodpeckers, grey jays and Steller’s jay — bright blue with white eye brows and black tails — are gregarious companions that like hanging around the few people who encroach on their territory.
About 30 minutes into our hike, we swap gloves for mittens, headbands for hats and boots for snowshoes, when there’s finally enough of the fluffy stuff to justify the effort. I’m a snowshoeing virgin, but that doesn’t matter. I can see why this is the fastest-growing winter sport in North America. With no skill required, it’s an accessible activity — if you can walk, you can snowshoe.
Fat pillows of snow are desecrated as we plod over the pristine, marshmallow-like terrain. It’s not like walking on clouds, but striding over ground inaccessible with snow boots is infinitely more interesting.
Wildlife Viewing in Canada
While we weren’t lucky enough to spy any creatures besides birds on our hike, Waterton is riddled with wildlife in the winter months, as deer, big horn sheep and elk are seen more often at this time of year.
“Keep your eyes open for moose,” says Janice Smith, communications officer with Waterton Lakes National Park. “We’ve had quite a few moose sightings this year compared to last. I recently saw five together in one field.”
December brings large numbers of waterfowl such as geese, swans and ducks, moving through the area on their way south. One upside of winter storms is the birds’ presence, circling over town after they’ve been pushed back by fowl weather over the international boundary mountains.
To get your game on another way, Vimy’s Lounge and Grill, the only restaurant open during winter, serves up a variety of wild meat concoctions. Start off with Yak meatballs stuffed with bocconcini ($12.95) and follow up with Elk Chili ($14.95), to fortify yourself against winter’s chill.
More About Waterton Lakes National Park
Lodging: Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort (101 Clematis Avenue, Waterton); 1-888-985-6343; www.watertonlakeslodge.com.
Rates from $120 per night January 1 to June 14, 2013. Winter in Paradise special from $139 per night including breakfast, ski or snowshoe rentals, February 18 to May 15, 2013.
Waterton Glacier Suites (Wind Flower Avenue, Waterton); 1-866-621-3330; www.watertonsuites.com.
Rates from $119 per night for a deluxe one-bedroom suite until May 3, 2013 (excluding long weekends and December 22 to January 2).
Park fees: Entrance is $7.80 for adults in peak season ($5.80 from November 1 to April 30); Individual camping rates can be as high as $55 per night (for a “TeePee Experience”) or as low as $15.70 for a “Primitive” stay on Belly River; Group camping rates are as low as $4.90 per person per night. Consult the Waterton Lakes website for more details.