I didnít know what to expect as I drove into Waterton Lakes National Park Thursday. I had visited the park twice before with my father, but that was before the Kenow Wildfire had burned a large portion of the park last fall.
I was fully prepared for a desolate, charred landscape, I was not prepared to find that life is not only surviving, it is thriving.
Make no mistake, there are a large number of burned trees (nearly half of the parkís vegetation was lost in the blaze), but there are also areas overflowing with vibrant wildflowers and lush green grass. During the 30 minutes I spent in one field just west of Waterton Village, I saw dozens of tourists stop to take photos among the yellows, blues and purples that stretched to the horizon.
Closer to town, it became clear that the parkís wildlife was also enjoying the newly transformed landscape. I became accustomed to seeing bears during the three years I spent living in Yellowstone, but I had never seen such a large number of bears living in such a small area. In the six hours I spent exploring the area immediately surrounding Waterton Village, I saw no fewer than five full-grown black bears and just as many cubs, including a mother and three cubs literally just a stoneís throw from the historic Prince of Wales Hotel.
Park Communications Officer John Stoesser was kind enough to take me far back into some of the most charred areas of the park along the Red Rock Parkway, which is currently only open to foot and bicycle traffic. While there are entire mountainsides devoid of any plant life along the Red Rock roadway, the valley is teeming with flowers, lush green grass and all kinds of wildlife. Itís true that wildfire is a terribly destructive force, but it is also a great catalyst for change and renewal. Some places may not look so great right now, but they will bounce back.
I had heard that visitation was down in the park since the fire. While the shops in town did seem somewhat deserted during the morning, they quickly filled once the tour buses arrived around noon. Business may be down, but thatís not such a bad thing if you are looking to get away from it all.
If you have a passport and are looking to escape the ever-increasing crowds in Glacier National Park, Waterton is well worth the drive. Waterton had only 540,000 visitors last year, compared to Glacierís 3.3 million and it takes a little over an hour to get from St. Mary to Waterton (depending on how much time you spend at the border crossing) along the Chief Mountain Highway.