Wednesday 2 September 2020

The Crown of the Continent: Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park

"Far away in northwestern Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped corner—the Crown of the Continent."
These words, penned in 1901 by famed naturalist George Bird Grinnell, introduced the world to the natural majesty of the area known today as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. It is comprised of two national parks in two countries - Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and Glacier National Park in the United States - linked by their ecosystem, geology, cultural history and scenic beauty.

St. Mary's Lake, Glacier National Park.

Upper Waterton Lake, Waterton Lakes National Park.

Waterton Lakes National Park in the province of Alberta was created first, in 1895, as Canada's fourth national park. It is contiguous with Glacier National Park in Montana, established in 1910, and that connection led to the creation of the world's first International Peace Park in 1932. Within Glacier's borders lies the southernmost tip of the Canadian Rocky Mountains: the younger, sedimentary range of mountains that comes to an end at the Marias Pass in Montana, south of which lie the older, igneous and metamorphic ranges of the American Rocky Mountains. Neither the waters nor the wildlife of each park respect national borders. The migratory routes of grizzly bears and bighorn sheep criss-cross the 49th parallel with impunity. Upper Waterton Lake and Cameron Lake have shorelines in each country.

Cameron Lake, on the Canadian side. The far shore is Mount Custer,
named for topographer Henry Custer, in the United States.

The end of the Canadian Rocky Mountains at Marias Pass, Montana.
To the left is the beginning of the American Rocky Mountains.

Both parks lie within the traditional territory of the Nitsitapii, known in English as the Blackfoot Confederacy, who tell many stories of the lakes, valleys and mountains. It was in the region of Waterton Lakes that they received the Beaver Medicine Bundle, one of their most sacred bundles. Another story tells of Ksiistsikomm, the Thunder, who lives at Chief Mountain just inside Glacier National Park:
Ksiistsikomm, Thunder, was jealous of a man and wanted his wife. He struck their lodge, knocked them unconscious, and stole the woman. When the man recovered he wandered all over, asking many animals to help him find his wife. All were afraid of Thunder. Finally, Omahkai’stoo (Raven) agreed to help. He flew to Thunder's home and challenged him. 
Ksiistsikomm shot lightening bolts at Omahkai’stoo, trying to kill him. But Omahkai’stoo used his own power and, by flapping his wings, brought on the cold north wind and snow. Gradually, the cold slowed down Ksiistsikomm until he could no longer send out the dangerous bolts of lightening. It was a long battle, but eventually Ksiistsikomm gave up and returned the man's wife.
Omahkai’stoo insisted that he and Ksiistsikomm divide the year into two parts: winter, which is Omahkai’stoo's season, and summer, which is Ksiistsikomm's time. 
Omahkai’stoo also ordered Ksiistsikomm to make a peace treaty with the man and to give our people his pipe as a sign of this agreement. Since that day we have opened our Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundles each spring at the first sound of thunder. We ask for good weather, good crops, and good luck for the coming year. [source] 

Chief Mountain.

For the thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, native peoples across North America carried on an extensive trade in shells, buffalo robes, corn, beans, and squash, tobacco, and other goods. Today, rather than traversing the mountains of Glacier by dog travois, visitors to glacier may do it in considerably greater comfort by automobile. The main thoroughfare through the park is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark built as a Depression Era public works project in 1932. Its 53 miles of two-lane, cliff-hugging road crosses the Continental Divide at the spectacular Logan Pass, 6,646 feet above sea level. 

The Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Logan Pass and the silver sliver of the
Going-to-the-Sun Road clinging to the mountain side.

Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, after which the road is named.

Jackson Glacier, the only true glacier visible from the
Going-to-the-Sun Road. Like every glacier in Glacier
National Park, it is melting away due to climate change.

Above and paralleling the road on the Western slope of the Divide is the Highline Trail, one of the most popular hikes in the park. Its approximately 11 mile, 18 kilometre length passes through mountain meadows, alpine forests, rock falls bearing the 800 million year old fossils, and paths hewn from the living rock itself. It is not for the faint of heart or weak of constitution. 

The view from Logan Pass. The Highline Trail embarks to the right.
Beginning of the Highline Trail.

Ripple marks from an 800 million year old beachfront,
now high atop a mountain range. 
Looking out over sheer drops.

A large, fallen boulder strewn with fossils.
800 million years ago, Stromatolites (algae colonies) breathed
in carbon dioxide and breathed out oxygen, which accumulated
in the atmosphere, eventually fueling the explosion of complex, multicellular life.

Looking out from a viewpoint along the Highline Trail.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road descends to the valley below.

The end of the trail, looking back towards Logan Pass,
about 11 miles or 18 kilometres in the distance. 

A less strenuous and harrowing boardwalk to the jewel-like Hidden Lake departs from the visitor centre at Logan Pass. In time immemorial, a glacier carved out a secluded valley between the peaks at Logan Pass. After the glaciers, waters filled the cirque, creating Hidden Lake and feeding the spectral cascade known as Bird Woman Falls. Though often asked if the park's name will be changed once climate change has consumed the last of the glaciers, the National Park Service insists that the name will remain to reflect the role of glaciers in carving these geological features. It was here at Hidden Lake that a visitor once famously remarked "This is where God sat when He created America." 

Boardwalk to Hidden Lake.

Along the route to Hidden Lake.

A marmot sunning itself at high altitudes.

Hidden Lake.

A popular sight along the Going-to-the-Sun Road are the historic red "jammer" buses. From 1936 to the 1960's, a fleet of buses manufactured by the White Motor Company toured guests though many of America's National Parks, including Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon and Yosemite. In Glacier, where the buses were painted a distinctive red colour (causing considerable confusion when they are called "White Buses"), they were nicknamed "jammers" because of the gear jamming that drivers would have to employ to get them up steep hills. From 1999 to 2002, the Ford Motor Company spent $6.5 million to refurbish the fleet from the ground-up, replacing everything from the glass to the brakes to the chassis to the engines, which can now run on liquefied petroleum gas and qualify as Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles. Of the entire NPS fleet, only those in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks continue to serve a role connecting guests, nature, and history.

Red Jammer Buses awaiting guests in Waterton Lakes National Park.

At Logan Pass.

Before the road, however, was the railway. Railroad companies in both Canada and the United States readily adopted national parks as, essentially, private fiefdoms, providing hotels and concessions for the tourists who they hoped to lure with the promise of sublime, untrammeled wilderness. Northern Pacific supported the creation of Yellowstone, Southern Pacific staked out Yosemite, and Santa Fe laid tracks directly to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Union Pacific claimed the North Rim, as well as Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Teton and the southern entrance to Yellowstone. Canadian Pacific Railway ran through Banff, Yoho, Glacier (British Columbia) and Mount Revelstoke National Parks in Canada, and Grand Trunk Pacific - later Canadian National - brought tourists to Jasper National Park. Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks fell to Great Northern Railway. And each one attempted to outdo the other in the competition for tourists, offering unparalleled luxury and appointment.

These hotels and their services became parts in a chain that we would recognize today as the all-inclusive vacation. When "The Empire Builder" James J. Hill consolidated a hodge-podge collection of failing railways into Great Northern, he introduced a line dubbed the Oriental Limited. The Oriental Limited was so-named because it was, Hill asserted, the premier route from the Eastern United States to the Far East, via Great Northern Steamship from the Pacific coast. It was also the premier route to Glacier National Park. Great Northern's Glacier Park Lodge, on the southern fringe of the park, was mere steps from the station. Inside its grand lobby with towering tree trunk pillars, the oriental theme continued with Japanese lanterns and tea service. It was Great Northern, during the dark days of the Great War, that coined the "See America First" campaign. With the European tourist market shut down, it was the needed opportunity to strike a blow for homegrown tourism. This was quickly leapt upon by the National Parks Service itself.

East Glacier Station, built by Great Northern Railway,
now serving passengers from Amtrak.
Trackside view of the station.
The walk from the station to the Glacier Park Lodge. In the old days,
a path extended from the station to the lodge for the guests while
wagons conveyed the luggage and other effects.
View from the bottom of the lobby, towards the
Great Northern dining hall and the tipi on the second floor.
The view from the second floor.

Rustic carving of a Blackfoot Native American.
Taxidermy mountain goat in the lobby. The mountain goat
eventually became the mascot of Great Northern Railway.
Looking pretty smug for a mounted head.
Guests are welcome to play for each other on the piano.
Blackfoot Native American motifs are found throughout the hotel.
View from the rear balcony as the sun goes down.
Next morning, the front veranda welcomes the dawn.
A Red Jammer tour departs Glacier Park Lodge.

Just as today, Glacier Park Lodge served as the disembarkation point for adventurous visitors. Unlike today, seeing Glacier National Park in those days was no pleasure jaunt. A string of backcountry chalets were sprinkled across the parks lakes and mountaintops, each a day's ride from the previous one. From Glacier Park Lodge, one day's ride would take guests to Two Medicine Chalet, on the shores of Two Medicine Lake. Built in 1914, it still stands today as Two Medicine Store, serving the nearby campground. Subsequent days would end at Cut Bank, St. Mary, and Going-To-The-Sun Chalets, all since demolished. Then guests would travel up, up, high into the peaks to Granite Park Chalet. Of the original eight chalets, the only one that remains and serves its original function as backcountry accommodation is Granite Park Chalet. Granite Park also serves as the terminus for the Highline Trail. Until recently, Sperry Chalet was another surviving backcountry chalet like Granite Park, but it was sadly lost in the wildfires of 2017. Along the route through the Marias Pass, Great Northern built the Belton Chalet as another launching point for park excursions. Belton Chalet is still in use today as a privately owned hotel.

Two Medicine Lake.
Two Medicine Chalet, now camp store.
Granite Peak Chalet in the distance.
Entrance and veranda to Granite Peak Chalet.
Granite Park's dormitories.
View near Granite Park.

Glacier Park Lodge and a string of chalets were not enough to accommodate the throngs of tourists enticed to visit the Crown of the Continent. Over the following years, Great Northern would add even more luxurious lodgings to Waterton-Glacier park. Many Glacier Hotel, built in 1915, is situated on the picturesque Swiftcurrent Lake, directly opposite the stunning Grinnell Point, named in honour of George Bird Grinnell. Louis Hill, head of Great Northern, deliberately chose the spot for its symmetrical qualities. Many visitors consider this region the true heart of Glacier. From the hotel, trails fan out to the feet of glaciers, to flowering valleys teeming with grizzly bears, and to lakes covered year round with floes of ice.

The hotel itself was built in a style similar to that of Glacier Park Lodge, which was itself inspired by the Forestry Building of the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. That building featured an interior  colonnade of 48' high logs to architecturally recall the majesty of the Pacific Northwest coastal rainforest. Because no trees of such immensity grow in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains, Great Northern was forced to import the Douglas Firs necessary to build the lobbies of Glacier Park and Many Glaciers.

Many Glacier Hotel with Grinnell Point in the background.

Grinnell Point and Swiftcurrent Lake.

The lakefront side of Many Glacier Hotel.

Many Glacier's lobby from below. 

Many Glacier's lobby from above.

Many Glacier's beautifully restored restaurant.

A red jammer bus outside the Many Glacier Hotel.

In 1914, a private businessman named John Lewis built his own hotel on the shores of Lake McDonald on the western side of Glacier National Park, near what would become the end of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Aping the Swiss Alpine style affected by Great Northern, his hotel was smaller in size and cozier in atmosphere. Its lobby was adorned with countless hunting trophies and its lanterns inscribed with Blackfoot motifs. Originally, the only access to the hotel was by boat from Apgar, the town lying inside the western gate of the park (for those keeping track, just outside the western gate is the town of West Glacier, which grew up around the train station there). Today's visitors arriving via the Going-to-the-Sun Road actually enter the Lake McDonald Lodge from the back door: architecturally, the front door is the one facing the lake. Directly across the lake, the famed Western painter Charlie Russell maintained a summer home until his passing in 1926. It is claimed that his hand etched some of the pictographs adorning the lobby's great fireplace. Great Northern eventually purchased the hotel in 1930.

The view up Lake McDonald from Apgar.
The view down Lake McDonald from the hotel's shoreline.

A stone's throw from the headwaters of Lake Macdonald is the Trail of the Cedars. One of the most accessible of Glacier's excursions, this boardwalk rolls through the sort of cedar-hemlock forests that one would more likely expect to find in the Pacific Northwest. The shade and humidity of the gorge carved by Avalanche Creek has created a microclimate perfect for the flourishing of giant cedar trees, hemlock, and a verdant understory of ferns and mosses. The largest of the trail's cedars are estimated to have begun life around 1517. The Trail of the Cedars also serves as the embarkation point for hikes up to Avalanche Lake, Sperry Glacier and the rustic Sperry Chalet high in the park's backcountry.

The Trail of the Cedars
Ashley gives us a sense of scale.

Turning north, Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada is significantly smaller than Glacier, but in its compact size has many wonders. The approach to the park is remarkable, as the mountains seem to rise directly from the prairies with no foothills to announce them. This is actually an effect of glacial till filling in the valleys between the hills some 20,000 years ago. On the flanks of the front ranges, the Parks Canada Agency keeps a herd of plains bison.

Some sites, like Red Rock Canyon, require a short drive from the townsite of Waterton Lakes. The geology of Waterton-Glacier has some of the oldest rock in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, recognizable by its oxidized red hue. Approximately 1.5 billion years ago, this area was on the shore of an inland sea in the supercontinent of Rodinia. Over countless eons, those muddy, iron-rich deposits solidified and metamorphosed under intense pressure into the vivid argilite rocks for which Red Rock Canyon is named. The Red Rock Parkway is also a good place for seeing black bears during the sunset hours of late summer, though there is always the risk of them drawing a "bear jam." These rubbernecking traffic jams are a danger to both humans and wildlife, as it may lead to bears becoming hostile to throngs of encroaching tourists or much too friendly and accustomed to them. Right in the townsite is the impressive Cameron Falls, emptying water from Cameron Lake into Upper Waterton Lake. The lakeshore itself has its own simple pleasures, though howling winds may roar down the valley at night.

Red Rock Canyon. The red rocks are argilite, a metamorphic
rock formed of muds and oozes. The white bands are marble,
another metamorphic rock formed of ancient coral reefs and
lime-rich ocean sediments.

Cameron Falls.

Upper Waterton Lake.

The last of Great Northern's hotels to be built was the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park. Originally intended to be constructed along with Glacier Park Lodge and Many Glacier Hotel, delays set the opening of the Prince of Wales Hotel back to 1927. Architecturally distinct from its kin, the hotel was still built in a vernacular Swiss style high atop a bluff with stunning views of Upper Waterton Lake. The hotel's name was a crafty, if failed, bid for celebrity: in 1927, Edward the Prince of Wales was touring Canada and Great Northern hoped that by naming the hotel in his honour, he would be enticed to stay there and give it a certain cachet among tourists. He was a dashing prince renowned for being a playboy, which would haunt him when he ascended to the throne as King Edward VIII only to abdicate in less than a year to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson. Edward opted to stay at the well-respected Bar U Ranch instead, which so intrigued him that he later purchased the neighbouring ranch. Portraits of the prince still adorn the walls of the hotel, lending a royal air to the British-style afternoon tea enjoyed by visitors in the lobby.

Enjoying the view of Upper Waterton Lake.
The Prince of Wales Hotel.

Lobby of the Prince of Wales Hotel, with its huge picture windows.

Time for tea?

The wilderness lodges of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park are significant examples of the National Parks Rustic style, situated in one of the most beautiful corners of North America. Just as the first part of this article began with a quote by a pioneering naturalist, so shall the second part end with a quote by another. From John Muir, on the wonders of Glacier National Park:
Give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal. Nevermore will time seem short or long, and cares will never again fall heavily on you, but gently and kindly as gifts from heaven.

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