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Saturday, 6 December 2014

Walls of Stone - Waterton and the Fourth Dimension

"There is absolutely nothing in the city to give us the same feeling as the great, mysterious things of nature even though they be stone and ice. It is only among them that we feel the utter helplessness and insignificance of ourselves."
Jimmy Simpson

Waterton Lakes bison paddock
The fronts of the Rocky Mountains were covered in snow as we headed south along Highway 6 to Waterton Lakes National Park. It was mid-September and the previous week had seen an early fall snow storm wreak havoc in southern Alberta, especially in Calgary. Now the summits stood out like diamonds against the azure blue backdrop of a typical autumn Alberta sky. It was a little early for snow, but I did appreciate the beauty of the scene (though I was hoping the snow in the high country would melt away quickly).
We set up our trailer in the busy town site campground and took a walk over to nearby Cameron Falls. I thought about how many times I had stood on this spot. It had been almost 50 years since I first laid eyes on the falls -  which seemed like a long time by human standards, but nothing compared to the age of the rock  which makes up the falls. The limestone of the Waterton Formation is thought to be slightly less than 1.5 billion years old. In his "Handbook of the Canadian Rockies", author and geologist Ben Gadd talks about how limestone is formed as the result of cyanobacteria living in warm shallow seas. It really boggles my mind to even consider that most of the rock in the Canadian Rockies is the result of microscopic algae-like bacteria and has been deposited going back that far in time. The rock of the falls is the oldest rock that one is likely to see in the Rockies, though I'm sure most people don't think of this while they take selfies on their smart phones.

The rock and mountains of Waterton/Glacier are different than the rest of the Rockies. The older Purcell Group rock* gives the mountains a distinctive look. Waterton is famous for its red and green argillite, such as can be found at Red Rock Canyon. As kids, my sisters and I used to start at the shallow end of the canyon and rock hop our way deeper and deeper into the canyon. The game was to see how far we could go without getting wet. Inevitably one of us would fall into the ice cold water.
Mount Dungarvan and ridge
It had been half a dozen years since our last visit and my wife and I were there to hike. Most of the high country was covered in wet snow, so we decided to explore the open south-facing  grassy slopes below Mount Dungarvan, ascending the ridge just south of the rocky summit. The view was excellent from the ridge. To the south we could see the mountains of the Akamina parkway with the intervening land containing Crandell Lake. To the right of Crandell I could see the enigmatic meadows around Ruby Lake to the east of the summit of massive Mount Blakiston (an unofficial trail that I hope to visit one day). To the east, the valley opens up into the Waterton Lakes valley. To our north,  the castle like summit of mount Dungarvan towered over us. It was a bit disconcerting to see vehicles stopping below us on the Red Rock Canyon road . Their inhabitants getting out no doubt to look at and photograph the many bears in the valley.
Crandell Lake
The following day, we took the short muddy hike to Crandell Lake from the Akamina Parkway to have a picnic lunch. We could look back at Mount Dungarvan and the ridge we had stood on top of the day before.
Bertha Lake
It was looking like most of the snow had melted over the first few days, so we did the hike from our trailer to Bertha Lake. It was my fourth visit to the Lake since 1977. Two of my trips there had been overnight backpack trips. The first time there, I visited with a group of school-mates and had a frightening experience when gas being poured into an overheated Coleman lantern caught fire, engulfing us in flames. We managed to put the fire out in a frenzy of activity. Once I swam in the cold waters of the lake during a lengthy rain storm. This time, the trails around the lake were wet and muddy, but the sound of cascades pouring off the surrounding mountains filled the high cirque.

Summit lake
We saved a classic hike to Carthew Summit for the last day of our visit. I had hiked the entire length of the Alderson- Carthew trail over twenty-five years earlier and I was keen to revisit the summit. The trail begins at Cameron Lake in the very South West corner of the Province of Alberta and winds its way over the summit, past the scenic Carthew Lakes, down to Alderson Lake and eventually emerges in the town site right next to Cameron Falls. This time however it was a return trip beginning Cameron Lake.

Bev sits on the remains of an ancient sea bed
which is over a billion years old at the Carthew Summit
There were many people on the trail that sunny Saturday. We ascended through the jungle-like Columbian forest usually reserved for parts of British Columbia to the ridge and Summit Lake. It is surrounded by Engleman spruce, bear grass,  and alpine larch. We stopped briefly to drink some water and take some pictures for a boisterous group of athletic looking young twenty-somethings and set out onto open rocky slopes which eventually led to the scenic Carthew Summit. Once at the top of the ridge we made our way south to the high point and stopped to have lunch. there were quite a few people coming and going from this point while we had lunch and we noticed that one group was singing Happy Birthday to an older looking though obviously fit gentleman. Someone asked how old he was and he replied that he was 86 years old. I was inspired to see a man over 30 years more senior still enjoying a hike in our Rocky Mountains.
The view from the summit is one that I will never forget. Lakes Nooney and Wurdeman, each set in their own bowls can be seen just across the U.S. border to the South. Summit lake is visible on the ridge to the West and tthe bowl containing Cameron lake is behind that    - bordered by the summits of the great Divide to its West and on the South by Mount Custer. Looking east from the ridge is a sight that took my breath away the first time I laid eyes upon it - the three Carthew Lakes all in a row nestled by a summit of pink-red argillite, behind them a drop off between mountain summits and a gap that looks out onto the prairies that abut the mountain park. It had been a beautiful day and it was the perfect culmination of this year's hiking season.
Carthew Lakes

When I'm in the mountains, I find myself not only pondering the size and height of the mountains and distances that I need to cover, but the fourth dimension of time. In my many (but intermittent) visits to Waterton, I have had many guises; newly immigrated schoolboy, Canadian teenager, single twenty-something, newly wed and middle-aged man. When I look at the walls of stone that surround me in a place like Waterton, I can't help but be aware of the millions of years of life that created the material from which these mountains are built. Our lives seem minute compared to that, but yet here we are. We aren't the pinnacle of creation, but the result of natural selection and chance. I can take a strange sort of comfort in the comprehension of just how insignificant my life really is.
*Gadd, Ben; Handbook of the Canadian Rockies (Corax Press)


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