Waterton Lakes National Park is on the road to recovery after the September 2017 Kenow wildfire, which burned nearly 40 percent of the park’s surface and 50 percent of its vegetation.
Situated in the southwest corner of Alberta, Canada, the sister to Glacier National Park, tiny Waterton Lakes National Park is known for it’s spectacular trails, clear alpine lakes and abundant wildlife. Nine months after the lightning-caused Kenow blaze burned roughly 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) in the park and 38,000 hectares (94,000 acres) overall, the park has begun the long process of reopening many of the most severely burned areas to the public.
According to a press release from Parks Canada released last week, crews have been working hard to assess and reduce wildfire related hazards on trails and backcountry facilities in Waterton. Trail crews have repaired damaged and destroyed infrastructure (benches and small footbridges) and assessed, cut, and cleared fallen and burned trees, but Park Communications Officer John Stoesser says it will be a long process.
“The reopening will happen piece by piece as soon as we can. It is really too early to say for sure when everything is going to be reopened. There are definitely some areas that will be closed for some time, multiple years in some areas,” he said during a tour of one of the burned areas Thursday. “We are trying to open areas as soon as we can. We have to take into account that visitor safety is the most important part of that process. As soon as we can reopen areas, we will.”
So far this season, the park has reopened more than 50 kilometers of trails that had been closed since the fire as well as three backcountry campgrounds. The reopened areas include Bertha Falls, Bertha Lake, Crandell Lake Loop, Horseshoe Basin, and Lakeshore trails. In addition, the popular Red Rock Parkway is open to biking and hiking to Coppermine Creek and the Bellevue Trail is also open. Bertha Bay, Bertha Lake and Boundary Bay backcountry campgrounds have also been reopened.
“I think that it is pretty impressive, considering the extent of this fire, that we are able to provide people an opportunity to still walk down the Red Rock Canyon Road and have access to some of the trails back here,” Stoesser said “We had crews up here securing this area pretty quickly after the fire, but there are still some hazards out there.”
While the reopened areas are likely to draw more visitors, local business say the year has been rough so far. After a promising May opening, the closed areas and a rainy June have led to a drop in visitation from a year ago, though the overall numbers are a bit skewed as the park did not charge admission in 2017 as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration, leading to increased visitation.
“The difference has been dramatic,” said Lauren Baker of Tamarack Outfitters. “I anticipate being down this summer because of the lack of access available to visitors since the fire. There’s nothing we can do about that. Everyone is trying their best to get everything reopened as soon as they can.”
For George Tokuda and Akamina Gifts Ltd., the decrease in visitors has been especially noticeable.
“Our business is down at least 25 percent so far this season, if not more. Business usually picks up around the middle of June, but we just haven’t seen it so far this year,” he said. “I have been here for 40 summers and I have not seen it like this before.”
While the park is hoping to have as much of the park open as it can this summer, it knows that the landscape will never be the same.
“The way we are thinking about this, ecological renewal is going to happen as a result of this fire. Plant and animals here have dealt with wildfires for millennia. We are not looking at it as a recovery where it will return to how it was before. It is going to be different, we know that,” Stoesser said. “It is a significant ecological change for the park, for sure, but there is a range of severity within that burned area. Some places will be changed forever and others were barely touched.”
While the fire left much of the landscape charred, it has also opened up new opportunities for park visitors. Wildlife is easier to spot this season, with little in the way of covering vegetation, and the wildflowers, which fill the grasslands of the park every year, are especially spectacular this spring after the fire.
“It’s kind of nice here after the fire,” visitor William Tremblay said. “There are not a lot of people back here (in the burned areas) so it is nice and quiet. Plus, there are so many wildflowers this year. Burned or not, it’s still beautiful.”
For up-to-date information on what parts of the park are open, visit www.parkscanada.ca/waterton-open.