Beauty in the Burn

We are currently in Waterton Lakes National Park, a place we have visited several times before, but things look quite different than the last time we were here.  Last time we visited was in May of 2017 and in September of the same year, the park was devastated by the Kenow Fire.  Over 38% of the park was burned, including one of our favorite campgrounds of all time, Crandell Mountain Campground.  In the many years we have spent vacationing in the west, we have traveled through many burn areas but this one is hands-down the most extensive and destructive we have ever seen.  We knew there had been a large fire in the area, but we were not prepared for what we found when we arrived. However…while the park looks very different now, and the loss of infrastructure and buildings is very sad, we have certainly found that there is beauty in the burn.

One day we drove the Akamina Parkway to Cameron and Akamina Lakes.  In all the places that were once lush, beautiful forest, there are now millions of standing dead trees. It is surreal to look across an entire landscape and see so many!  Make no mistake, the forest is beginning to grow again, but in the areas of the terrible destruction, the tallest trees we were able to find were three to four feet tall.  On the flip side, we can’t even imagine how beautiful the area was in the spring and summer when all the many wildflowers that are now able to grow were in bloom!  The dead trees did offer way more visibility than we ever would have gotten before, too.  The overlooks allowed glimpses of rivers, creeks, and mountains that we never would have seen before.  And, occasionally, you would be hiking or driving in a burn area and would suddenly enter a small stand of unburned trees. The randomness of it was quite bizarre!

The same was true for the gorgeous Red Rock Parkway.  Every time we have ever driven this road in the past, it was teeming with wildlife.  The most bears we have ever seen on one drive was along this road a few years ago, but today we saw nothing.  It could have been the time of day or that it was unusually hot and sunny for this time of year, but we can’t help but wonder if it could be because the lack of cover from the forest has pushed the animals further off the road.  In addition to the burned forest, our hike at the end of the road revealed brand new viewing platforms and railings for both Blakiston Falls and Red Rock Canyon, so it is obvious that the fire caused severe damage here as well.  We also couldn’t help but stop and check out Crandell Mountain Campground as we came through the area.  It was absolutely unrecognizable.  In many places you can’t even tell where the campground roads and sites were located.  All the damaged buildings have been removed, and the weeds and grass are quickly taking over the area.  We did some research and everything we have found said there are plans to rebuild the campground, but we saw very little evidence of that today.  What we did see, though, were some of the most beautiful silver looking tree trunks we have ever seen!  If you have never visited a forest devastated by fire, the trees sometimes begin to look silver several years later.  This happens after the burned bark falls off, and they can be quite striking!

Upper Waterton Lake. Picture taken from very near our campground in town.

The Waterton Townsite, where we stayed, is the one area where little evidence of the fire can be seen, but that makes sense.  We are sure that the majority of the firefighting efforts were centered on the town where most of the businesses and homes are located.  Still, places just outside of town were effected.  The national park visitor center, for example, which was located just as you drove into town, burned to the ground.  Between the fire and the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems that the park was without visitors from September 2017 to the spring of 2021.  We can’t imagine what that did to the many people and businesses in the area that rely on tourism.  We are so happy for them that things have opened back up and that tourists are once again showing up to enjoy this beautiful area!  We are happy, too, to have had the opportunity to once again visit this amazing place!

Explore Waterton Lakes with us here!

Until next time!

2 thoughts on “Beauty in the Burn”

  1. What is amazing is the amount of devastation that can be caused by a huge wildfire, but equally amazing is how the environment rebounds so quickly after a burn.

    It’s important for everyone to realize that fire is just a normal feature of the cycle of life in the forest.

    Thanks for showing this side of nature!

    1. It is a very natural part of a healthy forest. Much of the reason fires have gotten so big and out of control in recent years is that, coupled with climate change, the years of fire suppression has left way too much combustible material in the forests. Stuff that would have burned in a small fire years ago has built up to the point that when a fire starts, it rages. Thankfully, the lesson has mostly been learned and fire fighting policies have evolved!

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