I have located heaven. It’s relatively easy to find, right at the end of a beautiful drive through the prairies of southwestern Alberta, just into Canada north of the Montana border. The latitude and longitude above are the gates. Not pearly, as one was led to expect, though perfectly nice examples of the rather odd Tudor/rustic combination favored by Parks Canada, since on the terrestrial plane heaven calls itself Waterton Lakes National Park. Once inside you drive alongside lovely blue lakes on the left, where, late one evening, I dimly saw a large herd of black-headed elk moving softly in the green dusk, some swimming in the luminous twilit water. On the right, rolling, windswept prairie flows into mountains.
Eventually you come to a small village on the edge of the largest lake, and a campground right off the beach, surrounded by mountains. The entire town could, I suspect, fit into a New York City block. There are hotels and inns, private homes, a few restaurants, some galleries and gift shops. All very low key. In a nod to nutrition, there’s one small grocery store, but the main food in heaven, judging by the number of people eating it all the time, is ice cream, supplied by no less than four shops devoted to it.
There you are perfectly willing to stay for the rest of existence. Though, I have to admit, you may change your mind as the local gas station becomes completely covered by ten feet of snow.
I came for the Waterton Lakes Wildflower Festival. The first time I was here, in September, 2012, I saw a poster for it, and have been waiting to get back ever since. There were various events, and I took part in several. All were fun, and one, a walk up Rowe Mt. with a man named Edwin Knox, who has worked at the park for 30 years, was so sublime it’s now the touchstone for such days: walk up a beautiful, not-too-steep-in-any-one-place mountain trail with a fun and knowledgeable guide, keying wildflowers on the way up. Eat lunch at a tiny, gorgeous alpine lake. Climb to an alpine meadow full of glacier lilies. (Let the three hardiest members of the group climb all the way to the top.) Wander down slowly enough to take lots of pictures along the way.
In a world full of spectacular beauty, Waterton Lakes is still a place apart. Part of it is the confluence of its elements: the prairie rolls from the Great Plains in the east into the Rocky Mountains to the north and west. The spruce, fir and pine clad mountains cradle eighty lakes and ponds, as well as more than sixty miles of rivers and streams, within the park’s 195 square miles. There are 1,000 species of plants in this small area, from minute unicellular algae to towering Douglas firs. Of those species, 179 are considered rare; 22 of those occur in Waterton and nowhere else on earth.
Other creatures love it, too. Bears cross the street as you take pictures of orchids, pulling up roots to munch on. Hummingbirds pollinate paintbrush. Butterflies meet up on lovely purple fleabane. Wild sheep rest in the shade on the road as you drive, while a mother and baby pass by, so close you could reach out and feel the mother’s horns.
The sheer exuberance of this profusion is breathtaking. But there’s more than beauty here. With neighboring Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, Waterton Lakes forms what is called the Crown of the Continent, one of the last truly vast preserved wild places in our two countries. The Blackfoot people call it the ‘Backbone of the World.’ Its peaks reach to nearly 10,000 feet. Its wildlife can roam they way they always have. It holds the headwaters of several major river systems. A drop of water that falls on the crown can end up in the Arctic Ocean via the McKenzie River watershed system, the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia or Fraser system, the Atlantic via the Sasketchewan system that flows into Hudson Bay, or the Gulf of Mexico via the Missouri River, making tiny Waterton an integral part of a vast arterial network.
Thus, many beautiful and powerful forces both meet and spread out from here: water, rocks, mountains, sky, trees, meadows, waterfalls, flowers, wind, elk, bear, eagle, big horn sheep, bison. On the ground, where I spent a great deal of time, all was quiet and beautiful beyond measure. But though I was dealing with the gentlest of elements — wildflowers, grasses, leaves — the exhilarating sense of sitting among these immense energies was very strong. The world living as it was meant to live.
Heaven is within us, the sages say. A lovely, challenging idea. But there’s no denying that some earthly places are more heavenly than others, and Waterton Lakes, the beautiful blooming bowl held in the mountains, is one of the heavenliest.
(More images are in the Waterton wildflowers gallery, which is here.)