I have located heaven

A view of a lake winding through the mountains under fluffy white clouds and blue sky in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

It turns out that heaven is relatively easy to find, just into Canada north of the Montana border. At the end of a beautiful drive through the prairies of southwestern Alberta, you arrive at the gates. Not pearly, as one was led to expect. Instead, the rather odd Tudor/rustic combination favored by Parks Canada. This makes sense, since on the terrestrial plane heaven calls itself Waterton Lakes National Park. Once inside, you drive along lovely blue lakes on the left. Here, late one evening, I saw a large herd of black-headed elk moving in the green dusk, some swimming in the luminous twilit water. On the right, rolling, windswept prairie flows into mountains.

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford
Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus)

Six miles in, you come to a small village bordering the largest lake, 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 principal food in heaven, judging by the number of people eating it all the time, is ice cream. No less than four shops are devoted to it.

There, you are willing to stay for the rest of existence. Though, as the local gas station becomes covered by ten feet of snow in winter, you may change your mind.

Yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens)

I came for the 2015 Waterton Lakes Wildflower Festival. I’d seen a poster for it on my first visit in September 2012 and couldn’t wait to get back. There were various events, and I took part in several. One, a hike up Rowe Mountain with a ranger named Edwin Knox, was so sublime it’s now the touchstone for such days. Walk up a beautiful, not-too-steep mountain trail with a fun and knowledgeable guide. Key wildflowers on the way. Eat lunch at a tiny, gorgeous alpine lake while you soak your tired feet in delicious, cool water. Climb to an alpine meadow full of glacier lilies. Wander down slowly enough to take lots of pictures along the way. Chat with the sweep, patient and pleasant, there to make sure wanderers like me eventually get off the mountain.

Western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum), Mountain lady's slipper (Cypripedium montanum), Red paintbrush (Castilleja-rhexifolia) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford
Western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum), Mountain lady’s slipper (Cypripedium montanum), Red paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia)

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 north and west. The spruce, fir, and pine-clad mountains cradle eighty lakes and ponds and 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, 179 species are rare; 22 of those occur in Waterton and nowhere else on Earth.

Queen’s cup (Clintonia uniflora)

Other creatures love it, too. Bears cross the street as you take pictures of orchids, pulling up roots to munch on. Hummingbirds pollinate vivid red 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.

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) with two butterflies in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

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 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 10,000 feet. Wildlife roams the way it always has.

Bee attractor red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford
Red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii)

The Crown holds the headwaters of several major river systems. A drop of water that falls there 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 Saskatchewan system that flows into Hudson Bay. Or the Gulf of Mexico via the Missouri River. Tiny Waterton is thus an integral part of a vast arterial network.

Western blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) by Betsey Crawford
Western blue clematis (Clematis Occidentals)

Many beautiful and powerful forces both meet and spread out from here. A stunning combination of water, rocks, mountains, sky, trees, meadows, waterfalls, flowers, wind, elk, bear, eagle, bighorn sheep, bison. On the ground, where I spent a lot of time, all was quiet and beautiful beyond measure. But while I sat with the gentlest of elements — wildflowers, grasses, leaves — the exhilarating sense of being among these immense energies was very strong. The world living as it was meant to live.

Sticky geranium (Geranium viscosissimo) catching the sun in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford
Sticky geranium (Geranium viscosissimus)

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. Waterton Lakes, the beautiful blooming bowl held in the mountains, is one of the heavenliest.

Glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflora)

There are more photos in the Waterton Lakes Wildflowers gallery, which is here.

I’d love to have you join me! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new monthly posts.

DENALI

There was a great mystery on our journey: the fact that I seemed to choose some places and that other places called me. Denali called. I couldn’t have predicted how much it would fill my soul to float through that subtle landscape under a moody gray sky.

THE MYSTERIOUS YUKON

If you want tundra, you must go far enough north or high enough up. My answer was a trip up Yukon’s Dempster Highway to Tombstone Territorial Park, an otherworldly landscape of jagged mountains, luminous lakes, trees turning gold, a carpet of glowing colors.

MY FIRST SUMMER IN THE SIERRA

Reading John Muir’s book of the same title made me want to go and spend the rest of my life looking for Sierra Nevada wildflowers. One summer I got a taste of that wish. I paired the gorgeous, joyful exuberance of his words with some of the beauties he so celebrated.

4 thoughts on “I have located heaven”

  1. Wonderful essay and beautiful photographs of some interesting plants. Thanks for taking us along on your trip to heaven. There is a disjunct wild population of Clematis occidentalis here in northern Michigan and I actually have a couple growing in containers on my porch.

    We often visit Dowagiac Woods, a 400 acre old growth forest nature preserve that we think of as heaven. It is just dense with dozens of woodland wildflower species blooming in the Spring. It is more beautiful in my eyes than any formal garden. I often wonder – did much of the state once look like that?

    1. A little late to this, but thanks so much, Mike. Worth a trip, even though you have your local heaven. And yes, I suspect our world looked like those woods. John Muir’s description of the wildflower-covered Central Valley in California makes me heart ache for what it is now.

  2. I can’t wait to explore this beautiful place! These photos and your essay consumed my thoughts and planted a burning desire for this heaven.

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