Who Needs a Passport to go to the USA

Published: September 2nd 2019
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We stroll down the main street of Waterton Park looking for somewhere to eat breakfast, and wander into an establishment called Trappers. It’s all decked out in the sort of check that we usually associate with the outfits that lumberjacks wear. There are life sized models of foxes in the windowsill next to our table, and most of the breakfast menu is different variations of flapjacks and maple syrup. This place couldn’t be more Canadian if it tried. I was after some poached eggs but the menu says that they don’t make them because poaching isn’t allowed in national parks. Groan.

We’ve been told that cruising on the lake is a must do activity here, so off we sail. Our guide tells us that the lake is nearly 150 metres deep at its deepest point, which seems pretty deep given it’s only a few hundred metres wide. This apparently makes it the deepest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies. It’s a bit on the chilly side too. The guide says it’s drown proof. This sounds great (if not a little improbable), until he adds that this is only because most people who fell overboard would freeze to death long before drowning had had a chance to take hold.

Our guide points out a really basic single storey cabin on the shoreline which he tells us recently sold for around eight hundred thousand Canadian dollars. It looks high and dry at the moment, but about every three years on average the lake level apparently gets high enough in spring to flood it and most of the other shoreline properties. Canadians must really like their lakefront properties. I assume they don’t bother with carpets.

We steam on south down the lake, and we’re told that we’ll soon be crossing over into Montana in the United States. We’ve heard all about border walls and razor wire and all sorts of other measures to stop Mexicans getting into the south end of Trumplandia, but here we are sailing into the north end without even slowing down, let alone stopping so someone can take a quick glance at our passports, assuming we’d bothered to bring them with us. The border is marked by a strip of forest where all the trees have been cut down, but hikers are casually strolling backwards and forwards across it without giving it a second thought. We reach the south end of the lake which is several kilometres inside the USA. Apparently it’s somewhere around thirty kilometres from here to the nearest US road, and a lot further to anything resembling a settlement, so maybe that goes someway to explaining the apparent lack of concern for border security out here. Montana is apparently a pretty empty place generally, and we’re told that the population of the whole state is less than the population of Calgary.

Our commentator moves on to talking about some of the larger wildlife that live in the park. It’s a real zoo out here with the local residents including bears, elk, moose, cougars, lynx, deer and goats. There are apparently both black and grizzly bears here. It seems that whoever named the black bears wasn’t all that bright because they can apparently be either black or lots of different shades of brown, and a white albino has also been seen in the park recently. It seems that the best way of telling whether or not you’re about to be eaten by a black bear or a grizzly is to climb a tree. If the bear climbs up the tree to eat you it’s a black bear, and if it pushes the tree over to eat you it’s a grizzly. Apparently the best way of avoiding getting attacked by a bear while you’re hiking is just to talk loudly. It seems that bears don’t really like humans all that much, and if they hear them talking they‘ll generally keep their distance. Despite the majority of people having voices, it seems that the local shops are still keen to sell all means of other paraphernalia alleged to keep the bears away. We’re told that most of this is worse than useless. “Bear bells” make noise, but bears don’t associate that particular noise with humans. Bears are also naturally curious, and studies seem to indicate that if they hear a bell they’re more likely to come towards it to find out what it is than to move away. Apparently the worst device of all is the “bear whistle”. Not only don’t bears associate the noise it makes with humans, but a lot of bears apparently think it sounds a lot like some of their prey, and are likely to come after whoever’s blowing it expecting to get a feed. We’re told that the best use of a bear whistle is as a gift to someone you don’t like who‘s about to go hiking in bear country.

Our guide gives us some of the history of the historic Prince of Wales Hotel which sits high on a hill on the opposite side of the bay from Waterton Park. It’s seven storeys high and has no trees around it, so it’s a bit hard to miss. It was built in 1927 to attract Canadian tourists to their own mountains, as a lot of them seemed to be going off to Switzerland instead. It was also a very attractive destination for Americans seeking to get an alcohol fix during the prohibition era. The Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VIII, was about to visit western Canada when the hotel first opened, and it was decided to call it the Prince of Wales in an apparently not so subtle attempt to get him to come and stay there. The ploy didn’t work, and he went and stayed on a local ranch instead. Can’t blame them for trying I guess.

We were planning to spend the afternoon hiking to Blakiston Falls but are devastated to discover that the road to the start of the trail to the falls is still closed after the 2017 fires. It’s still open to hikers, but we work out that if we tried to hike it it would be dark by the time we got back. I’m glad my anscestors aren’t still around. Thomas Blakiston managed to get to the falls in the 1850s before there were any roads in most of the whole of western Canada; yet here we are in 2019, when there‘s a trail right to them, and David Blakiston Sheehan still can’t manage to get himself there from a few kilometres away. The greatest shame of all I’m going to face is from my three Blakiston cousins back in Oz. I‘m now very much regretting emailing them all last night boasting that I’d be doing our family name proud today by retracing Thomas’s steps through the Canadian wilderness. I may never live this down.

Most of the roads in the Park are closed to cars after the 2017 fire, so we decide to take the one which leads down to the US border as it‘s about the only one that’s open. We wonder why the traffic in front of us is going so slowly, until Issy suddenly gets very excited and tells us that it’s because the people in the cars in front have spotted a bear. She says that she’s just seen it too. The excitement dies down quite quickly when we realise that what she actually saw was a small black car driving slowly down a side road. That was a bit disappointing.

The US border crossing here looks a bit more like I might have expected a border crossing to look, with lots of forbidding looking buildings and gates, and signs warning not to take cannabis, which has recently been legalised here in Canada, across into the US. We don’t actually want to cross the border so I do a U-turn just before we get to it. My wonderful travelling companions tell me that not only did I do this illegally across double lines, but I also did it so quickly that it looked really suspicious as if I‘d suddenly got cold feet. They tell me that car loads of gun toting border protection agents are now in hot pursuit of us. Such vivid imaginations.

We grab a quick meal and Michael and I head up to the Prince of Wales to listen to a nightly talk on the hotel’s history. We don’t learn too much more than we learnt on the boat this morning, other than the fact that the hotel is apparently haunted, and that the best person to give a lecture on the grand hotel’s history to a bunch of well to do tourists is their young Australian bellboy who’s here for a few months on a working visa.

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15th September 2019

Rich in history and beauty. Thanks for sharing your stories.

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