Waterton National Park: Hiking

Carefully easing open a small gap in my sleeping bag I glanced left and right from the cozy shadows. A flash of fur! Snapping the hole shut I giggled as rapid snuffling worked it’s way up and down the lining of my sleeping bag searching for openings. Whenever one was discovered a cold, black nose came wiggling through until I sealed the hole. Getting warm from all the exercise I popped my torso free and braced for the onslaught of puppy excitement. A bundle of fur and energy instantly flew into my lap where it squirmed in my headlock. Xena grinned up at my face before springing free and continuing her ricocheting race around the tent.

When L announced she’d be bringing one of her dogs on our wilderness camping trip in Waterton Lakes National Park I was initially surprised. I always forget that people are free to hike with their dogs in Canada (and Scotland).

It’s actually pretty easy, but there are a few  rules:

– You have to keep the dog on a leash shorter than three meters long at all times (tent time exempt)

– You have to bag or bury the poo (this falls within the broader rule of “packing out what you pack in”

– It’s recommended your dog listens to your commands since you can’t be distracted if you have to deal with a wild animal like a bear or aggressive deer

– And your dog must be social because there are always other dogs on the narrow trails

L’s dog Xena was attached to L by the hip, which left her hands free to use her poles to navigate the path. The poles also proved useful in blocking Xena’s path to the front, keeping her safely tucked behind L so no dragging could happen.

I thought it was especially clever how L got Xena a pack so she could carry her own snacks (and our granola bars) up the mountain. Other hikers loved it too! If the compliments had been written on fortune cookie slips and tucked into Xena’s bag it would have been dragging from all the weight!

We entered Waterton Park around 7:30 in the evening on a Thursday due to time constraints and a plan to beat the neighboring city’s weekend escape mob. Our first destination was the park’s entry gates. All national parks in Canada require you to pay a fee to stop/stay in the park. I think this fee is totally fair because the revenues are used on site for cleaning and maintaining the park, facilities and trails.

Of course since it’s Canada’s 150th birthday (Canada as a political body formed by settlers anyway) entry to all Parks Canada locations is free!!!!

So with a wave and a smile we passed through and drove on to the Visitor Centre to pick up our camping permit. You are required to book for Wilderness or Backcountry Camping in advance and, as there are limited sites to camp in, (elevated, chip-filled platforms designed to keep your tent dry and secure) you must carry the permit with you on the trail.

Case in point: Last year when J and I tackled Goat Lake at Waterton Park we discovered a pack on the last camping spot when we arrived! After asking the other campers if they had permits we realised that the mystery pack’s bearer was an intruder. So, after some debate J and I gently moved the bag to the side and set up our tent. Eventually a man sporting a black, plastic bag as an improvised rain poncho came stomping through the bush. He approached J and I and demanded to know why we had taken the spot he had claimed. We calmly asked to see his permit, to which he responded that I must show him ours. So I did.

Then he began grumpling as he unfolded his own permit, “ah well I guess mine is for a site further up the trail…”

And that was that. We shared some food with him while he regaled us with a bizarre, disconnected story about waiting to meet up with his son so they could hike to a more distant site. That night, as a snow storm dropped frigid temperatures on our quiet, dark site—my flashlight briefly illuminated a blue tarp arranged into a low shelter as I walked to the outhouse to ah, “answer the call of nature”. By the next morning the extra camper was gone.

This mysterious experience was definitely on my mind as I lugged my bag from the car. With a good 45 minutes of walking from the parking lot in Waterton to our backcountry site there would be plenty of time to chew on my thoughts. Remembering how full the site at Goat Lake had been I had asked the visitor centre assistant how many people we’d be sharing our destination, Bertha Bay, with.

“You have it all to yourself.”


“No one else is booked in.”

“Suweeeeeet!” I imagine my eyes began to glimmer. Would this be my chance to try skinny dipping?

“Hope you are prepared for rain tonight.”

Damn. “Well at least we can be as noisy as we want, haha!” I exclaimed, waggling my eyebrows.

In retrospect it may have looked like I was hinting at rambunctious lesbian sex. Kudos to the centre assistant for not being phased at all. Is this a common occurrence I wonder?

Anyway. So what I’ve learned from this experience is that June can be hit and miss for seclusion. Last year in late June J and I camped at a full site about a 5 hour (14 km) hike in. This year L and I were only 45 min away but had the place to ourselves. Maybe the difference was the weekend. The great thing about booking in advance is that you can check where the empty spots are! If you are close and flexible, just call in and see what days are free in the coming week. I can’t imagine there are many last minute campers.

I would advise against booking last minute in July and August though. Those are the busy summer vacation months. Book far in advance for that. You can book up to 90 days in advance and many people take advantage of that.

I love bragging about how sunny Canada is, but I suppose I should specify that the PRAIRIES are where it’s largely sunny. Up in the mountains anything goes. And good god was I blessed to have rain pants during this trip.

Some wilderness camping sites have fire pits. Bertha Bay has one. Goat Lake does not.

Both spaces have a bear pole where you have to string up your food for the night so a bear is not drawn into your tent while it sniffs out snacks! In the same thread—you can’t eat near, or in, your tent. There are designated places to munch and they are not protected from the elements.

In my case I wasn’t too phased because Scotland’s can-do attitude when it comes to rainy conditions is growing on me (+ my waterpants yay!), but L had to take extra precautions to keep her butt dry!

Both Goat Lake and Bertha Bay have access to water you can swim in. Goat Lake has well, Goat Lake. Bertha Bay is part of Upper Waterton Lake, the same one that hugs the town. Both are cold, but doable in brief screaming stints. But I highly recommend a warm, sunny day for it!

There are no tides to worry about, it being a lake, but always be careful. I woke up recently to a friend posting this about the lake they’re staying near. Common sense is only so common it seems.

If you CAN swim you’ll love Bertha Bay! L, Xena and I had so much fun picking our way along the beach and nearby landscape. It’s a really easy hike for families. There are sections that feature big rocks, but if you take your time it’s very simple.

We also took the opportunity to hike up to Bertha Lake (10.4 km and 4.5 hour round trip) the next day.

I’ll let the pictures take you on that journey. %) Enjoy! If you have any questions about the Waterton area drop a comment below!









Shaking the rain

Budget: Normally the daily park entry fee = $7.80 for adults and $3.90 for youth

$9.80 (per person) + $11.70 for wilderness camping

So one night for two people costs: $31.30

+ food (L and I spent about $50 for three days of food)

Age group: 7+ or so. You can turn around on the trail at any point

Clothes: Waterproof layers, hats, gloves and good shoes. Especially good shoes. I loved my waterpants for this!

Culture: Respect the landscape and wildlife. This is bear and cougar country. What you haul in you haul out. Be courteous on the trail. Generally people climbing up step off the path for those descending so they can keep the downward momentum.

Food: No shops or restaurants! You bring what you eat! Bertha Bay has fire pits, but rain may put you off cooking.

Transport: You have no choice but to drive to Waterton unless you join a tour I believe. To access Bertha Bay you have to hike!

Time (from town): 45 minutes to Bertha Bay. 1.5 hour round trip to Lower Bertha Falls. 4.5 hour round trip to Bertha Lake.

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