Carthew Summit, Waterton Lakes
July 2011 with Corry, Elena, Lesley, and Sylvia.
This was our last hiking day of week one of the Nature Vancouver summer camp at Waterton Lakes. For most of the week alpine areas had been out of reach due to lingering snowpack, extreme winds and thunderstorms. Only on this last day one group managed to get to Crypt Lake and we went to Carthew.
Waterton (and its neighbouring Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park and Glacier National Park) are part of the same Canadian Rockies biome which extends to north of Jasper, but there’s a different feel than further north, and there are different plant communities. Some are more typical of the central US Rockies or of more westerly ranges like the Cascades, but a different and defining feature of Waterton is the prairie ecosystem. Much of the montane systems in the Bow and Athabasca valleys in Banff and Jasper have prairie elements, but in Waterton the true prairie grasslands extend deep into the park. The grassland ecosystem sets Waterton apart from other mountain areas, and that kept our attention for the majority of the week until we could get up to the alpine.
But this hike is definitely alpine. It begins at Cameron Lake and if you like you can hike over the summit then out via Carthew and Alderson Lakes and down Alderson Creek to the Waterton townsite. I did that as an overnighter in 1993; while the lakes are very special, the rest of the hike out is long and tedious, and descending from the summit to the lakes and back up and over makes it too long of a day. So we just went to the summit and back.
The trail climbs fairly directly through the woods to Summit Lake. Which is a pleasant subalpine lake but is still a very long way from the summit. From the lake it more gradually but determinedly makes its way along the steep open slopes of Mount Carthew toward Carthew Ridge, a long high spur of the mountain.
You get one of those “you must be joking” moments when you first see where you have to go – way up there. I would not want to do it in bad weather or wind. But in good weather you get amazing views south toward Chapman Peak and Mount Custer in Glacier Park.
You gradually contour around the steep slopes toward the ridge. Here was the uncommon Nuttall’s or prairie violet.
It steepens again when it switchbacks up to the summit, a shallow gap in the ridge. And the wind picks up. Another thing Waterton is known for, typical of that corner of Alberta, is wind. This is where it comes from. And wow did it blow. But we managed to hunker down in a depression at the divide and have lunch, then crawled around investigating the flowers which have their own ways of dealing with the wind.
Sky pilot (Polemonium viscosissimum)
I don’t recall there being wind like that when I was here in 1993. But I do remember walking further along the end of the ridge to its high point just before the steep drop-off to the Boundary Creek valley. And from there I remember watching a long line of what I presume were Hutterites making their way up to the summit. I don’t recall noticing the men but I remember several women with long blonde braided hair and wearing long dresses – not commonly thought of as hiking garb. I can’t imagine my hiking companions hiking in dresses (seeing them in dresses at all would be enough of a shock) but I expect those ladies found it comfortable enough.
You look down the valley to the east from the summit, past the lakes and then to the open prairie. The next high ground from there is probably northern Ontario or maybe Labrador.
Mount Alderson next door. Much of the rock is red argillite, a metamorphosed siltstone which also underlies Red Rock Canyon (which is much easier to get to).
Dwarf hawksbeard (which has one of my favourite scientific names, Crepis nana)
Back at Summit Lake. They went to quite a lot of work to channel this creek. But I like how it brings out the red colour of the rocks.