Southern Alberta Renewal: Waterton Meditations
Our spiritual journey last summer through Southern Alberta, Canada, went though Writing-On-Stone and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, both in a semi-arid landscape of never-ending prairie. Our third stop, Waterton Lakes National Park, was very different geographically.
Rugged, windswept mountains rise abruptly from the prairie with a commanding view from the lakeside below. The view had the effect of sharpening my spiritual focus. So far on this trip, my mind had been traveling with my physical body, thinking of the local history, the First Nations people, and my own reasons for coming out here. Now I would be silenced by all the other life out here in the park.
The Vital Ecosystem of Waterton Lakes Park
We first spoke with the Waterton Lakes park guide, a tiny lady whose speech focused mainly on making sure we knew how vital the area’s ecosystem is. The park is very small, only 140 sq. km (54 sq. miles), but is an area with unusually diverse physical, biological, and cultural resources. It is also right on the border between Canada and the USA, which means that anything occurring in the park affects and concerns both countries. Located on one of the narrowest places in the Rocky Mountain chain, the Waterton Lakes ecosystem is a key point along the crucial north-south Rocky Mountain wildlife corridor.
According to the Parks Canada website, Waterton Lakes has an unusually rich and varied number of plants for its size: 1000 vascular plant species, 182 bryophytes, and 218 lichen species live here. The area provides habitats for many animals, including more than 60 species of mammals, over 250 species of birds, 24 species of fish, and 10 reptiles/amphibians. Large predators inhabiting the Waterton Lakes area include wolf, coyote, cougar, grizzly bear, and American black bear. Some animals found here are considered rare or unusual like trumpeter swans, Vaux’s swifts, and vagrant shrews.
Preserving Waterton Lakes
My friends asked the park guide about current conservation efforts, concerned about the negative impacts of tourism. The guide agreed, pointing out that any human use of the area is damaging. The key, she said, is to minimize it as much as possible.
Many of the plant and wildlife species are endangered, the guide said, which means conservation efforts involve many stakeholders. These include the local First Nations, Kainai and Piikani, as well as provincial agencies, and many university departments in both Canada and the USA.
The park management also participates in several forums and networks, including Nature Conservancy Canada. This organization hosts a series of events offering hands-on stewardship projects, such as managing invasive species, ensuring fences are wildlife-friendly, and even planting native trees and wildflowers.
Let’s Take a Hike
We decided to see some of this natural diversity first hand. We hiked up to Waterton Lakes’ Wall Lake, a 10.4 Km (6.5 miles) round-trip hike with an average elevation of 110 metres (361 ft.). That’s important to note, as a person not used to hiking in the mountains will possibly find it challenging.
The hike took us about 5 hours, including a short stop at Forum Falls on the way back. We laughed and talked the whole way there, taking hundreds of pictures and hoping our noise-making would alert any local bears and cougars that we were around: no way did we want to run into any of that type of wildlife. We did have chipmunks and birds bounce by us, but never staying near for long.
Inspired by Three Trumpet Swans
Things changed when we arrived at Wall Lake. We sat and had our lunch. I felt like the mountains surrounding us were so heavy, so vital, that I must obey their call to silence. For this, we were rewarded by the sight of three Trumpet swans landing on the water. They watched us constantly for the whole time we were there.
I felt humbled and hushed, rewarded for not making any noise or problems, but just for being there. I emptied my mind, and just watched the swans floating. White pillows with long necks and black beaks, these peaceful swans were content to just let the water move them wherever it liked. It was only when they decided to leave, that I felt any passage of time.
Learning to Float in Meditation
How many times had I been meditating at home, and could not free my mind of distractions, of sensing time? I need to learn to float, to let things move me wherever, instead of always trying to control where I go in my meditations.
I carried these ideas with me as we hiked out to Forum Falls, and then back to the car. My friends asked why I was so quiet and all I could say was that the swans had affected me. For I could not speak of how I felt. Later that night, before we went to bed, I suggested to the group that we make a donation to the conservation project for maintaining the Waterton Lakes Park. I told them that the swans which gave me so much peace today should have more chance to live and float along. It was the least I could do for them.
If you’re interested in helping to preserve Waterton Lakes, too, please consider donating or volunteering with Nature Conservancy Canada.
(Image – Waterton Lake, Alberta)
(Top image – Wall Lake, in the Waterton Lake National Park)
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