A Waterton Covert Op

“In 1932 the American and Canadian Governments approved legislation for the creation of the world's first International Peace Park. The International Peace Park is a symbol of peace and goodwill between the United States and Canada. It also represents the need for cooperation and stewardship in a world of shared resources.”

We gas up in Pincher Creek and slip back onto the highway for another half hour of pavement glazed over by, blowing snow. The wind in this area never stops. Ever. We manage to keep it on the road for 30 km, and then, suddenly, the Rocky Mountains jut up above us in the moonlight. Here, unlike the rest of Alberta, there are no foothills to prepare you for the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide. These mountains jump straight out of the prairies up to 2500m. Directly over their shoulders are the 3000m summits that tear every last bit of snow out of that wind before it descends on the wheat fields to the east. These tall, cold, windy towers stand in Waterton Lakes National Park in the southwest corner of Alberta. British Columbia forms the western park border and the mighty US of A the southern.

Not just a national park, Waterton is part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in conjunction with Glacier National Park in Montana. Peace isn’t exactly what we came here for, though. Like most of the world, we are sick of America’s smug superiority, and, sensing a possible end to the empire, we see our chance to hit back and take something from it for a change. But we aren’t terrorists; we are skiers, and we want the American’s steep lines and fresh powder.

kevin hjertaas skiing waterton lakes national park

image: Matt Scholl

The Akamina Parkway, located in the heart of the park, provides ski touring options that are easy to access and rival anywhere in the Rockies for shredability. But, by a cruel act of cartography, the most desirable skiing lies to the south of the border. In a province like BC, where there are unlimited mountains, this wouldn’t be a problem. But this is Alberta. We don’t have that blessing, and we always want more. So we rounded up some Canadian skiers willing to fight for a cause and came here to stake a claim on as many US lines as possible.

The Mission:

Our plan was simple. On skis, we’d Invade, Poach, and then Escape. A quick tour across Cameron Lake would put us on the border and at the base of 1000m faces full of chutes, cliff drops, and steep turns. They are the type of lines that make any skier’s imagination run wild, but they are solidly on the US side of the border and let’s face it, the States aren’t lenient regarding border issues these days. All maps clearly state, “Persons hiking to and from the USA through Waterton Park MUST report to customs: Canada – RCMP in Waterton townsite.” We didn’t want Big Brother watching us, though. We wanted to ski these lines and claim them for ourselves and all Canadian skiers.


The Offensive:

Day 1 – Captain’s Log: Attempting to cross the border and ski Mt. Custer’s North Face.

Even with the USA’s focus elsewhere, their defences are strong. I fear we have underestimated them. We approached Cameron Lake at first light under cover of cloudy skies that ensured no satellite was watching us and crossed into enemy territory. No path to our target avoided serious avalanche terrain, and the numerous debris piles at the bottom of the face left us wondering if bombs had already hit this part of the empire. As we climbed, slabby conditions on steep slopes slowed us down and, coupled with the repelling winds, beat down the men’s spirits.

As we left the trees’ cover and relative safety, the snow began cracking around the troops and “whumping” a warning to all in earshot. With the steepest of the American’s defences still above us, we’d have to retreat and regroup; I could not afford to lose any men this early in the campaign!

We had lost the first battle, but our determination to win the war was stronger than ever. We consoled ourselves by skiing knee-deep powder in well-spaced trees for the rest of the day. All sides of Cameron Lake offer slopes with trees of varying densities that the wind constantly loads up with fresh snow. The best shots are five hundred vertical meters of continuous fall line that start around 40 degrees and mellow as they go. We got our confidence back on these runs and then retired to our temporary headquarters in the Waterton town site

This hamlet of boarded-up houses and “closed for the season” businesses would act as the perfect base. A bustling town in the summer, there are less than 50 residents in the entire park in winter, and you’ll only see 10 of them in a week. 

During the winter, Waterton only has two businesses open; Crandell Lodge and the Kilmorey Lodge. The Kilmorey houses the only restaurant open in winter and the only bar. There are no other services to speak of short of Pincher Creek, 35km away. There’s a strange feeling you get driving around a town where all but two doors are boarded-up. Waterton Lake’s glassy, frozen expanse only added to the desolate atmosphere. The historical warmth of the Kilmorey Lodge was our only relief from the elements and a total contrast to the harsh, wild mountains. 

apres ski in waterton

Chris Rubens, Kevin Hjertaas, Dominic Melanson. image: Matt Scholl

To keep the men’s spirits up, I let them play poker at the bar every night. I even let the men win some money off me at times. The girl tending bar was from Ireland, and the waitress in the restaurant was a Torontonian. Both had thought it would be “neat” to spend a winter in the Rockies but had no idea how isolated they’d be here. Lake Louise, Red Mountain, and every little mountain town in the country is a thriving metropolis with an abundance of culture and entertainment compared to Waterton in the winter. The three local guys who meet at the bar for a beer every night were so crusty and anti-social that they wouldn’t even acknowledge our existence. Clearly, no one was going to blow our cover.


The Counter Attack:

Day 2 – Captain’s Log: Testing the Defences.

Our next offensive was to test the Yanks’ defences at an obvious mini-golf zone where our photographer could take all the reconnaissance pictures we needed. Private Rubens started the attack with a spinning, medium-sized bomb that hit the mark clean. Private Dommer took the attack further, aiming for a massive cliff under clear skies. Colonel Scholl captured these and subsequent attacks on camera, and our party returned to HQ tired and satisfied that we were finally sticking it to the enemy.

On the trails around Waterton, we met other Canadians, comrades fighting the evil empire the same way we were. One split board vigilante had even taken cannabis to the border and smoked it while jumping back and forth across the line to taunt the enemy.

Later, an old-timer we came across shared beta with us on other secret areas where we could steal US powder. This old soldier had been poaching US lines for over 40 years and knew all the tricks to avoid capture. Once we told him of our plans, he smirked and described all the areas he used to track up when he was younger.

Another young rebel with a criminal record had never been allowed in the states, but just that day, had skied powder south of the 49th parallel and had the grin on to prove it. Then, on the last day of our tour, we actually met up with a known drug smuggler and ripping backcountry snowboarder. He talked at length about all the various stashes the Peace Park had to offer, and though he seemed to know the area well, he insisted he’d never been there himself. There are, in fact, numerous stories about these mountains having hidden shady shipments in the past. Our mission to steal powder and poke the bear seemed less dangerous the more we learned.

Any encounters with backcountry skiers were rare, though. For an area with so much backcountry skiing potential and such easy access to the alpine, it surprised us how quiet it was. Cross-country skiers and ice climbers aside, there seemed to be only one or two other groups skiing any weekday.

ski touring waterton lakes

image: Matt Scholl

Day 3 – Captain’s Log: Continuing to fight the good fight.

The next few days brought cloudy skies and fresh snow. Under these conditions, we knew it would be tough for Big Brother to watch us, and our tracks were filling in overnight, so we attacked and chewed up powder with reckless abandon. If conditions weren’t going to allow us to ski the biggest and best American lines, we would make up for it by hammering off as many vertical meters of untouched powder as we could. Then we’d convert it into feet and laugh at the helpless Americans.

Private Rubens would look south and taunt the Yanks before dropping in and tearing apart their mountains with precision turns that sent powder spraying for meters and technical drops that he made look mockingly easy. Private Dommer showed true valour by sending the biggest airs this area had ever seen and stomping landings like he was back in boot camp.

As the campaign continued, I grew concerned that Colonel Scholl was driving the men too hard. Up at dawn and often skiing until sunset, he seemed determined to leave a mark on as much territory as possible. But both Private Dom and Rubens are some of the toughest and most well-trained ski soldiers our country has produced, and when they reached the bottom of every powder run, their smiles and echoing cheers told me they didn’t mind the hard work.

And our party took full advantage of having the playground. We used an established skin track that followed the Alberta-B.C. border to gain treeline, but instead of dropping back down like the other tracks, we forged on and skied perfect trees south towards Cameron Lake and the old US of A. Other times we used the lake itself to access the bottom of lines we wanted to ski or endured heinous bushwhacks to ski technical, trackless chutes right above the parking lot. Waterton is undoubtedly a Rocky Mountain snowpack, and we had to assess risk accordingly. Still, with well over two meters of snow on the runs we skied in mid-February, it may be some of the best the Canadian Rockies has to offer (even if it isn’t all technically “Canadian” Rockies).

As the clouds broke up towards the end of our trip, we could see the line of peaks that stretched south well into the state of Montana. Separated by deep, pine-filled valleys, the mountains were classic Rockies. Jagged chunks of limestone pointing to the sky with mellow lower slopes. There appeared to be a lifetime’s worth of challenges down there, but as we turned north, we realized the same was true of Waterton National Park. With the small number of skiers here, it seemed certain that most of the lines we drooled over would be first descents and would likely remain unskied for years to come if we didn’t get to them on this campaign.

Not since the war of 1912 had Canada handed it to the US in this manner. As we left Waterton National Park, tired and satisfied, the wind intensified and filled our tracks (and all proof of our infiltration) with snow from who knows which side of that silly line. And we sent an anonymous message to the Director of Homeland Security: Ha Ha! Thanks for the freshies, sucker!