How far should you go to support a local event?

It’s 5:00 AM, on a smoky Sunday August morning, and my wife and I are driving south out of Calgary into what feels like an apocalypse in Middle Earth, or at the very least the outskirts of Mordor, in our Pajero Evolution. Contrary to John Rimmer’s adventures, there are no rings in sight, so we are instead on our way to the Waterton Wheels Show and Shine, in southern Alberta. To say we are trepidatious would be understating the situation. Thousands of hectares of the western United States and British Columbia are on fire. And it’s moving this way.

But maybe I should back up a bit?

Banff is almost in our backyard, here in Calgary, but our absolute favourite national park is a smaller, lesser known preserve which sits on the 49th Parallel: Waterton Lakes National Park. It is paired with Glacier, on the U.S. side, as an International Peace Park. Every year we make the 4 hour pilgrimage south in late summer and stay a few days while we enjoy world class hiking, kayaking on the lake, and taking in the wild life. We’ve seen bears almost every trip, and it’s not uncommon to see a few elk strolling down the main street.

The last few years have been tinder dry, and in late August of 2017 the park was almost entirely lost to the Kenow Wildfire, if not for the efforts of some heroic firefighters. As it was, many of the trails were still closed in 2018, and signs of the devastation were everywhere you looked.

The camping that we tend to do in Waterton is not the roughing-it kind that we often enjoy with the “little” Gen 3 diesel and roof-top tent. No, this camping is done with our 4 door Pajero (her daily driver) pulling our pop-up A-frame trailer. It’s not glamping, but it’s a step (or three) above tent camping. We haul 2 kayaks, 2 bikes, and 2 dogs. We always stay in the “Town Site”, right on Lower Waterton Lake, which serves as a hub for all our activities.

For the past several years we’ve seen signs for a car show. It always seems to happen on the weekend AFTER we have camped there, and I’ve alway had the wrong vehicle along to put in the show even if we were there on the right weekend. This year was no exception, and we found ourselves camping the week before. So this time when we left on Wednesday, we made a pact to go home, unpack, and get the appropriate rig ready to go back for the show three days later. That of course meant Pajero Evolution number 581 would finally get to rev up her MIVEC on the open road to the park.

So – back to Sunday morning.

In between the time we left four days ago, and now, things have changed.

The town is under an evacuation alert.

There is an out of control wildfire in Glacier park, seven miles from the dividing line.

Wildfires don’t respect international borders.

The Pajero Evo is not made for maximum fuel efficiency, so we stop at a little town called Pincher Creek to top up with premium. When I tell him we are heading south, the attendant says he heard that the park was closed, due to an evacuation order. The soot in the air does nothing to prove him wrong, and he shakes his head as we press on, southward. We probably pass windmills, and drive up mountain passes, but they are all but invisible through the haze. 

Air “Quality?” Not so much.

Finally we descend into what feels more like an active volcano than an inland Fjord. The park is open, yes, but it is not like we’ve ever seen it: there are many empty campsites, and the park attendant advises us to keep our ears open, “just in case”. I catch a snippet from radio news which says the atmosphere in much of Alberta has deteriorated to levels “slightly worse than Beijing.” But for now, the park remains open, so we try to stay positive. (I might have rubbed the extinguisher under my front seat, for luck?)

The Show Must Go On

With no car-show traffic for us to follow into town, (remarkable on any car show day) we navigate to the area we think holds the show. Thankfully the venue is set up, there are a few 50’s era land yachts already parked, and we take our pick of the field. Within an hour of the start of the show, the grass has sparsely filled. The show proceeds as normal as it can, but the incongruity of the helicopters and water bombers, as they skim water from the giant lake in the background, before flying it south towards the international border, lends a certain uneasiness to the mood.

Hope and Optimism (Foreshadowing, as it turns out…)

While the show could have been a bust, it was quite the opposite: the overall feeling, beyond the obvious unease, was one of hope, and appreciation. Every local and business owner present (and it seemed like all of them were there) personally stopped by to thank us for making the effort to attend. We came to realize that most of the attendees were fairly local to the area, so they were really happy to stop and check out some rare JDM goodness. We also got to see some really cool vehicles outside our usual company. The local RCMP officer was particularly interested in my Paj-Evo. (Interested in a good way.) Lots of folks got in the driver’s seat to experience the steering wheel on the “wrong side”. It was hard to ignore the smoke, the radio’s wildfire updates, and the presence of Emergency personnel, who were standing by. The business owners were clearly feeling the heat of reduced tourist traffic but somehow the Waterton Wheels Show and Shine kept up an optimistic face.

The Silver Lining… Or, Rather, The Cloud

After a great, albeit hazy day of talking and walking around some rad rides, we went to supper at a local restaurant, where we had a chance to talk to the owner about the trials and tribulations of running a business in a national park that has essentially turned into a war zone. By this time the park had almost emptied, with most campers deciding that an evacuation order was eminent. As we barely discerned dusk descending on the national park through the smoke, we decided to head home ourselves, fearful for our beloved park, but content with the day we spent within it.

Just as we exited the park boundary, the first drops hit the windshield. Within minutes we were driving home through a downpour. But our spirits were un-dampened: our favorite place was about to get rained out. And the timing couldn’t have been better.

I’d like to thank the Waterton Park Chamber of Commerce and “Pat’s Waterton” for hosting the show, and all for making us feel at home. It is a special place, and we have already reserved our site for the coming summer. It just so happens to be the weekend of the car show. Rain or shine – Maybe we will see you there?

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1 Comment

  1. While I may not have the Montero anymore, I do enjoy living vicariously through your writing. At least I’m still in a Japanese (crossover, but still…) vehicle. You always seem to put us in the environment and it’s always an enjoyable read.

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