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Lost in the cloud and blowing snow in Flathead Valley, Bruce Kirkby was never so happy to see a clearcut: it marked the Canada-U.S. border. (Dave Quinn for the Globe and Mail)
Lost in the cloud and blowing snow in Flathead Valley, Bruce Kirkby was never so happy to see a clearcut: it marked the Canada-U.S. border. (Dave Quinn for the Globe and Mail)

Bruce Kirkby: Adventure Diary

Could Flathead Valley be Canada's next national park? Add to ...

DAY ONE

Ralph Gravelle's pickup grinds to a halt on the Phillips Creek logging road. We have travelled only a few kilometres, but already deep snow and ice make it impossible to continue.

The Ktunaxa (pronounced "k-too-nah-ha") elder from Tobacco Plains stands silently at the roadside as we haul heavy backpacks from his truck and adjust our headlamps. Heavy white flakes pour down from the dark night sky.

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Ahead, tucked in the quiet southeastern corner of British Columbia, lies a historic hunting route through the Flathead Basin and across the Rocky Mountains. Known as the Buffalo Cow Trail, it was abandoned more than 150 years ago, following the decimation of the great herds.

"They'd go in January," Ralph tells us. "Wait till a warm spell that was followed by a cold snap, hoping to get a good strong crust on the snow."

While most mountain-dwelling first nations travelled to the Prairies each spring and fall to hunt buffalo, only the Ktunaxa mounted a gruelling winter hunt as well. Without the aid of horses, returning warriors struggled under loads of meat and skins weighing more than 100 kilograms. Staggering a kilometre or less at a time, they would pass their burden to another before collapsing, and leapfrog the entire 10-day journey home.

We are about to retrace these steps, although fat skis, synthetic jackets and mere 30-kilogram packs will make our journey over the mountains a world easier.

At the height of its use, the Buffalo Cow Trail was literally carved into the land. Generations of passing feet and hooves created a trench 50 centimetres deep or more in places. Today, time and nature have obliterated the last remains of such trails, which once crisscrossed the mountains like highways. Only the knowledge of elders and journals of early travellers keep the route alive, but we are following a fading memory.

The three of us shake hands with Ralph, and prepare to ski into the night. He becomes grave. "Take good care of each other out there. Real good care."

Suddenly Ralph digs behind the pickup's seat, retrieving a handful of black garbage bags.

"Been a warm winter. The Flathead [River]will be open, so you'll be wanting these. Official issue. Ktunaxa gaiters."

John Bergenske builds a fire to melt snow into water along the Buffalo Cow Trail in the Flathead Valley.

Grizzlies, prospectors and a gritty American Senator

Take a peek at the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on a map, and you'll notice it looks like a pie - with a large slice cut out. That slice is the Flathead. Hidden on three sides by towering mountain ranges, and to the south by the impassable U.S. border, this remote river basin is a land that guards its secrets well.

In recent years, a real western-style dust-up has been erupting over the fate of the Flathead. The only unsettled, low-elevation valley of its size in southern Canada, and home to the highest concentration of grizzlies anywhere in the North American interior, it is also rich in resources. And plenty of fingers have been reaching for that slice of pie.

For years, conservation groups have pressed for an expansion of Waterton Lakes National Park to encompass a third of the Flathead Valley.

Things began heating up in 2002, when Parks Canada denoted the region an "area of interest." But it would move ahead only if British Columbia and the Ktunaxa First Nation agreed.

British Columbia did not agree, and instead accepted a steady stream of proposals for oil, gas, coal bed methane, mining and logging development in the basin. To the dismay of many, they also continued to permit trophy hunting and off-road vehicle use.

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