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John Bergenske and Dave Quinn (behind) slice through the March snow in Flathead Valley. (Bruce Kirkby for The Globe and Mail)
John Bergenske and Dave Quinn (behind) slice through the March snow in Flathead Valley. (Bruce Kirkby for The Globe and Mail)

Bruce Kirkby: Adventure Diary, Part 2

Flathead valley: a wild thoroughfare Add to ...

Eventually we stumble onto a seismic line, a sidewalk-width slash through the forest heading in exactly the direction we need to go. The abundance of fresh animal tracks is staggering. Lynx, rabbit, marten and fisher have all been here recently. Most prevalent are moose tracks. The big, deep prints are so numerous in places, and the snow so flattened, that it appears as if an entire stadium of people has stampeded through the cut.

We near the confluence of the Flathead Valley with the Akamina-Kishinena drainage, where our route will veer east. Before we left, Ralph, the Ktunaxa elder, told us of the special "energy" at this corner, which is a thoroughfare for animals.

"I always see a bear there," Ralph mused. "Always. Rubbing on them little trees."

We clamber up to a logging road, and find it has been used by a wolf pack. The number of paw prints is impossible to count. Twenty? Thirty? Or it could be just five animals, running back and forth? One enormous pad is nearly the size of my ski boot, while two young pups have left delicate, dog-like marks.

The pack swerved from the road right at Ralph's corner, and we follow their well-used trail, which is trampled deep into the snow. Passing "bear rub" trees, with bark gone and polished wood covered in sap and fine hair, we stumble unexpectedly into a clearing - the border once again, its sheer line cut to both horizons.

Turning eastward, I freeze. The view is staggering. The peaks on this flank of the Flathead are unlike any we have seen on the journey. Soaring into a blue sky, and plastered with snow from recent storms, they appear Himalayan in stature.

Right through the midst of the peaks runs the stark border cut. Everything to the right of the cut lies within United States Glacier National Park. Everything to the left remains undeveloped provincial Crown land. The wolf trail continues onward, oblivious to international politics, disappearing into a lichen-draped larch forest: the most remote, difficult-to-access corner of the park.

At our feet lies a scattering of fluffy down and large feathers; the remains of a bald eagle within metres of the international border. It is ironic to think that had the wind blown these feathers southward, it would have been illegal to pick them up. But here in Canada we can stoop to gather a few keepsakes of the magic spot.

Lush biological riches

These high stunning peaks, the great walls of rock and ice, are often the first images one conjures up of the Flathead. But it is the quiet basin behind us - its biological richness and diversity said to be on par with the Okavango Delta or the Serengeti plains - that makes the Flathead wilderness unique. It is the only valley of its size in southern Canada to have never been settled. The scale of the wilderness we have passed through reminds me of the Yukon, yet we are just a few hours drive from Calgary.

Pressing deeper into the Clark Range (which runs along the border between Alberta and British Columbia), we stop to explore Rose's Canyon, a narrow slot carved into the region's distinctive red rock by a small stream. Farther on, we pass an abandoned well site where Shell Oil drilled an exploration hole decades ago.

Up and up the trail leads, taking us through a lush valley. In the time of the buffalo, travelling hunters had to avoid this boggy land during spring and fall, and stayed to the ridges high above. But during winter, with the soft ground frozen, large Ktunaxa parties (up to 500 strong) marched straight up the narrow valley we are in.

Less than four kilometres from the Alberta border, we enter the remote Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park, and then finally, over a wooded pass and into Waterton Lakes National Park.

For the first time in a week there are ski and snowshoe tracks to follow. After reaching the plowed road at Cameron Lake, we hitchhike to Waterton townsite (a tourist hot spot in summer; ghost town in winter) and cram into John's rusty Toyota 4x4.

Later that day, at a dusty canteen on Highway 3, we savour cold fruit juice and bask in the unseasonably warm March sun. A steady stream of eighteen-wheelers thunders past in both directions. Wearing a fresh T-shirt, I stretch across the Toyota's warm hood and gaze upward at snow-capped peaks to the south. With a start I realize the headwaters of the Flathead lie on their far flanks. It seems a million miles away already, and I am reminded how the line between wilderness and our modern world is often so very thin.

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