Great Canadian Parks / Alberta

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The Parks / Alberta / Waterton Lakes National Park

A handful of visitors to Waterton came to make their fortunes, not in gold or silver, but in the oil that the natives had known about for a long time. Eventually, an enterprising group decided to tap the untold wealth. The Rocky Mountain Development Company commenced drilling operations along Cameron Creek in November 1901, finally hitting oil at 311 metres by September of 1902, the first producing oil well in western Canada. Oil City was born - with rigs, a bunkhouse and dining hall, cabins and even the beginnings of a small hotel. Original Discovery Number 1, broke down and, when it was finally repaired, ceased to yield oil. Nor could the company find oil anywhere nearby. So, Oil City was abandoned by 1907. A strike near Cameron Falls yielded something in the neighbourhood of one barrel a day, until the well walls collapsed.


Waterton Lakes National Park likely owes its existence to the shortcomings of early oil exploration technology. The primitive drilling equipment could not penetrate the resistant rock of the Lewis Overthrust. The producing wells of today, located north of the park, hit oil below 6,000 feet. Had we the technology then that we have now, Waterton Lakes might be a vast oilfield instead of a National Park.



The mountainous terrain of CanadaŽs west is the result of intense pressure from deep within the earth thrusting and folding layers of rock. The evidence of the early sea beds that covered the area over 700 million years ago is visible in the ripples, fossils and sedimentary layers in the rock. The weight of the sediments, said to be in excess of 9000 m thick, metamorphosed the shale, limestone and sandstone into harder, more resistant rocks in the bottom layers, occasionally broken by igneous rock of volcanic origin.

The forces that fold rock can also break it, creating fault lines. This phenomenon is responsible for a feature called the Lewis Overthrust, which stretches over 320 kilometres, from Marias Pass in the United States to just south of the Bow River. Here, one sheet of rock overrode another, forcing the lower, metamorphic layer to slide over the upper sedimentary rocks.

The Lewis Overthrust reveals some of the billion-year-old rock that would normally reside under the younger layers of rock only 60 million years old. Striped layers of red and green argillite, grey and white quartzite and the subtle hues of grey, tan and brown dolomite give WatertonŽs mountains their distinctive appearance.

The red argillite beds are particularly vibrant at Red Rock Canyon, where Red Rock Creek, a small tributary of Blakiston Creek, has carved its way over thousands of years.

As with most mountain environments, the primary architect of WatertonŽs alpine majesty has been ice. Upper Waterton Lake, which is the heart of the park, is really one long glacial ditch, excavated by massive ice build up that could not surmount a particularly resistant rock wall along the narrow strait we now call the Bosporus. The Waterton Valley glacier was at least 24 kilometres long and 700 metres thick. As a result, Upper Waterton Lake at close to 150 metres deep is the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies.

The distinctive glacial features are easy to spot. High up the mountain slopes where the glaciers began they created cirques, such as the bowl filled by Cameron Lake. Opposing glaciers chiselled mountain peaks into thin aretes. Elsewhere, tributary glaciers left hanging valleys, and everywhere there are eskers and moraines, reminders of the glaciersŽ retreat.

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