Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Coming to Know a Place

When I am travelling, everything I see from the vehicle window is spectacle. The mountains may appear high and jagged, the river clear and green in the shadows, and the village quaint and shabby. But it is all a passing scene, a mere image that I have not interacted with except as brief observer.

To come to know a place, I have found that I have to stop, explore it, and have experiences there. An example of this is Waterton Lakes National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, adjoining Glacier National Park in Montana. I had heard people say it was a wonderful park, but I did not have a chance to visit it until two and a half years ago, in February. We drove into the park on a grey windy day. The townsite looked almost abandoned. The lake was grey, and the wind had whipped the water into whitecaps that were crashing on the shore. The mountains were tall but without definition in the dull light. We stepped out of the car for a closer look, but only for a moment as the wind was raw.

"Well we've seen that now." It did not seem to be such a wonderful place.

The next time Rob and I came to the park was on the Canada Day long weekend at the beginning of July. We drove to the park with my son and the two dogs, planning to do a day hike. It was a hot sunny day.

The park looked completely different from the first time. It was full of tourists jamming the streets of the little townsite, wandering up and down, eating ice cream. The huge campground by the lake was full, with kids running and biking everywhere. The mountains looked glorious and dramatic in the bright sunshine.

From our map book, we had picked out a hike that had its trailhead right near the townsite, the Bertha  Lake hike. We had a bit of difficulty finding the trailhead as we initially attempted to pass through the large campground rather than circumnavigating it. Once on the trail, we found there were so many people there, it was more like a stroll on a city sidewalk than a wilderness experience. Also, we had to keep the dogs on the leash, as that is the rule in national parks. Although the scenery was lovely, we ended up only walking as far as the falls, then turning back. It was not the most enjoyable hiking experience.

So you can see that my first two experiences Waterton Lakes National Park were not that positive. However, we have come back many times since then and have discovered many wonderful hiking and cycling trails. We have had lunch at the Prince of Wales Hotel. We have taken a boat cruise down the lake to Goat Haunt, Montana. We have camped in all three campgrounds, each very different.

With each different experience in the park, we have come to know more about its landscape and history. We have hiked its trails, camped in the backcountry, eaten at various restaurants. We have seen it in different seasons, and in interacting with the place, it has become woven into our memories. I now have a very different and much enriched mental map of the park. It has indeed become a special place to us.

I have described my experience of getting to know Waterton Lakes park as an example of the process of developing a sense of place. I believe that a person can only come to know a place through repeated experiences in that place. Too often in our travels, we race through places without stopping, or only go to attend one event. To get to know a place, a person has to slow down, walk and observe, talk to people, and have experiences there.  The world seems to be more inviting and less alienating when we engage with people and places than when we merely observe from a car window or see it from our screens.


Cycling at Waterton Lakes along the Kootenai Brown trail.

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