Changing perceptions: the Vermillion Pass wildfire

The uniformly green forest near the eastern boundary of Kootenay National Park seldom gets a second glance from travellers. But it wasn’t always this way. . .

In 1968, immediately following the Vermilion Pass wildfire, the forest was a striking landscape of sooty ash and charred trees. The landscape looked dead and desolate. New research at the time was proving that even though the landscape appeared dead, the forest was actually undergoing a healthy regeneration process. Over the next decade, the Vermilion Pass burn became one of the most studied forest fires in Canada. The research helped change negative opinions about wildfire. It did this by shedding light on how species respond to fire and the important role it plays in a forest’s life cycle. In turn, this helped shape how Parks Canada views and manages wildfire today.

Before the Vermilion Pass wildfire, little was known about how plants and animals responded to wildfire in the mountain national parks. For decades, people believed that fire destroyed scenic beauty and wildlife. All fires were put out as quickly as possible.

Around the time of the Vermilion Pass wildfire, these beliefs were beginning to shift. The Vermilion Pass burn area was easily accessed from the highway. It was the perfect place to learn about the ecological role of fire.

Four years after the fire, researchers found almost twice as many plant species in the burned forest as there was in the surrounding unburned forest. The new growth provided food for animals like elk, grizzly bears and a variety of birds. Small mammal diversity increased, drawing predators such as hawks. The area was soon thriving with life!

The research showed that putting out all wildfires disrupts the forest’s natural life cycle. Trees grow closer together and dead trees build up and litter the forest floor. With more available fuel, wildfires burn hotter and are harder to control. Allowing fire to burn periodically creates space in the forest by cleaning up old vegetation. It reduces the chance of a severe wildfire.

Today, Parks Canada fire specialists allow fire to shape the landscape. They use well-planned prescribed fires to safely restore the forest’s life cycle. Wildfires are still immediately put out if they threaten people, facilities or surrounding lands. If it is safe and ecologically beneficial to do so, fire specialists may allow a wildfire to continue burning while closely monitoring it.

Vermilion Pass wildfire research helped Parks Canada understand the important role of wildfire. Ongoing wildfire research continues to help fire specialists safely and effectively return fire to the landscape.

Safe passage for wildlife

In the 1920s, the building of a highway through Kootenay National Park was considered a feat of engineering. A 1924 guidebook declared that “a new triumph had been won over the obstacles of nature.” Thousands of visitors came to the park. A wild, mountain landscape was now within reach.

For wildlife, the highway meant something very different. The land was divided. A wide trail split the forest and strange-smelling things travelled along it. And that was only the beginning…

Over time, the road was widened, paved and improved to meet modern standards. Highway 93 south through Kootenay National Park became a major travel route. Large volumes of traffic now move at fast speeds. It can be very difficult for animals to cross the road. From 2003 to 2012, over 500 large animals were killed in wildlife-vehicle collisions. Parks Canada set out to address this problem and make the highway safer for motorists and animals.

From 2013 to 2015, nine wildlife underpasses were installed along a section of the park highway. These structures are hidden under the road. It took up to 6 weeks to build the largest, elliptical-shaped underpass. During that time, traffic had to be diverted around on a temporary road. Once complete, the underpass allowed animals to cross safely.

Alone, the underpasses are not very effective. Animals can easily move across the top of the road, bypassing the structures. That’s why fencing is used. The 15-km stretch of highway with underpasses is surrounded by fencing so tall that even a deer can’t jump over it! If an animal does get inside the fenced area, it can use a jump-out to escape. Jump-outs are cleverly designed gaps in the fence. They encourage one-way movement from the highway to the forest. In the photo below, a white-tailed deer makes a successful exit.

Since the underpasses and fencing were built, remote cameras have been monitoring the situation. We wanted to know who was safely crossing the road, and how often. Check out the examples below. Are there any surprises?

To date, over 6,000 crossings have been recorded!

A few curious animals wanted to know more about the weird boxes on the trees…

Parks Canada continues to monitor the underpasses and study how animals move through the park. To learn more, visit our Wildlife Crossings Project webpage

Vacation season is just around the corner!

Life today is busy and it seems like free time is a hard to come by. Cell phones and internet are at our fingertips and we are flooded with information, distractions and choices every second of every single day. With so many options, how do you find time to research and make decisions about where to go and what to see in your free time? How do you even find free time? How do you disconnect?

If this feels like your life, Kootenay National Park might fit the bill for your next vacation or weekend get away. Kootenay National Park began humbly as a road through the Rockies. But, the amazing viewpoints, hikes and worthwhile stops along that road, make Banff’s less busy cousin well worth devoting a few vacation days to! (shhh don’t tell too many people)

There are two ways to enter the park, coming from Alberta and travelling south on Highway 93, or travelling north from the Kootenay region - think Cranbrook, BC. Before you head into the park, download your favorite adventure playlist or a few podcasts because the majority of this road doesn’t have cell or Wi-Fi service. Yes! You read that right! Kootenay National Park is O-F-F --T-H-E --G-R-I-D! (Don’t worry there are emergency phones located in a few spots just in case). This offers you and your busy family the chance to unwind and connect with each other. We guarantee there are lots of things to keep you entertained along the way, and, by the end, you’ll have enough IG worthy moments collected to give your friends and coworkers some major vacation envy.

Glaciers and grasslands, open spaces and winding canyons, frosty rivers and steamy hot springs, Kootenay National Park is a land of contrasts – this place has something for everyone and here are a few of our favorites!

Marble Canyon (30 minutes)

This easy stroll follows paths and bridges, allowing views into the depths of the narrow canyon walls. The streaked limestone, sound of the rushing water and the surrounding peaks make you feel further from the road than you actually are!

This site features our iconic red chairs as well – a Parks Canada must do!

Fossil Hunting (8 hours)

Kootenay’s Stanley Glacier is home to one of the most significant fossil finds on earth – The Burgess Shale! Pre-book your guided experience with a Parks Canada interpreter. If hiking in the fire-swept forest, and mountain views aren’t enough, you will get to hold in your hands fossil creatures that are half a billion years old!

Paint pots (40 minutes)

A short walk from the parking lot will have you walking around unbelievably orange and yellow soil and spring-fed pools set against the green backdrop of the forest. Iron in the water turns the surrounding ochre beds this vibrant colour!

Rockwall Trail (3-5 days)

The Paint Pots trail is also used for access into the famous four-day backcountry camping and hiking adventure that parallels the Rockwall. This trail includes Floe Lake, hanging glaciers and alpine meadows filled with wildflowers and larch trees, a drool-worthy bucket-list trail aimed at experienced hikers. This hike tends to book quickly be sure to book your campsites in advance.

Floe Lake (7 hours)

The southernmost access point for the Rockwall Trail climbs steeply and ends at a spectacular lake set at the base of jagged mountains. This trail is recommended for strong hikers and can be done as part of the Rockwall trail or as a stand-alone Kootenay day hike.

Radium Hot Springs pools

After a day (or four) of hiking or simply to relax, the Radium Hot Springs hot and cold pools are the place to be. Soak in some history, surrounded by dramatic scenery. Also, if you haven’t experienced the hot springs in the fall or winter, it is a must do after a chilly outdoor day.

oTENTiks

Camping is an amazing experience that really gives you time to bond with friends and family. Kootenay has no shortage of options for captivating sites and one of the more unique experiences features: oTENTik. Part-tent. Part-cabin. Good vibes only (oh and no sleeping on the ground or fiddling with tent poles)!

Nightly interpretive programs are good for all ages and offer insight into what Park Canada is doing to protect the Kootenay environment.

Sinclair Canyon

Arguably one of the most recognizable features of Kootenay are the tall red walls forming Sinclair Canyon. A walk through the canyon at road level is worthwhile or if you have more time take the Juniper trail gently upward to see a bird’s view of these impressive walls!

Red Chairs

Make sure to check the map for red chair locations in Kootenay National Park and keep your eyes open on the trail! They always provide a great view and give you time to relax and connect.

Numerous amazing picnic sites

If you have time for nothing else while you drive through the park, bring a blanket, pack a lunch and take a few moments to stretch your legs and breath in some fresh mountain air before you continue your journey. < p/>

If you didn’t already have enough reasons to visit Kootenay National Park we have one more for you. 2020 is Kootenay National Park’s 100-year centennial! Come be part of the celebration and stay tuned for how you can participate in special activities and events to show some love to Kootenay on this extra special birthday!

See you on the trails!