Saturday, August 18, 2018

Kenow fire exposes history of Waterton Lakes National Park

Parks Canada archaeological team on the road to discoveries

Chris Davis - 
The Kenow wildfire, as it became known, crossed over from the British Columbia border into Waterton Lakes National Park on September 11, 2017.  38,000 hectares were burned,  including 19,303 hectares of Waterton, causing significant destruction of wildlife, vegetation, and infrastructure.  Artifacts representing the last 1000 years or so of the area's human history have also been temporarily uncovered.  An archaeological team is spending a year surveying, recording, and researching the new discoveries, racing the clock before new vegetation hides the sites again.

(C. Davis photos and video except where otherwise noted)

"It's almost like we've got the first few pages of the story of Waterton just exposed for us. All we have to do is look at it, read it, interpret it, and it's just right there," said Parks Canada archaeologist Bill Perry during an August 7 press tour of two of the sites.

Kenow fire in Waterton Lakes National Park, September 2017 (Government of Canada photo)
Aftermath (Government of Canada photo)

"This is a sacred landscape. So that we're also are quite privileged to be here and doing this work." - Parks Canada Archaeologist Bill Perry

"We are actually racing the clock," Perry explained, because vegetation regrowth is quickly covering the landscape.  "Hopefully, by the end of this month we will looked at most of what we can see. It's a constant triage process, we're just after the best because we just can't deal with everything that we see here. It truly is a once in a lifetime experience."

"What it is revealing is just the top bit of the archaeological story so you have... just like a layer cake, you've got all these layers and the fire is showing you the top bit."

"What we are also finding is that when we go back to previous known sites, is that they are not just a few square metres, they are actually the whole land form."

Perry said he felt privileged to be working in Waterton.  "Who would not want to be here?  It's amazing.  A lot of origin stories from the first Nations  happened here, all that stuff."

"Along with that, we are suddenly cluing into the place of Waterton in the regional travel and trade networks."

Some of the sites will be left as they are, in the interest of preserving them in situ, partly to preserve them for future scholars who may bring new ideas to the process, and also to respect the historical significance of their locations.

Archaeological resources cannot be duplicated or replaced if lost, damaged or destroyed. They are treasured because they allow us physical contact with our past. They are sources of knowledge about our history. It is important to remember that archaeological resources may be protected by law. - Archaeologist Alanna Shockley (Archaeology in a burned landscape blog)

University of Lethbridge press release:

Last summer’s Kenow Wildfire destroyed more than 19,000 hectares in Waterton Lakes National Park and the resulting loss of vegetation has revealed archaeological sites that were previously hidden in the underbrush.

Kevin Black Plume, Alanna Shockley, and Tatyanna Ewald excavate a hearth (University of Lethbridge photo)
Working alongside Parks Canada archaeologist Bill Perry, Rachel Lindemann (BA ’05), Alanna Shockley (BA ’16), Kevin Black Plume (BSc ’18) and Tatyanna Ewald, a graduate student from the University of Calgary, have been conducting post-fire assessments in Waterton as Parks Canada employees since May. Black Plume, who’s from the Kainai First Nation, helps ensure elders are called in to help interpret sites when necessary.

Kevin Black Plume uses a Mobile Mapper to record a newly identified site (U of L photo)
“Archaeology doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” says Perry. “Through the support of Parks Canada, Waterton Lakes National Park staff and researchers, surrounding communities and Indigenous bands, an ambitious post-fire archaeological survey project is underway in the burn zone of the Kenow Wildfire within the bounds of the park.”

Parks Canada Archaeologist Bill Perry (Parks Canada photo)

The survey will revisit and assess as many known, and record many new, archaeological sites impacted by the wildfire. The work will help evaluate the significance of the resources and how best to manage them.

“The sheer amount of archaeological visibility available in the areas of intensive fire is staggering and allows us to focus primarily on the last 1,000 years of human history in the park to tell the story of Waterton and the surrounding regions,” says Perry.

Needle case (Parks Canada photo)

The park has about 375 known archaeological sites; 255 of those are within the burn zone, and the crew is trying to visit as many as they can before the end of August. Most of the previous data on Waterton’s sites dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when archaeological work was first done in the park. Now, with the visibility provided by the wildfire, the group has found additional sites and added more information to existing ones, such as one near Red Rock Canyon.

(Parks Canada photo)

“It had been quite a minimal site where they’d only found a couple of artifacts,” says Lindemann. “We found a protohistoric component—that transition when Europeans are just coming in and we’re starting to see First Nations adopting some of the technologies of the Europeans, such as trade beads. We found seed beads and metal trade points. That’s a huge indicator that they’re still using bow-and-arrow technology and haven’t switched over to guns.”

Alanna Shockley holds a side-notched projectile point found while shovel testing (U of L photo)
Metal points, shaped like an arrowhead, were mass-produced by trading companies like the Hudson’s Bay Company. First Nations people also fashioned their own metal points using the metal strapping from barrels or other objects.

(Parks Canada photo)

Soil test (Parks Canada photo)
In addition, the archaeologists found more than 20 small hearths surrounded by debitage, or flakes of stone broken off in the process of making or refurbishing tools.

(Parks Canada photo)

“People basically sat at the campfire and sharpened their tools, camped for a few nights and moved on to do hunting or proceed through the passes into B.C. or the United States. This is a component of the site that’s massive but, with any sort of vegetation, would be lost,” says Lindemann.

(Parks Canada photo)

Along with arrowheads made of flint, they’ve found others made from chert and obsidian, which may have come from B.C. or from the U.S. The team has uncovered outfitter camps with scattered tin cans, wagon parts and tent foundations. They’ve also explored relief camps that were set up during the Depression that provided room and board in exchange for physical labour.

(Parks Canada photo)

“They were doing things like blasting for the Akamina Parkway,” says Lindemann. “We went in with the perception that it was a bunch of men utilizing this area and we found snuff cans for Copenhagen, beer bottles, ax heads and shovel heads. And then we found a Boy Scouts of Canada button. Either someone was a Scout leader or someone had their children present. We also found some very feminine artifacts like mother-of-pearl beads and a bottle of Frostilla, which was a pink hand lotion for ladies.”

Frostilla ad circa 1906 (

In addition, the crew has found some First Nations’ pottery, a rare find since the pottery typically doesn’t hold up well. As they clamber up and down the slopes, the archaeologists make note of wherever they see bison remains to determine how they used the land and how widespread they were.

(Parks Canada photo)

“We have a really good opportunity here to rewrite portions of the archaeology in Waterton simply because we have such good visibility and clarity of what’s going on,” says Lindemann. “I’m hoping some new interpretations and use of the landscape come out of this. We’re creating lots of new avenues for research projects for future students and researchers.”

(Parks Canada photo)

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