WATERTON PARK, Alberta — ShouldI trudge through shin-deep snow to the side door at the Kilmorey Lodge library? Should I use the front door, shooing away the doe and her fawn that have taken shelter from the falling snow?
I opt for the library door. The deer, after all, are one reason we chose this isolated lodge in the almost-deserted village of Waterton Lakes in the Canadian Rockies. This is their home; we are merely visitors.
In summer, Waterton Lakes National Park is a popular mountain destination for Canadian vacationers, smaller and less crowded than the better-known Banff and Jasper national parks to the north. It also receives thousands of visitors who come north across the U.S. border as part of their visit to Glacier National Park, which abuts it.
Together, they form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In winter, Glacier is essentially shut down. Its hotels and restaurants are closed and boarded up, its high mountain roads buried by deep, drifting snow. The border crossing — the summer shortcut from the United States to Waterton — is barricaded until summer.
Waterton Park, the village at the core of the Canadian park, comes close to doing the same. The grocery store and the gas station are boarded up; so are the fudge shop, the espresso bar and the ice cream parlor. The summer population of more than 2,000 shrinks to perhaps 100, many of them park staff. Many residents in nearby Montana assume Waterton has joined Glacier in winter slumber.
Remaining open on the shore of Waterton’s Emerald Bay is a snug century-old lodge, a beacon of warmth offering cozy rooms and an excellent restaurant year-round for those willing to make the off-season trek.
We are here on a weekend because the Kilmorey Lodge tops our list of places where we most want to be snowed in. Our cross-country skis are strapped on the car, and our snowshoes are in the trunk. We seek a blend of adventure and solitude, but also a comfortable bed, a warm fire and gourmet meals served by cheerful and attentive staff. Kilmorey offers it all.
Adventure isn’t far away. Waterton plows a road eight miles up from the village into the high country of the Rockies. From there, the remaining two miles of unplowed road lead cross-country skiers or snowshoers to Cameron Lake, nestled in a cirque at 5,450 feet, at the Continental Divide.
It is one of the easiest and safest ways for winter visitors to view the high backcountry of the Canadian Rockies in winter. Later in the season, when the ice is thicker and safer, Cameron Lake itself becomes a thoroughfare for skiers. All around are forest and mountains, inviting explorers on snowshoes.
In winter, Cameron Falls, a spectacular waterfall on the edge of town, is an easy destination for skiers who want an adventure a bit short of true wilderness.
Deer are common here, and they often bed down in the shelter of trees near the Kilmorey. A small herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep also frequents the town. Lucky visitors even may catch a glimpse of a mountain lion, searching for winter prey. This also is serious grizzly bear country, but they are hibernating this time of year and pose no threat.
Canada first protected Waterton as a park in 1895. In 1910, it became forever linked to its giant neighbor to the south — Glacier Park is eight times larger in area — when James Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway in the United States, decided to make Glacier and Waterton “the playground of the Northwest” with a network of hotels, camps and chalets targeting wealthy tourists who would travel on his railroad.
His son, Louis Hill, chose a knoll overlooking Waterton as the spot for a new grand hotel, linked on a circuit to three others in Glacier Park.
The Prince of Wales Inn, resembling a giant alpine chalet, opened in 1927. It still overlooks the village of Waterton, and staying there is a highlight for many summer visitors. It is closed in winter, and few even venture there because of the fierce and frigid winds that can howl down Upper Waterton Lake.
Those who do visit the Prince of Wales can see the thick steel cables that literally keep the huge hotel from blowing away.
In the town below, the wind is buffered by trees, and it is calm when we return to the Kilmorey after our adventure on skis. It makes a pleasant evening stroll through the snow around the shore of partially iced-over Emerald Bay, listening to the honking of hundreds of Canada geese.
Evening comes early in winter, and the glow from the lodge windows is an invitation. Just off the lobby is a small, cheery pub where we can sit by the fireplace and look out over the snowy wilderness.
As in many old inns, each room is unique, and they range from cozy to spacious. All have antique furniture, plump mattresses and thick comforters that invite snuggling and sleeping late. The rooms have no televisions, telephones or dataports, and there is no cell-phone service; this is not the place for such intrusions.
Dining at Kilmorey is a treat; a list of Canadian restaurant awards over the past few years fills a half page of the guest directory, and plaques fill a wall in the Lamp Post dining room. The menu and wine list belie the isolation of the small lodge.
This night, we opt for an appetizer of black tiger prawns sauteed with maple-infused Canadian whiskey and a hint of crushed garlic. For a main course, we choose pescatore — scallops, clams, mussels, shrimp, crab, calamari, cod and prawns sauteed with garlic, Italian herbs and onion and finished with sauvignon blanc and cream, then tossed with linguine.
Then we head to one of Kilmorey’s most pleasant features — the back library, with its comfy armchairs gathered around a wood-burning fireplace. Coffee and dessert can be enjoyed here after dinner, but it’s always a quiet refuge, the perfect place to curl up with a good book, listen to the crackle of the fire and watch the softly falling snow deepen outside the door.
Perhaps we’ll be snowed in. We can always hope.
Kilmorey Lodge, Waterton Park, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada; go to www.watertoninfo.ab.ca/kilmorey or phone 403/859-2334. The lodge contains 23 guest rooms, two of which are wheelchair-accessible. Winter rates range from $85 to $168 per night, the latter for a two-room family suite; summer rates are higher.
In winter, the only food service in the village is at the Kilmorey, where dinner entrees in the dining room range from $15 to $34. A more casual menu is available in the inn’s pub.
Waterton Lakes National Park is in the southwestern corner of Alberta. From Calgary — the nearest major airport — drive south on Highway 2 to Cardston, then southwest on Highway 5 to Waterton. From Great Falls, Mont., drive north on Interstate 15 and cross the U.S.-Canadian border at Sweetgrass. Seven miles north of the border, turn west on Highway 501 and follow it to Cardston, then follow Highway 5.
Waterton Lakes National Park, www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/waterton.