I’ve wanted to visit the Kootenay Paint Pots since I first read about them a decade ago—and last week I did!
Since a conference at the Banff Art Centre was bringing me to Alberta, I took the opportunity to cross into Kootenay National Park, and visit the Paint Pots on three different occasions. Arriving in Calgary early in the afternoon, I set out right away. After driving through Banff National Park, I crossed the Alberta/British Columbia border, entered Kootenay National Park, and shortly thereafter arrived at the Paint Pots.
This first pilgrimage was a wonderful mix of an ever increasing climax and playful ignorance. Though the trail is very well maintained, after crossing the river on an iron bridge, the trail split. At this fork there were arrows indicating many destinations in both directions, but none of them were the Paint Pots … After puzzling over this for a few moments, I noticed that someone had conveniently scratched the addition information I needed to continue onto the sign (and subsequently, another had even scratched a thank-you!).
After a short, easy hike in the woods, the landscape began to change. As the cedar trees began to thin out, I entered a marshy clearing. And, there, in that plain I saw the first pool of bright yellow ochre … While mesmerized by its brilliance (it was so yellow!) I was also unsure—was this a paint pot? As I crossed that plain, other pools of colour appeared and I began to settle into my belief that these were what I was on pilgrimage to experience. My pace slowed, and I began to look deeply and be open to the place.
Slowly I walked onward, and into a very different landscape. The area dried out, became solid, and of a uniform colour—the whole field becoming bright orange (although the sun coming out briefly at this moment intensified the experience, I suspect). I had only done a minimal amount of reading before heading out, but it was when I saw the long mound of colourful earth that I realized I had arrived at the Ochre Beds. From the early 1900’s until the 1920’s, pigment had been mined here and shipped to Calgary for paint-making. The mound I identified was from the final mining work done in this place, and had never been shipped.
Again, I felt like I had arrived. The earth had been carefully prepared, and a remnant even remained of the pigment created from this place. But, as I stood quietly, I also began to hear a river close by. Moving water has a deep draw to me, and without really thinking about it, I found myself again walking onward. The water was more colourful than anything I had seen thus far! Yellows, oranges, and deep reds flowed underneath the clear water—and I found that the path continued onward, along the river. So, I continued as well.
The colours of the river captivated me as I moved, and so it was that I suddenly found myself standing amid the Paint Pots themselves. Once I was there, there was no doubt that I had arrived. Three pots—one yellow, one red, and one brown, all in a little clearing—each colourful bowl silently overflowing their rims as its basin’s spring also began the river I had followed.
The two pilgrimages that followed were unique experiences that wove their way into the wonder I found at this sacred place. My second visit included a small group of friends that made the experience even more wonder-filled. With Carla, Krista, Dan, and Steven a playfulness was added to the experience, and each variation of local colour was excitedly experienced together. It was that spirit that changed my approach to the Paint Pots … On my first visit, I had quickly passed over the Ochre River using the bridge, but I suddenly knew that I wanted to experience a more traditional approach to this place. Handing my boots over to a willing participant, I rolled up my pants and began wading across the rushing water. Given that had snowed the night before, the water was freezing, but I forgot that almost immediately when I suddenly saw the colours appear between my toes. From high on the bridge, the river’s rocks had all looked bleached white, but now, as I carefully searched in the water’s torrent for sure footings, I passed over bright colourful pebbles with every step. To take a journey over the same way twice, and know it so differently on the second, was a beautiful reminder to me of the variety of wonder waiting in all the places we travel.
My final visit was again done in solitude, and this pilgrimage was the most focused. Because of my previous visits, I knew what aspects of that place were special, but a little blurry in my memory, and which I wanted to see more clearly. Even more than the Paint Pots, on this journey, the river captured my attention and I spent almost all my time seeing how the colourful rocks were moving—albeit in geologic time. The water’s transparent rush dancing on top of the earth’s solid flow, were beautifully paired.
A special thank you to Steven, Dan, Krista and Carla for joining me on a pilgrimage to the Paint Pots. It was such a blessing to travel with such inquisitive and playful people. I hope you continue to find beauty in your travels!