Tours and programs
Waterton Lakes National Park
Explore. Learn. Connect. Join interpreters for a variety of programs in the park, or learn and explore from your home with our special virtual experiences, and with Parka, our mascot!
Activities at home
When exploring Waterton Lakes in the winter - you may be in avalanche terrain. Anytime there is snow and slope, an avalanche may occur.
What is an avalanche?
An avalanche is when a large amount of snow and ice falls suddenly down a mountain. Avalanches don't happen every day in the mountains, but certain weather conditions can increase the chance of one.
Not all snow is the same
Sometimes snow will be dense, sticky and wet. Sometimes it will be loose, fluffy and dry. Snow can look and feel different depending on the temperature and amount of moisture in the air when it falls.
Layers in the snow are formed as new snow falls. Dense, sticky layers are very strong - you can walk on this snow without breaking through. This snow is also perfect for making a snowman! Loose, dry snow is weak – you may sink in!
Built-up layers of snow are called a snowpack and each layer of snow is called a slab. When weak and strong slabs stack on top of each other, the snowpack becomes unstable, increasing the likelihood of an avalanche happening.
Activity: Your very own avalanche at home
Discover how strong and weak layers of snow create conditions for avalanches.
What you'll need
- Three or more heavy books
- Some salt or sugar
- A flat surface
Make your snowpack
Stack two heavy books on top of each other on a flat surface.
These books represent two strong layers of snow. An avalanche needs both snow and slope - the books are your snow. Try creating a slope by slowly lifting an edge of the bottom book.
How long does it take for the top slab to slide off of the bottom?
Add a weak slab
Sprinkle a layer of salt or sugar between the two books. This is your layer of dry, weak snow. Try creating the slope again by slowly lifting an edge of the bottom book.
Does the top slab slide faster or slower this time?
Add a trigger
Avalanches may occur on their own when the snowpack is unstable, but usually they need a trigger. It may be a skier or a snowmobile – anything that could add extra pressure, causing the slabs to wobble and eventually slide. Place one more book on top of your snow slabs - this represents the trigger or added pressure.
One more time, slowly lift the edge of the bottom book.
Did your avalanche happen faster this time?
You can also try creating different combinations of weak and strong layers to watch how they react. What happens when there are more weak layers than strong?
What about when you add one thick weak layer?
How do you think changes in weather may create more unstable layers and create more avalanches?
Be avalanche aware
In Waterton Lakes, the Visitor Safety Team uses science to observe snow slabs and predict the likelihood of avalanches. They use this information to publish a weekly avalanche bulletin.
Know your needles: Conifer identification
Winter is here in Waterton Lakes! As a backyard naturalist, winter can be a tough time to identify plant species. In spring, summer and fall, you can identify a plant is by looking at its fruit, flowers, and leaves. These plant parts are usually missing in the winter.
But not all plants lose their leaves when the snow flies. Enter the conifer!
Conifers are a type of tree that keep their leaves - in a distinct needle shape - during the winter. Think of your classic Christmas tree – that’s a conifer!
A coniferous tree not only produces needle-shaped leaves; it produces fruit called cones. We often call its woody, spikey fruit pinecones; but the pine is only one type of conifer.
In Alberta, you are likely to encounter three different types of conifer: pine, fir, and spruce. Let’s learn how to tell the difference between these three types of evergreens!
With practice, you can identify a conifer just by looking at its needles. Let’s learn how:
Step one: Find a conifer
Go for a walk and see if you can find a tree with needles. If you decorate a live tree for the holidays, you may have brought one right into your home!
Step two: Use your senses
Look closely at the tree’s branches. Do the needles come out of the branch in groups or clusters, or does one single needle grow out of the branch? How long are the needles?
Touch the needles. Poke the tip of the needle with your finger. Is it pointy and stiff, or rounded and bendy? Gently shake hands with the tree branch. Does it feel spiky and sharp, or soft? Roll a single needle between your fingers. Does it roll easily and feels like it there are edges or corners, or is it hard to roll and feels flat?
Smell the needles. Very gently squish the needles in your hand. Inhale! What do you smell? Do you like the scent? Is this tree very smelly, or not-so-much? What words would you use to describe this smell?
ID your tree
You’ve used your senses to get to know your conifer, so let’s figure out what type of conifer you have found.
Spruce: Square, spiky, stiff
- Single needles grow directly from the branch;
- The tip of the needle is spikey and sharp to touch;
- There are edges on the needle – it’s square in shape;
- You can easily roll this stiff needle between your fingers.
Fir: Flat and flexible
- Needles grow directly from the branch;
- The needle is flat and the tip is rounded;
- Needles easily bend;
- This tree is quite soft – no spikes poking your hand;
- Has a very strong, almost citrus-like smell.
Pine: Pointy pairs and a paper-y bud
- Lodgepole pine is the provincial tree of Alberta. Its needles grow in clusters of two;
- Needles grow from a nodule or bud (called a fascicle sheath), that is covered in material that feels like tissue paper;
- The tip of the needle is pointy;
- Pine needles are usually longer than one belonging to fir or spruce trees.
BONUS! Waterton Lakes National Park is home to two very special pine trees – their needles that grow in clusters of five. These endangered trees live high in the mountains and need our help.Parks Canada’s conservation work with whitebark and limber pines
This autumn, our interpretation team here in Waterton Lakes is celebrating our International Dark Sky Preserve designation. As the nights begin to get darker and longer, we can better connect all the wonders of the night sky, including earth’s closest cosmic buddy, the Moon!
When you look up at night and see the Moon, you might notice that it does not always appear to be the same shape. Sometimes the Moon is a big circle, other times it is just a little sliver. These different shapes are what is known as the ‘phases of the Moon’ and they follow a special cycle – the Lunar cycle.
The Lunar cycle
The Moon is Earth’s only natural satellite (a celestial body that orbits a planet). It takes the Moon about 28 days to make a full trip around the Earth – a lunar month. During the lunar month, the Moon looks like it changes shape. The Moon isn’t actually changing, what’s changing is our view of it here on Earth.
As it orbits the Earth, the Sun lights up different parts of the Moon, making it look like it’s changing shape. The Moon does not create its own light. The moonlight we see is the Sun’s light reflecting off the surface of the Moon.
The big round shape is the Full Moon phase. The half-moon shape is called the Quarter Moon phase, and that little banana-like sliver is called the Crescent Moon phase.
Follow the instructions below to learn about the Moon’s phases and how to build your very own Moon mobile.
- 2 paper plates
- 1 wooden dowel
- 3 pieces of string
- Paint, paint brushes
- Hole punch
- Take one of the paper plates and cut it in half.
- Cut the rim off of both plates halves. Set one of these halves aside. This is your quarter moon!
- Take one of the rims that you cut off the plates and use the curved edge to trace a crescent shape onto the second half of your cut plate.
- Cut along the pencil line: now you have your crescent moon shape!
- Next, cut off the rim of the full paper plate. This is now your full moon shape!
- Recycle any un wanted pieces of paper plate.
Paint your moon shapes any color you want! The Moon has many ‘craters’ and mountains and valleys on its rocky surface.
Don’t be afraid to get creative! Add shapes and textures with the paint.
Hole punch time!
When the paint is dry, punch a hole at the top of each shape.
Hang your moon!
- Use a piece of string and thread one end through the hole in your moon.
Tie a knot to secure it. Do this with all three moons
- Take the other end of the string and secure it to the wooden dowel by tying a double knot. Repeat for each moon shape.
Final Step: Admire your moon
The names of the shapes you have created are Full Moon, Quarter Moon, and Crescent Moon. Think about where you will want to hang it in your home. Make sure it is in a place that will remind you to look for the moon and get to know its phases as the sky gets darker this fall.
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