Rocky Mountain Alpine Project: Willmore Wilderness Park

From August 8-12th, 2016, Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist), Robin Woywitka (Cultural Land Use Analyst), Courtney Lakevold (Archaeological Information Coordinator) and graduate student Timothy Allan visited Willmore Wilderness Park as part of the Rocky Mountain Alpine Project (RMAP). RMAP is focused on the recovery of archaeological artifacts and other organic remains (e.g., feathers, bones, caribou antlers and dung) from melting ice patches. Amazing artifacts have been found melting out of ice patches in alpine areas in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, United States and Norway. These finds have been very important for understanding how people used alpine areas in the past.

Alberta has vast stretches of alpine environments, many of which are quite fragile. One element of those fragile alpine habitats are ice patches that are currently melting at a rapid pace. The goal of RMAP is to explore Alberta’s ice patches to see how people in the past used alpine environments and see how it compares to that of people in other parts of Canada and the world. Last summer, the first RMAP expedition took place in Jasper National Park where many organics were found, as well as a piece of leather that was radiocarbon dated to A.D. 1670.

Archaeologist (Robin Woywitka) surveying an ice patch on Casket Mountain.

Archaeologist (Robin Woywitka) surveying an ice patch on Casket Mountain, Willmore Wilderness Park.

Willmore Wilderness Park is located in the Rocky Mountains, north of Jasper National Park, west of Hinton and southwest of Grande Cache. This 4600 square kilometer park is one of the most rugged, isolated (no motorized vehicles allowed) and untouched portions of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. The ice patches in this area had not been explored previously so the RMAP team was excited to see what Willmore had to offer.

The team of four split into crews of two in order to investigate different portions of the park. Todd and Tim targeted ice patches to the south near Mount Morkill and Courtney and Robin visited Intersection Mountain further north, near the Alberta/BC border. Each team surveyed several ice patches throughout Willmore and observed caribou dung and antlers, organics such as leaves and twigs and some animal bones, in or near the ice patches, that may be several thousand years old.

Caribou antlers found at one of the Willmore ice patches.

Caribou antlers found at one of the Willmore ice patches.

Unfortunately, no archaeological remains were found this trip. There are a few possible reasons. Perhaps people didn’t use this alpine environment the same way that precontact peoples did in the Yukon and NWT (alpine caribou hunting), so there are no artifacts to be found. The second reason may be that Alberta ice patches are several years or decades ahead of Yukon and NWT in terms of the melting process, meaning that artifacts may have melted out long ago and have since decomposed. Although we didn’t find any artifacts in the ice patches this time, we do know that people used this area in the past. On top of several mountains we recorded cairns and on the shore of Casket Lake we recorded a prehistoric site where people were making or sharpening stone tools. All archaeological work was carried out under a Parks permit and an Alberta Archaeological Permit.

Historic cairn on Intersection Mountain.

Historic cairn on Intersection Mountain (Casket Mountain seen in the background).

Cairn in Willmore Wilderness Park.

Cairn in Willmore Wilderness Park.

Archaeologist recording a prehistoric site at Casket Lake.

Archaeologist recording a prehistoric site at Casket Lake.

Even though the outcome was disappointing, valuable information was gained about Willmore’s ice patches. Why was the project still a success? At the current rate they are melting, ice patches will be gone soon along with their frozen contents of life thousands of years ago; it can be impossible to manage fragile historic resources if we don’t know they exist so the expedition provided valuable information about alpine archaeology in Alberta. When the ice patches are gone, we want to know that we at least tried to document them and the resources they contain.

In the big picture, significant discoveries take time: the RMAP expedition will continue next week (August 22-26) in Jasper National Park. Stay tuned for results!

Written By: Courtney Lakevold (Archaeological Information Coordinator) and Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist)

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