W’s La Sportiva Ultra Raptor Review

talus

Scrambling up La Coulotte Ridge is easier with great shoes

Everyone loves talking about gear. It can be a bit of an obsession. A piece of gear that I haven’t really given any thought to in a long time, though, is shoes – and this is because I’ve found my holy grail pair. Enter the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor. If I’m completely honest, I don’t even know how many pairs of these I’ve gone through anymore, but I started wearing them in 2012, and they have been my shoe of choice over many hundreds of miles. They’ve covered the Colorado Trail, the Colorado section of the Continental Divide Trail, 200 miles across Norway, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Great Divide Trail with me. Needless to say, I love them!

One of the bigger complaints I hear about this shoe is that it’s heavy – and perhaps it is, for a trail runner. As I use them almost exclusively as a hiking/backpacking shoe, the 1lb 50z that my pair of 39’s weighs in at doesn’t feel cumbersome at all. I especially value them when I get myself into some off trail, talus-strewn, or scramble-y situations,  where the bit more beef that this shoe boasts really starts to excel. 

FIT –

Overall, it’s a La Sportiva model, so most folks find that they will upsize about a 1/2 size for this shoe over what they typically wear. This is common with the Italian brands, but good to know if you’re trying to buy sight unseen. It also runs just a smidge on the wide side. The heel cup is fantastic, locking my heel in place nicely, especially if I do a quick different lacing system. The upper is very flexible, allowing it to wrap around the foot without causing friction. Like most lightweight hikers and trail runners, this shoe is great right out of the box – no need to break it in.

For references sake, I measure a US women’s 6-6.5 and a B/C width – my normal hiking size in this shoe is a 38, and I go for a 39 while thru-hiking. Occasionally, I have had to do a different lacing pattern across my instep – I have a high instep and wear custom footbeds, meaning that when my foot is swollen from a thru-hike, I sometimes need to skip crossing the lace directly over the top of my instep.

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La Sportiva Ultra Raptors with Dirty Girl Gaiters

Comfort –

This shoe excels at comfort! With its fairly cushioned sole (28mm in the heel and 19mm in the toe) and a nylon shank, my feet stay happy in these all day long, day-in and day-out. The sole is very protective, so I can hike all day on rugged terrain without aching, yet also sensitive enough that I can still “feel” what I’m walking on, making it easy to navigate techy terrain. The nylon shank also offers incredible torsional stability – helping prevent rolled ankles.

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Durability –

I reliably get anywhere from 400-700 miles with these shoes – the variance coming from how rough the terrain I am traveling through. The more off-trail and/or talus-strewn the terrain, the less long the shoes will last for me. For example, on the Colorado Trail, which is roughly 500 miles of beautiful trail, I can finish with one pair of shoes that have just a bit of life left in them at the finish. On the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico, I got 700 miles, with a significant portion of that being on dirt road, two track, or easy overland travel. On the Great Divide Trail, where I covered 750 miles, I used two pairs, and both were beat up pretty bad. This mostly came from the uppers – too much post-holing through mud and scree wears down the uppers pretty fast. The sole is also a very sticky rubber composite, so it would not be an ideal shoe to wear on pavement, as it would wear down the lugs pretty fast. Some people (including my husband) have a problem of the laces fraying and coming unsheathed, but for whatever reason, I have not had that issue.

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The hole across the toe is slightly unusual – crossing deadfall at one point, I caught my toe on a branch and ripped through it. The deadfall on the GDT was dreadful!

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After 522 miles of rough use on the Great Divide Trail

Traction –

I absolutely love the traction of these babies. This is due to several things: first, La Sportiva uses a very sticky rubber, so they stick exceptionally well, especially on smooth, dry rock. The Ultra Raptor also sports a very rugged outsole – the lugs are quite deep, and multi-directional, leading to solid traction. The only type of terrain where these are a bit slick (and honestly, most footwear struggles here), is smooth, wet rock, though they do excel in stream crossings, offering stable footing. On the stream crossing note – of course these are not waterproof (though La Sportiva does make a GTX version with GORE-TEX that I tend to find a bit tighter across my instep). They often stay surprisingly dry when splashing through shallow puddles, but when they get wet, the expanse of mesh does allow them to dry, so I don’t fret wet feet. (And my feet were wet every day on the Great Divide Trail – so were people’s who had boots, as we had many deep river crossings – but it’s a matter of managing wet feet.)

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With traction like this, I’m always confident

Overall, if this shoe fits your foot, I highly recommend it for long runs in the mountains (though I don’t run, I have friends who love this shoe for it), hikers looking for a lightweight hiking shoe, and of course, weekend or longdistance backpackers (I just don’t recommend the pack being much more than 40lbs, at that point, you might want more of a mid).

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Mount Robson to Kakwa Lake

Words by Elaine, photos and captions by Dan.

Ridgeline

This is it, the big one, the one we’ve all been waiting for!

Sure, Fred and George Weasley may have forever engrained these words into many a millennial’s mind, but they sure seemed fitting as we headed into this last, and wildest, section of the Great Divide Trail.

I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. Dan and I arrived in Valemount, where we were resupplying for the last section, just fine – eating burgers, happy to dry out. That night, I woke up with the worst, wrenching stomach cramps. For 12 hours, I couldn’t stray far from the bathroom, and at one point, was stretched out on the balcony outside our room, sweating and shaking, wondering if I was going to die. (Yes, I’m a very dramatic sick person). Then, magically, that night I ate a whole pizza and packed up. I still have no idea what happened, but I was very grateful it passed quickly.

August 13th – Back into the Woods – 7 miles, 1,400′ gain

In Valemount, we met Mik again and realized that we were on a similar schedule. Their mom was coming to pick them up and offered us a ride as well. The trail ends, and then there is a 100km road walk out to a highway where you have to hitch from. This is Highway 16, which is also nicknamed the “Highway of Tears” because of a series of rapes and murders that have happened along it in the past 30 years. Now, these have actually happened between Prince George and Prince Rupert, which are quite far away from where we would be coming out on the highway, and the victims are by and large natives, but regardless, it was still a very disconcerting thing to know. Long story short, we decided to go through the last section together.

hitching

Hitchhiking isn’t our favorite part of hiking, but it’s sometimes necessary. A piece of cardboard, a sharpie and looking clean can help a lot.

Dan and I began hitching out of Valemount in the afternoon, and had a lucky hitch – a gentleman in a van pulled over almost as soon as we stood on the highway. He had seen our sign saying “Mount Robson”, and was heading there, so instead of what is usually a two-part hitch, we got the ride all in one.

As we started up the Berg Lake Trail, weighed down by our packs filled to bursting with our ten day resupply, we marveled at the difference good trail makes. The Great Divide Trail is, more often than not, on what would be more likely called a “path”, or even just cross country travel. With the Berg Lake Trail built to accommodate the traffic from so many people, we could cruise along fairly easily.

Arriving at the Whitehorn campground, where our reservation was for the night, we scoped a few spots, then chose one a bit further away from the main spread of tents, with an extra pad nearby in case Mik showed up. Taking our Subway sandwiches (it’s a nice break from freeze-dried food on that first night) down to the cook area, we soon struck up conversation with a family that had brought their kids up for a five-day trip. They had seen us coming down as they were going up, and so were confused as to what we were doing. We chatted for a while before everyone began to drift away to bed.

Dan and I stayed up for a while, watching the many waterfalls cascading down the cliffs around us as the sun set. It was hard to believe that the end of the hike was coming, and I felt a great swell of sadness. Some people say that the end of a trail gets easier the more you do it…I’m not sure that’s true for me. The more I stay out in this world, the harder it seems to be to come back to the hustle and bustle of civilization.

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One of the many waterfalls in the “Valley of 1,000 Falls.”

August 14th – Onto the North Boundary Trail, Into the Wild – 17.4 miles, 2,400′ gain

One of the things I love the most about backpacking is how amazing I sleep out here. I woke up that morning with no memory of even turning over in my sleep – however, as soon as I sat up, something felt wrong. I wriggled around in my sleeping bag to take a look at my sleeping mat, and immediately felt my heart sink. I use a blow up air mattress, one that has served me well for many thousands of miles. Punctures are a bit par for the course, though because I’m careful, I rarely get those. This, this was not a puncture – a baffle had blown, a phenomenon I’d only ever heard of when it comes to air mattresses, never seen, and it created an awkward bubble up by my head. As there was nothing I could do about it, I shrugged and we packed up and began the climb back up to Berg Lake and Mount Robson.

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Mount Robson and her glaciers rolling into Berg Lake.

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The weather at Mount Robson was a lot clearer the second time past. 

I’d been dreading this climb a bit, with the large packs, but because the trail was so well built, and the scenery was beautifully distracting, Dan and I were at Berg Lake before we knew it. Unlike the last time we had been there, blue skies reigned, and as we spread out by the lake to watch the mountain and wait for Mik, we got to bask in all its glory. While we waited, we pulled out our food, and again went over how much we had. Obviously it’s not our first time doing this, but it was very hard to banish the niggling doubts that we didn’t have enough. As we spread out the piles of food around us, other hikers came by to ask what we were doing with all that food. It is a funny experience to try to describe a hike that goes to place no one has ever heard of!

RobsonFace

It’s not easy, but people ski down this slope. 

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A jumbled mass of ice flows into Berg Lake. 

Mik arrived and we headed off again, eventually rejoining the Great Divide Trail, where we half-jokingly, half-seriously made an offering to the trail. It’s easy to get superstitious out here, and what with the weather we’d had, overconfidence was not a problem. For this section, we followed the old, decommissioned North Boundary Trail for a ways. It was a section I’d been dreading, as Jasper National Park is decommissioning trails everywhere, and the decommissioned trails are pretty horrible. However, the North Boundary Trail was still in pretty good shape: there was deadfall, but not enough to really slow us, and the trail was swampy and muddy, but nowhere near what we’d encountered in places from Jasper to Mount Robson.

offering

The GDT feels like a living, breathing spirit that you want to keep happy or it will destroy you. Here is an offering we made to the GDT gods to keep them happy.

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Sasquatch (or a bear that slipped) print found on the North Boundary Trail in far northern Jasper National Park. This is one of the wildest sections of the trail with very few visitors. It seems the only people who actually go here are GDT hikers. 

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Heading north(ish) along the Smoky River on the North Boundary Trail. 

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Sometimes the trail would deteriorate to just a channel of water thru a swamp.

We called it a day in a dense, murky forest, towering pine trees draped in old man’s beard leering over us as we pitched our tents on the mossy ground and walked 100 meters down the trail to cook supper.

Dan gave me a beautiful pair of earrings he’d picked up in Valemount, carved from birch found in the area, and when they found out it was my birthday, Mik gave me a piece of their chocolate for desert. Curled up in our tents that evening, an owl serenaded us to sleep, I knew there was nowhere else I’d rather be than there in the moss.

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Mik (R) and Elaine. Camping was tough to find this night, so we ended up just hopping into the woods and finding soft sections of moss to set up our shelters on. Owls hooted during the dark and it ended up being one of our best nights of sleep on the entire trail.

August 15th – Jasper’s Parting Gift…Torrential Rain – 14.4 miles, 3,400′ gain

The thrush bird ushered us into the day that morning, its powerful call ringing through the quiet woods. Once again, it was a fabulous night’s sleep, despite another baffle fully blowing on my mat, creating an even larger big air bubble.

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Nice big mountains and wild country along the North Boundary Trail.

We traipsed through the lush mossy forest, absorbing the steady thrum of life emanating from it. Mount Robson lays east of the coast, obviously, but very few to no mountain ranges are directly between it and the coast, so the area is very wet, almost coastal, to the point of cedars growing down low.

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Cedar trees are usually found much closer to the coast. The area near Mount Robson benefits because the mountain attracts a ton of moisture, allowing big trees like this to grow.

We reached the Chown river – another river that has been known to cause problems, and where we would leave the North Boundary Trail. We took our first snack break by the river to discuss what we wanted to do. The trail technically crosses, goes up river a few kilometers, and then crosses again, so you could either cross it twice, or not at all. As the trail was once again more what one would describe as a “footpath” at best, and the Chown was looking rather full (with the wet summer, rivers are running high), we all decided to keep to our bank. At first we headed up the flood plain – easy traveling on bare rocky ground – until we were forced up into the woods. Progress slowed dramtically here, as we clambered over, under, and between deadfall. Finally, we reached the point where the trail crossed back over, and movement became a bit simpler.

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Wading thru a Chown River tributary. We opted not to do a full crossing of the river, instead choosing a bushwhack route that avoided the main channel.

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The bushwhacking was slow but adventurous.

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Wild remote mountains in far northern Jasper National Park.

As we started up Bess Pass, we began a singing game where one person would sing a couplet from a song, and then choose a word from that phrase, and then someone else would sing a song with that word in it. This was great fun, and covered a fair amount of distance for us, as we laughed hard. This turned out to be a bad idea – the excess energy used to belt out songs and double up with laughter moved our typical snack time up an hour, and we sobered up after that – none of us had brought enough food to carry on with that.

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Working our way up Bess Pass.

We passed under Chown Glacier – a vast glacier stretching out widely above us, and the source of many waterfalls all around. The trail deteriorated, becoming a muddy mess that caused each step to slip back half of what we gained. Cresting Bess Pass, sweeping views lay out before us, every peak sporting a glacier.

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Waterfalls up Bess Pass. The clouds were building and the weather would soon turn for the worse. 

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Up and over Bess Pass and exiting Jasper National Park for the final time. We were now entering the legendary Willmore Wilderness.

As we reached Jackpine horse camp, heavy rain moved in, and we all layered into our rain gear before heading up Jackpine Pass. We set up camp in the rolling alpine, quick efficiency the name of the game with the threat of hypothermia looming in the cold rain. But once again we were tucked into our cozy tent and it was cuddly warm.

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Our camp near the top of Jackpine Pass. It rained hard all night long at camp, and snowed just a few hundred meters higher up.

August 16 – Onto the Jack Pine Alternate – 16 miles, 4,600′ gain

Rain poured all night long, with snow on the peaks just above where we camped, and I was grateful that we were camped on mostly slate rock with the hopes that it would drain well. It was a tough morning to get going, cold, wet, and foggy, so the three of us slowly meandered through a complicated terrain of tarns, ridges, and moraines. It’s interesting, traveling with someone else. Dan and I have almost exclusively traveled together for so many years now, we’re about as close to functioning as one person as two can be. Generally, we need to shed/add layers at the same time, take a break at the same time, all of the little stops that slow a group down, over the years, we’ve adjusted so that we’re really only stopping the same amount one person would. Adding another human into the mix is an interesting experience, and definitely one that is taking some getting used to.

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A soggy, crisp, foggy morning on the Jackpine Alternate.

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A dusting of snow touched the upper peaks. At 53° north, snow in August in the mountains is a fairly regular occurrence. 

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Wild country, home to caribou, wolves, marmots and soggy GDT hikers. 

The sun came out for a bit, so we took a snack break on a ridge above Blueberry Lake. Heading down to it, we hit surprisingly good trail that lasted until we hit bog again. Picking our way through it, we reached where the official trail dropped down into the Jackpine Valley to follow Jackpine River. The Perseverance High Route Alternate went off to our left, following a very high, completely cross-country route, 10km longer, and with a lot more elevation gain. However, the Jackpine River comes with quite the reputation – one hiker has dubbed it “The Valley of Sadness” for it’s bushwhacking through willows, mud, lack of trail, and general ickiness.

gorgeousness

The sun worked hard to peek thru, creating a magical vista of tundra, lakes, mountains, glaciers, fresh snow and clouds. 

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Navigating here required a lot of attention, as trail was non-existent. This will be the next step in our adventures…moving away from the established trails and finding routes that require more navigation and terrain management. 

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Big northern country on the Jackpine Alternate.

Though the clouds were still overhead, and the forecast wasn’t great, we headed up the alternate, knowing that there were several places we could bail off if the weather moved in. Immediately, we discovered that while the map showed us traipsing in a straight line across the tundra, the actual terrain was more complicated than that, involving us cutting straight across several very deep troughs and ridges, rising like waves perpendicular to the mountainside.

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Crossing a little creek just north of Blueberry Lake. 

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Onto the Perseverance Alternate. This part of the trail was considerably slower and more rugged than the Jackpine section, with lots of talus and scree travel. 

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Hiking thru the talus at one of those locations where the rock was grey on one side, and almost orange on the other. Geology is easy to see here. Generally speaking, the rock here is much more crumbly than the granite found in Colorado. We found numerous fossil shells on the top of passes and peaks, as this once used to all be under the ocean. 

We experienced another snafu when it came to navigation. Dan and I have honed a system over the years where he will do the macro navigation from the back, pointing out our general heading, and I do the micro navigation from the front, choosing the line to get there. Mik had been traveling solo, so had been doing it all. After several failed attempts at swapping responsibilities around, we settled on a similar arrangement that Dan and I usually use, especially as Mik’s knee began to act up more and more as the terrain grew more steep and technical.

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Mik moving well thru a shale topped ridgeline. This is remote country, and injury isn’t really an option. Or, if you do get hurt, it’s critical to find a way to work thru it effectively or you’re basically calling in for an expensive rescue. 

cliffdescent

This was one of the trickier descents of the day. The rock here was not stable, so we went one at a time, making sure to never be vertically above or below the hiker in front. A lot of communication is required to travel thru safely in a group. Unfortunately, it slows travel down to a crawl pace. 

cliffband

These mountains frequently had large cliff bands that would extend for a few kilometers before having a break. Here, we were fortunate that the route asked us to traverse above it!

The rest of the day involved navigating up long ridges and down several tricky cliff bands, where Dan rolled his ankle pretty badly and in an unusual way, rolling it over itself to the inside. It didn’t bother him much at the time, and we continued onward. Eventually we reached a set of tarns where we set up camp, very far away from each other due to the scarcity of semi-flat spaces.

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Perseverance Camp near an alpine tarn for water. We had to camp quite far away from Mik, as there were few spots in the area with flat ground and rock free. Our shelter in the Hyperite Duo Mid, a fantastic mid that is strong in wind and perfect for travel in northern, wet climates. We’ll give a full review soon.

August 17th – Perseverance, Storms and Heinous Bushwhacks – 12 miles, 4,500′ gain

This was the first night my mat really hindering my sleep. Another couple baffles blew, and while there was a sense of dread when I hear it happening before I’ve fallen asleep, it was quite shocking and loud after I’d fallen asleep! Dan also woke up to find that the ankle he had rolled the day before was feeling useless. He could hardly weight it, and said it was throbbing as we sat there. There’s not much we can do out here though, so I went over it as best I could – assessing for swelling, which there was very little and no bruising. While Dan visualized his ankle healing rapidly, I taped him up and had him take several ibuprofen tablets combined with a caffeine pill in the hopes of managing the pain properly.

ridgewalker

The Perseverance Route was some of the most interesting, challenging travel on the entire GDT. This is wild and remote country, more like Alaska or the Yukon than trails in the lower-48.

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Celebrating big country and massive valleys in the Willmore Wilderness. Unfortunately, the weather was rapidly getting worse, making traction on the loose rock challenging. 

Mik joined us and we began climbing up to our next pass via sweeping slabs of rock. Dan’s ankle began to feel a bit better as we climbed and by the time we crested a snowfield to the pass, nestled in between two glaciers, he was walking fairly normally. Another curiosity with our maps occurred here, as we gazed down the talus-filled valley at two lakes that very clearly were there in real life and not on the maps. We navigated the challenging, steep talus down to the lakes, and then climbed up a ridge above the lakes where we chose our route very carefully and slowly down a series of cliff bands and waterfalls to the valley below. The beauty was stunning, but the attention required to not slip over the cliffs prevented any of us from taking many.

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Elaine and Mik hiking along the spine of the divide on the Perseverence Alternate. 

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Elaine in her happy place. Some people are suited better for wild places than the civilized world. She is definitely one of them. 

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A slow descent along the Perseverance Alternate. There was no 3 mph travel here. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much 3 mph travel on the entire trail. The saying is, “1 km on the GDT is the same as 1 mile on the trails in the lower-48.” Simply put, it’s a harder and wilder route. 

Eventually, we reached another talus-covered slope, this one much gentler, and now covered in rain-soaked lichen and moss, making footing even more tricky. As we began climbing up to another ridge, the wind began to pick up, whipping our backpack straps around and blowing hats off. We walked along the ridge for a while before navigating down some more little cliff bands to a creek at the base of Perseverance Mountain. We filled up on water and began the very steep climb up it. It was a grind, just trying to keep it moving, but I loved it.

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Elaine working her way up Perseverance Mountain as the rain and wind build. 

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Working hard on the Perseverance Mountain climb.

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Elaine crests the top of Perseverance Mountain and assesses the ridgeline route ahead. We were nearing a decision point. The route ahead continued on in this fashion for another 5 miles and the going would be slow. The weather was lousy and we didn’t have enough time to get off the ridge before night. We weren’t moving particularly quickly. On the other hand, descending off the ridge would require a heinous bushwhack in claustrophobic forest. We decided to continue on the ridge for awhile longer. 

ridgeline

They may take our lands, but they’ll never take our FREEEEEEEEDDOOOOOMMM! 

As we reached the top, the wind continued, whistling around our ears, bringing rain this time. We eyed our ridge, and the six peaks along it that we would climb on the route as we donned our rain gear. As we worked our way up and over the first one, the storm moved in stronger, the by-now familiar white wall of heavy rain advancing on us. The weather was rapidly deteriorating, the rock was getting very slick and travel was slow. We hunkered down in a little pass between peaks, debating what to do, eventually deciding to bail on the high route.

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The ridgeline required a bunch of Class III travel over loose, exposed rocks. Awesome in good weather, a little less enjoyable with a cold rain making everything slick.

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Decision time. For the safety of the entire group, we decided to drop off the ridge and tackle a heinous bushwhack instead. 

At first, as we descended, it was relatively easy travel on crushed scree, then across soggy tundra, but soon we hit a dense woods. There was nothing to do but put our heads down and keep going, each retreating into our own little suffer bubbles. Eventually we reached the Jackpine River and the official trail, or what little of it there was. It was in a bit of a depressed state that we all set up camp that night.

The woods here were so dense, it was almost dark, and we were so exhausted that getting water for dinner almost turned into a disaster. The woods were extremely disorienting, and by the time we found water we had little idea of which way to go to get back to camp. We grabbed the GPS and headed in the general direction of where we thought we should be, yelling loudly, hoping for a reply from Mik.

mooseskull

The bushwhack down was a three-hour blur of route finding, log hopping (and ducking) and immersion into a claustrophobic, soaking wet land of deep vegetation. Fair to say it was the wildest part of the entire hike, and in some ways the most dangerous because it would be so easy to get lost here. Working our way thru the forest required 100% focus, and by the bottom we were all mentally exhausted. 

After repeating this a dozen times, we finally heard a return call, and followed the sound to camp. Ten minutes later, Mike repeated the same process to get water, and a similarly harrowing experience in these very dense, very claustrophobic woods.

August 18th – Over Slate Mountain and Into the Willmore – 14 miles, 5,300′ gain

The mattress reached an unfortunate place that night. For the first half of the night, I fought with it, the bubble now so pronounced that I could barely stay on it, slipping off to one side or the other, or else ending up with my head hanging off it. Then Dan and I swapped mats so that we could each get a half night’s sleep. It rained all night again, and was still at it when we finally woke up at 8. What with the rain, and yesterday’s effort pulling sluggishly through our blood we were slow getting going. We found Mik to see they were still waking up. It was cold enough that we all agreed Dan and I would hike on and meet back up with Mik later, to avoid getting chilled.

Weird things of weird things, Dan’s ankle didn’t hurt at all.

camo

After an intense day before, this type of terrain was a welcome relief. We saw a wolf not far from this area. This is the area where wolves were captured from for the Yellowstone and Idaho reintroductions in 1995. Good for Americans, but did anybody ask the wolves?

The Jackpine valley lived up to its poor reputation, even the short amount of time we were on it (we had covered 80% of the valley via the high route before we came down), with lots of “muddy schwacking” – a trail description I had not thought to verbalize before hiking the Great Divide Trail, involving schlepping through shin deep mud while bushwhacking through bushes higher than your head. Insert a rain storm, and you have a pretty darn cold, wet situation. Dan and I climbed up the first ridge – a very steep grunt involving more slippery mud, and more bushwhacking through the rain-soaked brush. Finally, we got up high enough to emerge from the brush and the worst of the mud, long enough that we got to stretch our legs a bit before plunging back down to the valley on the other side, which was a virtual muddy slip ‘n’ slide.

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Cresting the top of Shale Mountain as a cold gale blows from the north.

At the bottom was Pauline Creek, which was over my waist in depth, but was thankfully not very fast. Thoroughly drenched at this point, we began the climb up Shale Pass. For whatever reason, when I was researching the trail, Shale Pass stuck in my head. Obviously the end point (whichever end point you choose, as this trail has three) is a big one, but Shale Pass was, for some reason, meaningful. As Dan and I climbed above treeline, we watched the white curtain of rain in the distance getting closer and closer to us, the wind buffeting us along, and then, miraculously, that curtain of rain just passed us.

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topofslate

Getting to the top of Shale Mountain was something we both felt very happy about. We didn’t know much about this trail before we started, but we did know that Shale Mountain was a place way up north near the end of the route. It was everything we hoped for – wild, cold and gorgeous.

We descended to a little boggy valley, then back up some more before deciding to call it a day and wait for Mik to show up. That evening, as the three of us huddled around our little cook stoves, we bemoaned the mud and rain and wet, while simultaneously being thrilled to be there.

August 19th – Across the Wild Wilmore Wilderness – 21.3 miles, 3,300′ gain

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Moose antler sign in the Willmore Wilderness. There seems to be some disagreement whether to spell Willmore with one “L” or two. Different maps and books have different spellings. You know a place is wild when the few folks who have been there can’t even agree how to spell it. 

In Jasper, when we stayed with the British couple who had done the Great Divide Trail, they had told us that after Shale Pass, “you fly.” As pretty much nowhere on this trail has even remotely involved that sensation, we decided to start hiking at 7 am that day, to try and catch up on some of the miles that we’d lost on previous days. The trail started with expanses of boggy sections that were sprinkled with forested sections of magical, beautiful, perfect trail. As we began to climb up our first pass of the day, the sun popped out, so we took advantage of it and stopped to dry stuff. Mik’s tent works much better when it gets the chance to dry (using a mid, Dan and I don’t have to deal with that), and everyone’s sleeping bag was getting a bit soggy.

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Mike and Elaine at the Willmore Wilderness sign. 

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Fantastic country for a ramble of a few days or a few months.

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There is really no place on earth I’d rather be than the Willmore Wilderness. To me, it epitomizes the GDT better than anywhere else on the trail.

After, we passed a plaque for the Willmore Wilderness Wanderers – a group of people out of Grand Cache east of here that apparently spends a lot of time exploring this area. Then we descended to more wet boggy land, then up a beautiful climb to Fetherstonhaugh Pass, where we had a fantastic view. We took second snack break here, absorbing all the beauty around us.

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“No problem guys…just follow me!” To heck with PhD’s or medals…I want to be a Willmore Wilderness Wanderer!

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Mik reaches the top of Fetherstonhaugh Pass.

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Elaine exploring deep in the Willmore Wilderness, always north, looking for the next adventure to more remote and wild lands. 

We ended up camping at Sheep Creek – another horse camp. I very much dislike the horse camps, with all the horse poop and how icky they feel. But we spent a beautiful evening watching the sun set on the cliffs around us.

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Crazy beautiful light at Sheep Creek.

August 20th – Surprise Pass and the Providence Alternate – 17 miles, 5,000′ gain

Dan and I woke up early again to get hiking – we were planning on doing the Surprise Alternate, while Mik had been planning on sticking to the trail. As we left camp, Mik informed us that after reading the trail description, they were probably going to try and do the Surprise Alternate as well. We also discussed traveling apart that day – Mik had started solo, and for Dan and me, we had first embarked on this adventure way down south at the 29th parallel at the New Mexico/Mexico border, so all of us felt the need to spend the last true day on the trail as we had started.

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Leaving Sheep Creek and the Willmore Wilderness, bound for Kakwa Provincial Park and trail’s end.

The trail quickly left Sheep Creek and we began a gradual climb up to Surprise Pass, following a vast alpine valley up. There were caribou prints on the trail, and we kept our eyes peeled, but we didn’t see any caribou. Just on the other side of Surprise Pass, the trail continued down valley and we cut cross-country to hug glacier line at the base of Wallbridge Mountain.

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Surprise Pass marks the border between the Willmore Wilderness and Kakwa Provincial Park. There is no sign mentioning this. Between Mount Robson and Kakwa Lake, we didn’t cross a single road, power line, ATV track or any sign of humans other than the trail and a few rustic signs. It’s truly a wild and magical place.

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Up and over Surprise Pass and onto the Surprise Alternate. We saw a herd of caribou here, part of the dwindling northern Rockies herd. 

Up there, we met incredible, complicated, rolling glacial terrain. Enjoying the moment, we took an extremely long first snack and cooked one of our extra dinners. While waiting for the water to boil, we realized that the little pebble rocks surrounding us were not, as they appeared, simply rocks, but fossilized shells from millennia past. Dan and I whiled away a good amount of time pouring over the landscape and marveling at all the fossils that were just lying there for us to see.

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The Surprise Pass Alternate was full of glaciers, open country and ocean fossils from another time.

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Glaciers are everywhere here near the 54° North parallel.

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A beautiful day and some of the most enjoyable travel of the entire trip.

While waiting for our dinner to rehydrate, I spotted something moving, way back on Surprise Pass. I wondered if perhaps it was a wolf pack at first, but realized they must be larger creatures for me to be seeing them from the distance we were at. It was tough to see, but I think it was a herd of caribou – perhaps seven or so – that we watched flow across the terrain, moving as though they had wings on their feet. I’ve read their hearts are much larger than ours, and that they can cover terrain in minutes that would take us hours. We watched, breathless in awe.

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Filling up water from an alpine tarn near Wapiti Mountain. We used these BeFree filters from Katadyn that worked marvelously. 

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Relaxing on a saddle below Wapiti Mountain, enjoying our first views of the Kakwa Lake basin. We spent a lot of time lallygagging on this day, taking an hour lunch and enjoying just being out here. We knew it would be over all too soon.

We began climbing again, stopping to grab water from a high, brilliantly blue tarn, before beginning up Wapiti Mountain for real. It was a fun climb, the kind that Dan and I like – steep, but manageable, steady, long enough to find your groove. At the top, we took yet another long break, savoring the high views. The days are on countdown, now, and we desperately want to hang on to these moments.

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Up the shoulder of Wapiti Mountain. 

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Wapiti Mountain was one of the easier climbs on the whole trail. The top was so wide it felt like you could land an airplane on it. Prints of caribou were all over the shale covered slopes.

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Elaine on the top of Wapiti Mountain overlooking Cecilia Lake. Careful not to step backwards…there is a 2,000 foot cliff on the other side. 

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On the top of Wapiti Mountain. We may not have glamorous jobs or career aspirations, but we’ve gotten to experience more wilderness and adventure than most. And for that, we’ve beyond fortunate. 

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Cecilia Lake deep in the Kakwa. A cabin, a canoe, a pair of skis and a lifetime or three at this place would work well for me. 

Finally we began to descend, slow going, quite steep, with large talus that ended in a complicated cliff band to navigate. As we descended into the trees, the bugs came out in full force, biting so ferociously that we busted out the bug spray for the first time on this section. After some time, we rejoined the GDT, which soon proved to be every bit as icky as we’d been told – more mud and brush. So much so, in fact, that by the time we reached Broadview Lake, where another alternate branched off to resume a higher route, we jumped at the chance.

The Providence Pass High Route Alternate started off as a vertical climb up an old drainage, soaked moss making for some challenging footing, and the bugs on their endless quest for blood. After climbing 400 vertical meters, we were once again above treeline, the bugs died down, and we were able to traverse a steep, talus strewn slope.

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How could we leave the GDT without another steep, buggy alternate loop? Onto the Providence Alternate for extra-credit, foregoing the straight path to Kakwa Lake and civilization.

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The Providence Alternate seemed more like a loose concept, with only feedback being, “the GPS track on the map may or may no be accurate.” 

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We found ourselves on top of a large talus field, having climbed a little too high up the peak. No worries…take your time and go slow to go fast. 

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The pay off for the climb was getting to camp in this valley below for one last night on the Great Divide Trail. Kakwa Lake is just visible on the upper left of this photo. 

We ended the day, our last night on the Great Divide Trail before beginning the 100km walk out, camped beneath  Francis Peak and Broadview Mount. My heart swelled with happiness as we cooked dinner by some scrubby krummholz, gazing out at the towering, glacier-blanketed peaks before us. After messaging Mik on the InReach, we settled in to our cozy tent.

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The wildflowers in the meadow were spectacular.

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Bear camping requires creating a triangle. The three points of the triangle are the shelter, the cooking and eating area, and the food storage area. Ideally, the three are each located 100 meters from one another. This wasn’t always possible, but we did our best. A habituated bear is a dead bear most likely. 

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Not a bad spot for dinner on the last night on the GDT.

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If we never had to leave, we wouldn’t. The Canadian Rocky Mountains are one of the finest places anywhere in our opinion. We absolutely fell in love with the landscape and wildness here. We liked the wetter conditions, the colder temperatures, the rugged, more challenging terrain. They have permanently changed what we now consider the absolute perfect environment, and we will be searching for ways to integrate that into our everyday life. 

August 21st – To Kakwa Lake, Trails-End and the 54° parallel – 25 miles, 3,000′ gain

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In 2017 we actually had the crazy idea to hike from Mexico to Kakwa Lake as part of our CDT hike. I remember sitting in a desert draw one night, barely 100 miles into the entire hike, talking with Elaine and another hiker about Kakwa Lake and how we would rent a float plane to get out of here. In retrospect, it was a bit preposterous, but it was big dreaming. Turns out it took longer than one summer to do the whole walk, and we never did get that float plane out. But we did walk from the Mexican border to Kakwa Lake, on foot, about 3,800 miles north on the spine of the Continental Divide. And this was our final destination for this leg of the journey.

We rose to an absolutely perfect morning – just a bit of rain, and then the skies cleared as we climbed up to Mount Ruth’s shoulder, brushing along a lake before beginning a descent back down to muddy bogland. Our notes mentioned that the descent was steep, and after days with no mention of anything being steep and then consequently navigating cliff bands, I was a bit nervous, only to discover that not only was the trail not a cliff – it was actually a trail! We trundled down it, watching the glacier-robed peaks disappear behind the trees until we reached the GDT again – the muddy pit that it was.

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Mixed emotions on the last day. While we enjoy a good burger, shower and clean clothes as much as anybody, we have found that the value of these things isn’t nearly as high to us as wildness. Honestly, if we didn’t have to earn money, we might never come out. We don’t need much, but we need this. 

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Elaine looking north, toward Kakwa Lake, trail’s end, a lifetime of adventure ahead. 

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The morning took us around two small lakes and thru wildflowers galore. The wind blew and occasional spit of rain fell. All in all, about as perfect as it gets. 

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Elaine enjoying a “Sound of Music” moment.

As we meandered through the mud, I thought about endings. When we hiked the Continental Divide Trail, in some ways I thought about the end a lot. The trail was a lot easier, in a lot of ways (though a lot longer), and it allowed for the mind to wander. On this trail, I am always present. Whether it’s navigating a tough section, or just walking through mud (which is a lot tougher than it sounds), my mind was always on the moment at hand. On the CDT, I spent a lot more time literally thinking of nothing, in almost a state of moving meditation, while on the GDT, every moving moment requires thinking about what I’m doing. There are pros and cons to both, for sure. In town on the GDT, it was time to check the weather, and time to read all you could about the upcoming trail and all the alternates, and in the evenings on trail, I would be going over what we were to cover the next day. My mind never really thought about the end. I knew this section was it, but as we neared Kakwa Lake, I realized that I wasn’t ready for it. Somehow, I wasn’t prepared.

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Want to go to Ruth, or Alberta? Both good options I’d say. Off the Providence Alternate and onto the Kakwa River Trail for a few boggy miles before the lake. For some reason, this sign was hilarious for two hikers who had been in the wilderness for 7 days.

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Elaine taking the final few steps towards Kakwa Lake, and the end of this portion of our odyssey from Mexico.

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The river running into Kakwa Lake. In true GDT fashion, before you can enjoy the lake, you have to ford a shin deep river. 

After crossing a small river, we stood on the banks of Kakwa Lake and walked 200 meters up to the 54th parallel. We took a long snack break at the lake, trying to process everything, watching the still water.

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Heading north on the shores of Kakwa Lake to 54° parallel. 

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On August 21 we made it the 54° degree parallel, Kakwa Lake, and the end of the approximately 700 mile long Great Divide Trail. The Great Divide Trail is, mile-for-mile, the most beautiful trail I’ve ever been on. It’s also the most challenging. We’ll write more in a wrap-up post.

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My wife Elaine was a powerhouse on this trail and absolutely in her element. She didn’t suffer a single significant injury, and more than once carried a heavier load when others were struggling. It felt like she never had to extend herself to the maximum, a good place to be in the Wilderness so you have some reserve when the shit does hit the fan. She had an incredibly impressive hike, and I’m honored to call her my partner. 

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It’s no accident that I’m pointing north in this photo. The trails from Mexico to Kakwa Lake end here. But the route north absolutely does not end. More dreaming and scheming in the works.

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If there is a quieter, more relaxing place on the planet than Kakwa Lake, I’ve never been there. There was a serene ease about the place that just made the whole body and mind relax. That, and perhaps we knew that the hard work was done for awhile, and we finally COULD relax. Nevertheless, Kakwa Lake is one of the most special places anywhere, in part, because it’s so hard to get here. 

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There are two cabins at Kakwa Lake maintained by British Columbia Provincial Parks. One is for the park staff, the other for the general public. Not a bad job, working for the parks, cleaning the cabin, and getting to spend summer’s at Kakwa Lake. Those folks must have done something right in a previous life. 

Finally, we pulled ourselves up and began the long trek out. It started out as a slightly overgrown two track, which was easy travel, and allowed us to clip along at a decent pace. As our miles per hour ticked up, I realized that this was a whole muscle group that I’d not used all summer. Road walking is a totally different movement from cross country travel.

Immediately after crossing Buchanan Creek, the skies absolutely opened up and poured. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that amount of rain before – as though a hose had been turned on us. The road itself, already so saturated from a summer of record rain, turned into a river, and beneath the coursing water, a slick clay like substance that made any footing slippery. Slowly, the rain let up, and we soon ran into Mik, who had taken refuge from the deluge under the porch of a cabin belonging to a snowmobile club.

After a while, our two track became a much better maintained road, and eventually, we set up camp, cooking supper in the middle of the unused road and catching up.

August 22nd – Road Walk Out – 31 miles, 1,100′ gain

Mik had never done a 50k day before, and this was about the most perfect conditions to do one, with smooth road, cool temperatures, and lots of water so we didn’t have to do a water carry.

We were all sodden when we got up though – shocking to think that just the other morning we were relatively dry. So much rain last night – it left the ground sopping wet, and everything was just so damp. The sleeping bag, my poofy, everything was so damp. But it was a cool morning, the road made for quick travel, and we finally have light packs.

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Funny, but the road walk out was prettier than probably 90% of the actual CDT. The standards on the GDT are high.

The walk out was surprisingly enjoyable. Huge mountains with glaciers surrounded the road, and the now-turning-orange trees were starting to shed their leaves as a cool autumn breeze blew across the land, kissing its first brisk warning on our weathered hikers’ cheeks.

At one point, we got a ride from a couple surveyors who were out – I guess they’re planning on logging this section in a couple years. It made me sad for future GDT hikers, as currently, this walk out isn’t too bad. They turned off up another road, so we continued on our way out to the highway.

Every once in a while, we would round a bend and a huge shape blocked the road. But these black bears are skittish, and all they want is to eat berries, so they would ramble off as soon as we raised our arms and let loose a couple bear calls.

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No doubt about it, fall is in the air in mid-August in the Kakwa. Some complain about it, but to me the walk out was one long, calm walk through the changing seasons in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Not much to complain about there. 

The end of the day dragged on, and Mik’s pain in their knee and back took a steep turn up, but between a combination of music, podcasts, and chatting, we crossed the 50k mark. Setting up camp in another marsh (I shall always remember the Great Divide Trail as when I became somewhat comfortable sleeping literally in a swamp), we began to cook our dinner in the middle of the road.

We had hiked late to get the 50k, and summer was now winding down, the sun no longer setting after 10pm,. The darkness rolled in comfortably around us, stars peaking out above as we dawdled on our last night out while we were all set about to enjoy a last cup of tea. We broke out the bottle of whiskey we had taken turns carrying from Mount Robson and passed it around, laughing at the ridiculous beast that is the Great Divide Trail.

All of a sudden, the sound of a motor came down the road, and an ATV came barreling at us. Startled, we all scrambled to move our stuff from the road, until Mik stood up to get them to stop. They were a couple who were part of the snowmobile club in Prince George that owned the cabin up the road and they were heading in for their own adventure. After chatting for a while, they drove off, cheering us on as they left.

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Kakwa Lake is a big snowmobiling destination in the winter (it would be a huge approach on skis). It’s also very dangerous avalanche terrain. The snowmobile club erected this to make sure riders are traveling safe and stay alive. 

We all lay on the road looking at the stars and laughing. Soon the topic of music came up, including John Denver. (I know…I’m a Colorado native, and I don’t like John Denver, it’s practically blasphemy to many.) And then the topic of Canadian artists, which led us to singing Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” at the top of our lungs. I can’t say I’ve ever had Bieber Fever, but “Sorry” is sure going to have a special spot in my heart from now on.

These late summer Canadian nights are crisp, though, so soon we crawled into our tents and played “Would you Rather” with the Great Divide Trail.

“Would you rather hike the GDT with Oprah or Taylor Swift?”

Oprah, obviously.

“Would you rather hike the GDT with Obama or Jesus?”

Well, Jesus – I mean, the man walked on water, it would have been a useful skill out here.

“Would you rather hike the GDT with Jesus or Dobby?”

Dobby, for sure. Who wouldn’t want a house elf out here?

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The long walk out. One trip ends, and planning for the next one begins. Thank you GDT and the Canadian Rocky Mountains for a rich and wonderful experience. Special thanks to Keith and Leslie for making the trip possible. Time to make some money and dream up the next wild, northern adventure. 

August 23rd – A short walk and a ride out – 5 miles, 500′ gain

The Great Divide Trail wasn’t about to let us go easily. It rained all night and continued to rain as we packed up. On the plus side, I finally realized that if I only partially inflated my mat, I was able to sleep, so both Dan and I got a decent night’s sleep. We all packed up, marveling at our light packs, and, layered in all our rain gear, as usually, headed off down the road.

It was now a road in very good shape, and Mik’s mom had decided to come and get us, so a few miles from the highway, a little Prius appeared on the road, headlights shimmering in the rain. It was a fitting end to this summer’s GDT – rain, no fan fare, just a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, a Prius, three dirty hikers, and one mom eager to feed us. As we consumed doughnuts from Tim Hortons and Hungarian sausages, we all laughed, smiled, and ate.

As much as this trail hurt, I’m sad it’s over. The Canadian Rockies are truly amazing.

Total miles walked: 754

Total elevation: 148,300′

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Jasper to Mount Robson: Mud, Mosquitos, and Magnificent Mountains

The short version of the last four days might go something like this:

*squelching through shin deep mud*

*slapping away gigantic mosquitos*

*spending a whole day crossing rivers*

*jaws dropping at the incredible Mount Robson*

August 8th – 17 miles, 2400′ of climbing

For our last night in Jasper, we got lucky. I was standing in line at the Post Office, and when I was leaving, a guy at the back of the line stopped me.

“Are you hiking the GDT?” He asked.

“Was it the zippy-bag wallet?” I asked, holding up the trade mark of a thruhiker in town: a zippy-bag wallet.

The guy introduced himself as Joe, and said that he and his girlfriend had hiked the trail the year before. He offered showers and a bed – in Jasper, where everything is sold out faster than you can think, I took him up.

The four of us – Joe and his girlfriend, Nicola, Dan, and me – all met up and had pizza, sharing laughs about the trail, and how it’s changed. Being not an “official” trail, the Great Divide Trail seems to change every year, from the route itself, there being closed routes taken away, new ones added, and some trail maintenance and even some new trail being built! As always, it was great to talk trail – and interesting to hear about the GDT from people who had had some “space” from it. Dan and I crashed at their place, and caught a ride back into town with Nicola on her way to work.

After breakfast, where we saw Coyote, Backtrack, Boat, and Mic again, we picked up an extra sticky bun from the local bakery and headed out to start hitching. Pretty soon after sticking our thumbs out, a car veered erratically of the road, almost hitting us. A young woman hopped out of the front and began shoving a whole assortment of odds and ends into the trunk of the car, chatting the whole time in between pounding a Monster, peroxide blonde hair with purple tips flashing over her shoulders. She was from Edmonton, on her way to see Victoria for a couple days, she explained, swerving onto the road and hitting it pedal to the metal, while hip hop blared from the stereo. She grew up downhill ski racing and skating and complained about how cowboy boots don’t fit over proper calves. Faster than an eye blink we were dropped off, as the whirlwind of our hitch drove away.

“Damn, I love her!” I said as we rearranged our packs before setting off.

The trail started off as an easy old dirt road, and soon turned off to slither up the mountain. We pushed past curtains of dense brush, the sticky humid air causing us to sweat profusely as we struggled through the muddy ground. Heads bent, as there wasn’t much to see, we eventually realized we were at the Miette River, a good 17 miles into the day. There was a rare spot of non muddy ground, so we decided to call it early, and set up camp.

After cooking dinner, I put my shoes back on (I always take my shoes and socks off whenever I can, as this has been such a wet trip that I’m struggling a bit with trench foot) and instantly felt a pronounced pain. Somehow, unnoticed by me, some grit from all the mud had gotten stuck between my sock and ankle bone and was now rubbed completely raw, a small dime shaped patch of skin worn away. It was such a silly thing to have happen, and all because of all the mud, I was a bit peeved. But there’s not much to do but put on some antibiotic ointment and a bandage out here!

August 9th – 18 miles, 1,900′ of climbing

I slept so well last night! After a few nights of terrible sleep in a hostel it was truly lovely. I struggle sleeping around so many other people – I don’t trust them, and so usually spend most of the night awake, listening to what they might do, which is immensely boring, as well as sleep depriving as they are usually sleeping.

Dan and I got to start the day off right by plunging right into the Miette River. Our shoes were clean for all of a few seconds in the river, before we exited and continued on what was becoming the now-familiar shin-deep mud of this section. This section is supposed to be a bit muddy as is, and locals we have met in town tell us that this is the wettest summer in the Canadian Rockies since 1923. Go figure! (I seem to remember something similar happening on our backpacking trip across the Hardandervidda…) As such, it seems exceptionally muddy.

As the morning wore on, we climbed to Miette and Centre Passes – more of a sweeping general pass than two true separate passes. In fact, it was rather flat up top between the two, complete with bog that we splashed through.We then dropped down Grant Pass into a beautiful meadow overseen by a towering monolith of a mountain with a glacier hugging its sides. A milky creek cut across the vibrant green meadow that we were descending to. Our maps were odd, we were glad to realize, as we descended. The evening before, going over them, we noticed that according to the contour lines on the map, the other side of Grant Pass was about vertical. The one thing we were hoping for was that there also seemed to be an odd seam along that particular point on the maps, as though two different versions had been melded together. We reached the creek without having to navigate vertical cliffs, and began the mucky climb of Colonel Pass, passing a horse camp at a lake on the way. Colonel Peak rose strong before us as we dropped down into the next valley.

Here, the tale of west sung its song as we walked out of the mud into a large burn zone from ’98. As any hiker knows, an unmaintained trail in a burn zone is…less than desirable travel. As we navigated over, under, around, and sometimes through the dead fall, we took heart from the note that accompanied our maps in this section:

“If you feel yourself becoming disheartened with the dead fall in the burn zone, recall that Dustin Lynx described this section of trail as nearly impassable in 2004.”

As Dustin Lynx is pretty much the Godfather of the Great Divide Trail, and has hiked all of it and all the alternates, and seemingly skied most of is as well, for him to call something “nearly impassable” is saying something. As we scratched ourselves on the old burned trees, we re-christened the GDT the “Great Deadfall Trail”.

I also think we had somehow managed to hit the trail in a bit of a lull of hikers – several people had left town as we were getting there, but the crew of eight from Jasper was all behind us. You know this on trail when you start running into the spider webs. Overnight, they are usually ok, just little stringers that sometimes get stuck in your mouth or eyelashes, but nothing crazy. This was a whole other level. Great gobs of sticky web, with spiders the size of my thumbnail sat around the corner, invisible in the odd half light, waiting for me to walk in. More than once one of us walked into one, instigating a most graceful and verbose spree of jumping, writhing, spitting, face writhing, and occasional cursing.

Arriving at Upright Creek, we saw that there was a way to cross it via a conveniently fallen tree, but decided to cross it using our eddy method. All the rivers so far had been either benign or had bridges of some sort, but as there were a couple potentially intense river crossings, we decided to practice for the real thing. I collapsed my poles, stuck them in my pack, and took hold of Dan’s pack from behind as he faced up the creek, poles braced before him, as he is the taller of us. With his shouting “left, right, left” over the roar of the river to indicate when to move which foot and me not responding with my bellowed “yes” until I had stable footing, we steadily crossed the creek.

Satisfied when we exited, I pulled my poles back out of my pack and we continued to the first crossing of the Moose, which turned out to be easier than Upright Creek, and set up camp for the night immediately beyond, once again finding a rare, non-muddy spot with no dead trees to fall on us.

In an attempt to seek reprieve from the blood hungry mosquitoes that had been relentlessly plaguing us, we set up our bug net to eat dinner in and set the water to boil. As luck would have it, as soon as dinner was ready, thunder came booming over the mountains behind us, thick thunderhead growing quickly. Shoveling the food in our mouths as quickly as we could, we still didn’t quite beat the weather moving in. Shoving our pot and food away haphazardly, we hastily began to set up our shelter, right as the storm centered on us, lightning flashing and thunder booming.

But what sent me over the edge was when the torrential rain started. In 30 seconds about four inches of a super wet combo of hail and rain stood everywhere, and after forcing numb fingers to tie out our guylines, we both collapsed in the mid, panting.

“OMGDT,” I panted out. Our friend, Mic, had coined the term a while ago, and it had quickly become the standard for all things out of the normal level of anything, whether positive or negative.

August 10 – 18 miles, 2,500′ climbing

Today was a day for crossing rivers! The Moose River has a bit of a reputation throughout the trail, potentially more because you cross it five times, than because it is a big scary crossing. Or six times. And then you simply walk it for a while, because that is simplest way forward. But I get ahead of myself.

Our first two crossings of the Moose were pretty straightforward – we did the eddy method because we’re cautious and there’s two of us. In between were stretches of muddy, boggy trail, and then the third one was significantly deeper. All along, as we stomped our way through the mud, three sets of bear prints stood out in the mud. One, as I knelt down to put my hand against, was bigger than my fingertips reached, one of middling size, and one quite small. Also all up and down the trail were moose and deer prints. Once again, we never saw any – we have come to the rather unfortunate conclusion that to stay safe and not startle a grizzly also means we aren’t startling anything else, so we see little to no wildlife.

After the third crossing of the Moose (or fourth so far), we veered off a bit, and crossed Steppe Creek three times. You know, because Today Is The Day To Cross Rivers In The Mountains. We did a final crossing of the mighty Moose River, now reduced to a tiny little brook that we decided to walk up instead of fight our way through the brush on either side.

As we ascended Moose Pass, though, the trail suddenly became defined, and dare I say, even a bit less muddy. Reaching the top of Moose Pass, the skies cleared, the sun came out, and angels might as well have been trumpeting from the glacially-draped peaks around us. Setting up the bug net, we took a leisurely snack break.

“I know why Moose Pass is the only thing hikers talk about in this section,” I said, as I worked my way methodically through a spoonful of peanut butter with M&M’s.

Dan looked at me, too busy eating jerky and identifying peaks to ask.

“It’s because you’re a bit traumatized by all the mud, and then you reach Moose Pass and there’s wildflowers everywhere, and glacier-capped peaks, and it’s perfect land, so you forget the three days of mosquito-infested valley mud-bog slog in favour of Moose Pass.”

But the day was ticking on, and the Perfect Land of Moose Pass wasn’t going to come with us, so eventually we got up and moved on, down, back into the mosquito-infected valley of mud-bog slog for a few hours, complete of course, with multiple encounters with the now dreaded massive spider web.

And then there was the Smokey River. We tumbled out of the woods onto the gravel bar of the Smokey River, and squelched to its sides where we gazed at the rushing torrent raging past us. Sitting down (socks and shoes came off, of course), we read through all the recent notes that had been left on the crossing and looked at the weather forecast. Typically, with a glacially fed river, you want to cross in the morning, as the runoff will be highest in the afternoon/evening from melt. (We later heard a hiker tell of how it lowered three feet between an evening crossing and a morning one.) But we were predicted heavy rain overnight, which we thought might hamper the lowering effects. So we got up and began a thorough scouting of the river bank, looking far, both upstream and downstream.

We started crossing at two different places, pulling out both times as the roaring water reached Dan’s mid-thigh at a fast pace. We finally settled of a point rather downstream from where some other hikers had gone, in favour of a more braided river path. The first braid was simple enough, as were the several quite shallow braids that we simply walked across. I was thankful for a bit of walking, as even the short time we had spent in the rushing torrent had frozen my legs into numb stubs and the walking brought proper mobility back. The second true part of this crossing was more trouble. We started in two different places, pulling back both times as it got deep very fast.

Finally, we spotted a very ripply spot (with glacially fed rivers, it’s very hard to visually see the depth, so if you see the “right” kind of ripples, it can indicate that it’s more shallow in that location) that we aimed for. This did indeed prove to be only about knee deep, though still quite strong. About mid way through, I began to hear thunder booming. But soon we were across and it was only a few more little threads of water to splash through and we were fully across.

Weak with the adrenaline rush, and laughing from the relief, we trekked off down the still mud bog of a trail, but soon pulling over to camp, as the skies opened up and the rain began.

August 11 – 19 miles, 1,000′ climbing (but 3,400′ descent…which we do have to climb back up)

It rain, rain, rained all night, and when we got up to hike, the fog was so thick we could hardly see tree to tree, let alone the huge mountains around us.

As we neared Burg Lake, my grumpiness came out. I had just slogged through 3 days of mud, and I wouldn’t even get to see Mount Robson. Now, I can’t say I knew much about Mount Robson before I started looking at the GDT, but it’s a bit of a thing to this trail. For one thing, it’s the tallest peak in the Canandian Rockies, standing just shy of 4,000 meters (apparently it was demoted from being 4,000 meters, which has some folks upset still). For another thing, it is a common ending point for GDT hikers. Not being “officially” a trail, the GDT has many odd things going on, and one is that there isn’t really even an official end. A fair amount of people end in Jasper, and a lot of people end at Mount Robson. After walking out on the trail, I understand. For one thing, it feels very appropriate. It’s this huge, incredible, awe-inspiring mountain with three massive glaciers carving down its flanks. There’s the perfect alpine lake at the base, and then, yes, there’s an and then! And then you go tumbling down this perfect trail, down, down, down the Valley of a Thousand Falls, with hundreds of waterfalls cascading all around you – thundering monstrous falls, whispy, willowy falls, towering falls incredibly thin, but cascading hundreds of feet. For another thing, you have to hike back up that same trail if you want to continue on to Kakwa Lake. From Robson it’s a relatively easy hitch to Jasper, where you can hitch to Banff, or even get public transportation to either Edmonton or Banff.

And even though, in the scheme of long distance hiking, you haven’t hiked that far, (“only” 584 miles) it is a very, very challenging hike. There are multiple Tripple Crowners out here (folks who have hike the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail) who all say that this is the hardest trail they’ve done. The terrain is tough, it’s tough to cover the same amount of trail in bad to no trail conditions, and the weather is tough. In fact, we’ve been told in multiple towns now by locals that this is the wettest summer in the Canadian Rockies since 1923. Being wet day in and day out, being in thunder and lightning storms, being hailed on, being snowed on – this makes for good stories, but it’s draining. And it’s quite evident in the hikers by now. I’ve never seen hikers so worn down by so few miles, but this trail is tough.

So, as we stumbled along in the fog, my grumpiness set in as the thought of not even seeing Mount Robson set in. We walked by Berg Lake, where a bit of Berg Glacier could been seen sitting right above it, and then the thick cloud bank. Taking a chance, we stopped for an early snack break on the shores of the lake and watched as the clouds began to shift and change, and the sun began to try to shine weakly through the clouds. And then – it appeared! We gazed in awe of Mount Robson, marveling at it as we snacked. Finally, we scooped ourselves off the lake shore and continued on the trail, swooping and cascading down into the Valley of a Thousand Falls.

As we had just finished walking the road into the Mount Robson visitors center, we found a patch of grass, and promptly exploded our packs. This is a typical thruhiker thing – you get to town and suddenly, the things that are most important to you while on trail (like trekking poles) are useless or silly in town, and things that are useless or silly on trail (like a wallet) are most important in town. As we did this exploding, a voice floating across the grass:

“Any hikers looking for a ride to Valemount?” Dan and I both looked up at this – and Keith and Leslie walked up. The timing was serendipitous, as apparently they had literally just pulled in to the parking lot. We all tumbled into their mini van (which I have decided is an incredible adventure mobile) and rode off to Valemount where we ate burgers and told trail stories and laughed at their perfect ability to show up for us on the side of the trail.

And to be honest, I do think, in a way, this is the end of our thruhike. Thruhiking involves a certain mindset, and this next section into Kakwa Provincial Park is more of a wilderness excursion.

Into The Arctic Basin and Caribou Country – Saskatchewan Crossing to Jasper

We continue on with our 2019 Great Divide Trail journey from the U.S./Canadian border to Kakwa Lake. Saskatchewan Crossing to Jasper is the 6th segment of the journey, or Section E.  Here we begin to enter the far north including the wild regions of Jasper National Park. This land is home to wolves, caribou, deep bogs and endless above timberline routes. Enjoy! – DV

 

July 31, 2019 – 19 Miles, 3,700 feet climbing

It’s a crisp morning when we wake up at our little perch just below timberline. Yesterday’s climb up Owen Creek was taxing, but it allowed us to get a large portion of the work for the first pass of today’s jaunt behind us.

The trail meandered above treeline on a series of grassy steppes, making for easy travel. In the north country the shadows are long and the sun low. Since the start of this trip, we’ve lost more than an hour of daylight, and we begin to notice it. It seems like the mornings are a little colder than they were just a few weeks earlier, and a close examination of the ground cover shows that things are beginning to change from deep green to yellow and orange. Summer isn’t over yet, but the end is coming quickly.

We make our way up the first pass, picking easy lines that are most efficient. Soon we’re at the top of the first pass. There is a unique dividing line running parallel to our crossing. One half of the pass is a gray color, the other an orangish red that remind me of the Elk Mountains back home. It’s a flat top, almost flat enough to land an airplane on for a skilled pilot, and we enjoy the easy walking despite no trail.

We descend into the Michele Lakes Basin, before climbing a no-name pass that is the highest point on the entire Great Divide Trail. The guidebook informs us that this is a popular area for helicopter hikers, where people pay thousands of dollars to fly in to high alpine areas to hike. There are no helicopter hikers on this day though. Michele Lake’s glacial blue hew glimmers in the morning sun, a stark contrast to the lunar looking rock surrounding the basin.

The climb to the highest point is steeper than the first pass, especially the last 200 meters, but soon we gain the top. At 8,466 feet above sea level, this point is actually lower than our home in Colorado, but the effects of latitude are clear. At this altitude in Colorado, pine trees grow, hummingbirds buzz and the living is relatively easy. At this altitude at 52° N, it’s a barren, rock strewn alpine environment with permanent snowfields and glaciers lying a few hundred feet above.

We notice the silhouette of two hikers coming down the ridge line but decide to head down the other side before they arrive. At this point, we are enjoying the solitude. We descend down the other side, try to cross a steep snowfield, and slip and fall. No harm at all, but a bit clumsy, with nothing hurt but pride. After a quick lunch we begin the third major climb of the day, up Pinto Pass. For the first time in awhile, I feel like I find my legs here, and it feels good to go uphill strongly. My body is becoming aligned with the travel out here. The legs are getting stronger, the arms are losing some unnecessary muscle mass, we are becoming one with the environment.

The descent down the other side of Pinto Pass is enormous. A few weeks ago this would have hurt my ankle badly, but today it is no problem. As is usually the case on trail, one ends up walking through most injuries and healing. Walking is the most natural thing humans can do…given enough time and exposure, most ailments heal themselves. We come to Pinto Lake, set up the bug net, and enjoy lunch on her edge. I would have no problem building a cabin in this place, canoeing on the lake, hiking in the mountains, and living out my days in this spot.

It’s getting late and we have miles to make. The trail meanders around the lake and then begins a long, swampy, buggy trudge along the Cline River. There isn’t so much of a trail here as there is really wet meadows. We all have terrain that isn’t our favorite, and for Elaine, this is it, Nevertheless, she gamefully puts her head down, bug net on, Deet covered, and forges on. The north is beautiful but it isn’t always (or even usually) easy travel up here. There is a reason Alaskans prefer travel in the snow covered winter to the bog covered summer.

We leave the Cline River and turn north onto a trail adjacent to Cataract Creek. We’d been warned that this was a tricky crossing, but it proves to be no problem. The climb up Cataract is less boggy than the Cline, but it makes up for it with dead fall strewn all across the trail. At one point, just to pass the time, I counted steps before having to hop over a piece of dead fall. The longest I got over a half-hour period was 43 steps!

The forest is dense here, but every now and then it breaks out and large spire peaks rise on both sides of the valley. We come to a large rock we’d heard about. On the sides of this rock are reddish pictographs made by indigenous people a long time ago. There is a stick figure of a human, some sort of counting symbol, and what potentially looks like a large animal. We are not the first to pass thru this valley.

We continue and the trail gets more swampy. The mosquitoes are viscous, but worse are the biting flies that insist on circling our heads for hours straight. We decide to set up the bug net, eat an early dinner and hike on, as this is a challenging place to camp and bugs would make the evening ritual of dinner outside less than enjoyable. As we end supper, a light rain begins to fall.

Suddenly, to the left we here a rumble. The rumble turns into a roar, and soon an explosion. A glacier on the mountain across the valley was calving at that very moment, sending tons of ice, snow and rock down a cliff wall hundreds of meters below. These are the most unstable mountains either of us has ever been in, and they are literally falling apart as we walk thru.

Adrenaline from the explosion settling, we continue on. It’s getting dark and the rain is falling harder. The map note tells of a “meadow” ahead that offers better views. We decide to aim for the meadow as a place to sleep for the night. Upon arrival, we discover the meadow is a swamp, soaked by a spring. It is indeed beautiful, but finding a dry spot here proves challenging, Finally we find a piece of tussock a foot elevated from the swamp, and set our shelter there. Soon we’re asleep, dreaming of swamps, glacial explosions and better travel ahead.

 

August 1 – 22 miles, 4,600 feet climbing

Last night’s rain left everything soaked, and we started the morning with the always-enjoyable “car wash” effect from tight, wet brush. We spent the first hour of the day cold, soaked and searching for mental strength to continue moving forward. The route crossed Cataract Creek multiple times, the waters numbing our feet and making hiking more challenging.

And then, everything turned. The sun began to shine through the clouds and we finally emerged above timberline. The feeling was ecstatic, rising through the deep, dark, bug infested forest into the open, friendly sunshine of the high tundra. As waterfalls cascaded down around us, we walked with new purpose and energy, and even let out primal howls to celebrate our improved fortunes.

The route rose steeply up the walls of Cataract Pass. We followed the footsteps of mountain goats and before long were at the summit. We came to sign saying “Jasper National Park.” This is a place I’ve wanted to visit my entire life, and to come here this way, waking hundred of miles, emerging out of tough terrain to the top of a remote mountain pass deep in the Canadian Rockies was a bit emotional. It’s one of the finer moments of my entire life.

In front of us was pure northern beauty. Massive grey rock walls rose to the sky with hanging glaciers clinging to their upper reaches. Below, bright blue glacial lakes extended to light green meadows with glacial rivers meandering through the center. Clouds raged over the tops of the highest mountain summits, and in the far distance, mountain range after mountain range, as far as the eye could see, extended in every direction.

A storm was brewing over the pass, so we dropped down to the valley below before taking a food break to soak in the environment. The trail continued down through a jumbled rock garden that looked like something out of the Lord of the Rings. We scrambled carefully over the massive talus chunks, careful not to miss a step and get hurt.

Soon, as often happens in the national parks, the trail became immaculate. With a spring in our step we meandered thru the perfection, down the huge open valleys that reminded me of the Talkeetna Mountains in Alaska. Along the way we met another thru-hiker named Mik, a Canadian from Vancouver with a mellow, intelligent vibe who seems like one of the most competent people out here. We hiked together for awhile, before separating, making a mental note that they might be somebody we’d like to do some hiking with later on.

The trail raged through a huge, open treeless tundra valley. We came across numerous caribou antlers, – we’ve now hiked far enough north that caribou live here! The late afternoon light cast a golden hew over the arctic landscape. We passed many marmots, pika and ptarmigan, animals lucky enough to make this their permanent home.

We caught back up to Mik and decided to continue on together for the rest of the day. The trail crested another mountain pass, and from the top the sun, clouds, mountains, and sky decided to put on a light show, casting beams on the valley below.

We began the descent down the other side to the Jonas Cut-Off Campground below. Soon we were in camp, cooking dinner and trading stories about the trail and comparing equipment with our new friend. The Great Divide Trail is the hardest trail I’ve ever been on, and because of that the good moments, the days that have some kind of flow are that much better.

Happy August…I think it’s going to be great month.

 

August 2 – 17 miles, 3,500 feet climbing

Elaine and I rise early and break camp, saying bye to Mik for now, with hopes of meeting up trail. We experience a new sensation during the first part of this day…boring trail. The GDT has been many things thus far, but boring is not one of them. But as we walked along the perfectly flat, forest strewn trees, we both agreed, we were bored.

Of course, that was the wrong thing to admit to the trail gods, let alone the GDT. Soon we began to climb up Maligne Pass, and things instantly deteriorated. The trail became a muddy, dead fall strewn mess and the mosquitoes and flies decided to launch a full-on attack. A steady rain began to fall and we heard a distant rumble of thunder in the distance. Never, ever admit to the trail that you are bored.

We were coming to a decision point. The official GDT route continued north up and over Maligne Pass and into the Maligne River basin. The problem is Jasper National Park decided to decommission this section of trail in 2012, as it’s home to a rare species of Woodland Caribou. By all accounts, the official trail here is severely overgrown and almost impassable. It’s not a great option.

A new “alternate” has emerged to allow hikers to pass through the park. Dubbed the six-pass alternate, this slightly longer, completely off-trail route bypasses the river valley and takes to the high alpine, crossing six mountain passes along the way. It requires a special permit, as its home to a large caribou herd that summers in the mountains. By all accounts, it’s a fabulous route.

One thing we have learned is that when given the chance between taking a high route or a low route on the GDT, the high one is almost always preferable. Open travel on tundra is much more enjoyable than slogs through buggy, swampy river basins. Of course, high routes present their own challenges. They involve much more climbing, and if the weather is bad, they can be deadly because of lightning.

Utilizing the InReach, I messaged my sister who is something of a weather buff, asking for a good forecast. She got back to me soon: while rain was predicted, lightning was not. We can hike in rain and snow all day, but lightning is the big X-factor. Armed with this promising forecast, we made a decision to do the six-pass alternate.

Near the top of the pass, we angled west off the main route to the first pass. We were immediately travelling off trail, following the land, reading vegetation and picking the line of smooth attack. I love this type of travel, where decisions are based on the world in front of you, not some predetermined trail. It is, in a sense, the next level of travel for Elaine and I in our outdoor adventures, far from set trails in distant and truly wild places.

The route benched up a number of rises and we were soon well above Maligne Pass, looking at the route ahead. The pass itself had a massive cornice above it, so that wasn’t the way to go. We decided to tackle it to the left of the cornice, a route that would require a bit more climbing, but that should be much safer. The last part of the pass was quite steep, but it was short, and soon we we reached the top.

In front of us was a wonderland of mountain peaks and green valleys that looked like a fantasy world. This crossing was significant in another geographical way. It marked the point where we crossed into the Arctic Ocean drainage basin. From this point forward, all water encountered will flow north, eventually destined for Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River, the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean at 69° north latitude.

When I think back to the last two years and the beginning of this adventure that began deep in the New Mexico desert, it’s almost overwhelming. I remember the day before we departed, standing on a dusty field outside Lordsburg, New Mexico, under a raging sunset, Elaine throwing her fist in the air, and feeling an excitement that life as we were meant to live it was just beginning. And now, here we are, 3,500 miles later, having crossed endless mountain ranges, deserts and rivers, at the entrance to the ARCTIC.

In truth, I wasted a lot of my younger years riding bikes around in circles and trying to manage insecurities by proving myself in an arena that meant nothing.  Crossing a mountain pass into an Arctic Ocean river basin after seven months of walking kind of makes riding a bicycle around a contrived loop in hopes of winning a medal look like child’s play. But, as they say, better late than never. There is a lot of adventure out there still and I aim to squeeze every ounce of it out for as long as I can. And this region, the arctic, will be the setting for a lot of this adventure. It speaks to both of us, and it feels like a place that matches our desires and dreams.

It was about 7 pm when we began down the other side into Terra Incognita. The light was dancing with the mountains, creating magical silhouettes and long shadows. Honestly, we could have camped way up high, but given that there was some cloud build-up, we opted to drop slightly lower and set-up shelter there.

It was a perfect spot, flat, protected and with views that extended to dream world. We cooked on the warm tundra, while the marmots and pika chirped, skin warmed by the evening sun, and sipped tea as we enjoyed the silent, beautiful spot.

Looking up valley, we saw a single human descending from the pass quickly. Elaine, who has amazing eyesight, quickly identified the person as Mik. We gave a howl and yell and soon Mik was in camp, sharing the same energy and ecstatic feeling that we were feeling. We cooked dinner and slept in the wilderness, the way human beings have been doing it for all of time before we lost our way.

 

August 3 – 12 miles, 4,100 feet climbing

A hard rain beats against our shelter as day emerges. Today’s plan calls for crossing four more passes. Time to stiffen the lip, because this will not be an easy day.

The day merged into an endless – yet fabulous – series of climbs and descents over mountain passes, through storms and across some of the most wild mountain terrain I’ve ever experienced. The day felt more like a migration than a hike, the three of us pulling our weary bodies over rocks, streams and tundra like migrating caribou, into the land where the gods danced. My notes about the day are vague, because in essence it all melded into one:

1st pass…long approach across valley, quite steep.

2nd pass…down valley, then up over a double pass, up saddle then traverse. Cold rain, chilly snack break.

3rd pass…A talus-filled , side-hill trouble child. Rain off and on every two minutes. Ankle didn’t really like this one so much,

4th pass…Steep, straightforward, much better than 3rd. Followed gullies right to the top. Ended day with navigation through trees and scree to camp at double lake. Mosquitoes brutal.

What stood out about the day was our new friend Mik. As I mentioned earlier, Mik is from Vancouver and is highly competent in the outdoors. Mik shares our belief that the competitive nature of thru hiking is silly, and has a calm, positive demeanour that is a joy to be around.

Mik is also transgender. Truth is, I’ve never known a transgender person before. That’s not exactly true, as I have some friends on social media who are transgender, who post often about things like pronouns and work place discrimination. But honestly, for me, it was a distant concept that I’d never been exposed to.

Mik, whose name is short for Mikolash, is writing a blog called Gayly Forward that is being posted by the Canadian equivalent of REI, a company called MEC. Rather than explain what it’s about, I’ll let you simply read it.

Hiking with Mik has been a great experience for Elaine and I. Mik was very open to answering our questions no matter how inane. For those curious, Mik’s pronoun is “they,” and it’s simple…instead of saying he or she, just say they. Not that complex really. Even more interesting was a series of conversations about good books, climate change, the differences between Canadians and Americans and every topic under the sun. If you told me before this hike that in the very wildest part of the walk we’d be learning about transgender lifestyle I probably wouldn’t have believed it, and I’m grateful for it.

We were tired at the end of this day. There was a lot of steep climbing and we must have changed in and out of our rain layers 20 times over the course of the day. It was a cold evening, and would likely freeze overnight. Our plans diverged from here – Elaine and I would be up early to finish the last pass and make some progress towards Jasper on the Skyline Trail, while Mik would be taking a more relaxed approach, leave later in the day, and hike the entire Skyline Trail in one day the day after.

Before the day ended we did learn about something called “Mass Drop,” a new concept where individuals are creating outdoor gear through crowd funding that is pushing gear beyond what the big companies are feeding the general public. Every region has its own gear culture, and the GDT is no exception. The trail “legend” up here is a guy named Dan Dursten who has hiked the route multiple times and has built a tent designed for the wet and harsh climate the GDT presents. It’s fun to be on the cutting edge of the new wave of outdoor gear that is designed and developed from actual trail experience and savvy in a small batch format.

 

August 4 – 25 miles, 6,100 feet climbing

We left our camp near the two lakes in the fields of heather and began a steep climb up the last pass. It froze last night, the first freeze of the season, and despite the steep climb I left my long layers on till the very top.Tomorrow is Lammas day – halfway between the summer solstice and the fall equinox, and in the Celtic culture the beginning of the harvest season and the end of summer. Given the overnight freeze, it seems absolutely appropriate.

Determination plays a big role when the body is exhausted, and we made a point of not stopping once on the entire steep climb – a body in motion stays in motion. At the top the sun finally hit us, so we shed layers and watched as the fog rose over the Maligne River to the east. To the south, we could see the entire 6-pass alternate, jutting and angling across these wild mountains.

The 6th pass isn’t really a pass at all, but a long ridgeline that ends at the top of a peak. Walking along the very top of the ridgeline was a bit airy, but a preferred option as the going was steep on the sides. After a few false summits, we finally crested the main peak. It was hazy, but we could still make out the faint outline of Mount Robson to the north, the highest peak in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and the end of the “official” GDT.

The drop off the other side of the peak was hair raising, a class IV drop that stretched my nerves a bit further than they’ve been stretched for some time. But, as they say, it’s good to scare yourself from time-to-time to let you know you’re still alive and have a heartbeat. We continued along a lower ridgeline, passing marmots along the way, before finally cresting a last hill that brought us to real trail and the end of the 6-pass alternate.

After a snack break, we continued down the hill, passing hikers heading up the other way on day hikes. Since we had plenty of food left, we opted to skip the cafeteria at Maligne Canyon and head directly onto the Skyline Trail. What a change! It felt like we were suddenly dropped onto the Colorado Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. The tread was smooth, the grade was perfect, and we were soon traversing along at a comfortable 3 mph with relative ease.

After the mostly-sufferfest of the past nine days, the civilized trail was a welcome respite. We meandered along, chatting with other hikers. For a lot of this hike I think both Elaine and I have wondered what it wrong with us, as it’s rare where we’ve felt good. It turns out nothing is wrong with us, the GDT is just that hard. It was nice to feel like strong hikers again.

The Skyline Trail climbed out of the trees and into some of the most magnificent tundra we’ve enjoyed yet. Huge expanses of open mountain unfolded before us and it wasn’t long before we made it to a mountain pass known as “The Notch.” The Notch is a dramatic ascent that crosses a tiny gap in the ridgeline before continuing north to Jasper. It was a steep climb, but Elaine and I enjoyed the wildness of it. The day hikers had all gone home, and as a cold wind blew in from the north, we summited the pass and continued along an impossibly beautiful stretch of trail right on the ridge of a mountain top.

Dark was coming soon, so it was with some relief that the trail began to drop and we pitched our tent at a park service campground. The campground was the only low-light of the day, a mud-bog, mosquito-infested hole in the forest. It’s strange, but the campsites we find in the wild are much better than the park service options. Established campground surfaces are too firm, too close to water (camping near water is cold and creates dew) and a bit disgusting. Give me a mountain side heather field with an eastern aspect to catch the morning sun any day over that. It’s a good life though, when park service campgrounds are the low point of the day!

 

August 5-7

Down, down, down we go, on a fire road to Jasper. The hikers heading up the other way look miserable. By god, what is in those heavy packs they carry? Why is there human feces with toilet paper on the side of the road? As we get closer to civilization, we quickly realize that civilization is rarely the best option.

Finally we reach the bottom and a highway. We take a series of confusing trails into town, pass thru a golf course, and get warned a thousand times that there is a grizzly bear eating garbage. Mounties walk by with loaded shot guns…the whole thing seems ridiculous.

We cross the Athabasca River, where hordes of rafters prepare for a day on the frozen river. We enter Jasper, eat food, find places to sleep, make fun of kitschy stuff in tourists shops and rest our bodies, ready to get back into the woods and out of the madness.

Field to Saskatchewan Crossing: Walking Along Glaciers, Heinous Bushwhacks and Historic Crossings

The following is an account of Dan and Elaine’s 2019 Great Divide Trail journey from the U.S./Canadian border to Kakwa Lake. Field to Saskatchewan Crossing is the fifth segment of the journey, or Section D. Affectionately known as the “black sheep” of the trail by hikers, this section offers some unique challenges, both mental and physical. Enjoy! – DV

July 27, 2019 – 17 miles, 6,200 feet climbing

Holy what a day. It started off with a bus ride from Banff to Lake Louise, a stop at the local bakery to grab some breakfast and waiting on the side of the highway with a sign saying, in big, black letters, “FIELD.” Unlike our hitch into Banff a few days earlier, luck was with us. A woman named Denise pulled over and told us she was from Field and would take us to the trail head.

Even better, it happened that Denise was the manager of the Emerald Lake Canoe and Nordic Center and that she would take us right to Emerald Lake, an advantageous if not somewhat difficult trail head to get to. Denise had some paper work to finish up, so we stopped at her place in Field briefly, a cozy home with lots of nick-knacks that reminded me of our cabin in Eldora. Then, we were off to the lake and trail head.

Honestly, we could have just stopped right there. Emerald Lake was a stunning, serene and fantastic place. Denise gave us some chocolate before we departed and we were on our way. The trail looped on easy trail around the lake before it entered a glacial river bed, fed by a waterfall, that required we get our feet wet instantly.

We began the climb over Yoho Pass and it started to rain hard and blow a cold wind from the north. Getting wet and hiking in rain is part of this game, but neither of us were particularly pleased with this development right after town days. Our itinerary for the day called for a hike on a high trail as well as a pass crossing, so getting lightning in the first hour of the day was less than promising.

The wind and rain raged as we topped out on the pass. The rain abated as we crossed through some forest and by the time we got to the Iceline Trail, spots of sun were starting to shine through. The Iceline Trail is exactly what it sounds like – a route that juts up against glaciers, traversing a number of large cirques. It’s one of the newest trails in the entire area, a product of receding glaciers and climate change. I found it difficult to walk here and not feel a twinge of sadness, as most of these glaciers have been here for many, many millennia, now being dissolved as a result of humans not living in any equilibrium with our planet.

It was fine trail and we made good time, save for the constant crooning of necks we’d do looking in awe at the surrounding scenery. As we exited the Iceline Trail, the clouds began to build again and soon lightning was striking nearby peaks. After a quick check in at the local Alpine Club of Canada hut to see if there was room to get out of the rain for a few minutes (there was not), we began the climb up Kiwetinok Pass.

Kiwetinok Pass is a Great Divide Trail alternate that goes up and over the main route. The main route, while shorter, passes along an overgrown section of trail along the Amiskwi River. We chose the Kiwetinok Pass alternate as it allowed us to enjoy the Iceline Trail and go up and over the mountains avoiding potentially the worst of Amiskwi. The only problem: after the pass, there would be no trail for about five miles and there would be a significant amount of bushwhacking to get back to the actual GDT – some of the slowest going either of us have ever experienced.

The weather decided to cooperate and the storm abated. We made our way up the pass, a desolate but beautiful place with an alpine lake and a stiff wind that sent Elaine’s hat flying across the talus. Hat retrieved, we made our way down the other side, picking our way along the talus (less desirable) and scree (easier travel). We both enjoy off-trail travel and find it much more mentally stimulating than just following a trail. This is especially true above timberline, where sight lines are good and a hiker can follow the natural contours of the land.

The scree descended down to a creek bed. We then began a traverse across very dense conifer forest to a random spot where we would begin our ascent over something called the Kiwetinok Saddle. This was very slow going, but we enjoyed the cushy moss surface and massive mushrooms growing everywhere. We stopped for a break on a steep slope before beginning a direct assault on the saddle.

One outdoor skill that I’m fairly decent at is navigating to an exact spot without great sight lines. It’s something I have a knack for, and I enjoyed taking the lead here and getting us through the steep forest to the saddle. After an hour slog, we crested the top and gazed down on an empire of wilderness. A deep green sea of trees awaited us below and from the looks of things, it would not be easy travel.

We hurried down the snow and scree, as weather clouds were building again and we didn’t want to be stuck in a dense forest all night. The first part of the descent was easy enough, and the upper trees were widely enough spaced that going was slow, but manageable. This changed for the worse however, and soon enough we were reduced to an almost crawl like pace. An old forest fire left hundreds of downed trees everywhere and it was frustrating travel.

We were tired, it was getting dark and injury was a real possibility. It was turning into a dangerous situation, especially given the density of the forest and the fact that we’d been traveling for twelve hours already. We’d been hiking for two hours in the bushwhack and not found a six-foot wide gap in the forest to put up our shelter. The “road” below was only a half-mile away, but at this travel pace that equated to at least one hour.

We crossed a creek and decided that we had to stop. We found a crooked but small gap in the trees and set up our shelter. It was an ugly set, it didn’t look good, but as the rain began to beat down, we were dry and safe. It was 10:45 pm by the time we got camp set up, and we broke a cardinal rule of camping in bear country – we cooked in our shelter.

The logic was as such. We’d seen no bear scat in the area, and it was so dense that it didn’t seem like a great place for bears or any animal to travel. Also, we were borderline hypothermic. If we ate outside we almost certainly WOULD be hypothermic, and a problem at hand is usually worse than a potential problem in the bush, so to speak. We chose our least smelly meal, a bland pasta, and still did a bear hang with our Ursacks, It’s not something were proud of and in retrospect we would have been better off stopping at the tree line. Lesson learned, move on. Turns out, despite the ridiculous contouring we had to do to find a somewhat flat place to sleep, we had one of our best nights sleep on the trail to date.

It’s one thing I dislike about thru-hiking in technical terrain. At NOLS, where we always encountered technical terrain, the solution was simple: stop early enough to camp well and get a good rest. And on smooth trail like the Colorado Trail, it’s not a problem either, as camping is simple and easy. The combination of pushing big days, managing technical terrain and finding a place that is safe to sleep is one of the major challenges of the GDT.

July 28 – 22 miles, 2,400 feet of climbing

After a comfortable but short night of rest, we made our way down the remaining brush to the Amiskwi River. It was an hour of travel and had we tried it last night we would have been in a bad situation. The trail along the Amiskwi River was brushy and boggy, but nothing like last night. I put the camera away during last night’s bushwhack, but for comparison sake this is the brush situation on the Amiskwi. I’d estimate the density of brush the previous night was three-times as thick.

Our legs were dead from yesterday, so the easier day was appreciated. It was a wild feeling land, full of deep bogs, hungry mosquitoes and the rushing Amiskwi. We stopped for a break on Amiskwi Pass and were promptly swarmed by a million blood sucking mosquitoes. No problem, we simply set up our bug net and ate in leisure, teasing the bugs who desperately wanted us for lunch.

The trail turned into a dirt road and we spent the next couple hours walking through some of the most heinous logging operations I’ve ever seen. The work was recent, and my mind imagined what the literary eco-terrorist hero Hayduke would have done in the same place and time. Instead, we simply passed by, heads down, aware that in this race between nature and man, nature might just lose, simply because we are too efficient at destroying her.

Elaine’s heel began to hurt from the constant wet feet and long descent, so it was with much relief that we finally stopped at the bottom and enjoyed an evening snack along the Blaeberry River. Arriving at the Blaeberry began a portion of our trip that followed a historic trade route in this part of the Canadian Rockies. In 1807 David Thompson explored the area and found a connector from the rivers east of the divide to the Blaeberry, which eventually spills into the Columbia River and the Pacific. It was an important connector for the indigenous people of the area, as well as early trappers and explorers.

We started the David Thompson Trail which followed directly along the river bed. There was a tricky river crossing with two logs that required a “crawl” technique to get over. Thus far, river crossings on the GDT have been fairly benign, but that promises to change as we move further north. The trail here has been cleared by the Great Divide Trail Association recently, turning what was once a nightmare section into pleasant travel. We set up camp on a nice flat spot along the river, I soaked my improving ankle in its icy, glacial fed waters and we enjoyed the end of a much easier day on the GDT than yesterday.

July 29 – 19 miles, 1,400 feet of climbing

A strange and unique day on the trail. We started off on the David Thompson Trail, came to a river crossing, and happened across a group of four GDT hikers camped on its banks. We exchanged greetings and they seem like a good group of folks. Two of the four are Triple Crowners (having completed the AT, PCT and CDT) named Coyote and Boat. The third in the group, Backtrack, is from Staten Island and has done a lot of adventuring in the northeast including a winter ascent of Katahdin. Rounding out the group is Antoine from France, who we actually saw on day one back at the trailhead near the U.S. border. Hopefully we’ll cross paths again and find out more about them.

We steadily climbed up to Howse Pass, a historic traffic route that marks the lowest crossing of the Continental Divide in these parts. We won’t cross over into British Columbia and the west side again for another 150 miles. The trail descended to the Howse Flood Plain, a massive, glacially fed valley with the river braiding everywhere. Massive peaks surrounded the valley and for the most part the travel is easy, with some notable exceptions. Sometimes the river channel comes right up to the forest, forcing hikers into some absolutely heinous bushwhacking that at times reduces travel to less than a mile per hour. More than once I wished for my packraft in this section. That’s an idea for future hikers – bring a light little raft and float the Howse to Saskatchewan Crossing!

Nevertheless, it was enjoyable and unique waking, I couldn’t help but harken back to historical times and imagine the tribes and individuals who crossed this valley before us. It reminded me a lot of Alaska and triggered conversation between Elaine and I that perhaps finally, that is the place for us to move to that is wild and remote enough to quench our thirst for adventure and lack of people. Simply put, we’re happier the bigger and wilder a place is.

We set up camp at a promontory above the river, away from the biting flies and mosquitoes (mostly). The foursome were nearby so we joined them for dinner while watching the sun set over the Rocky Mountains as the Howse River winds its way through time.

July 30 – 13 miles, 3,600 feet up

Today is a resupply day at Saskatchewan Crossing. We got up at 5 am to meet Keith, who is dropping us off our resupply box at the crossing at 7:30. The walking is easy and the sunrise glorious. We cross a deep chasm called Mistaya Canyon before meeting Keith’s trusty red van once again! It goes without saying that without Keith and Leslie, this trip would not have happened. We are forever grateful to them.

We enjoy catching up with Keith, and then stuff ourselves at a buffet breakfast at the crossing with the foursome. Next, we explode our backpacks and our gear outside the truck stop to let it dry. Turns out Saskatchewan Crossing is a popular stop for bus tours crossing between Jasper and Banff, so there is strange melding of worlds between thru-hikers and tourists from around the world. More than once, khaki-clad, clean smelling individuals with very fancy cameras would come over to our gear and start taking photographs of it.

Batteries charged and gear relatively dry, we said goodbye to our new friends, left the bizarre scene and forged on north towards Jasper National Park with seven-days of food loaded down in our packs. The first part of the walk involved a bit of road, and we figured it would be safe to pop in the head phones for a little bit before heading back into deep bear country, As fate would have it, we saw a bear at that exact moment, a black bear eating berries on the side of the road, much more concerned with his bush than with us. There is no rest, mental or physical, on the GDT! This is not the trail for ticking off lazy miles listening to audio books and podcasts. This trail requires constant vigilance.

The trail passed on the north side of the massive Saskatchewan River before crossing the road and heading back into the Wilderness and Banff National Park. We started climbing steeply and soon crossed over the 52nd N parallel of planet earth. The trail meandered up a deep slot canyon called Owen’s Creek that soon turned into a steep, tricky and endless embankment. The trail was hardly a trail, and there was more than once where a fall would have led to serious injury. The mantra became…don’t fall.

The key to these sections is to quiet the mind and trust the body. Dwelling too much on “what ifs” and worst case scenarios paralyzes the body from doing what it needs to do. We’re capable of doing much more than we think we are. The best solution: put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again.

The trail rose and the river raged below. We were having concerns of a repeat of a few nights earlier, as the day was growing late and camping seemed almost impossible. After four hours of climbing Owen’s Creek, we finally emerged above timberline. It wasn’t exactly vast wide open fields of copious camping, but we found a small spot to set up the shelter. We cooked dinner on the tundra and enjoyed the silence.

Tomorrow we cross into the Arctic Ocean drainage. It’s hard to believe this journey, which started in the dry and desolate Chihuahua Desert in the New Mexico bootleg has come his far. We’re in big and wild northern country right now, and we love it.

The Rock Wall, Lighting Storms and Wild Strawberries – Sunshine to Field

We’ve entered the civilized part of our Great Divide Trail hike. Not that it’s not wild and remote and stunningly beautiful, but there is a bit of a different feel, thanks in part to that very beauty. This is world class terrain, part of the world class Banff National Park, and as such there are more amenities and people. In addition, we’re supremely lucky to have some wonderful friends who reside in Banff, who have helped make a few of these days feel a bit like a frolick in the woods – ala Sound of Music. In a game that involves a lot of suffering to see great beauty, this is about as cushy as it gets. It almost makes me feel guilty.

Not that I’m complaining. On this segment, we got to enjoy our first ever “slack pack.” Slack packing is when, through the good graciousness of others, the bulk of your pack weight is ferried ahead to the next stop, allowing you to move through the mountains more at a day hike effort than a backpacking trip. Simple put, hiking 20 miles is a lot easier with five pounds of weight than 25.

Our friend Leslie dropped us off at Sunshine Ski Resort Monday morning for the first part of our three-day journey along the Rock Wall. The Rock Wall is the creme-de-la-creme of Banff National Park, a sheer vertical sheet of stone set over impossible glaciers that send waterfalls cascading down to the alpine tundra below. It would be a short lived goodbye, as we would see her later in the day on a road at the end of the segment. Instead of hauling all our gear and standard rations, we instead carried tiny summit packs (thank you Hyperlite) with rain gear, foot-long Subway sandwiches, apples, chips and chocolate. Cushy, eh?

We began the day with a climb up Healy Pass. The 2,000-foot climb felt almost effortless as we skipped up the trail. We weren’t singing “The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music,” but we might as well have been. Shrubs and brush gave way to pine trees, then spruce trees, and finally the alpine Larch which populates the highlands in the Canadian Rockies. Fields of wild flowers – purple, yellow and red – blanketed the meadows on this perfectly sunny day. After battling snow and cold on the previous stretch, it was a welcome reprieve. We reached the summit and asked a group of hikers to snap a photo of us. I usually end up shooting most of the pictures, so it’s always nice to get a picture of the two of us!

The Continental Divide rose in front of us as we descended down to a creek and past a campsite. Leslie told us about a nice lake a kilometer off the trail, so we took a little bonus loop to check it out. Scarab Lake sat perfectly under a glacier, and we enjoyed her blue waters while enjoying half our sandwiches. The mosquitoes were a bit voracious, so with a twinge of regret we began hiking again, leaving the near perfect setting.

The trail meandered through the woods before climbing steeply up the side of Ball Pass. This trail is sometimes affectionately called “Ball Buster Pass,” but with our light packs it was a relatively easy. Ball Mountain loomed above, a massive hanging glacier dropping down its side, impossibly thick and menacing looking, like a monster on the attack. As this was a leisurely day, we stopped at the top again and enjoyed a second lunch, amused by a begging ground squirrel who did his best to use cuteness to get food. Being the cold-hearted hikers that we are, we didn’t oblige him, although I’m sure a few crumbs were left inadvertently.

Most of the lunch was spent looking at mountains. Ball Mountain captivated my imagination, and I enjoyed the luxury of spending 30 minutes just looking at her face, nooks and crannies. Too often in our world we are running from one place to another, never stopping to enjoy and observe. Why not just stop for awhile, find something beautiful, and look at it, enjoy it and the fact that we are alive in this fantastic world?

Eventually we had to head down. Or maybe we didn’t need to, but that Puritan guilt that we needed to be “doing something” hit, and away we went. The trail dropped precipitously and my ankle which has been something of a pest on this saunter started bothering me. This was disappointing as I was hoping the two days off in Banff would completely heal it. Through a little self-diagnosis it appears I have something called Peroneal Tendonitis, undoubtably brought on by huffing heavy loads on foot up and down vertical hills after spending the past seven months in ski boots. Ski boots make for strong legs but weak ankles, and I didn’t have enough time this spring to properly prepare for this hike, in part because I didn’t know we were going to do it until two weeks before we left. Such is life.

The thing is, it’s a completely manageable injury. My stability is good, I don’t have a limp, it doesn’t hurt at all on flats and uphills, and the downhill pain is manageable with Advil and KT tape. We’ve been ticking off regular 20 miles days over tough terrain, and while of course I’d prefer to be completely pain free, that’s not my reality right now. I don’t have three to six weeks to let it heal completely. On these hikes it’s always nice to be completely healthy, but that’s rarely the case.

I had a mind shift on this descent. Instead of putting impossible pressure on myself to magically heal in 48 hours, I allowed myself to accept the injury, realized I can totally manage it and just relax. Perhaps it was psychosomatic, but as soon as I made that mental transformation it actually felt better. I have no doubts some days will be better than others, but at this point it’s a discomfort and something that has to be dealt with, much like putting on a raincoat if a storm comes. Manage it, do no damage, take care of myself and move on.

After hiking with Leslie last week we realized our bear calls are severely lacking. Bear calls are noise made to alert bears and warn them that humans are around. Until we hiked with Leslie, we thought our pitifully weak “Hey Bear,” audibles were enough. Not true. We needed to get more savage and louder with them.

We’re quick studies. Elaine has quickly developed an almost wolf-like howl that feels primal and appropriate. Mine is a deeper bellow, and we alternate every minute or so, making sure no bears are surprised by our presence. It feels a bit like we are Tarzan and Jane bellowing through the forest as we walk, and I like the wildness of that. As we were heading down the pass, thru a recent forest fire burn that left charred skeletons of trees, we heard a cry down the mountain responding to ours. We came around a bend, and there was Leslie! She had hiked up the hill to meet us for the evening. It was an amazing surprise and a highlight of the day.

We hiked quickly down the hill. New pine trees have emerged from the burn, a quick recovery from the incineration just a decade earlier. We crossed creek beds, enjoyed the companionship and gave loud bear calls the whole way down. We talked about lynx and bobcats, mountain lions and wolves, and agreed that mountains with things that can eat you are better and more invigorating than mountains where all predators have been killed.

After a couple hours we reached the highway, but not before Leslie spotted a grove of wild strawberries. While cars zipped by, we foraged on our hands and knees for berries, likely a comical site for the tourists driving, but well worth it for the sweet delight of wild strawberries. It was a perfect capper to the easiest 22 miles I’ve ever hiked. Eventually we headed back to the van, but first it was time for hor d’ouvres on the Vermillion River while we waited for temperatures to cool. We eventually meandered back to the campsite, where Leslie had graciously put up a “car camping” tent for Elaine and I, complete with a blanket inside. It felt like camping in the backyard when I was eight years old.

We opted to skip the rain fly for the night in hopes of “gazing at stars.” I distinctly remember looking at the sky and commenting that, “it looks pretty good, it can’t rain.” So of course, as fate would have it, at about 2 am thunder started rumbling overhead and a few drops of rain woke me up! No crisis: we hopped out of the tent and popped on the rainfly as the 15 minute deluge commenced, cozily tucked away in the tent for the night.

The next morning was a bit back to reality, as we’d have to carry our camping gear and an entire TWO DAY RATION up and over the Rock Wall to Field. As it turns out, this segment would get quite real soon enough, but we didn’t know that at the time. The day began with farewells to Leslie and a 3,500 foot climb up and over Numa Pass. It was a hot and steamy day, and it wasn’t long before we were dripping with sweat as we navigated our way up the brushy lower stretches of the trail. There were a lot of people heading down the other way, as this is the end of a popular multi-day backpacking trip that most people take four or five days to complete.

The climb continued relentlessly, but as we went up, the air cooled. After what seemed like a terminal amount of time, we finally arrived at Floe Lake, named after the ice floes that drift into it off a glacier. We cooled ourselves in the lake with a quick dip in the slightly-above-freezing temperature water before continuing up the pass. Lunch was taken at the top of the pass, as a near gale force breeze kept the bugs at bay.

We made our way down the long descent to Numa Creek, enjoying the perfect trail and recently manicured deadfall. And then it was back up another 3,500 foot climb over Tumbling Pass. This one was steeper and shorter than the first one, a little more brushy and a little more wild. As we were heading up, a group of four came down and informed us that they had seen a grizzly bear at the top who had “made a run” at them. They seemed awfully calm for folks who had just been charged by a grizzly bear, but we took this information and made our calls a little more consistent and louder still.

The low elevation brush gave way to forest and soon we were at Larch line, heading up and over the pass. We’d climbed 7,000 feet on the day, a fair amount by any standards, and were feeling good. We saw no bear at the top, but did catch up to a Manitoba man who sheepishly asked us if he could hike down to the campground with us for protection from the bears. We of course agreed and enjoyed a conversation about hiking and the great Canadian wilderness. We passed a campground at valley bottom, but Banff National Park restrictions and the fact that we didn’t have a permit made it necessary to climb up to Wolverine Pass and enter into British Columbia to spend the night.

We were both suffering as the ascent on the day eclipsed 8,000 vertical feet. The end was near though, so it was easy enough to suffer through it. On the way up, we crossed paths with a hiker who had hiked the CDT in 2016. He was a hilarious guy, and raised our spirits. We continued on and made our way to the impossibly beautiful Wolverine Pass. We crossed into British Columbia and set up camp in a low clearing beneath a small forest and two massive mountains, Mt. Drysdale to the north and Mount Gray to the south.

The area was chalk full of bear prints, so we decided to eat a good half-kilometer away from our shelter, our dining room floor literally having a grizzly bear print smack dab in the middle of it. No matter…dinner was delightful and view out the front window was phenomenal! We went to bed in a happy and blissful state.

That bliss ended about four hours later as an electrical storm the likes of which I have never seen moved in right on top of us. For half the night our tarp lit up like a nightclub in Berlin as electric blasts illuminated the world around us. The highlight of the experience was when the storm moved in right on top of us, striking the tops of Mount Drysdale and Mount Gray in rapid succession, over and over, shaking the ground and sending rockfall plummeting down the mountain side. Indeed, it felt like Thor and Odin were playing volleyball with one another, and the location of our tent was the net. In truth, it was terrifying, and despite our relatively safe location we spent a good hour curled in the lightning position on our sleeping mats. I doubt a sleeping mat would do much if a billion volts of lightning decided to strike us, but it provided a little bit of comfort.

The funny thing is, that lightning storm will be one of the highlights of the trip, and one of those things I’ll remember fondly on my death bed. It was incredibly powerful and raw, a kind of natural beauty that few get to experience let alone be in the middle of. I’ll elect to avoid it whenever possible of course, but I’m glad it was an experience I got to enjoy and survive.

The next morning was predictably soggy, so on a solid three hours of sleep we made our way across the moody Rock Wall. Low clouds and fog danced with the peaks, creating a scene that felt like the ice age in the Pleistocene Era. A glacier sits at the bottom of the wall, and waterfalls cascade off the Washmawapta Icefield above. The trail meanders through larch forests and glacial moraines. The whole thing is downright gorgeous and surreal, and certainly up there as one of the top five hikes I’ve ever done in my life.

In too soon a time we were heading down the hill as campers at the Helmet Falls campground worked their way up. We traded stories of surviving the storm, ensuring them the Rock Wall was well worth the effort despite the misty weather. We passed Helmet Waterfall, one of the highest waterfalls in all of the Canadian Rockies, a roaring cascade that had me thinking the thunder had returned for a brief moment.

Turns out, the thunder DID return. As we headed up Goodsir Pass the storm brewed yet again and a steady rain fell as distant rumbles echoed off the mountain. Fortunately this pass didn’t ever really rise above larch line, so we tentatively passed though a potentially hazardous situation. Evidently this has been a stormy summer in Canadian Rockies, so we are getting the full experience, just as I’d hoped we would.

The clouds and rain really socked in, so we went into cocoon state, full rain gear on, hoods up and heads down as we ticked off miles. To the left we could hear more rumbles, higher pitched than thunder, as invisible glaciers and rock plummeted down the mountain, the mountain literally falling away as we walked. We crossed wild avalanche chutes that had devastated the forest in their path. And then, after an endless down, we came to Ottertail Road, a dense two track that allowed for quick smooth travel back to the Trans-Canada Highway.

We arrived at the road at 6:30 pm and began the process of what we hoped would be a smooth hitchhike into Banff. It was not. I’m not sure if it was because of the rain, or the late hour, or the fact that there is a nation-wide man hunt going on as a result of five murders recently in this part of the world, but whatever the reason, the gods were making us earn this one.

A rather ridiculous occurrence did happen during the hitch. An SUV passed by us, quickly did a U-turn, and stopped in the lane opposite us. A man ran across the busy Trans-Canada Highway and delivered the following news to us: “So I can’t give you a ride, but I just wanted to let you know there is a black bear eating a dead deer about 50 meters up the road in the direction you are heading.” With that, he got back in his empty SUV, turned around, and speeded off into the distance in the exact direction we were heading. Thanks for the warning buddy! At this point in time, with the rain pelting down, the bear was the least of our concerns, and with a couple hoops and hollers it disappeared into the forest.

Long story short, through a series of rides from the same person – a raft guide named Bruce from Minnesota – we made our way to Field and then Lake Louise and then caught the bus into Banff. We arrived in Banff at the stroke of midnight and headed into McDonalds for a late night dinner as it was the only place open in town. It was a bit surreal, as drunk night club partiers dressed to the nines were enjoying late night munchies. I felt like a visitor from another planet in my soaked rain gear and ski cap with a weathered backpack. Truth is, I wouldn’t have traded places with them in a million years.

We’re heading out today. The trip is about to get a lot wilder, the rations longer. We’ll be entering Yoho and Jasper National Parks, and then, fate willing, the remote Kakwa Wilderness. This will be the last blog post until we hit Jasper a good 200 miles up the trail. In the interim we’ll cross the 52nd and 53rd parallels of planet earth and enter into the Arctic Ocean drainage basis. There will be no scary hitches, just big woods, mountains and wilderness that we love and feel way more comfortable in than offices and corporate work places with politics and all that crap. It’ll be a hell of an adventure and we’re looking forward to it. We’ll talk to you soon from Jasper!

Into Wonderland: Kananaskis to Sunshine

Excitement pumped through the blood as we neared the trail again, the heady rush of embarking into a land that you know will blow your mind with the wild wonder of it all making us a bit punch drunk. We said our farewells to Leslie and headed off, beginning the long trek around Upper Kananaskis Lake. It appeared to be a popular loop to go around the lake, many tourists doing the trek around it, and even some runners.

A couple bald eagles made their debut above the lake, the incredible mountains with glaciers embracing their flanks and the classic turquoise lake the perfect background for their huge circling. We left the people behind as we turned off into the Upper Kananaskis River valley. The storm that was predicted for this stretch began practicing, the skies opening up and raining hard, then closing again for a short breather, repeating the process as it rehearsed for its big performances over the next couple of days.

Passing through a dense thicket of brush, a cow moose stomped across the trail, checking us out over her shoulder as we traipsed by, reassuring her that we were simply passing through. The chill in the air kept us in our rain gear for the remainder of the day, as we began climbing higher up the valley. Nearing our camp site for the evening, a black bear crossed paths in front of us, all teddy-bear furriness as he trundled up into the dense trees.

We arrived at Tourbine Campground with a lull in the weather, where we seized the chance to set up camp not in the rain. Fingers cold, we fumbled slightly with the guy lines, but soon the mid was up, sleeping bags laid out as we sought the cook area.

A steel table stood in the middle, but the cold and wet of it was uninviting to sit on, so we contented ourselves with standing around it while preparing dinner, a drizzle beginning to fall around us. Hastily downing a hearty pasta meal, we reveled in the ease of this backcountry site complete with bear lockers. The speed of pack up was so delightful, not requiring the trek around, searching for the perfect bear-hanging tree. Dumping all our smellies in a bear locker, we dove into our sleeping bags.

All throughout the night, it rained hard, and every time I rolled over, I checked to make sure there were no small rivers of water making their way through our sleep spot. The rivers were content to wind their way around the tent, and we woke to spotty rain, and a cold wind. Donning the rain gear (for the first and last time of the day), we followed easy, beautiful trail up to Kananaskis Pass and a beautiful alpine lake. For the first time this trip, no views greeted us from the top, socked in and foggy as it was. The dense clouds blanketed us in a damp, bone-chilling cold that set in gradually.

Cresting the pass, we left Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and entered Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, and as we descended the other side, the quality and amount of use of the trail immediately declined. Faint trail, often simply a remnant of feet passing through the same place on the rocks, cascaded straight down the steep slopes.

The loose, steep, slippery situation was exactly the terrain that caused Dan’s ankle to act up, so we were forced to a slow pace that enable the damp’s creeping fingers to get a good grip on me, and soon I was shaking with cold.

The lower we dropped, the colder I became, as dense brush rose up on either side of the trail, sopping wet, gracing us with the dreaded phenomenon known as the “car wash”. This is where you must push through drenched brush, causing all the collected rain to slosh down over you. No rain gear is impervious to this, as the repeated pressure will eventually push the moisture through the membrane to you. Thighs and arms are exceptionally prone to this, and soon those body parts were very cold. Remnants of our large furry bear friends littered the trail: large piles of veggie filled scat, and footprints the size of plates going every which way caused us to hoot and holler into the surrounding brush.

Eventually we began the long climb up to Palliser Pass, the same wet bushes to the face slowing and cooling us further. Maintaining easy breath, convincing my body it wasn’t as cold as it was, we climbed up, until we crossed into Banff National Park.

We had been doubting the probability of us reaching our campsite – it was 23 miles away, and at 1pm, we had managed all of 7 miles. However, as we crossed into the National Park, the trail improved considerably. We could see where the brush along the trail had been cut back so that we could pass easily, and soon we were swooping down the Spray River valley, passing what seemed like hundreds of alpine toads along the trail – so many of them we had to watch carefully to avoid trampling them or poking one with a pole.

We were on our way to meet Leslie, who was coming in to hike with us for a couple days. As we hurried on into the evening, we finally neared Big Springs camp, and lo and behold, a lone figure stood under a tree as we arrived.

“Friends!” The familiar voice rang down the trail as we approached and soon soggy hugs were being exchanged, and then magically, what seemed like two pizza’s crammed into a tuppoware appeared in front of us, and frozen fingers immediately began to transfer the delicious food to hungry mouths.

Bodies exhausted, we crashed hard that night, even sleeping in a bit in the morning. Dragging ourselves out, we found the day to be cool, but very little rain yet, which raised spirits immensely.

The lack of rain also meant the views were back, and they were coming out in full force as we traversed wild flower carpeted meadows above the large Marvel Lake.

The morning was filled with trekking-pole whirling, whooping to warn bears, and jaws dropping at the fabulous views as we climbed to Wonder Pass.

Just we crested the pass, the weather decided to move back in, and as we began to descend, the temperature plummeted, and soon a mix of rain and hail pummeled us as we traipsed through enchanting larch forests.

This changed to sleet, thunder began booming, and then the snow fell, big fat flakes coming down thick and fast. At the bottom a small group of huts were nestled, with a cook hut between them.

Leslie peered through the window.

“Not too full yet,” she said, “Let’s make a quick cup of tea!” Peeling off all of the wet layers, we were soon inside, steaming profusely as we wrapped cold fingers around steaming mugs of ginger tea. The snow began to come down heavier, clinging to the larch branches as we watched with trepidation. As the feeling came back to fingers and toes, we left to go the rest of the way to our campsite. It was a bit shocking, after traveling through so much unpopulated wilderness, but as we walked towards Mount Assiniboine, we were entering a very popular area – one of those bucket list places. People can even pay to get a helicopter ride in, and stay in fancy little cabins. The snow was picking up, and as we passed the first real viewpoint of Mount Assiniboine, we laughed at the gaping white void where the mountain supposedly was.

However, once again, as we neared our campsite at Lake Magog, the weather gave us a bit of a break.

Dawn, one of Leslie’s friends, was on a trip of her own with another woman, Brenda, and she met us at the entrance to the confusing mess of trails that was the sprawling camp site, and led us back to a secluded area where they had saved us a spot.

She and Brenda regaled us with tales of their trip so far as we set up camp, wonderful, cheerful women opening their arms to us immediately.

“Well, friends,” Leslie announced once our shelters were set up, “we have a decision to make.” She gestured at the clearing skies around us. “We could do tea,” this tea was something of a trail legend, as the Mount Assiniboine Lodge was known to open its doors to the “public”, as us campers were known, for an hour to serve unlimited tea and loaf (which I was told was essentially cake), “or we could climb the Nub.”

Not even an alternate listed for the GDT, the Nub is a very quick little side trip that gives crazy good views over the Assiniboine basin. The clouds were lifting, lifting, drifting around the peak, and it was an easy decision in the end.

The five of us made our way from the campsite back towards the Assiniboine Lodge, where we parted ways, Dawn and Brenda to partake of the tea, and the three of us to climb up the nub.

Indeed, it was a short jaunt, and after just a wee bit of a huff, we popped out above tree line, the incredible basin of Assiniboine expanded out below us.

It was one of those moments, where trail lore is not just truth, but the real thing is greater than you imagined. Also known as the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”, its reputation preceded it – and most appropriately. We stood, watching sun beams dance on the glacier warped around it, the plume from the top indicating the whipping winds up there, and snow cascading from its many layers.

As we descended, a storm ripped back through the valley, bringing more snow, whipping winds, and thunder cracking overhead.

Back down at the camp, we discovered that a truly lovely cook shelter existed, and we settled down amongst the other campers. A young Israeli fresh out of the military sat with us, along with Dawn and Brenda, and the evening passed with folks rushing to find more layers, but unwilling to truly leave the conversation for the warmth of their tents.

Dawn, Leslie, Dan, and I took an evening stroll down to Magog Lake, where we learned about modern pentathlon (Dawn went to the Sydney Olympics – and we were all fascinated to learn more about this little-known sport).

Finally, we all curled up for the night, relatively warm and dry. It was still a restless night, unfortunately. This particular camp site had ready-made boxes they wish you to camp on, filled with these sharp rocks. Of course, with light weight gear, this would be avoided at all costs normally, but as that was what we were supposed to do, we did it. It also meant that Dan’s sleeping mattress received several punctures and he was blowing it up all night.

The cook shelter also proved to be a strong pull that morning, and even though we were all packed up and ready to leave, we lingered at the shelter, chatting with our new friends. Finally, the call of the trail pulled us from the shelter and we set out into the cool, but thankfully precipitation-less day.

It was perfect hiking weather, long-sleeved top and tights just warm enough, but brisk enough to barely break a sweat. We soon came to Og Lake, where we came upon another group.

“Your boots!” Exclaimed a woman as we approached them, pointing at Leslie, and we all stopped, surprised.

“Yes, what about them?” Leslie asked, leaning on her poles.

“Are they yours?” This was such a strange question, we were all laughing at first, but it soon came to light that when we had ducked into the cook hut for tea the day before, Leslie and this woman had inadvertently traded boots. As they switched back mid-trail, we all had a good laugh, and then we were off into the Valley of the Rocks.

This was a wonderful, magical place. It was the oddest, rolling terrain, dotted with gigantic crumbling rocks. The trail weaved through these massive rocks, and the mist drifting amongst the towering cliffs above us added to the expectation of Orcs leaping out at us unexpectedly from behind a boulder.

Whooping and hollering, we ascended Citadel Pass, stopping to look at the diggings of the resident grizzly on our way up, bumped along past Howard Douglas Lake, and then were deposited into Sunshine Meadows.

The clouds finally opened at this point, but even with the rain coming down, the ground squirrels still frolicked through the meadows and even a pair of Mountain Bluebirds graced us with their presence. We joked that wherever Leslie went, all of her friends came out, even the squirrels, no matter the weather. Soon we were in Sunshine ski resort, and descending a long road to where Leslie’s husband Keith was meeting us to take us all back to Banff, where warm showers and clean laundry awaited us, and where we would eat all the things.

Despite the weather, or perhaps because of it, it had proven to be an incredible section. Dan’s ankle seems to be on the mend, and though challenging, the trail continues to be rewarding beyond belief.