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.

Coleman to Kananaskis: Forget-Me-Nots, Tornado Mountain and the Most Beautiful Spot on Earth

July 9, 2019 – 24 miles, 3,300 of climbing

Aspirations for getting out of town quickly rarely go as planned. The pattern of the trail gets broken, conversations happen and breakfast places keep serving food – all delaying departure. Such is life and the cause of us departing Coleman at an extremely lazy 9:45 am bound north on a six-and-a-half day ration to Kananaskis.

It was a productive break. My blisters healed, Elaine’s foot is feeling better and I traded in my sieve-like raincoat for a functional Patagonia Torrentshell that I got at a local fly-fishing shop in Coleman. If we open our own store someday it’ll look and feel a lot like this one: an earthy, wood-feel, a casual vibe with coffee and soup and pastries and a spattering of functional gear to get people into the outdoors. There are few things in life as wonderful as a small town gear/coffee shop.

The trail today was as if we got tossed back to Colorado. It was a mostly two-track day thru aspen groves and less dramatic gray mountains, reminiscent of Kenosha Pass or the eastern side of the San Juans. The sun was shining and there was a slight breeze making the trees quake, about perfect hiking conditions really. The area north of Coleman has been logged heavily, but the trees seem to be restoring themselves nicely.

While the landscape reminded me of Colorado, the animals tracks told another story. Big bear prints and scat were prominent, and for awhile we also followed what I’m positive was a wolf track. At the very end of the day we climbed a steeper pass and found a wonderful flat spot on its shoulder to sleep for the night. As I write this, the birds are chirping, the creek is gurgling and Elaine is fixing up some pasta for dinner. Life is simple, and life is good.

July 10 – 18 miles, 4,100 feet of climbing

Leslie and Keith told us this section had the most human resource impact of the entire trail, and we saw a big part of that today. After a blissful sleep we started up Race Horse Pass, a wake-up call stouter than the strongest espresso. I’ve always held the simple mantra that the perfect start to a day is to wake up early and climb a mountain. It’s good for the lungs, legs and soul.

We walk back down the other side on a long meandering ATV track as a light drizzle falls. I enjoy the insular feel, listening to the rain patter on my hood, letting the mind do nothing but be present in the moment. Humans spend too much of our time being busy. Yet what is particularly wrong with just being in the moment, listening to the rain or watching the wind blow through the trees?

After a long decent we came around a bend and saw what looked like Mordor. A quick glance at the map told us that this was the Line Creek Coal Mine, a massive scar on the landscape that resembled the Climax Mine back home. While we’ve passed numerous logging clear cuts, the impact from that seems minimal compared to this. I suspect it will take till the next ice age for the impacts of this mine to completely disappear. It’s always a tough balance, the need for energy and preserving the environment. I understand that balance but out here I tell what I see, and it isn’t always pretty.

The trail climbs out of the mine basin and up something called North Fork Pass. This pass is the official starting point of the original Great Divide Trail way back in the 1970s before they decided to include Waterton National Park. It seems a bit of an odd start, as it’s seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Then again, that’s part of what makes it so perfect…jagged grey mountains erupting into the sky from forests of dark pine and crystal clear streams running in the valley below. As if to prove a point of the wildness of this place, a buck leaps across the trail in front of us, stops, and stares at us for a good 30 seconds before moving on. It was almost as if the deer was evaluating us and decided we passed the mustard test to enter. Thank you deer, and may you have good luck this fall avoiding the hunter’s rifle.

We drop into a rowdy looking basin and turn left up towards Tornado Saddle. Tornado Saddle marks the beginning of the truly jagged part of this segment and promises to be a highlight. We follow an old ATV track up the mountain that gets more and more faint as we climb. We rise out of the trees and cross a talus field left here by the last ice age. The clouds rip by and build at a quickening pace. A check of the weather on the InReach calls for storminess this evening, and while a crossing of the pass might be unrealistic, we don’t feel like stopping yet.

The trail is more of a goat track than anything else now, and soon we come to a 100 yard section of blowdown that turns the trail into a 25-minute hopscotching ordeal. We arrive at a flat meadow with huge mountains on all sides. The weather is brewing up higher and this seems like a good spot to stop for the day.

I’ve been to many places in my life, but this particular place may take the prize as the most beautiful spot yet. It’s a mountain pass with lush, flat ground with scattered fir and spruce trees. Animal trails dart off in all directions, and cliff walls rise on all sides of the pass. A massive monolith shoots up 3,500 vertical feet to the east, and I believe I could spend a lifetime looking at this wall. Sheer cliffs rise up to the sky, broken up only by vertical gullies and snowfields. Rock fall echoes down the face, and the wind gives a haunting whistle as it rips thru ledges, towers, nooks and crannies. The top is constantly shrouded in misty clouds and fog, and below the wall is illuminated by the last rays of sun of the day.

Below the cliff wall, a slope of jagged talus and scree eventually relents to alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers. Below that small firs emerge, and lower, the dark northern forest with towering trees, deep and mysterious. And finally, further down, but still up above the rest of the world, the forest breaks into our valley were we are spending the night. Down here that howling wind that is ravaging the peak is a mere light breeze, keeping the mosquitoes at bay. Birds sing to one another, their chirps echoing across the forest.

Oh what I would give for a small cabin in this spot, to spend autumn and winter here, to see bears and wolves and watch the clouds roar by and the half moon hang in the darkening night sky. Today we did not see another human, just the way we like it. This may indeed be the most perfect spot on earth.

July 11 – 17 miles, 5,700 feet of climbing

Well this was a demanding day. It started off with a bushwhack out of the most perfect spot on earth through thick spruce forest on a steep sidehill that eventually gave way to alpine meadows. I have never seen so many Forget-Me-Not flowers in one place, hillsides of them covering the entire tundra. Forget-Me-Nots are my favorite flower, and I’ve never seen them spread so copiously.

I didn’t sleep too well last night. I had haunting dreams of the other world – work and the passage of time – and I wonder what brought it on. Remote places like this make you address your weaknesses head-on. My dad was a worrier, and it’s one thing I strive constantly to not do. That’s a big part of the reason I like to be out here – no time to think of frivolous things and let the undisciplined parts of the mind rule the days, not with a steep mountainside that was growing looser and rockier as we go up.

As we climbed the mountain grew steeper and the wind roared through the cliff walls. Tornado Saddle was living up to its name. As conditions got worse, I found myself getting more comfortable, the muscles and mind relaxing and flowing with the climb. Soon we crested the steepest part of the loose climb, and with a raging wind blowing in our faces, we reached the summit. As the wind howled, Elaine broke into a howl right into the face of the wind, wild and free, exactly where she belongs.

The descent down the other side of Tornado Saddle was less dramatic and steep, and soon we hit trail. We dropped back into the forest and onto the most perfect hiking trail, a remnant of the old GDT built decades ago. Logs were placed across the river, and after a nervous crossing high above on the first one we discovered that they were no problem and enjoyed the high wire act on the crossings to come.

We were meandering along when Elaine stopped dead in her tracks. On the ground in front of her was trigger device for a bear spray canister. While it’s possible it fell off, it’s more likely somebody in front of us actually had a bear encounter in this spot. That certainly got our attention, so we adjusted our bear bells to make them ring a little more jingly and talked and sung a bit louder. Some people find the ding of bear bells annoying, but I quite like it. It reminds me I’m in a wild place, that I’m not at the top of the food chain here and that we’re not walking thru Disneyland.

As the trail dropped lower still, we saw numerous wolf and moose tracks, but no bear signs. We took a lunch at a creek, enjoyed her sweet water and began the next long climb up. This one was very steep, and in the heat of the day sweat poured off of us, making the go a bit uncomfortable. After a long climb we eventually hit the ridge. Looking at the map and checking the GPS, we realized we’d reached the 50° north latitude of planet earth. As the border sits at 49° we’d now traveled one degree north in a little over six days.

When taken into perspective with our walk a few years ago, it’s an accomplishment to be proud of. When we started walking the Continental Divide Trail back in 2017 at the Mexico/US border we were at the 29th north parallel. We’ve now come 21 degrees north of that. We’ve migrated from rattle snakes to grizzly bears, ocotillo plants to larch trees, desert sand to glaciers and snowfields, all by putting one foot in front of the other. The further we go, the novelties of society – burgers and showers and internet – have a harder and harder time competing with a simple trail diet, a cold stream and the sound of birds in the morning and evening outside our Mid.

We’re now closer to the Arctic Circle than Mexico, and I’d be lying if the thought hasn’t crept into both our heads about continuing this northward walk in ensuing years to the Laird River, which is the geographical northern end of the Rocky Mountain chain, and then beyond that, following the caribou migration north from the valleys of northern British Columbia all the way north to the Arctic National Wildlife refuge and Arctic Ocean. That’s a massive project that may prove to be logistically impossible, but what an adventure it would be.

It sounds crazy to even write about it. But I do find a certain irony there. It’s funny how the most basic things – walking, drinking from steams and sleeping in the forest for extended periods of time – essentially migrating under your own power – is seen as “crazy” or “extreme” when in actuality it’s probably the most natural thing a human being can do. Humans have been doing this for many millenniums. Meanwhile, sitting in a cubicle, staring at a computer screen and accumulating more-and-more stuff, an evolution that has happened in the last 50 years, not even one human generation, is deemed “normal.” Normal for who, and normal for what purpose?

Big thoughts for the head, but there is trail to hike. After the climb the route began an equally as precipitous descent back down to another valley floor. Before the hike I rolled my left ankle on a training session, and for the first time it began to bother me. I’ll have to keep an eye on that. The bottom of the trail was a horse shit, trampled mess and we wearily took a break and assessed our next move. We certainly didn’t want to stay here, so we began the next vertical wall climb, a slow go to the Beehive Mountain Cirque. This was the time of day when mental toughness ruled the roost, when the process of putting one foot in front of the other becomes more deliberate. True happiness comes on the heels of suffering, so there would be some happiness tonight!

After a roller coaster ride through fields of Forget-Me-Nots and stunning views, we found a place to set up camp for the night on the edge of a ridge underneath the stunning cliff wall of the Continental Divide. As I review the day in my head, a little battered and bruised but also ecstatic, I’m beginning to realize the purpose of all this: to feel totally comfortable in all natural environments.

I was a little nervous before Tornado Pass. On our Greenland trip, I think we were both constantly a little nervous. Being attentive is key. But being nervous is when mistakes happen. We have little interest in racing competition anymore, as we’ve kind of accomplished everything we need to accomplish in that realm. Going around in circles with hundreds of other people holds little interest to us now. But getting comfortable in all environments, no matter how harsh or alone or wild…now that’s something to strive towards. It’s a goal that may take a lifetime to attain, but it’s a good goal nonetheless. I am beyond lucky to have a life partner like Elaine who wants to do this stuff with me. I know of no other team like ours so well matched and motivated in this regard.

July 12 – 21 miles, 5,000 feet of climbing

There is a line the Bad Religion song “Sorrow” that resonates: “Let me take you to the herding ground, where all good men are trampled down.” Truth be told, this hike was the direct byproduct of a failed work situation that I’ve been thinking about, and at times feeling guilty about. As we walk on, clarity about these situations is becoming clearer.

The situation involved leaders degrading, harassing and belittling fellow co-workers. After months of this, after speaking up and trying to change the situation, we essentially left. We were far from the only one’s experiencing the situation, and in actuality we were carrying the burden of others who were. And I’ve been feeling bad about this. Perhaps we were too idealistic, and needed to be more compromising. But on the trail, where rules are simple and right and wrong are defined, clarity is emerging. We were right. We were absolutely right. Fighting for decency and the fair treatment of fellow human beings is the right thing to do.

It feels like we passed a test of one of those life moments where we were, like that Bad Religion song, brought “to the herding ground,” but instead of “being trampled down,” and compromising our values and morals, we made the harder choice, we fought back, we took a stand and we maintained who we are. And for that I am beyond proud. Thank you trail for providing that clarity.

Today is another day to rage in the mountains and walk north. After descending to a river valley, we climbed up another huge ridge and entered a mountain cirque with a lake perfectly placed underneath. Looking up, an eagle circled overhead and in the far distance, we heard the deep echo of a wolf howl. We crested another ridge, looked south, and saw the jagged undulations of the mountains we had just crossed. We have not seen another human in three days, and we are becoming as wild as the landscape around us.

We pass by remnants of an old gold mining operating, rusted buckets and cranks melding into the earth, a tale of a bygone era where fortitude and toughness and the chance of failure ruled the land. Onward still, into a Larch forest. Larch is a coniferous tree that sheds its needles every winter, defying logic and the norm. In the fall, it turns the most golden yellow, glowing on the hillside. If you have not seem a larch tree in the autumn, then you sill have things to do in life. Unlike most conifer trees, larch needles are soft when new, and when passing through them they brush your skin like a soft kiss. The have quickly become my favorite tree.

We descend to an mangled river valley, with stream beds everywhere, downed trees and clogged mud making navigation challenging. A flood ravaged this area in 2013 and the evidence is clear that this is huge country and we are mere blips to nature’s power. We take a break and a pine marten scurries through roots and moss, comes within ten feet, stares directly at us, and scampers away at a rapid pace. We suspect we might be the first humans the marten has ever seen.

We climb another ridge, another 1,500 feet, and come to another stunning vista, raging grey mountains erupting to the sky. As we head back down through the forest we come across something that I assumed was only legend. Tree shrapnel was scattered across the trail like a bomb had gone off. I’d heard stories of trees exploding in extreme cold when the sap freezes and expands, but until now had never seen it. If a person was close by when this tree exploded, it could easily kill them. I imagined a cold January night, so cold that sap freezes and trees explode like bombs. We are now north enough for trees to explode. That is a beautiful thing.

Wearily, we head down to a creek and debate camping there. We’ve learned that camping on creeks is a recipe for a cold, wet night, so we drag our bodies up yet another hill and plop our shelter down right on top of the trail, exhausted and dehydrated, but souls full and hearts happy and clear.

July 13 – 23 miles, 4,400 feet of climbing

Today was a strange day. We met other hikers. After being alone in the wild for so long, our social skills have declined. Like us, they were thru-hikers, one guy from Glenwood and one from Auburn, California. It was good to see other people, other like minded migratory folk out here, but I can’t imagine hiking something like the Appalachian Trail where groups of hikers are the norm. I crave more solitude and wilderness than that, at least at this time in my life.

After a couple warm up passes, we crested the final big rise of this stretch, Fording River Pass, which offered the most extended stretch of alpine tundra yet. In just the short 150 miles we’ve travelled, the land feels more wild. Near the top, I climbed a short stretch of rock and noticed that I was walking on top of fossilized sea shells. This high mountain pass used to be deep under the ocean where barnacles clung to rocks. It’s hard to comprehend that sort of transition in the span of human life but it brings to realization that this earth we live on has been here for a very, very long time.

We drop down the other side of the pass, and the mosquitoes, which had not been much of a problem thus far, begin to ravage us. We put on our head nets, spray on the deet and forge on, down the valley, to a creek. After five hot and humid days of sunscreen, bug spray and sweat, we take the opportunity to jump into the river, bathe and feel clean again. And just like that, another human civilization nicety, a shower, becomes unnecessary. I suspect, if we knew plants and animals and how to live off the land, we could stay out here forever and be perfectly content and happy.

The trail meanders down a river bed and I roll my bad ankle. Ouch, that hurt. Fortunately, the trail turns into a dirt road walk which is easy on it. We walk eight more miles and camp in an open field, watching the gophers scurry about and listening to the birds sing as the sun sets over the big mountains to the west.

July 14 – 20 miles, 2,100 feet of climbing

We’re up at 5 am for a road walk to Kananaskis and civilization. My ankle hurts to start but after a half hour it warms up and feels fine. Elaine is dealing with some aches and pains too, but walking on easy road for 20 miles is certainly not a problem. Walking is good for a person…the problem is being sedentary too much. We simply have to walk our bodies into shape.

We pass a ranger cabin and stop at a bench to eat a snack. A cycling group, riding an array of jeep roads to Whitefish, Montana passes the other direction, friendly folks enjoying their own adventure. At the end of the group, a young woman passes by and asks if she can share our bench and eat her lunch with us. Of course we say yes. She admits she is terrified of bears and appreciates our company. Bear fear aside, we love this woman’s style. She’s riding a rigid, 26″, steel Mountain Goat bicycle in some of the most remote terrain on the planet. Mountain Goat hasn’t made bikes in over a decade but she tells us that she’s ridden this very steed to Mexico and back and has no need for anything newer. After working in a bike shop this summer that sells $14,000 bikes, it’s refreshing to see that adventure requires no such price tag. It’s the size of the heart and bravery of the soul that creates true greatness, not the size of the wallet. After a jarring experience in the past month, it restores a little bit of my faith in that sport.

We depart ways and walk on north as she peddles south. As road walks go, this one is stunning. These mountains surpass anything I’ve seen in the lower-48, yet they don’t have a name. Eventually the road ends and we enter Elk Lake Provincial Park. If this is a provincial park, I can’t imagine what the national parks here in Canada will look like. We hike right to Elk Lake, the most beautiful alpine, glacial fed lake imaginable, and take another swim. There is a simple rule of the trail. If the day is warm and there is a mountain lake, by all means swim.

We continue on another five miles to the end of the segment. We’ll be back here in two days with our Banff friends to continue our journey north, but for now, it’s a hitch hike back to Banff for some R&R, healing our our bodies and fixing a couple equipment issues. True to Canadian style, the people who give us rides are some of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met, and we arrive in Banff safe and happy, restored and ready for the next phase of the journey.

“It’s Not Your Job to Think, It’s Your Job to Charge!”

It’s a bit of a miracle we started this trail at all. On June 5th, we had resigned ourselves to spending a summer working in Boulder, commuting the canyon in its nightmarish construction state, and making the most of our days off – already planning a bunch of long backpacking trips we could take directly from the house, weird and convoluted routes to avoid people as much as possible.

But July 3rd found us barreling down a dirt road in Alberta in Keith and Leslie’s minivan to the “start” of the Great Divide Trail. On this trail, one of my goals is to go with the flow a bit more, to accept that I haven’t planned much at all, and to let go of some of the control I’m used to having. True to the nature of long trails and their desire to test you thoroughly, I was given the opportunity to practice this new, less control-centric philosophy from the get go. When Dan and I were finishing our thru hike of the Continental Divide Trail in 2017, it was highly impacted by fires, forcing odd re-routes, extensive road walking, and even ending in a different location from the “official” finish. Ironically, this same fire is impacting our Great Divide Trail hike. Most of Waterton National Park is closed due to this same fire, so our starting location was along Yarrow Creek – outside Waterton, and somewhere I’d never heard of.

Keith and Leslie drove us to the end of the dirt road, and after hugs all around, we started off, bear bells jingling. After passing some sort of power plant (oil or coal was my guess, complete with eternal torch thrust towards the sky), this alternate varied between dirt road and cross country travel across cattle grazing lands, but soon we were emptied out onto beautiful trail, wildflowers ablaze all around, and huge piles of fresh bear scat every few yards along the trail.

Up and up we climbed, taking our first snack break at a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by towering mountains, red and green bands streaking through them, and lingering snowfields glittering on their flanks.

Up, up, up we climbed, passing by another couple who were also starting the trail. Monique and a man I didn’t catch the name of had tried to start in East Glacier in Glacier National Park in the US and had run into a lot of trouble because of all the trail closures in Waterton. Already our Banff friends were proving to be a great help to us on this endeavor with their local knowledge. As we crested our first pass, a stunning view expanded out before us.

Towering mountains extended as far as the eye could see and I found myself choking up a bit. A month ago I had been crying for days on end, devastated by what I felt was an unfair situation. Now, the vast expanses of the Canadian Rockies stretched all around me, enveloping me in their rocky embrace – mine to explore for two whole months.

We traversed along Avion Ridge, a gigantic flank littered with scree. Footing was tricky along this side hill, and we continued to climb along the ridge as thunder boomed and cracked in the distance. As the spaces between lightning flashes and thunder crashes grew closer and closer and the trail climbed still higher, we finally dove off the side, scrambling down the ridge towards tree line, where we hastily erected our shelter none too soon. Lighting flashed across the sky, thunder cracked over head, ringing in the ears, and a wet mess of hail and rain pounded down.

We pulled out the stove and cooked an early dinner while the skies exploded all around us. Part of our bear management plan for this trip is to cook dinner, eat, and then continue on down the trail, leaving the tasty dinner smells behind. Just as we were finishing dinner, the storm rolled by, so we packed up and left.

The ridge continued to climb for a while longer, and then dropped down into a larch forest. I was surprised when a branch struck me across the face and it was soft – I’m used to pine trees where getting those needles to the face is a very unpleasant experience, but larch drop their needles in the fall, and these new needles were velvety soft.

Down a steep trail and just as I was stepping over yet another downed tree, I looked up to see the most classic black bear I’ve ever seen: deep black, with a brown muzzle. Dan and I raised our arms and trekking poles, talking to him, until he trundled off up the hill.

As the evening wore on, we passed a tent set up next to a creek, although we saw no humans, and we started looking for our own place to set up. The extremely dense underbrush made it difficult, as well as looking for a tree that would make for a good bear hang, but we found one and were soon tucking in for the night.

The next morning dawned cold and wet, and as Dan and I were layering on our rain gear, a couple passed us, different from the couple we had met the night before, and we assumed they must be from the tent the night before. We were following what seemed to be a very old logging road, quite overgrown in places, decent in others, that sloped gently downwards, getting the proper car wash experience as the dense brush on either side of the trail offloaded their rain-drenched leaves on us as we passed.

Is it not perfection?

We played leap-frog with the other couple as we each took snack breaks, eventually joining the official GDT and climbing up to a creek that was the last water source before a 14 km stretch of challenging, slow ridge walking – the hiker notes say it often takes hikers 8 hours to do the upcoming stretch. The other couple stopped to camp there, but as it was only 2 pm, I didn’t think Dan and I could manage not hiking for that long. We loaded up on water and started climbing.

Yes, this is the trail.

And up it was! Soon the trail disappeared and we were left to clamber up an almost vertical wall of slippery plants and mud, gaining 490 meters in less than 4 km. The view was richly rewarding.

La Coulotte Ridge was a jagged knife-edge, requiring a bit of scrambling and a bit of navigating to avoid a descent over cliff faces, made a bit more challenging by the rolling clouds that were wafting by, sometimes so dense we could hardly see what was directly in front of us, sometimes lifting up so that we could see the spectacular ridge line stretching away from us.

The climb to La Coulotte Ridge was followed by a just-as-steep descent down, and then up La Coulotte Peak, a peak standing at 2360 meters, and a total mess of scree. Our feet punched through the scree as though it were rotten snow, and I found myself very glad we had decided to bring two pairs of La Sportiva Raptor shoes for this hike – this was going to tear through shoes pretty quick. On the way up, Dan found what I’m pretty sure is a fossil. We may be wrong, but it was pretty cool.

Anybody know if this is a fossil?

A very tough trail on shoes. Thank you La Sportiva for helping us out with this hike.

The Barnaby alternate takes off from the top of La Coulotte, but we decided to stick to the main trail – Barnaby Ridge is Class III/IV terrain, extremely dry and exposed, and our luck with the weather had been tenuous at best so far.

We descended about a kilometer off the peak, found a tiny but suitable flat spot and set up camp for the night, watching more weather move in. To our east, dense fog billowed up and up, reaching tendrils through the little dips of the ridge, and to our west, British Columbia basked in the glory of the setting sun, the Continental Divide acting as the barrier between.

Fog Camp

Heavy rain came and went throughout the night and a cold wind blew underneath the shelter to kiss our faces with brisk fierceness, making sleep a fitful thing, and we arose to dense fog. I also awoke to an uncharged phone. I had plugged it in to my charger the night before, but it seemed to have mostly charged it, and then stopped.

“Perhaps it was just trying to conserve battery power,” Dan suggested as I lectured my battery.

“It’s not your job to think,” I told my battery sternly, “It’s your job to charge!”

I was actually quite cross at it, but when Dan started laughing, I couldn’t help but join in, it sounded so much like a line for a ski film, and that became the theme for the rest of the day.

It was another wet start, decked out in our rain gear as we navigated our way carefully through a cliff band that wrapped the flanks of La Coulotte Peak down to a saddle, and then up yet another steep ridge. Visibility was almost nil, and it was slightly vertigo-inducing to climb up, rocks beneath your feet, nothing but fog to the sides, not knowing how steep – or how far – the drop off was. The white out caused me to navigate down a bit too far to the west, but we corrected and soon had summited the next and last peak of the ridge and began our long, long descent into a valley, and then – lo and behold! What appeared to be an old mining road appeared out of nowhere and travel pace picked up a bit.

The rain continued as we dropped lower and lower, crossing several rushing rivers until suddenly we were on a dirt road and hit Castle Mountain Ski Resort. Now, I still haven’t seen the place properly, given the cloud cover and rain, but from looking at pictures while we sat in the small pub, demolishing pizza and nachos, I think we might just have to come back. After searching for a trail map (there were none, it is summer after all, I suppose) for a friend who collects trail maps from around the world, it was back out into the dreary evening for a few more miles.

Sun’s out, feet out!

A picture of what Castle Mountain looks like!

We were dumped unceremoniously onto a highway that we walked for all of a hot second before the Great Divide Trail took us off to walk through a knee deep river for a way before spitting us back out on to the highway, then veered off onto an old dirt track. We followed this for a while, observing the damage from a flood in ’13, wondering if it might have been the same storm that caused our own floods back home in ’13.

As we climbed gently up, passing through the dense brush, I suddenly stopped, looking off to the left where I saw a tiny little erosion gully coming down.

“That can’t be anything,” Dan said.

But after checked the maps and notes – “rest assured, this is the correct route” – yes, yes it was the GDT. So we stepped off the old dirt track and climbed vertically through yet more rain drenched bushes, becoming properly soaked now, and talking loudly in the hopes of scaring off any bears around, as we could see no further than the branches in front of our faces. Quite abruptly, after 400 meters of vertical climbing, we were spat out onto yet another two track and witnessed our first GDT marker of the trail!

First GDT marker!

We set up camp just off the trail while thunder began and lightning flashed over us, counting the seconds between flash and boom, like some count sheep to fall asleep.

Rain poured down that night, and I had dreams of floating away, but we awoke to a weak sun filtering through the thick clouds, slowly burning them away, and we were both so thrilled, we soon shed our rain gear, only to be swarmed by mosquitoes, intent on our fresh, sweet blood. They were so bad, we actually busted out the bug spray for the first time.

The flowers are in full force!

It was mostly two track that morning, passing through muggy, swampy areas. As we stopped at one junction to consult our maps on which way to go, I looked up and saw a cow moose trotting off, long legs making easy work of the swampy land. As we located where we were and read the notes, we laughed aloud:

“Watch for moose, on my hike in 2013 I saw a beautiful cow”

Much of what we’ve been hiking through is what I would consider moose terrain, but this was our first moose, and here was a note about it. I couldn’t help but laugh.

All too soon, we joined a gravel road, where miles became easy, but the sun soon became baking hot and we were stripping to shorts and t-shirts in no time.

We stopped for lunch along Lynx Creek, to fuel and camel up on water before ascending to Willoughby Ridge, another long ridge walk with no water. One butterfly took a liking to Dan’s head, and wouldn’t stop circling as we ate. As we sat, shoes off, feet baking in the sun, a couple stopped along the road and came down to us.

“We’re looking for the waterfall,” the guy said by way of greeting, full of friendly Canadian cheer as he waved his coffee enthusiastically through the air and his pup chased butterflies through the grass.

“I’m sorry, we don’t know where it is,” Dan responded, and was in the process of saying we could probably find it on our maps, but they were past us and in the creek before the words came out. Several minutes later, they came back, the guy dripping.

“I’ve traveled from coast to coast in Canada,” he declared, a huge grin on his face, “and I like to baptize myself in every body of water I find!” With that, they got back in their truck and were gone, and it was time for us to move on as well.

The climb up to Willoughby Ridge was a very steep two track, and with the sun beating down, and the high humidity from all the recent rain, both of us were soon drenched in sweat, even little rivulets making their way down my legs. My foot also began to give me a bit of grief as we climbed up – I’d felt it on some of the steep descents the day before, and it was getting angrier. It felt like a tendon behind my big toe was angry at me. Probably rightfully so. Not knowing that we were going to be doing a thru hike this summer, we hadn’t prepared very well, taking a full month off in April and only resort skiing, and in May doing a ton of backcountry skiing as pow day after pow day hit us. None of which does any good whatsoever for toughening feet up for the trail!

Willoughby Ridge had incredible views!

As we reached Willoughby Ridge, a vast view of the Continental Divide opened up to our west, stark and gnarly. It was no wonder the trail was not located there through this section – it would take a skilled rock climber to navigate those peaks. But from our vantage point along the ridge, it made for spectacular viewing.

A fire in 2003 devastated the forest around Willoughby Ridge.

Descending from the ridge, we ran into the tail end of a local endurance race, the Sinister 7, a hundred mile ultra race that climbs some 21,000 feet. This was the last of them, and many were not hitting the time limit. It was a little depressing to watch someone’s summer goal ending, to be honest. We ate dinner, watching them go by, trying to be encouraging, while they staggered past. One woman stopped, staring at Dan.

“Is that? Do you have a poodle with you?” She asked in disbelief.

“I – what?” Dan asked, taken aback.

“I, you, I’m sorry, I must be seeing things, I thought you had a poodle on your shoulder,” she stumbled off, staring back at us. Fortunately, there was an aid station just beyond the bend, so we didn’t feel obligated to make sure she was ok.

It did make us reminisce about some of the odd hallucinations we had on the Greenland icecap. At one point, we saw a pack of wolves in the distance, and at night, we always saw lights a ways behind us, as though there were a group a day behind us. It is crazy what the brain will come up with.

As we climbed up another ridge, our weather luck broke, and thunder heads gathered with alarming speed overhead. Just as we reached the top, lightning struck way too close for comfort, and at the same second a crash of thunder so loud it left our ears ringing boomed through the sky, and we both dropped to the ground, arms over our heads out of pure instinct. The next second, we were up and running, pell-mell, trekking poles clattering on rocks, slipping in the mud and hail that was now thundering from the sky, hair frizzing and hearts leaping in our throats.

Running down and then dropping into the trees, my foot began to scream at me, and I shouted at Dan that I couldn’t run, and continued on at a fast hike as the rain and hail pounded into the mud, the saturated ground unable to hold any more moisture, instantly turning the trail into a river.

I limped into camp at York Creek, now well below tree line, foot severely aggravated, but nobody struck by lightning. It was with trembling fingers that we tied out our guy lines. So far, I haven’t figured out the weather patterns. Thunder and lightning roll through at any time of day or night. Cold and wet again, we fell asleep, glad that at least it was an easy walk into town.

Overlooking Coleman

Indeed, it was a very easy walk into Coleman, at first on a two track, then a wide gravel road, then finally a few kilometers on pavement. My foot was still quite angry from the night before, and greatly favored going uphill instead of down, but this was mostly down, and what do you do besides walk?

As we stepped into Coleman, the most delicious smell of cinnamon washed over us, and as it was only 11 in the morning, we headed into the Cinnamon Bear Bakery, where we purchased cinnamon rolls and cookies, and sat down outside, where we were joined by Paul.

This is where the magic of the trail comes out – we came into town a bit hurt, a bit put out about being wet and cold for the last few days, and the very first person we run into in town is the most friendly, warm, encouraging person imaginable. It turned out Paul had guided in the Kakwa Lake area in the ’90s. Kakwa Lake is one of the ending points along this trail, though many end in Jasper National Park, or at Mt. Robson, as Kakwa Lake is quite a long, remote section, and requires an 80 km road walk out of. In fact, I have yet to meet someone in person who has actually been there. Paul’s eyes lit up when he heard that we were trying to get there, and we spent an hour listening to his tales of the area.

Our stoke for our adventure re-kindled, we checked into the Paddock Inn Motel, where the landlady is the kindest, most helpful human, and took a long warm shower each.

Trail life – it’s where your lows are very low, but your highs are even higher for it, and it’s all of that that makes this life so very, very special.

Thanks for the marvelous beginning, Canada!

And perhaps, truly, there’s a nugget of truth in what I told my charger: It’s not your job to think, it’s your job to charge.

Prelude to the Great Divide Trail

GDT1

The Great Divide Trail under Mount Assiniboine in Banff National Park. Photo by Elizabeth Morton.

June 6 was a rough day. Out of nowhere, Elaine was laid off from her job at a bike shop in Boulder. She was told the company was doing poorly financially, and that it was necessary to eliminate Elaine’s paycheck from the fray. She’d been doing good work and the owner was apologetic, explaining that his hands were tied and this was the only solution.

It was a harsh and unexpected blow. Work is something we don’t talk much about, but we pride ourselves in doing it well. At the old Neptune Mountaineering Elaine carried a large portion of the sales floor for half-a-decade. At Larry’s Bootfitting Elaine established herself as one of the up-and-coming stars in the craft.  And while relatively new at the bike shop, which doubles as a nordic ski shop in the winter, she was doing good work, selling bikes and learning the craft at a rapid pace. She’d never been laid off before and it hurt her deeply.

Part of the disappointment was that, to do well in the bike shop job, we’d already called off a hike we’d been planning ever since we finished the Continental Divide Trail. For a few years we’d aspired to hike the Great Divide Trail, an 800-mile extension of the CDT that heads north deep into the Canadian Rocky Mountains. This was the summer we’d planned to hike it, but the bike shop was a new job and we wanted to impress, so we postponed the GDT hike indefinitely. It was an odd and uncharacteristic decision for us, but we were trying to be responsible adults. The lay off changed the dynamics of all that drastically.

cdt2

Smiles were a little forced the day after the lay-off. It was a catalyst toward much better things.

For a couple days after the lay-off we panicked, and there was a lot of tears and anger. The prospect of finding a meaningless job until winter wasn’t appealing, and Elaine’s confidence was shook. During a particularly rough patch, we decided to call Larry from the bootfitting store. Larry was our boss, but more importantly he’s also a friend who understands Elaine’s value and work ethic better than anybody.

As is always the case, Larry put everything in perspective and let her know that it was a stupid decision that in absolutely no way reflected her work ethic or talent. That was good to hear and made her feel better. But before the conversation ended, Larry floated a carrot: we go hike the trail and come back to work for him in the autumn. Those words cascaded into a decision that lead us to where we are now.

After calling Larry, we went for a walk in the woods and discussed what we wanted to do for the rest of the summer. After eight years of thriving together, working away from each other on different schedules had zero appeal to either of us. The commute down Boulder Canyon was already a nightmare with summer construction doubling the time it took to get to work every day. What we wanted to do was get away from the chaos and go hike the Great Divide Trail. With the lay-off and the promise of work in the fall, suddenly there was not much stopping us.

We got home and called our friends Leslie and Keith. Leslie and Keith are fellow thru-hikers and adventurers who live in Banff, Alberta and are very familiar with the GDT. We met them on the Continental Divide Trail two summer’s prior. Leslie was thru-hiking it, with Keith playing the role of “super support team,” driving the truck and making sure Leslie was well taken care of. They’re an awesome couple and just good people. We weren’t sure we could pull together the logistics of a long hike in such a short time, but Keith and Leslie assured us it was completely doable.

icecream

This is Keith. While hiking a hot, smoky road section outside Anaconda, Montana on the CDT, he provided us with the best trail magic possible, a surprise pint of Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Toffee ice cream.

It was an easy decision, and a necessary one. We booked tickets to Calgary and went into a blitz of preparations. We consider ourselves loners, but in reality we needed other people’s help here. The words and encouragement from Larry, Keith and Leslie led us directly to where we are now: flying to Calgary in eleven hours to go hike the Great Divide Trail for two months.

So what exactly is the Great Divide Trail? In the simplest terms, it’s a route that heads north from the Canadian border thru the Rocky Mountains. It starts where the Continental Divide Trail ends, in Waterton National Park just north of Glacier National Park. From Waterton, the route traverses north 800-miles along the spine of the Rockies through rowdy, glacially carved mountains and some of the most beautiful terrain on planet. The trail passes through Waterton, Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Jasper National Parks before finishing at a place called Kakwa Lake in northern British Columbia, close to the northern end of the entire Rocky Mountain chain.

gdttrailThe Great Divide Trail is considered mile-for-mile the prettiest long distance trail in the world. Whereas the CDT has long stretches of flat desert and ranch-land walking, the GDT stays in the mountains and forests. It’s also one of the wildest and hardest trails in the world, with a lot of navigation challenges, river crossings and steep, snowy mountain passes. Often there is no trail, with the route more resembling backcountry travel in Alaska or the Yukon. The entire trail is in grizzly bear terrain which adds an element of excitement and challenge.

It’s been quite the lead-up to get this place, and we’re giddy with excitement. The type of terrain and climate the GDT presents is exactly the kind of place we like to be. Beyond the mountain terrain and natural challenges, the thing we’re most excited about on this particular hike is the trust-in-the-world attitude we’re going to have to embrace as a result of our limited planning. On previous hikes we had an almost military level of organization with drop boxes and supplies mailed to us well in advance. There will be an element of that here, but there is also going to be a lot more of the free-flowing Jack Kerouac traveling style involved.

We’re experienced now. We’re more confident, we understand the pacing of a thru hike and we know how to make trail towns and resource work. We are comfortable making smart decisions in big mountains and wild environments. There is a freedom to the looseness of this hike that is very appealing and invigorating. And it’s not like we’re not prepared…it’s just…this one will be a little more come-as-it-will.

Kakwa-Lake-002

The trail ends here at Kakwa Lake in northern British Columbia.

The truth is, Elaine and I have struggled since we got off the Continental Divide Trail. Not with each other, but with everyday society and civilization. After hiking 3,000 miles north under your own power where everything is tangible and real, this civilized world seems mundane and contrived. We’re independent people and we don’t like being told what to do. We like to work hard – you don’t go for long hikes if you don’t – but we struggle with the bullshit that is so prevalent in the “real world.” More than ever, we need this hike.

It’s time to go for a long walk.

We’ll be updating this blog regularly, or at least as regularly as the wild stretches of the Canadian wilderness allow. There isn’t much information available about the trail, mostly because not many people have hiked it. We did find a few good resources for anybody interested. The Great Divide Trail Association are stewards for the route and a primary source of information. We also found this wonderful nine-part video series from a couple who hiked the trail back in 2017. It’s inspiring and gives a good flavor of the terrain and challenges we’ll encounter.

Special thanks: Larry for inspiration. Tour Guide and Wife Tracker for logistical assistance. Mom for cat watching. Julbo for awesome eye protection. La Sportiva for keeping our feet happy and healthy. Hyperlite Mountain Gear for the best packs in the world. Nemo for shelter. 

hike

Time to do what we do best: move freely thru mountains and wild places.