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.