Alta Backcountry

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.

waterfall
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.

wildarea
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.

cedar
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.

Cown
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.
chownvalley
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.

tents
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. 
epicmtnsEM
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. 
smileelaine
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.

slatemik
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.

intent
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.
victory.jpg
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. 
sketchdown
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.

evclimb
Elaine working her way up Perseverance Mountain as the rain and wind build. 
disheveleddan
Working hard on the Perseverance Mountain climb.
toporidge
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.

mikcrazydown
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.
twoontop
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.

danslate

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. 
greenpath
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.

sheepcreek
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.

outsheeo
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.

ontosurprise
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. 
annette
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.

wildflowers
The wildflowers in the meadow were spectacular.
flowerstent
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.
kakwatent
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.

Ruthtrail
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.
elaine54
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. 
finishgdtdan
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.
resttime
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. 
cabin
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.

1leaves
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.

4avy
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?

2roadwalk
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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2 Replies to “Mount Robson to Kakwa Lake”

  1. Great story. Loved it. Congrats on making it to Kakwa and digging deep to make the most of an incredibly wild and hard section. I’ve been through Section G three times and never done the Surprise Pass alternate, nor seen a good write up on it. It sure looks like a must-do.

    I presume your pad is an Exped? Probably the UL7 Synmat? They love to pop baffles.

    Like

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