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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

August 1 – 22 miles, 4,600 feet climbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

August 2 – 17 miles, 3,500 feet climbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

August 3 – 12 miles, 4,100 feet climbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

August 4 – 25 miles, 6,100 feet climbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

August 5-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 30 – 13 miles, 3,600 feet up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Prelude to the Great Divide Trail

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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

Gear Review: Åsnes Mountain Race 48 Cross Country Skis

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Åsnes Mountain Race 48 skis. Narrow and light enough for fast skiing around the track, wide and sturdy enough for serious backcountry pursuits. Waxable with skin lock, 60-48-53 width, 3/4 length metal edges and a sintered race base. It may be the one cross country ski to rule them all!

When I was a kid I had one pair of cross country skis. They were made of wood, had 3-pin bindings and worked for everything. I’d use them to go for weekend skis with my mom and dad on the endless tracks at Nordmarka outside Oslo. If we decided we wanted to leave the tracks and bushwhack across the forest or meadows, I’d use them for that too. Our school would have monthly cross country ski races and at recess, we’d build jumps and launch ourselves off them (I got a good black eye from an errant landing). They worked for that too. They were utilitarian, jack-of-all-trade skis.

A quick look at our ski rack today and it’s easy to see we’ve diverted heavily from the one ski quiver. To our defense, we’ve been working in the ski industry for almost a decade now, where pro-deals are the candy to entice people to stick around. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about simplifying things and I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to have a ski that actually works well on groomed tracks and in the backcountry?

On a recent trip to the motherland I spotted a new Åsnes ski in a shop in Oslo called the Mountain Race 48 that caught my attention. Featuring a narrow profile and sporty, green racing stripes, it was svelte, sexy and light to the touch. And yet, it had some features to make it backcountry worthy, including 3/4 length metal edges and Åsnes’ signature skin lock system for climbing steeper hills deeper in the mountains.

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Elaine spots the Mountain Race ski at a ski shop in Oslo. Now THAT’s a backcountry nordic ski selection! 75% of those skis are waxable, a far cry from the U.S. where waxless skis rule.

It is also a waxable ski. In the U.S., when people buy backcountry nordic touring skis, they almost always buy waxless skis. Most of these skis handle poorly, to the point where they really detract from the enjoyment of the sport. It’s kind of like…if mountain bikers were all still riding fully-rigid 26″ inch bikes with steep head tube angles. Yet in America, waxless backcountry nordic skis are pretty much the name of the game. Things have not evolved much and as such the sport has stagnated in this country.

To truly enjoy backcountry nordic skiing, I believe a willingness to delve into wax is essential. Yet it seems the concept of waxing has paralyzed most U.S. recreational nordic skiers to utter fear. Sure, racers use a gazzillion different waxes, but for touring it’s so simple. Pick up some Green, Blue Extra, and Violet and call it good. Learn how to apply it and wax away, a process that takes about sixty seconds at the trailhead.

In addition to a simple wax kit, Åsnes’ skin lock system is a game changer. Utilizing a narrow 35 mm mohair kicker skin that is easily applied under the ski, a skier can completely avoid using sticky and cumbersome klister wax when temperatures rise above freezing. The little kicker skins glide, they kick, they do everything needed for a good day on warm snow.

Elaine and I picked up a pair of the Mountain Race skis with the intent to use them on light and fast nordic backcountry adventures,  As such, we decided to shun heavier NNN BC gear and installed standard NNN track bindings on them. We did an adventure last week during a rare April cold snap that highlighted the perfect scenario for these unique skis.

When we woke up it was 15° and snowing, the kind of day that absolutely begs for a nordic classic ski. But it’s been a long season and Elaine and I were looking for something a little more low key and in nature than another seven laps around Eldora’s groomed trails. We also didn’t want to slog around in our leather boots. We wanted the best of both worlds, so we grabbed our Mountain Race skis, stuffed our anorak pockets with wax, a cork, kicker skins and some chocolate and headed to Eldora.

We started our ski on groomed trails, covered with an inch or two of new snow. We quickly found the sweet spot for ideal kick on the wax pocket and commented to each other, “hey, these ski like normal classic skis.” In the track they kicked and glided fast and light.

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Åsnes Mountain Race 48’s are just as home in the track as they are in the backcountry.

We hopped on an aptly named trail called Roller Coaster and immediately noticed that they descended a lot better than normal classic skis. Wind had blown in some snow drifts that deflect race skis, but these cut through the consolidated new snow no problem. The tips have a smidge of early rise rocker, which helps them maneuver and negotiate rough terrain.

For fun we looped over to Beaver’s Revenge, the steepest downhill at the entire area, and pointed them straight. The skis were absolutely confidence inspiring and fun…they rocked on the downhills. We backtracked and herring-boned back up the steep hill.  Instead of doing the same loops over and over, these skis wanted to play and explore.

We looped around Buckeye Basin, impressed by how well they performed in the track, not slow at all, even nimble. We continued skiing to the base of Rising Sun, a steep backcountry nordic trail that would be an absolute nightmare on normal classic racing skis. We pulled out our 35 mm mohair kicker skins and began working our way to the top of Tennessee Mountain and the high point of the nordic center.

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Eldora, like many nordic centers in the U.S., has some nice backcountry trails trails that jut off the main groomed routes. At places with this type of trail design, the Åsnes Mountain Race is a dream ski.

The trail was steep enough that we still had to occasionally herringbone, but for the most part the skins allowed us to walk right up. For this type of “mixed” skiing, it’s a good idea to put a slightly bigger basket on the poles, as my race baskets were occasionally sinking in on the soft side snow. There is no need to go with a backcountry pole however, as the intent of this type of skiing is to be able to ski in the backcountry but still have a functional set-up for the track.

We crested the climb, and kept the skins on across the rolling terrain to Tennessee Mountain Cabin. The 35 mm mohair skins glide well and offer more purchase on the loose new snow than just blue wax. A light snow was being whipped into a frenzy by a strong wind blowing off the Continental Divide, so we gladly ducked into the cabin, lit a small fire, and enjoyed some Norwegian chocolate in the rustic simplicity.

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Is there anything better than enjoying good company and chocolate around a wood stove in a rustic mountain hut part-way through a cross country ski? Probably, but I haven’t found it yet.

This is something I miss with just straight track skiing – the ability to be deep in nature, away from people. On the other hand I love the light, fast and free feeling of a fast classic or skate ski. It seems the Mountain Race skis offer the best of both worlds: wild and fast freedom. It is an intoxicating combination.

We left the cabin and made our way through the deep-and-getting-deeper snow along a ridge line to the Setting Sun trail. The trail climbed steadily to an opening, where it switchbacked and crossed over Volkswagen sized drifts shaped from a winter of windy rowdiness. This type of terrain is a nightmare on regular classic skis – kind of like driving a rough jeep road in a Lamborghini – but the Mountain Races ate it up with aplomb.

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For snow up to a foot in depth, the Mountain Race’s break trail just fine.

We crested the top, removed the kicker skins, and began a long descent back to the groomed nordic trails. It was a ripping downhill and we were even able to drop the knee and make some telemark turns, whooping and hollering with the joy that only skiing in a snowstorm can create.

Back on the nordic trails, we hopped onto Phoebe Snow and Meadows Loop – passing some skate skiers along the way, something that would never, ever happen on a wide backcountry nordic ski – and enjoyed perfect kick and glide and the sensation of moving fast. It was time to go home, but not before a fast drop on Gandy Dancer, where once again the descending capabilities of the skis shined.

It seems, more and more, genres of sports are blending. The most popular type of cycling these days is gravel riding, a melding of mountain biking and road biking into a style that is tough, fast and versatile. Same goes for trail running and hiking, where the lines and gear used for backpacking and traditional jogging are completely blurred. In this era of increased reliance on complex technology there seems to be a movement towards outdoor gear that offers versatility and less complexity, or in this case, one nordic ski to rule them all! It makes sense: the simplicity of the outdoors is a needed medication to the complexity of the other, real world.

Even without a higher cause for the greater social good, this type of hybrid Nordic skiing is fun. Probably the coolest thing about it is it opens up the mind to new possibilities. In essence, it basically doubled the skiable terrain we can normally enjoy at Eldora Nordic Center, and in turn enriched the experience. The only thing I’m disappointed about is we didn’t figure this particular ski out until the very end of the season. It’ll certainly be something to look forward to next winter.

Of course, no gear is perfect and this set-up has some limitations. If I was trying to win a 50 km classic race, this would not be my ski of choice (bigger lungs would be my choice). It’s a little too heavy and there are better skis out there for that endeavor. Conversely, if my daily ski consisted of running a trap line in Canada’s Northwest Territories breaking trail through 18 inches of new snow everyday, this wouldn’t be my ski of choice for that either, as I’d want something a lot wider and beefier. But for somebody who enjoys skiing the track and backcountry equally and doesn’t want a bunch of different pairs of skis, the Mountain Race is about perfect.

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Hot laps before dark at Brainard Lake on the Mountain Race 48’s.

The most difficult decision regarding this ski is what binding to put on it. I skied it with my normal Madshus classic NNN boots, and felt a little under-gunned on the tight, twisty trails at Brainard Lake. Elaine used it with a combi boot that has a stiffer sole and, more importantly, more lateral stiffness, and had good luck. In this case, I’d recommend steering clear of the most expensive boots, as more recreational models are generally stiffer and have more insulation.

No doubt, this ski paired with NNN BC bindings and boots would absolutely rock for Brainard-style, tight, twisty conditions, while giving up some performance at the track. For something like skiing across Greenland or Expedition Amundsen, where pulling a pulk adds additional balance concerns, I’d certainly install an NNN BC binding and use an appropriate boot (At Expedition Amundsen, it was THE ski of choice for the fastest competitors). And while I love the simplicity of 3-pin boots and bindings, to me that’s not a good option for a ski I plan to use at least a little bit in the track, as the sides of the binding will drag on the grooves.

I’d say if the intended purpose is 70% or more backcountry, install it with NNN BC. Anything less than that, and it’ll work better with a regular nordic NNN binding and a combi boot with some stiffness in the uppers. Of course, better skiers can get away with less boot stability, and visa versa.

The biggest single problem with this ski is availability.  Åsnes skis are very hard to get in the United States, and the Mountain Race 48 ski isn’t something shops currently bring in because it breaks the image of a traditional backcountry nordic ski. A grand total of three Mountain Race skis were shipped to the U.S. last year (a 180, 190 and 200 cm) It’s a tough sell in a category that doesn’t generally generate much enthusiasm in the first place.

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These skis scream adventure. A warning though – they are so much fun they tend to lead to late arrivals back to the car because a skier just ends up wanting to go deeper into the wild.

Which, I suppose, is part of the motivation for writing this review…showing the beauty of this type of hybrid skiing and making the skis more available to North American nordic skiers! If the people demand it, it will arrive.

In the interim, what’s a skier to do? Go to Norway and buy a pair there? Well, there are worse options in the world. Roundtrip flights to Oslo on Icelandair or Norwegian Air cost about $500 in the winter. It wouldn’t be that difficult to fly in with just a backpack and boots, take the train into the city, go to a shop that sells the skis, give the shop tech a little tip to mount them quickly, and head out into the amazing Norwegian forest for a backcountry/track adventure of a lifetime. If this seems intriguing, message us and we’ll gladly share more information.

In the interim, we’ll keep our eyes peeled for other skis that are waxable, narrow, 3/4 edged, offer a skin lock system and are available in the United States. As far as we know, the Åsnes Mountain Race 48 is the only ski in the world right now that has all these traits.

“Long Way Radio” Greenland Podcast

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A 300-year old sod roof cabin Elaine and I stayed at in Østmarka at the end of our trip.

We arrived back in the United States from our 16-day adventure in Norway late last week. It’s good to be home in our cabin in the mountains again, where we can be creative, go for little recovery skis, live cheaply and ease into some normalcy of life again. We’ve truly entered the “off-season” for Elaine and I. Of course we go out and ski, hike or bike almost every day, but right now it’s just for fun, there is no plan to follow and the pressure is off. It’s an absolutely necessary time of the year to refresh and relax mentally and physically before determining future goals and rebuilding for next season.

Personally, I have five main projects/goals for the next 30 to 40 days:

  1. Getting a lot of these adventures we’ve been on – Expedition Amundsen, Greenland and the Continental Divide Trail – beyond journal entries and into some sort of working written format, some for this blog, and some for publication.
  2. Improving knowledge about bikes and all things bike related for our new job. It’s an exciting challenge and it’s been fun learning something new.
  3. Carve a wooden spoon or something made of wood once a week.
  4. Improve flexibility. This is an essential part of the fitness rebuild process and necessary for injury prevention. That, and I’m stiffer than a 2×4!
  5. Start working on firewood for winter 2019-20. This is an extended process that requires cutting wood in the spring and then allowing it dry for the summer.

Late last summer a good friend of ours, Jack Fisher, paid us a visit. Jack worked with us at Neptune Mountaineering before the place went bankrupt a few years ago. Jack is one of my favorite human beings, with a good sense of ethics, an incredible work ethic and a sense of humor that often has me laughing out loud. Jack also has a penchant for unique adventures that includes going to India, renting a motorcycle and riding it to the Pakistan border. The inspiration I get from Jack is to do things a little more off-beat and not take everything quite so seriously! That’s a good way to be.

Jack recently went back to school in Oregon to become a journalist/story teller. As part of this process, he started a Podcast called “Long Way Radio,” that focuses on adventures and the folks that participate in them. Podcasts are a fun, relatively new way of telling stories, and indeed Elaine and I listened to them religiously while hiking some of the more dusty and boring sections of the Continental Divide Trail.

Jack convinced us to talk about our Greenland trip for a “Long Way Radio” podcast episode. The trip itself didn’t go quite as we’d planned, but the lessons we learned there have proven invaluable for everything we’ve done since. Besides that, it was a harrowing adventure, and it’s a good story.

Greenland

Two sleds in the vast expanse of the Greenland ice cap.

Thanks to Jack’s podcast, we’re finally able to tell a bit more of the story. If you are so inclined, listen to it on some headphones during your next adventure, or on the stereo while carving a nice piece of birch or cooking a good soup!

I’m not a podcast expert, but I believe it can be found on iTunes, or by clicking the link below. Happy listening!

Long Way Radio: Greenland Episode 5

Fisher+Headshot

Jack Fisher: Podcast maestro or Professor of Botany at the University of Montana in Missoula?