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.

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.

“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.

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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

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

Leather 3-pins, snowy forests and wind: A ski trip around Brainard Lake

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Enjoying a nice early season ski after a snowstorm on the CMC Trail.

One of my favorite places locally to go for a ski tour is Brainard Lake. While Eldora ski area offers the type of nordic skiing most people think about when conjuring up images of the sport – perfectly groomed tracks for skate and classic skiing – Brainard is a different experience. This is the place where backcountry nordic ski touring reigns in the region.

Brainard is hardly a secret, which is why I’m not particularly reticent to write about it. As Edward Abbey so eloquently wrote, “I have written much about many good places. But the best places of all, I have never mentioned.” Let’s just say Brainard is a really good place. And, I also have some concerns that nordic ski touring as a sport is fading in the United States as Alpine Touring skiing and fat biking become more popular. I’d like to do my part to reverse this trend, as I believe nordic ski touring is the most pure and soulful type of skiing there is (another blog for another time).

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Nordic ski touring gear is different from nordic track gear. The skis are a bit wider, they often have metal edges, and the bindings support a bigger boot. Here we’re all using leather 3-pin boots and bindings, a classic option. Note the wooden skis. They work well!

Brainard Lake is staggeringly popular in the summertime, so much that we almost never go there from July 4 to Labor Day. Even on weekdays, the crowds can be oppressive. This is a shame, because there isn’t a better concentration of peaks, trails, snowfields and lakes in the entire Indian Peaks region.

In the wintertime, the crunch of people at Brainard Lake can be oppressive, but it’s more manageable. Truth of the matter is the parking lot could be full but very few people go in more than a half-mile from the gate. Indeed, as skiers, there is an advantage. Certainly a hardy few snowshoers will make the three mile trek from the Red Rock Trailhead to Brainard Lake, but the vast majority will not. Meanwhile, the distance is easily covered on skis.

Brainard Lake has a rich cross-country skiing history. In 1928, a group of University of Colorado professors in the Colorado Mountain Club pooled their funds and hired a gentleman named Joe Stapp to build Brainard Lake Cabin. Rumor has it that in 1929 a rowdy group skied completely naked to the lake and cabin, “save for boots and skis.”

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Doorway to the CMC Brainard Cabin.

The war years in the 30s and 40s and the growing popularity of alpine skiing in Colorado limited use of the area. That changed in 1969 when a Norwegian named Ingvar Sodal started the CMC Cross Country Ski School. Ingvar and his staff – usually varsity ski racers on the CU ski team – would teach waxing techniques and skiing lessons to the general public. Ingvar began ordering skis from Norway, worked on making the CMC cabin more winterized and encouraged CMC members to build ski trails so they would have alternative routes to the road.

The South Trail, now called the CMC Trail, was built in 1970. In 1971, the more technical and rolling North Trail was constructed. It’s name was changed to the “Waldrop Trail” to honor Harry Waldrop, a CMC member who was killed in a kayaking accident. To complete the system, the Little Raven Trail was built in 1988.

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Enjoying some spring nordic skiing at Brainard Lake.

Cross country ski races used to be held at Brainard Lake. Courses were either the North Trail, the South Trail or around Long Lake. The Colorado Mountain School hosted the Gold Spittoon Races in the area, but all races ended in 1984 as liability insurance costs became too expensive.

Today, the infrastructure of ski trails and the cabin are still there. While the CMC is less of a force than it used to be, they still play an active role in the Brainard Lake area. The CMC Cabin is open and staffed by volunteers on weekends from Thanksgiving to April. During these times, the cabin serves as a nice spot to eat lunch and get out of the elements. Outside the weekends the hut is locked, available only to folks who rent it for overnight use. To stay in the cabin, one person in the group has to have gone through a CMC hut training program.

Meanwhile, the trails around Brainard Lake are alive and well and require no special training or key. The Waldrop Trail was rerouted by mountain bikers in a couple places a few years ago, but other than that the trail system hasn’t changed since it’s original construction. A group of long-time local skiers head out on the trails at the beginning of every winter and clear deadfall. Of the three main trails, Little Raven and CMC are “skier-only” and the easier options. The Waldrop Trail is multi-use, and features faster downhills and more excitement.

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Map of the Brainard Lake Trail system. Click to expand.

A popular and pleasing loop begins with a ski from the Red Rock Trailhead up Left Hand Reservoir Road to the eastern terminus of the Upper Little Raven Trail. The initial road climbs 500 vertical feet and is a nice warm-up for the trail ahead. It’s a relatively gradual climb with a few steep sections that will test the skier’s wax or ability to herringbone. If you’re fortunate enough to have a pair of skis that feature the little notches for kicker skins (Åsnes and Fischer both make these), it’s not a bad idea to have these skins available in your backpack for this section if needed. That said, 95% of the time I can get up this first climb with just the proper wax-of-the-day.

After 1.25 miles on Left Hand Reservoir Road, turn right and west onto the marked Upper Little Raven Trail (not to be confused with the Lower Little Raven Trail that heads east from Left Hand Reservoir Road and drops down to the Sourdough Trail). The trail starts with rolling terrain in beautiful pine, spruce and fir forest for another mile. This is the highest part of the entire ski and usually has the best snow on the loop, with occasional views of Mount Audubon and the Continental Divide when the trail breaks  into meadows. If you’re lucky, you’ll get first tracks after a new snowfall. If you’re luckier still, you’ll get 2nd or 3rd tracks so you don’t have to do all the work breaking trail.

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Upper Little Raven Trail usually features some fantastic snow conditions.

After the first mile Little Raven changes character and begins to head downhill. The descent is fun and increases in challenge the further along the skier gets. The final drop to the intersection of the CMC trail is guaranteed to garner a whoop of joy or a scream of terror.

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CMC and Little Raven Junction. Skiers Only!

You’re now exactly three miles into the ski and at a decision point. If you turns right you begin the journey home on the CMC Trail. The original built of the three trails, the CMC is also probably the easiest. It doesn’t have any big climbs or descents, although there are a few few tricky short downhills heading east, including one about a half-mile from the Little Raven junction that features a fast descent and quick right turn over a creek bed. In mid-season with lots of snow it’s no problem, but in early season when rocks are prevalent and the creek isn’t quite frozen, the crossing can be on the spicy side.

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Early season creek crossing on the CMC Trail.

The trail enters a gully and then meanders it’s way back to Left Hand Reservoir Road. You’ll pass a couple signed intersections, including instructions for snowshoers to go one way, skiers to go the other. Stay on the skier trail and follow it back to the road. Turn left on Left Hand Reservoir Road and enjoy a zippity half-mile drop back to the car. This loop is about six miles total and a great option for a short day or less experienced skiers.

If you are looking for a longer, more adventurous ski with the possibility of some creature comforts, turn left at the Little Raven/CMC junction. Follow a winding trail that takes the skier out to the far west side of the Brainard Lake Loop Road. Turn left on the road and enjoy the splendor of the lake and mountains in front of you.  This is a popular moose hangout, so be on the lookout for those sometimes ornery characters.

Turn left again on Mitchell Lake Road and continue straight past Long Lake Trailhead Road until you see signs for the CMC Cabin/Waldrop Trail on the right. Turn right into the woods, and after about 100 feet arrive at the nicely protected CMC Cabin. If it’s a weekend, drop into the cabin, donate $1 for a cup of hot cocoa, talk to other skiers and enjoy a piece of wilderness history. If it’s a weekday and the cabin is closed, keep moving because this area can get hammered with brutal wind chills off the divide.

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Enjoying a little “Worst Case Scenario” board game in the CMC Brainard Cabin as a storm rages outside.

After enjoying the cabin, continue north just past the front door of the building. Pay attention to the little blue markers on the trees, as the drifts in this section can get huge and disorienting. You’ll soon pop out onto a large, heavily drifted open section with spectacular views of Mount Audubon and Toll. There are a lot of signs and intersections here – your general goal is to keep following signs for the Waldrop Trail.

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Drifted area views near the CMC Cabin.

After the drifted area it’s time to buckle in and get ready for some fun descents. The first one is a real rip-roarer and intersects with the South Saint Vrain Trail. Keep following signs for the Waldrop Trail, making note of the black diamond rating markers. The trail offers some twisty descending that, when conditions are right, is some of the best nordic ski touring around. Be aware that the Waldrop Trail is multi-use…stay in control on the downhills to avoid freaking out snowshoers and fat bikers!

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Navigating the descents on the Waldrop Trail.

After a mile-plus non-stop descent the trail crosses a bridge over Saint Vrain Creek. This is a wonderful place to take a little snack break and enjoy beautiful forest. Be on the lookout for Grey Jays – aka Camp Robbers – looking for a free handout. From here, the trail gradually climbs to a meadow, where there is an option of cutting back up to Brainard Lake Road for an easier – and possibly very windblown – ski back to the car on the road. A better option is to stay on the Waldrop Trail and enjoy some whoop-dee-doos and gullys. Snow levels effect the ease of travel here greatly. Gullies that are no problem in mid-season conditions can be quite exciting in early season when rocks are popping out everywhere.

Keep your eyes peeled to the north for some fantastic views of Longs Peak. These can be especially enjoyable in the evening as winter alpenglow basks the land. The trail continues east for another half-mile or so before dumping out at the Red Rock Trailhead and your waiting vehicle. All told the Little Raven/Waldrop Loop is 7 miles long.

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December Alpenglow off Longs Peak from the Waldrop Trail.

The routes listed here are the classics, and are great options for learning the lay of the land. Of note – dogs are not allowed on any of these trails. If you want to ski with your pup, the Sourdough Trail is a terrific option. There are a lot of other great skiing options in the area, including a thorough examination of the South Saint Vrain Trail, the Niwot-Cut Off Spur with a loop around Long Lake on the Jean Lunning and Pawnee Pass Trail, or an adventurous exploration ski from the Mitchell Lake Trailhead up the frozen tundra to Blue Lake.

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Heading up to Blue Lake with the intrepid Gary Neptune himself!

Above all, be sure to enjoy yourself. Everybody has a different agenda, but to me a nordic ski tour around Brainard Lake is great way to spend time in nature, get outside during the winter and enjoy a thermos of something tasty with friends. Do your best to keep the p-tex on the snow and have a good tour!

A Million Forks

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0316.JPGIt’s dead winter. Eight degrees Fahrenheit tonight, but the numbers mean little. It’s been cold for two weeks, the kind of cold we haven’t seen in Colorado in about a decade. When we ski, the snow crunches. No, make that squeaks. While the lowlanders and recent transplants are bitching about how they miss spring and warm weather, our little winter tribe of two is in absolute heaven. At night, coyote howls echo across the valley and the full snow moon turns the land into a brilliant, beautiful, haunting white glow.

Elaine and I are deep in Expedition Amundsen training. We alternate between pulling 120 pound sleds into the alpine, and then recovering with easy skis, with no weight, to stretch the legs and remember what it feels like to move at something faster than two miles per hour. Like today, day 87 on skis for the winter, an easy classic ski around the Eldora trails, where a light coat of Guru Green kick wax was all that was needed for a simple evening glide around the perfectly groomed trails.

I honestly have no idea how well prepared we are for the event. I suspect we’re prepared well enough, but until you put yourself on the line and go, it’s all a bit of a mystery. We’ve been putting in the time and doing the work, but there are so many variables to the event. Honestly, my main concern right now is just being mentally tough enough and getting enough rest before the shotgun blast kicks things off on March 8. Life has been chaos the past two weeks, but we’re finally getting to a place where a stoke and calm is taking over.

IMG_5919Tonight, after our ski, I was hanging out at my at wife’s parent’s home, spinning an old globe they have on the table. And while spinning it, running my fingers over raised mountain ranges and gazing at plateaus and river valleys, I got to thinking – my God it’s a massive world, and there is so much to do. The little problems of our daily lives – the things we put so much emphasis on – block us from doing what we really want to do. Of particular interest to me was the top of the globe, the land to the north. There is so much unexplored territory there, from Canada to Siberia to Greenland to Baffin Island. It gets me giddy just thinking how much there is to do up there. It makes me want to do it all, drink the wine of the north country, pack in as much as I can in my time here.

Did you know that the coldest town in the world is Oymyakon, Siberia? I didn’t know that till I found it on the globe tonight and looked up what it was all about. The average winter temperature in Oymyakon is -50° C. That’s average – the lowest temperature ever recorded was -89.9° C. I want to experience what that’s like. I want to see if I’m tough enough to stand it. I want to hear the sap from trees explode, I want to know what gliding on snow in that kind of cold feels like. But who in their right mind goes to Oymyakon? People seeking real adventure, that’s who, modern day Indiana Jones’, Magellans and Nansens. Adventure is still out there, but if it’s a place on the tip of the tongue for most, or a place that sounds cool on social media, it’s probably not real adventure anymore. If you want real adventure, go to Oymyakon, Siberia, or Nome or someplace that has no guidebook, no hype, just unexplored potential.

Oymyakon, Siberia

I must admit, like this blog entry, my mind these days is all over the place. That’s the problem with a world of unlimited opportunity in front of you – it’s hard to know where to start. When there are a million paths to choose, it’s hard to pick one. For the last eight years of our lives, Elaine and I have been on a pretty consistent work path. It was a relatively comfortable path, not really going anywhere, and getting more rocky by the day, but still, it was a chosen path of employment. And then, we grew a conscience, tired of moral and ethical injustice, of people just getting treated wrong, of getting treated wrong ourselves, exploded the situation and chose a new path. So now here we are, and there are a million paths leading away from this fork. Some paths seem safer than others, but are safer paths really the right path for ultimate happiness? That’s really the goal of life in my opinion – the quest for ultimate happiness.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0314.JPGToday, on our ski, my mind was in a million places (like this blog), some on the ski, but mostly in other places. And then, frustrated by this lack of focus, I forced myself to slow down. I forced myself to stay in the moment, the exact moment, to focus on the breathe, to focus on a perfect stride and glide, perfect balance, perfect synchronicity with the snow on this cold winter day.

Rapidly, the world became clear. The woods shifted from a blur of chaos to a distinct outline of each tree. I was back in the moment, feeling that skier’s high, and once again, calm and a sense of confidence reigned. Maybe that’s the key to navigating these new waters. Less focus on everything, and all the focus on what can be managed in the here and now – this exact moment in time. I’m no expert, but that feels like the right path to me.

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Ten Favorite Photos from Autumn 2018

The experts said it wouldn’t be a beautiful autumn. The experts lied. There was work stress and a million things to pull us away from the center. But then, as always, nature pulled us back. As we move full blast into winter, a look back at the most fleeting and urgent season of them all, autumn.

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In early August, the first sign of autumn hit the high tundra on the Continental Divide. The green turned to gold and the gold turned to red.

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The closest I’ve ever been to a yellow brick road.

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Birdseye view of the valley, the divide, the impending September storm.

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Autumn moves at a blur…the most beautiful moments, the peak present in days and hours, not weeks and months.

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A remnant stand of orange in the foreground, the winter playground in the background.

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On this day, we skipped a planned workout and just went exploring on a perfect autumn mountainside. It was a good choice.

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The roller skis turned crisper, the mountains more gold, the snow on the peaks providing motivation.

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We choose not to go to traditional church on Sunday. Instead, we go to our church everyday.

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Sneaking in a late roller ski past the moose sign as a cold sleet storm rolls in behind the fog.

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And then, the world turns white, a few gold hanging on to the past.

Photos by Dan Vardamis. Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado.

Love and Packrafts

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The Little Blue Boat on its first river excursion back in 2008. It didn’t end well…a shallow creek bed and deadfall led to a long, swampy walk out. 

My very first foray with the sport of packrafting was back in 2007. Sore-legged and weary after the Soggy Bottom 100 mountain bike race on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, I found myself navigating a rental car through back alley streets of Anchorage on a clear, crisp fall day in search of Alpacka Packraft World Headquarters. I’d first learned about these rafts by reading magazine stories of a mystical, distant group of bike riders in Alaska who would ride along beaches and then paddle from inlet-to-inlet along the Alaskan sound, strapping their bikes to the front of the tiny rubber boats. Even then, the rawness and authenticity of these type adventures appealed to me, because it was like nothing I’d ever seen. They seemed like a warrior clan from another land. I wanted to be like them.

After scouring the internet I found the contact information for Sheri Tingey, the owner of Alpacka Rafts. Legend had it a few years earlier, Sheri built the first packraft because her son Thor needed something the cross the water-clad Alaskan tundra in the summer. Sheri sewed the boat in her garage and Alpacka was born. I traded a few phone calls with Sheri telling her I wanted one of her boats. With a wry chuckle she told me she had a factory second with a cosmetic defect at a discounted price that she could sell me.

Turns out the world headquarters of Alpacka was a cluttered garage in the home of middle-aged yet spry looking Sheri. When I arrived, Sheri was expecting me, and pulled out of a pile in the garage a shiny looking royal-blue rubber raft. She rummaged through another pile and pulled out a perfect fitting spray skirt, and had an old five-piece fiberglass paddle that she sold me for $10. Walking out of the garage with my new boat was exhilarating, a freedom similar to that felt by a child when he or she gets their first bike.

As I boarded the plane in Anchorage heading back home to Colorado, I felt a strong sense that big world of adventure had just opened up.

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The start of the 2007 Soggy Bottom 100 Bike Race and the reason I was in Alaska to pick-up that first packraft. This was simply an amazing 100-miler on the Kenai Peninsula out of the fun and quirky town of Hope, Alaska. I strongly remember the endless singletrack across the tundra and the never ending jingle of bear bells as I pedaled for 12 hours across the wilds of Alaska. Thus far, it’s is the last bike race I’ve done. 

Turns out I didn’t use that first packraft much. Winter hit early that year freezing the waterways and the next few years of my life were filled with enough chaos to make relaxing trips into the mountains to go rafting a rarity. I did do some exploring of high alpine lakes west of home, and enjoyed the novel idea of hiking to a lake and then paddling around it. I wondered if some if these lakes had ever had a boat on them. I even tried to raft a way-too-low creek connecting two alpine lakes and almost lost my neck to an overhanging tree strainer. I loosely formulated a plan to be the first person to packraft every single lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness during the next few years.

Alas, life had other plans. I ended up selling that packraft to a guy in Norway to fund a trip to meet my eventual wife in Ireland. It was a worthwhile sacrifice: we ended up getting engaged after a tipsy night in Gallway and have been life partners ever since. In a  weird way, that Alaskan born packraft made that possible. It was barter to get the girl.

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First paddle in the Blue Boat on Lake Isabelle. 

In the past few years Elaine and I have seen enough Banff Mountain Film Festival-style clips featuring packrafts to instill a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in us. Our adventures seem puny compared to the unique, irreverent and quirky hike/raft, bike/raft, ski/raft excursions done by Luc Mehl and Roman Dial. These are the people we look up to, the people who make us dream bigger, folks creating adventures that are incredibly unique and authentic.

When Elaine and I came back from Greenland we were flat broke. Fortunately we were able to find jobs immediately upon return at the old gear shop we used to work at, and were able to get ourselves past the Raman noodle stage and into the pasta-and-a-decent-sauce stage fairly quickly. A lot has changed at the shop since we worked there last: the Little Red Lighthouse grew into the Great Grey Bridge. Synchronously, through a major remodel, a mostly new staff and reinventing its image, the store quietly started selling Alpacka Packrafts.

Alpacka had left distant Anchorage years earlier for a more business friendly factory deep in southwestern Colorado. The business simply outgrew Sheri’s garage. Ten years ago, when I mentioned packrafts to people I would get blank stares back. In 2018, almost all outdoor enthusiasts are familiar with packrafts and many people own them. It’s still a relatively small, niche sport, but it’s getting more popular exponentially.

The boats changed too. Instead of an oval they now had some shape that helps them cut through water better. The old packrafts required a substantial pack load on the bow to prevent the front end from jutting out of the water. The new ones are more balanced and handle better. Whereas the old rafts basically did a 45° rotation on every paddle stoke, the new ones track better than expected for a one-person raft with no rudder or keel. Features like cargo fly storage, thigh straps and removable spray decks have turned the early simple models into a game of “Pimp My Packraft.”

On our first day back at the shop we stumbled upon a packraft clinic accompanied by a tempting offer designed to get poor gear shop employees into a boat. It was slightly irresponsible, but we took the plunge and ordered rafts, from none other than Sheri’s son Thor, the recipient of Sheri’s first sewn boat. I ordered the same (but quite different) model as my first boat I picked up at that Anchorage garage: the Yukon Yaak. Besides the fact that it’s the right size for my six-foot tall frame, I like the name…the Yukon and my time there evoke strong memories for me. Elaine, who is 5’6″, ordered the smaller Alpacka model.

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The yellow and red dreamboat pack rafts.  

And then we waited. Six weeks to be exact, while the boats were created per our specs. I ordered mine in a bright yellow color – I figure it will look good on blue and grey glacial rivers with snow capped peaks behind, while Elaine got a shiny bright red boat. Elaine looks good anywhere, but the red boat will certainly compliment her well! We waited and worked and waited. And then finally, we got a notice of “package shipped and delivered.”

When we got home the first thing we did was rip open the packages to examine our new boats. They looked better than we imagined, and the folks at Alpacka tossed a calendar and some hats into the box for good measure. We didn’t get to bed until 1 am that night – too excited – but when we did the dream of floating down arctic rivers danced in our heads. In a way, packrafts have played a big role in our relationship thus far, and as such I can’t help but think they will play a big role for us as our relationship and adventures continue to progress. It’s time to fulfill that giddy excitement felt walking out of Sheri’s garage more than a decade ago.

But before all that, we need to practice…a lot. As such, to the lakes we go…

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Practice time on Lost Lake, our neighborhood lake.