Jasper to Mount Robson: Mud, Mosquitos, and Magnificent Mountains

The short version of the last four days might go something like this:

*squelching through shin deep mud*

*slapping away gigantic mosquitos*

*spending a whole day crossing rivers*

*jaws dropping at the incredible Mount Robson*

August 8th – 17 miles, 2400′ of climbing

For our last night in Jasper, we got lucky. I was standing in line at the Post Office, and when I was leaving, a guy at the back of the line stopped me.

“Are you hiking the GDT?” He asked.

“Was it the zippy-bag wallet?” I asked, holding up the trade mark of a thruhiker in town: a zippy-bag wallet.

The guy introduced himself as Joe, and said that he and his girlfriend had hiked the trail the year before. He offered showers and a bed – in Jasper, where everything is sold out faster than you can think, I took him up.

The four of us – Joe and his girlfriend, Nicola, Dan, and me – all met up and had pizza, sharing laughs about the trail, and how it’s changed. Being not an “official” trail, the Great Divide Trail seems to change every year, from the route itself, there being closed routes taken away, new ones added, and some trail maintenance and even some new trail being built! As always, it was great to talk trail – and interesting to hear about the GDT from people who had had some “space” from it. Dan and I crashed at their place, and caught a ride back into town with Nicola on her way to work.

After breakfast, where we saw Coyote, Backtrack, Boat, and Mic again, we picked up an extra sticky bun from the local bakery and headed out to start hitching. Pretty soon after sticking our thumbs out, a car veered erratically of the road, almost hitting us. A young woman hopped out of the front and began shoving a whole assortment of odds and ends into the trunk of the car, chatting the whole time in between pounding a Monster, peroxide blonde hair with purple tips flashing over her shoulders. She was from Edmonton, on her way to see Victoria for a couple days, she explained, swerving onto the road and hitting it pedal to the metal, while hip hop blared from the stereo. She grew up downhill ski racing and skating and complained about how cowboy boots don’t fit over proper calves. Faster than an eye blink we were dropped off, as the whirlwind of our hitch drove away.

“Damn, I love her!” I said as we rearranged our packs before setting off.

The trail started off as an easy old dirt road, and soon turned off to slither up the mountain. We pushed past curtains of dense brush, the sticky humid air causing us to sweat profusely as we struggled through the muddy ground. Heads bent, as there wasn’t much to see, we eventually realized we were at the Miette River, a good 17 miles into the day. There was a rare spot of non muddy ground, so we decided to call it early, and set up camp.

After cooking dinner, I put my shoes back on (I always take my shoes and socks off whenever I can, as this has been such a wet trip that I’m struggling a bit with trench foot) and instantly felt a pronounced pain. Somehow, unnoticed by me, some grit from all the mud had gotten stuck between my sock and ankle bone and was now rubbed completely raw, a small dime shaped patch of skin worn away. It was such a silly thing to have happen, and all because of all the mud, I was a bit peeved. But there’s not much to do but put on some antibiotic ointment and a bandage out here!

August 9th – 18 miles, 1,900′ of climbing

I slept so well last night! After a few nights of terrible sleep in a hostel it was truly lovely. I struggle sleeping around so many other people – I don’t trust them, and so usually spend most of the night awake, listening to what they might do, which is immensely boring, as well as sleep depriving as they are usually sleeping.

Dan and I got to start the day off right by plunging right into the Miette River. Our shoes were clean for all of a few seconds in the river, before we exited and continued on what was becoming the now-familiar shin-deep mud of this section. This section is supposed to be a bit muddy as is, and locals we have met in town tell us that this is the wettest summer in the Canadian Rockies since 1923. Go figure! (I seem to remember something similar happening on our backpacking trip across the Hardandervidda…) As such, it seems exceptionally muddy.

As the morning wore on, we climbed to Miette and Centre Passes – more of a sweeping general pass than two true separate passes. In fact, it was rather flat up top between the two, complete with bog that we splashed through.We then dropped down Grant Pass into a beautiful meadow overseen by a towering monolith of a mountain with a glacier hugging its sides. A milky creek cut across the vibrant green meadow that we were descending to. Our maps were odd, we were glad to realize, as we descended. The evening before, going over them, we noticed that according to the contour lines on the map, the other side of Grant Pass was about vertical. The one thing we were hoping for was that there also seemed to be an odd seam along that particular point on the maps, as though two different versions had been melded together. We reached the creek without having to navigate vertical cliffs, and began the mucky climb of Colonel Pass, passing a horse camp at a lake on the way. Colonel Peak rose strong before us as we dropped down into the next valley.

Here, the tale of west sung its song as we walked out of the mud into a large burn zone from ’98. As any hiker knows, an unmaintained trail in a burn zone is…less than desirable travel. As we navigated over, under, around, and sometimes through the dead fall, we took heart from the note that accompanied our maps in this section:

“If you feel yourself becoming disheartened with the dead fall in the burn zone, recall that Dustin Lynx described this section of trail as nearly impassable in 2004.”

As Dustin Lynx is pretty much the Godfather of the Great Divide Trail, and has hiked all of it and all the alternates, and seemingly skied most of is as well, for him to call something “nearly impassable” is saying something. As we scratched ourselves on the old burned trees, we re-christened the GDT the “Great Deadfall Trail”.

I also think we had somehow managed to hit the trail in a bit of a lull of hikers – several people had left town as we were getting there, but the crew of eight from Jasper was all behind us. You know this on trail when you start running into the spider webs. Overnight, they are usually ok, just little stringers that sometimes get stuck in your mouth or eyelashes, but nothing crazy. This was a whole other level. Great gobs of sticky web, with spiders the size of my thumbnail sat around the corner, invisible in the odd half light, waiting for me to walk in. More than once one of us walked into one, instigating a most graceful and verbose spree of jumping, writhing, spitting, face writhing, and occasional cursing.

Arriving at Upright Creek, we saw that there was a way to cross it via a conveniently fallen tree, but decided to cross it using our eddy method. All the rivers so far had been either benign or had bridges of some sort, but as there were a couple potentially intense river crossings, we decided to practice for the real thing. I collapsed my poles, stuck them in my pack, and took hold of Dan’s pack from behind as he faced up the creek, poles braced before him, as he is the taller of us. With his shouting “left, right, left” over the roar of the river to indicate when to move which foot and me not responding with my bellowed “yes” until I had stable footing, we steadily crossed the creek.

Satisfied when we exited, I pulled my poles back out of my pack and we continued to the first crossing of the Moose, which turned out to be easier than Upright Creek, and set up camp for the night immediately beyond, once again finding a rare, non-muddy spot with no dead trees to fall on us.

In an attempt to seek reprieve from the blood hungry mosquitoes that had been relentlessly plaguing us, we set up our bug net to eat dinner in and set the water to boil. As luck would have it, as soon as dinner was ready, thunder came booming over the mountains behind us, thick thunderhead growing quickly. Shoveling the food in our mouths as quickly as we could, we still didn’t quite beat the weather moving in. Shoving our pot and food away haphazardly, we hastily began to set up our shelter, right as the storm centered on us, lightning flashing and thunder booming.

But what sent me over the edge was when the torrential rain started. In 30 seconds about four inches of a super wet combo of hail and rain stood everywhere, and after forcing numb fingers to tie out our guylines, we both collapsed in the mid, panting.

“OMGDT,” I panted out. Our friend, Mic, had coined the term a while ago, and it had quickly become the standard for all things out of the normal level of anything, whether positive or negative.

August 10 – 18 miles, 2,500′ climbing

Today was a day for crossing rivers! The Moose River has a bit of a reputation throughout the trail, potentially more because you cross it five times, than because it is a big scary crossing. Or six times. And then you simply walk it for a while, because that is simplest way forward. But I get ahead of myself.

Our first two crossings of the Moose were pretty straightforward – we did the eddy method because we’re cautious and there’s two of us. In between were stretches of muddy, boggy trail, and then the third one was significantly deeper. All along, as we stomped our way through the mud, three sets of bear prints stood out in the mud. One, as I knelt down to put my hand against, was bigger than my fingertips reached, one of middling size, and one quite small. Also all up and down the trail were moose and deer prints. Once again, we never saw any – we have come to the rather unfortunate conclusion that to stay safe and not startle a grizzly also means we aren’t startling anything else, so we see little to no wildlife.

After the third crossing of the Moose (or fourth so far), we veered off a bit, and crossed Steppe Creek three times. You know, because Today Is The Day To Cross Rivers In The Mountains. We did a final crossing of the mighty Moose River, now reduced to a tiny little brook that we decided to walk up instead of fight our way through the brush on either side.

As we ascended Moose Pass, though, the trail suddenly became defined, and dare I say, even a bit less muddy. Reaching the top of Moose Pass, the skies cleared, the sun came out, and angels might as well have been trumpeting from the glacially-draped peaks around us. Setting up the bug net, we took a leisurely snack break.

“I know why Moose Pass is the only thing hikers talk about in this section,” I said, as I worked my way methodically through a spoonful of peanut butter with M&M’s.

Dan looked at me, too busy eating jerky and identifying peaks to ask.

“It’s because you’re a bit traumatized by all the mud, and then you reach Moose Pass and there’s wildflowers everywhere, and glacier-capped peaks, and it’s perfect land, so you forget the three days of mosquito-infested valley mud-bog slog in favour of Moose Pass.”

But the day was ticking on, and the Perfect Land of Moose Pass wasn’t going to come with us, so eventually we got up and moved on, down, back into the mosquito-infected valley of mud-bog slog for a few hours, complete of course, with multiple encounters with the now dreaded massive spider web.

And then there was the Smokey River. We tumbled out of the woods onto the gravel bar of the Smokey River, and squelched to its sides where we gazed at the rushing torrent raging past us. Sitting down (socks and shoes came off, of course), we read through all the recent notes that had been left on the crossing and looked at the weather forecast. Typically, with a glacially fed river, you want to cross in the morning, as the runoff will be highest in the afternoon/evening from melt. (We later heard a hiker tell of how it lowered three feet between an evening crossing and a morning one.) But we were predicted heavy rain overnight, which we thought might hamper the lowering effects. So we got up and began a thorough scouting of the river bank, looking far, both upstream and downstream.

We started crossing at two different places, pulling out both times as the roaring water reached Dan’s mid-thigh at a fast pace. We finally settled of a point rather downstream from where some other hikers had gone, in favour of a more braided river path. The first braid was simple enough, as were the several quite shallow braids that we simply walked across. I was thankful for a bit of walking, as even the short time we had spent in the rushing torrent had frozen my legs into numb stubs and the walking brought proper mobility back. The second true part of this crossing was more trouble. We started in two different places, pulling back both times as it got deep very fast.

Finally, we spotted a very ripply spot (with glacially fed rivers, it’s very hard to visually see the depth, so if you see the “right” kind of ripples, it can indicate that it’s more shallow in that location) that we aimed for. This did indeed prove to be only about knee deep, though still quite strong. About mid way through, I began to hear thunder booming. But soon we were across and it was only a few more little threads of water to splash through and we were fully across.

Weak with the adrenaline rush, and laughing from the relief, we trekked off down the still mud bog of a trail, but soon pulling over to camp, as the skies opened up and the rain began.

August 11 – 19 miles, 1,000′ climbing (but 3,400′ descent…which we do have to climb back up)

It rain, rain, rained all night, and when we got up to hike, the fog was so thick we could hardly see tree to tree, let alone the huge mountains around us.

As we neared Burg Lake, my grumpiness came out. I had just slogged through 3 days of mud, and I wouldn’t even get to see Mount Robson. Now, I can’t say I knew much about Mount Robson before I started looking at the GDT, but it’s a bit of a thing to this trail. For one thing, it’s the tallest peak in the Canandian Rockies, standing just shy of 4,000 meters (apparently it was demoted from being 4,000 meters, which has some folks upset still). For another thing, it is a common ending point for GDT hikers. Not being “officially” a trail, the GDT has many odd things going on, and one is that there isn’t really even an official end. A fair amount of people end in Jasper, and a lot of people end at Mount Robson. After walking out on the trail, I understand. For one thing, it feels very appropriate. It’s this huge, incredible, awe-inspiring mountain with three massive glaciers carving down its flanks. There’s the perfect alpine lake at the base, and then, yes, there’s an and then! And then you go tumbling down this perfect trail, down, down, down the Valley of a Thousand Falls, with hundreds of waterfalls cascading all around you – thundering monstrous falls, whispy, willowy falls, towering falls incredibly thin, but cascading hundreds of feet. For another thing, you have to hike back up that same trail if you want to continue on to Kakwa Lake. From Robson it’s a relatively easy hitch to Jasper, where you can hitch to Banff, or even get public transportation to either Edmonton or Banff.

And even though, in the scheme of long distance hiking, you haven’t hiked that far, (“only” 584 miles) it is a very, very challenging hike. There are multiple Tripple Crowners out here (folks who have hike the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail) who all say that this is the hardest trail they’ve done. The terrain is tough, it’s tough to cover the same amount of trail in bad to no trail conditions, and the weather is tough. In fact, we’ve been told in multiple towns now by locals that this is the wettest summer in the Canadian Rockies since 1923. Being wet day in and day out, being in thunder and lightning storms, being hailed on, being snowed on – this makes for good stories, but it’s draining. And it’s quite evident in the hikers by now. I’ve never seen hikers so worn down by so few miles, but this trail is tough.

So, as we stumbled along in the fog, my grumpiness set in as the thought of not even seeing Mount Robson set in. We walked by Berg Lake, where a bit of Berg Glacier could been seen sitting right above it, and then the thick cloud bank. Taking a chance, we stopped for an early snack break on the shores of the lake and watched as the clouds began to shift and change, and the sun began to try to shine weakly through the clouds. And then – it appeared! We gazed in awe of Mount Robson, marveling at it as we snacked. Finally, we scooped ourselves off the lake shore and continued on the trail, swooping and cascading down into the Valley of a Thousand Falls.

As we had just finished walking the road into the Mount Robson visitors center, we found a patch of grass, and promptly exploded our packs. This is a typical thruhiker thing – you get to town and suddenly, the things that are most important to you while on trail (like trekking poles) are useless or silly in town, and things that are useless or silly on trail (like a wallet) are most important in town. As we did this exploding, a voice floating across the grass:

“Any hikers looking for a ride to Valemount?” Dan and I both looked up at this – and Keith and Leslie walked up. The timing was serendipitous, as apparently they had literally just pulled in to the parking lot. We all tumbled into their mini van (which I have decided is an incredible adventure mobile) and rode off to Valemount where we ate burgers and told trail stories and laughed at their perfect ability to show up for us on the side of the trail.

And to be honest, I do think, in a way, this is the end of our thruhike. Thruhiking involves a certain mindset, and this next section into Kakwa Provincial Park is more of a wilderness excursion.

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!