Mount Robson to Kakwa Lake

Words by Elaine, photos and captions by Dan.

Ridgeline

This is it, the big one, the one we’ve all been waiting for!

Sure, Fred and George Weasley may have forever engrained these words into many a millennial’s mind, but they sure seemed fitting as we headed into this last, and wildest, section of the Great Divide Trail.

I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. Dan and I arrived in Valemount, where we were resupplying for the last section, just fine – eating burgers, happy to dry out. That night, I woke up with the worst, wrenching stomach cramps. For 12 hours, I couldn’t stray far from the bathroom, and at one point, was stretched out on the balcony outside our room, sweating and shaking, wondering if I was going to die. (Yes, I’m a very dramatic sick person). Then, magically, that night I ate a whole pizza and packed up. I still have no idea what happened, but I was very grateful it passed quickly.

August 13th – Back into the Woods – 7 miles, 1,400′ gain

In Valemount, we met Mik again and realized that we were on a similar schedule. Their mom was coming to pick them up and offered us a ride as well. The trail ends, and then there is a 100km road walk out to a highway where you have to hitch from. This is Highway 16, which is also nicknamed the “Highway of Tears” because of a series of rapes and murders that have happened along it in the past 30 years. Now, these have actually happened between Prince George and Prince Rupert, which are quite far away from where we would be coming out on the highway, and the victims are by and large natives, but regardless, it was still a very disconcerting thing to know. Long story short, we decided to go through the last section together.

hitching

Hitchhiking isn’t our favorite part of hiking, but it’s sometimes necessary. A piece of cardboard, a sharpie and looking clean can help a lot.

Dan and I began hitching out of Valemount in the afternoon, and had a lucky hitch – a gentleman in a van pulled over almost as soon as we stood on the highway. He had seen our sign saying “Mount Robson”, and was heading there, so instead of what is usually a two-part hitch, we got the ride all in one.

As we started up the Berg Lake Trail, weighed down by our packs filled to bursting with our ten day resupply, we marveled at the difference good trail makes. The Great Divide Trail is, more often than not, on what would be more likely called a “path”, or even just cross country travel. With the Berg Lake Trail built to accommodate the traffic from so many people, we could cruise along fairly easily.

Arriving at the Whitehorn campground, where our reservation was for the night, we scoped a few spots, then chose one a bit further away from the main spread of tents, with an extra pad nearby in case Mik showed up. Taking our Subway sandwiches (it’s a nice break from freeze-dried food on that first night) down to the cook area, we soon struck up conversation with a family that had brought their kids up for a five-day trip. They had seen us coming down as they were going up, and so were confused as to what we were doing. We chatted for a while before everyone began to drift away to bed.

Dan and I stayed up for a while, watching the many waterfalls cascading down the cliffs around us as the sun set. It was hard to believe that the end of the hike was coming, and I felt a great swell of sadness. Some people say that the end of a trail gets easier the more you do it…I’m not sure that’s true for me. The more I stay out in this world, the harder it seems to be to come back to the hustle and bustle of civilization.

waterfall

One of the many waterfalls in the “Valley of 1,000 Falls.”

August 14th – Onto the North Boundary Trail, Into the Wild – 17.4 miles, 2,400′ gain

One of the things I love the most about backpacking is how amazing I sleep out here. I woke up that morning with no memory of even turning over in my sleep – however, as soon as I sat up, something felt wrong. I wriggled around in my sleeping bag to take a look at my sleeping mat, and immediately felt my heart sink. I use a blow up air mattress, one that has served me well for many thousands of miles. Punctures are a bit par for the course, though because I’m careful, I rarely get those. This, this was not a puncture – a baffle had blown, a phenomenon I’d only ever heard of when it comes to air mattresses, never seen, and it created an awkward bubble up by my head. As there was nothing I could do about it, I shrugged and we packed up and began the climb back up to Berg Lake and Mount Robson.

Robsonwalkinto

Mount Robson and her glaciers rolling into Berg Lake.

Robson1

The weather at Mount Robson was a lot clearer the second time past. 

I’d been dreading this climb a bit, with the large packs, but because the trail was so well built, and the scenery was beautifully distracting, Dan and I were at Berg Lake before we knew it. Unlike the last time we had been there, blue skies reigned, and as we spread out by the lake to watch the mountain and wait for Mik, we got to bask in all its glory. While we waited, we pulled out our food, and again went over how much we had. Obviously it’s not our first time doing this, but it was very hard to banish the niggling doubts that we didn’t have enough. As we spread out the piles of food around us, other hikers came by to ask what we were doing with all that food. It is a funny experience to try to describe a hike that goes to place no one has ever heard of!

RobsonFace

It’s not easy, but people ski down this slope. 

glaciertoe

A jumbled mass of ice flows into Berg Lake. 

Mik arrived and we headed off again, eventually rejoining the Great Divide Trail, where we half-jokingly, half-seriously made an offering to the trail. It’s easy to get superstitious out here, and what with the weather we’d had, overconfidence was not a problem. For this section, we followed the old, decommissioned North Boundary Trail for a ways. It was a section I’d been dreading, as Jasper National Park is decommissioning trails everywhere, and the decommissioned trails are pretty horrible. However, the North Boundary Trail was still in pretty good shape: there was deadfall, but not enough to really slow us, and the trail was swampy and muddy, but nowhere near what we’d encountered in places from Jasper to Mount Robson.

offering

The GDT feels like a living, breathing spirit that you want to keep happy or it will destroy you. Here is an offering we made to the GDT gods to keep them happy.

bigfoot

Sasquatch (or a bear that slipped) print found on the North Boundary Trail in far northern Jasper National Park. This is one of the wildest sections of the trail with very few visitors. It seems the only people who actually go here are GDT hikers. 

northbounddry

Heading north(ish) along the Smoky River on the North Boundary Trail. 

muddynbtrail

Sometimes the trail would deteriorate to just a channel of water thru a swamp.

We called it a day in a dense, murky forest, towering pine trees draped in old man’s beard leering over us as we pitched our tents on the mossy ground and walked 100 meters down the trail to cook supper.

Dan gave me a beautiful pair of earrings he’d picked up in Valemount, carved from birch found in the area, and when they found out it was my birthday, Mik gave me a piece of their chocolate for desert. Curled up in our tents that evening, an owl serenaded us to sleep, I knew there was nowhere else I’d rather be than there in the moss.

elaineandmik

Mik (R) and Elaine. Camping was tough to find this night, so we ended up just hopping into the woods and finding soft sections of moss to set up our shelters on. Owls hooted during the dark and it ended up being one of our best nights of sleep on the entire trail.

August 15th – Jasper’s Parting Gift…Torrential Rain – 14.4 miles, 3,400′ gain

The thrush bird ushered us into the day that morning, its powerful call ringing through the quiet woods. Once again, it was a fabulous night’s sleep, despite another baffle fully blowing on my mat, creating an even larger big air bubble.

wildarea

Nice big mountains and wild country along the North Boundary Trail.

We traipsed through the lush mossy forest, absorbing the steady thrum of life emanating from it. Mount Robson lays east of the coast, obviously, but very few to no mountain ranges are directly between it and the coast, so the area is very wet, almost coastal, to the point of cedars growing down low.

cedar

Cedar trees are usually found much closer to the coast. The area near Mount Robson benefits because the mountain attracts a ton of moisture, allowing big trees like this to grow.

We reached the Chown river – another river that has been known to cause problems, and where we would leave the North Boundary Trail. We took our first snack break by the river to discuss what we wanted to do. The trail technically crosses, goes up river a few kilometers, and then crosses again, so you could either cross it twice, or not at all. As the trail was once again more what one would describe as a “footpath” at best, and the Chown was looking rather full (with the wet summer, rivers are running high), we all decided to keep to our bank. At first we headed up the flood plain – easy traveling on bare rocky ground – until we were forced up into the woods. Progress slowed dramtically here, as we clambered over, under, and between deadfall. Finally, we reached the point where the trail crossed back over, and movement became a bit simpler.

Cown

Wading thru a Chown River tributary. We opted not to do a full crossing of the river, instead choosing a bushwhack route that avoided the main channel.

mossywalk

The bushwhacking was slow but adventurous.

chownvalley

Wild remote mountains in far northern Jasper National Park.

As we started up Bess Pass, we began a singing game where one person would sing a couplet from a song, and then choose a word from that phrase, and then someone else would sing a song with that word in it. This was great fun, and covered a fair amount of distance for us, as we laughed hard. This turned out to be a bad idea – the excess energy used to belt out songs and double up with laughter moved our typical snack time up an hour, and we sobered up after that – none of us had brought enough food to carry on with that.

besspassclimb.jpg

Working our way up Bess Pass.

We passed under Chown Glacier – a vast glacier stretching out widely above us, and the source of many waterfalls all around. The trail deteriorated, becoming a muddy mess that caused each step to slip back half of what we gained. Cresting Bess Pass, sweeping views lay out before us, every peak sporting a glacier.

chownmountains.jpg

Waterfalls up Bess Pass. The clouds were building and the weather would soon turn for the worse. 

topobess

Up and over Bess Pass and exiting Jasper National Park for the final time. We were now entering the legendary Willmore Wilderness.

As we reached Jackpine horse camp, heavy rain moved in, and we all layered into our rain gear before heading up Jackpine Pass. We set up camp in the rolling alpine, quick efficiency the name of the game with the threat of hypothermia looming in the cold rain. But once again we were tucked into our cozy tent and it was cuddly warm.

tents

Our camp near the top of Jackpine Pass. It rained hard all night long at camp, and snowed just a few hundred meters higher up.

August 16 – Onto the Jack Pine Alternate – 16 miles, 4,600′ gain

Rain poured all night long, with snow on the peaks just above where we camped, and I was grateful that we were camped on mostly slate rock with the hopes that it would drain well. It was a tough morning to get going, cold, wet, and foggy, so the three of us slowly meandered through a complicated terrain of tarns, ridges, and moraines. It’s interesting, traveling with someone else. Dan and I have almost exclusively traveled together for so many years now, we’re about as close to functioning as one person as two can be. Generally, we need to shed/add layers at the same time, take a break at the same time, all of the little stops that slow a group down, over the years, we’ve adjusted so that we’re really only stopping the same amount one person would. Adding another human into the mix is an interesting experience, and definitely one that is taking some getting used to.

twowalk

A soggy, crisp, foggy morning on the Jackpine Alternate.

dirtypants

A dusting of snow touched the upper peaks. At 53° north, snow in August in the mountains is a fairly regular occurrence. 

tinycreekfog.jpg

Wild country, home to caribou, wolves, marmots and soggy GDT hikers. 

The sun came out for a bit, so we took a snack break on a ridge above Blueberry Lake. Heading down to it, we hit surprisingly good trail that lasted until we hit bog again. Picking our way through it, we reached where the official trail dropped down into the Jackpine Valley to follow Jackpine River. The Perseverance High Route Alternate went off to our left, following a very high, completely cross-country route, 10km longer, and with a lot more elevation gain. However, the Jackpine River comes with quite the reputation – one hiker has dubbed it “The Valley of Sadness” for it’s bushwhacking through willows, mud, lack of trail, and general ickiness.

gorgeousness

The sun worked hard to peek thru, creating a magical vista of tundra, lakes, mountains, glaciers, fresh snow and clouds. 

epicmtnsEM

Navigating here required a lot of attention, as trail was non-existent. This will be the next step in our adventures…moving away from the established trails and finding routes that require more navigation and terrain management. 

vista

Big northern country on the Jackpine Alternate.

Though the clouds were still overhead, and the forecast wasn’t great, we headed up the alternate, knowing that there were several places we could bail off if the weather moved in. Immediately, we discovered that while the map showed us traipsing in a straight line across the tundra, the actual terrain was more complicated than that, involving us cutting straight across several very deep troughs and ridges, rising like waves perpendicular to the mountainside.

greyriver

Crossing a little creek just north of Blueberry Lake. 

bigmountains

Onto the Perseverance Alternate. This part of the trail was considerably slower and more rugged than the Jackpine section, with lots of talus and scree travel. 

smileelaine

Hiking thru the talus at one of those locations where the rock was grey on one side, and almost orange on the other. Geology is easy to see here. Generally speaking, the rock here is much more crumbly than the granite found in Colorado. We found numerous fossil shells on the top of passes and peaks, as this once used to all be under the ocean. 

We experienced another snafu when it came to navigation. Dan and I have honed a system over the years where he will do the macro navigation from the back, pointing out our general heading, and I do the micro navigation from the front, choosing the line to get there. Mik had been traveling solo, so had been doing it all. After several failed attempts at swapping responsibilities around, we settled on a similar arrangement that Dan and I usually use, especially as Mik’s knee began to act up more and more as the terrain grew more steep and technical.

slatemik

Mik moving well thru a shale topped ridgeline. This is remote country, and injury isn’t really an option. Or, if you do get hurt, it’s critical to find a way to work thru it effectively or you’re basically calling in for an expensive rescue. 

cliffdescent

This was one of the trickier descents of the day. The rock here was not stable, so we went one at a time, making sure to never be vertically above or below the hiker in front. A lot of communication is required to travel thru safely in a group. Unfortunately, it slows travel down to a crawl pace. 

cliffband

These mountains frequently had large cliff bands that would extend for a few kilometers before having a break. Here, we were fortunate that the route asked us to traverse above it!

The rest of the day involved navigating up long ridges and down several tricky cliff bands, where Dan rolled his ankle pretty badly and in an unusual way, rolling it over itself to the inside. It didn’t bother him much at the time, and we continued onward. Eventually we reached a set of tarns where we set up camp, very far away from each other due to the scarcity of semi-flat spaces.

intent

Perseverance Camp near an alpine tarn for water. We had to camp quite far away from Mik, as there were few spots in the area with flat ground and rock free. Our shelter in the Hyperite Duo Mid, a fantastic mid that is strong in wind and perfect for travel in northern, wet climates. We’ll give a full review soon.

August 17th – Perseverance, Storms and Heinous Bushwhacks – 12 miles, 4,500′ gain

This was the first night my mat really hindering my sleep. Another couple baffles blew, and while there was a sense of dread when I hear it happening before I’ve fallen asleep, it was quite shocking and loud after I’d fallen asleep! Dan also woke up to find that the ankle he had rolled the day before was feeling useless. He could hardly weight it, and said it was throbbing as we sat there. There’s not much we can do out here though, so I went over it as best I could – assessing for swelling, which there was very little and no bruising. While Dan visualized his ankle healing rapidly, I taped him up and had him take several ibuprofen tablets combined with a caffeine pill in the hopes of managing the pain properly.

ridgewalker

The Perseverance Route was some of the most interesting, challenging travel on the entire GDT. This is wild and remote country, more like Alaska or the Yukon than trails in the lower-48.

victory.jpg

Celebrating big country and massive valleys in the Willmore Wilderness. Unfortunately, the weather was rapidly getting worse, making traction on the loose rock challenging. 

Mik joined us and we began climbing up to our next pass via sweeping slabs of rock. Dan’s ankle began to feel a bit better as we climbed and by the time we crested a snowfield to the pass, nestled in between two glaciers, he was walking fairly normally. Another curiosity with our maps occurred here, as we gazed down the talus-filled valley at two lakes that very clearly were there in real life and not on the maps. We navigated the challenging, steep talus down to the lakes, and then climbed up a ridge above the lakes where we chose our route very carefully and slowly down a series of cliff bands and waterfalls to the valley below. The beauty was stunning, but the attention required to not slip over the cliffs prevented any of us from taking many.

elaineandmik

Elaine and Mik hiking along the spine of the divide on the Perseverence Alternate. 

smile

Elaine in her happy place. Some people are suited better for wild places than the civilized world. She is definitely one of them. 

sketchdown

A slow descent along the Perseverance Alternate. There was no 3 mph travel here. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much 3 mph travel on the entire trail. The saying is, “1 km on the GDT is the same as 1 mile on the trails in the lower-48.” Simply put, it’s a harder and wilder route. 

Eventually, we reached another talus-covered slope, this one much gentler, and now covered in rain-soaked lichen and moss, making footing even more tricky. As we began climbing up to another ridge, the wind began to pick up, whipping our backpack straps around and blowing hats off. We walked along the ridge for a while before navigating down some more little cliff bands to a creek at the base of Perseverance Mountain. We filled up on water and began the very steep climb up it. It was a grind, just trying to keep it moving, but I loved it.

evclimb

Elaine working her way up Perseverance Mountain as the rain and wind build. 

disheveleddan

Working hard on the Perseverance Mountain climb.

toporidge

Elaine crests the top of Perseverance Mountain and assesses the ridgeline route ahead. We were nearing a decision point. The route ahead continued on in this fashion for another 5 miles and the going would be slow. The weather was lousy and we didn’t have enough time to get off the ridge before night. We weren’t moving particularly quickly. On the other hand, descending off the ridge would require a heinous bushwhack in claustrophobic forest. We decided to continue on the ridge for awhile longer. 

ridgeline

They may take our lands, but they’ll never take our FREEEEEEEEDDOOOOOMMM! 

As we reached the top, the wind continued, whistling around our ears, bringing rain this time. We eyed our ridge, and the six peaks along it that we would climb on the route as we donned our rain gear. As we worked our way up and over the first one, the storm moved in stronger, the by-now familiar white wall of heavy rain advancing on us. The weather was rapidly deteriorating, the rock was getting very slick and travel was slow. We hunkered down in a little pass between peaks, debating what to do, eventually deciding to bail on the high route.

mikcrazydown

The ridgeline required a bunch of Class III travel over loose, exposed rocks. Awesome in good weather, a little less enjoyable with a cold rain making everything slick.

twoontop

Decision time. For the safety of the entire group, we decided to drop off the ridge and tackle a heinous bushwhack instead. 

At first, as we descended, it was relatively easy travel on crushed scree, then across soggy tundra, but soon we hit a dense woods. There was nothing to do but put our heads down and keep going, each retreating into our own little suffer bubbles. Eventually we reached the Jackpine River and the official trail, or what little of it there was. It was in a bit of a depressed state that we all set up camp that night.

The woods here were so dense, it was almost dark, and we were so exhausted that getting water for dinner almost turned into a disaster. The woods were extremely disorienting, and by the time we found water we had little idea of which way to go to get back to camp. We grabbed the GPS and headed in the general direction of where we thought we should be, yelling loudly, hoping for a reply from Mik.

mooseskull

The bushwhack down was a three-hour blur of route finding, log hopping (and ducking) and immersion into a claustrophobic, soaking wet land of deep vegetation. Fair to say it was the wildest part of the entire hike, and in some ways the most dangerous because it would be so easy to get lost here. Working our way thru the forest required 100% focus, and by the bottom we were all mentally exhausted. 

After repeating this a dozen times, we finally heard a return call, and followed the sound to camp. Ten minutes later, Mike repeated the same process to get water, and a similarly harrowing experience in these very dense, very claustrophobic woods.

August 18th – Over Slate Mountain and Into the Willmore – 14 miles, 5,300′ gain

The mattress reached an unfortunate place that night. For the first half of the night, I fought with it, the bubble now so pronounced that I could barely stay on it, slipping off to one side or the other, or else ending up with my head hanging off it. Then Dan and I swapped mats so that we could each get a half night’s sleep. It rained all night again, and was still at it when we finally woke up at 8. What with the rain, and yesterday’s effort pulling sluggishly through our blood we were slow getting going. We found Mik to see they were still waking up. It was cold enough that we all agreed Dan and I would hike on and meet back up with Mik later, to avoid getting chilled.

Weird things of weird things, Dan’s ankle didn’t hurt at all.

camo

After an intense day before, this type of terrain was a welcome relief. We saw a wolf not far from this area. This is the area where wolves were captured from for the Yellowstone and Idaho reintroductions in 1995. Good for Americans, but did anybody ask the wolves?

The Jackpine valley lived up to its poor reputation, even the short amount of time we were on it (we had covered 80% of the valley via the high route before we came down), with lots of “muddy schwacking” – a trail description I had not thought to verbalize before hiking the Great Divide Trail, involving schlepping through shin deep mud while bushwhacking through bushes higher than your head. Insert a rain storm, and you have a pretty darn cold, wet situation. Dan and I climbed up the first ridge – a very steep grunt involving more slippery mud, and more bushwhacking through the rain-soaked brush. Finally, we got up high enough to emerge from the brush and the worst of the mud, long enough that we got to stretch our legs a bit before plunging back down to the valley on the other side, which was a virtual muddy slip ‘n’ slide.

cresttop

Cresting the top of Shale Mountain as a cold gale blows from the north.

At the bottom was Pauline Creek, which was over my waist in depth, but was thankfully not very fast. Thoroughly drenched at this point, we began the climb up Shale Pass. For whatever reason, when I was researching the trail, Shale Pass stuck in my head. Obviously the end point (whichever end point you choose, as this trail has three) is a big one, but Shale Pass was, for some reason, meaningful. As Dan and I climbed above treeline, we watched the white curtain of rain in the distance getting closer and closer to us, the wind buffeting us along, and then, miraculously, that curtain of rain just passed us.

danslate

topofslate

Getting to the top of Shale Mountain was something we both felt very happy about. We didn’t know much about this trail before we started, but we did know that Shale Mountain was a place way up north near the end of the route. It was everything we hoped for – wild, cold and gorgeous.

We descended to a little boggy valley, then back up some more before deciding to call it a day and wait for Mik to show up. That evening, as the three of us huddled around our little cook stoves, we bemoaned the mud and rain and wet, while simultaneously being thrilled to be there.

August 19th – Across the Wild Wilmore Wilderness – 21.3 miles, 3,300′ gain

wildernesssign

Moose antler sign in the Willmore Wilderness. There seems to be some disagreement whether to spell Willmore with one “L” or two. Different maps and books have different spellings. You know a place is wild when the few folks who have been there can’t even agree how to spell it. 

In Jasper, when we stayed with the British couple who had done the Great Divide Trail, they had told us that after Shale Pass, “you fly.” As pretty much nowhere on this trail has even remotely involved that sensation, we decided to start hiking at 7 am that day, to try and catch up on some of the miles that we’d lost on previous days. The trail started with expanses of boggy sections that were sprinkled with forested sections of magical, beautiful, perfect trail. As we began to climb up our first pass of the day, the sun popped out, so we took advantage of it and stopped to dry stuff. Mik’s tent works much better when it gets the chance to dry (using a mid, Dan and I don’t have to deal with that), and everyone’s sleeping bag was getting a bit soggy.

2sign

Mike and Elaine at the Willmore Wilderness sign. 

greenpath

Fantastic country for a ramble of a few days or a few months.

walkpath

There is really no place on earth I’d rather be than the Willmore Wilderness. To me, it epitomizes the GDT better than anywhere else on the trail.

After, we passed a plaque for the Willmore Wilderness Wanderers – a group of people out of Grand Cache east of here that apparently spends a lot of time exploring this area. Then we descended to more wet boggy land, then up a beautiful climb to Fetherstonhaugh Pass, where we had a fantastic view. We took second snack break here, absorbing all the beauty around us.

wanderers

“No problem guys…just follow me!” To heck with PhD’s or medals…I want to be a Willmore Wilderness Wanderer!

mikoverpass

Mik reaches the top of Fetherstonhaugh Pass.

downslate

Elaine exploring deep in the Willmore Wilderness, always north, looking for the next adventure to more remote and wild lands. 

We ended up camping at Sheep Creek – another horse camp. I very much dislike the horse camps, with all the horse poop and how icky they feel. But we spent a beautiful evening watching the sun set on the cliffs around us.

sheepcreek

Crazy beautiful light at Sheep Creek.

August 20th – Surprise Pass and the Providence Alternate – 17 miles, 5,000′ gain

Dan and I woke up early again to get hiking – we were planning on doing the Surprise Alternate, while Mik had been planning on sticking to the trail. As we left camp, Mik informed us that after reading the trail description, they were probably going to try and do the Surprise Alternate as well. We also discussed traveling apart that day – Mik had started solo, and for Dan and me, we had first embarked on this adventure way down south at the 29th parallel at the New Mexico/Mexico border, so all of us felt the need to spend the last true day on the trail as we had started.

outsheeo

Leaving Sheep Creek and the Willmore Wilderness, bound for Kakwa Provincial Park and trail’s end.

The trail quickly left Sheep Creek and we began a gradual climb up to Surprise Pass, following a vast alpine valley up. There were caribou prints on the trail, and we kept our eyes peeled, but we didn’t see any caribou. Just on the other side of Surprise Pass, the trail continued down valley and we cut cross-country to hug glacier line at the base of Wallbridge Mountain.

ontosurprise

Surprise Pass marks the border between the Willmore Wilderness and Kakwa Provincial Park. There is no sign mentioning this. Between Mount Robson and Kakwa Lake, we didn’t cross a single road, power line, ATV track or any sign of humans other than the trail and a few rustic signs. It’s truly a wild and magical place.

backofshale

Up and over Surprise Pass and onto the Surprise Alternate. We saw a herd of caribou here, part of the dwindling northern Rockies herd. 

Up there, we met incredible, complicated, rolling glacial terrain. Enjoying the moment, we took an extremely long first snack and cooked one of our extra dinners. While waiting for the water to boil, we realized that the little pebble rocks surrounding us were not, as they appeared, simply rocks, but fossilized shells from millennia past. Dan and I whiled away a good amount of time pouring over the landscape and marveling at all the fossils that were just lying there for us to see.

ridgehandsupelaine

The Surprise Pass Alternate was full of glaciers, open country and ocean fossils from another time.

danhandsup

Glaciers are everywhere here near the 54° North parallel.

surprise

A beautiful day and some of the most enjoyable travel of the entire trip.

While waiting for our dinner to rehydrate, I spotted something moving, way back on Surprise Pass. I wondered if perhaps it was a wolf pack at first, but realized they must be larger creatures for me to be seeing them from the distance we were at. It was tough to see, but I think it was a herd of caribou – perhaps seven or so – that we watched flow across the terrain, moving as though they had wings on their feet. I’ve read their hearts are much larger than ours, and that they can cover terrain in minutes that would take us hours. We watched, breathless in awe.

watertarn

Filling up water from an alpine tarn near Wapiti Mountain. We used these BeFree filters from Katadyn that worked marvelously. 

1topwapitipass

Relaxing on a saddle below Wapiti Mountain, enjoying our first views of the Kakwa Lake basin. We spent a lot of time lallygagging on this day, taking an hour lunch and enjoying just being out here. We knew it would be over all too soon.

We began climbing again, stopping to grab water from a high, brilliantly blue tarn, before beginning up Wapiti Mountain for real. It was a fun climb, the kind that Dan and I like – steep, but manageable, steady, long enough to find your groove. At the top, we took yet another long break, savoring the high views. The days are on countdown, now, and we desperately want to hang on to these moments.

upshale

Up the shoulder of Wapiti Mountain. 

upwapiti

Wapiti Mountain was one of the easier climbs on the whole trail. The top was so wide it felt like you could land an airplane on it. Prints of caribou were all over the shale covered slopes.

wapiti

Elaine on the top of Wapiti Mountain overlooking Cecilia Lake. Careful not to step backwards…there is a 2,000 foot cliff on the other side. 

topowapiticouple

On the top of Wapiti Mountain. We may not have glamorous jobs or career aspirations, but we’ve gotten to experience more wilderness and adventure than most. And for that, we’ve beyond fortunate. 

annette

Cecilia Lake deep in the Kakwa. A cabin, a canoe, a pair of skis and a lifetime or three at this place would work well for me. 

Finally we began to descend, slow going, quite steep, with large talus that ended in a complicated cliff band to navigate. As we descended into the trees, the bugs came out in full force, biting so ferociously that we busted out the bug spray for the first time on this section. After some time, we rejoined the GDT, which soon proved to be every bit as icky as we’d been told – more mud and brush. So much so, in fact, that by the time we reached Broadview Lake, where another alternate branched off to resume a higher route, we jumped at the chance.

The Providence Pass High Route Alternate started off as a vertical climb up an old drainage, soaked moss making for some challenging footing, and the bugs on their endless quest for blood. After climbing 400 vertical meters, we were once again above treeline, the bugs died down, and we were able to traverse a steep, talus strewn slope.

climb

How could we leave the GDT without another steep, buggy alternate loop? Onto the Providence Alternate for extra-credit, foregoing the straight path to Kakwa Lake and civilization.

climbprovidence

The Providence Alternate seemed more like a loose concept, with only feedback being, “the GPS track on the map may or may no be accurate.” 

rockcelebrate

We found ourselves on top of a large talus field, having climbed a little too high up the peak. No worries…take your time and go slow to go fast. 

overkakwa

The pay off for the climb was getting to camp in this valley below for one last night on the Great Divide Trail. Kakwa Lake is just visible on the upper left of this photo. 

We ended the day, our last night on the Great Divide Trail before beginning the 100km walk out, camped beneath  Francis Peak and Broadview Mount. My heart swelled with happiness as we cooked dinner by some scrubby krummholz, gazing out at the towering, glacier-blanketed peaks before us. After messaging Mik on the InReach, we settled in to our cozy tent.

wildflowers

The wildflowers in the meadow were spectacular.

flowerstent

Bear camping requires creating a triangle. The three points of the triangle are the shelter, the cooking and eating area, and the food storage area. Ideally, the three are each located 100 meters from one another. This wasn’t always possible, but we did our best. A habituated bear is a dead bear most likely. 

kakwasunset

Not a bad spot for dinner on the last night on the GDT.

kakwatent

If we never had to leave, we wouldn’t. The Canadian Rocky Mountains are one of the finest places anywhere in our opinion. We absolutely fell in love with the landscape and wildness here. We liked the wetter conditions, the colder temperatures, the rugged, more challenging terrain. They have permanently changed what we now consider the absolute perfect environment, and we will be searching for ways to integrate that into our everyday life. 

August 21st – To Kakwa Lake, Trails-End and the 54° parallel – 25 miles, 3,000′ gain

kakwa

In 2017 we actually had the crazy idea to hike from Mexico to Kakwa Lake as part of our CDT hike. I remember sitting in a desert draw one night, barely 100 miles into the entire hike, talking with Elaine and another hiker about Kakwa Lake and how we would rent a float plane to get out of here. In retrospect, it was a bit preposterous, but it was big dreaming. Turns out it took longer than one summer to do the whole walk, and we never did get that float plane out. But we did walk from the Mexican border to Kakwa Lake, on foot, about 3,800 miles north on the spine of the Continental Divide. And this was our final destination for this leg of the journey.

We rose to an absolutely perfect morning – just a bit of rain, and then the skies cleared as we climbed up to Mount Ruth’s shoulder, brushing along a lake before beginning a descent back down to muddy bogland. Our notes mentioned that the descent was steep, and after days with no mention of anything being steep and then consequently navigating cliff bands, I was a bit nervous, only to discover that not only was the trail not a cliff – it was actually a trail! We trundled down it, watching the glacier-robed peaks disappear behind the trees until we reached the GDT again – the muddy pit that it was.

ev

Mixed emotions on the last day. While we enjoy a good burger, shower and clean clothes as much as anybody, we have found that the value of these things isn’t nearly as high to us as wildness. Honestly, if we didn’t have to earn money, we might never come out. We don’t need much, but we need this. 

overlook

Elaine looking north, toward Kakwa Lake, trail’s end, a lifetime of adventure ahead. 

flowers

The morning took us around two small lakes and thru wildflowers galore. The wind blew and occasional spit of rain fell. All in all, about as perfect as it gets. 

IMG_9220

Elaine enjoying a “Sound of Music” moment.

As we meandered through the mud, I thought about endings. When we hiked the Continental Divide Trail, in some ways I thought about the end a lot. The trail was a lot easier, in a lot of ways (though a lot longer), and it allowed for the mind to wander. On this trail, I am always present. Whether it’s navigating a tough section, or just walking through mud (which is a lot tougher than it sounds), my mind was always on the moment at hand. On the CDT, I spent a lot more time literally thinking of nothing, in almost a state of moving meditation, while on the GDT, every moving moment requires thinking about what I’m doing. There are pros and cons to both, for sure. In town on the GDT, it was time to check the weather, and time to read all you could about the upcoming trail and all the alternates, and in the evenings on trail, I would be going over what we were to cover the next day. My mind never really thought about the end. I knew this section was it, but as we neared Kakwa Lake, I realized that I wasn’t ready for it. Somehow, I wasn’t prepared.

Ruthtrail

Want to go to Ruth, or Alberta? Both good options I’d say. Off the Providence Alternate and onto the Kakwa River Trail for a few boggy miles before the lake. For some reason, this sign was hilarious for two hikers who had been in the wilderness for 7 days.

kakwaapproach

Elaine taking the final few steps towards Kakwa Lake, and the end of this portion of our odyssey from Mexico.

creek

The river running into Kakwa Lake. In true GDT fashion, before you can enjoy the lake, you have to ford a shin deep river. 

After crossing a small river, we stood on the banks of Kakwa Lake and walked 200 meters up to the 54th parallel. We took a long snack break at the lake, trying to process everything, watching the still water.

lakewalk

Heading north on the shores of Kakwa Lake to 54° parallel. 

54dande

On August 21 we made it the 54° degree parallel, Kakwa Lake, and the end of the approximately 700 mile long Great Divide Trail. The Great Divide Trail is, mile-for-mile, the most beautiful trail I’ve ever been on. It’s also the most challenging. We’ll write more in a wrap-up post.

elaine54

My wife Elaine was a powerhouse on this trail and absolutely in her element. She didn’t suffer a single significant injury, and more than once carried a heavier load when others were struggling. It felt like she never had to extend herself to the maximum, a good place to be in the Wilderness so you have some reserve when the shit does hit the fan. She had an incredibly impressive hike, and I’m honored to call her my partner. 

finishgdtdan

It’s no accident that I’m pointing north in this photo. The trails from Mexico to Kakwa Lake end here. But the route north absolutely does not end. More dreaming and scheming in the works.

resttime

If there is a quieter, more relaxing place on the planet than Kakwa Lake, I’ve never been there. There was a serene ease about the place that just made the whole body and mind relax. That, and perhaps we knew that the hard work was done for awhile, and we finally COULD relax. Nevertheless, Kakwa Lake is one of the most special places anywhere, in part, because it’s so hard to get here. 

cabin

There are two cabins at Kakwa Lake maintained by British Columbia Provincial Parks. One is for the park staff, the other for the general public. Not a bad job, working for the parks, cleaning the cabin, and getting to spend summer’s at Kakwa Lake. Those folks must have done something right in a previous life. 

Finally, we pulled ourselves up and began the long trek out. It started out as a slightly overgrown two track, which was easy travel, and allowed us to clip along at a decent pace. As our miles per hour ticked up, I realized that this was a whole muscle group that I’d not used all summer. Road walking is a totally different movement from cross country travel.

Immediately after crossing Buchanan Creek, the skies absolutely opened up and poured. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that amount of rain before – as though a hose had been turned on us. The road itself, already so saturated from a summer of record rain, turned into a river, and beneath the coursing water, a slick clay like substance that made any footing slippery. Slowly, the rain let up, and we soon ran into Mik, who had taken refuge from the deluge under the porch of a cabin belonging to a snowmobile club.

After a while, our two track became a much better maintained road, and eventually, we set up camp, cooking supper in the middle of the unused road and catching up.

August 22nd – Road Walk Out – 31 miles, 1,100′ gain

Mik had never done a 50k day before, and this was about the most perfect conditions to do one, with smooth road, cool temperatures, and lots of water so we didn’t have to do a water carry.

We were all sodden when we got up though – shocking to think that just the other morning we were relatively dry. So much rain last night – it left the ground sopping wet, and everything was just so damp. The sleeping bag, my poofy, everything was so damp. But it was a cool morning, the road made for quick travel, and we finally have light packs.

3twotrack

Funny, but the road walk out was prettier than probably 90% of the actual CDT. The standards on the GDT are high.

The walk out was surprisingly enjoyable. Huge mountains with glaciers surrounded the road, and the now-turning-orange trees were starting to shed their leaves as a cool autumn breeze blew across the land, kissing its first brisk warning on our weathered hikers’ cheeks.

At one point, we got a ride from a couple surveyors who were out – I guess they’re planning on logging this section in a couple years. It made me sad for future GDT hikers, as currently, this walk out isn’t too bad. They turned off up another road, so we continued on our way out to the highway.

Every once in a while, we would round a bend and a huge shape blocked the road. But these black bears are skittish, and all they want is to eat berries, so they would ramble off as soon as we raised our arms and let loose a couple bear calls.

1leaves

No doubt about it, fall is in the air in mid-August in the Kakwa. Some complain about it, but to me the walk out was one long, calm walk through the changing seasons in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Not much to complain about there. 

The end of the day dragged on, and Mik’s pain in their knee and back took a steep turn up, but between a combination of music, podcasts, and chatting, we crossed the 50k mark. Setting up camp in another marsh (I shall always remember the Great Divide Trail as when I became somewhat comfortable sleeping literally in a swamp), we began to cook our dinner in the middle of the road.

We had hiked late to get the 50k, and summer was now winding down, the sun no longer setting after 10pm,. The darkness rolled in comfortably around us, stars peaking out above as we dawdled on our last night out while we were all set about to enjoy a last cup of tea. We broke out the bottle of whiskey we had taken turns carrying from Mount Robson and passed it around, laughing at the ridiculous beast that is the Great Divide Trail.

All of a sudden, the sound of a motor came down the road, and an ATV came barreling at us. Startled, we all scrambled to move our stuff from the road, until Mik stood up to get them to stop. They were a couple who were part of the snowmobile club in Prince George that owned the cabin up the road and they were heading in for their own adventure. After chatting for a while, they drove off, cheering us on as they left.

4avy

Kakwa Lake is a big snowmobiling destination in the winter (it would be a huge approach on skis). It’s also very dangerous avalanche terrain. The snowmobile club erected this to make sure riders are traveling safe and stay alive. 

We all lay on the road looking at the stars and laughing. Soon the topic of music came up, including John Denver. (I know…I’m a Colorado native, and I don’t like John Denver, it’s practically blasphemy to many.) And then the topic of Canadian artists, which led us to singing Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” at the top of our lungs. I can’t say I’ve ever had Bieber Fever, but “Sorry” is sure going to have a special spot in my heart from now on.

These late summer Canadian nights are crisp, though, so soon we crawled into our tents and played “Would you Rather” with the Great Divide Trail.

“Would you rather hike the GDT with Oprah or Taylor Swift?”

Oprah, obviously.

“Would you rather hike the GDT with Obama or Jesus?”

Well, Jesus – I mean, the man walked on water, it would have been a useful skill out here.

“Would you rather hike the GDT with Jesus or Dobby?”

Dobby, for sure. Who wouldn’t want a house elf out here?

2roadwalk

The long walk out. One trip ends, and planning for the next one begins. Thank you GDT and the Canadian Rocky Mountains for a rich and wonderful experience. Special thanks to Keith and Leslie for making the trip possible. Time to make some money and dream up the next wild, northern adventure. 

August 23rd – A short walk and a ride out – 5 miles, 500′ gain

The Great Divide Trail wasn’t about to let us go easily. It rained all night and continued to rain as we packed up. On the plus side, I finally realized that if I only partially inflated my mat, I was able to sleep, so both Dan and I got a decent night’s sleep. We all packed up, marveling at our light packs, and, layered in all our rain gear, as usually, headed off down the road.

It was now a road in very good shape, and Mik’s mom had decided to come and get us, so a few miles from the highway, a little Prius appeared on the road, headlights shimmering in the rain. It was a fitting end to this summer’s GDT – rain, no fan fare, just a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, a Prius, three dirty hikers, and one mom eager to feed us. As we consumed doughnuts from Tim Hortons and Hungarian sausages, we all laughed, smiled, and ate.

As much as this trail hurt, I’m sad it’s over. The Canadian Rockies are truly amazing.

Total miles walked: 754

Total elevation: 148,300′

symbol

“It’s Not Your Job to Think, It’s Your Job to Charge!”

It’s a bit of a miracle we started this trail at all. On June 5th, we had resigned ourselves to spending a summer working in Boulder, commuting the canyon in its nightmarish construction state, and making the most of our days off – already planning a bunch of long backpacking trips we could take directly from the house, weird and convoluted routes to avoid people as much as possible.

But July 3rd found us barreling down a dirt road in Alberta in Keith and Leslie’s minivan to the “start” of the Great Divide Trail. On this trail, one of my goals is to go with the flow a bit more, to accept that I haven’t planned much at all, and to let go of some of the control I’m used to having. True to the nature of long trails and their desire to test you thoroughly, I was given the opportunity to practice this new, less control-centric philosophy from the get go. When Dan and I were finishing our thru hike of the Continental Divide Trail in 2017, it was highly impacted by fires, forcing odd re-routes, extensive road walking, and even ending in a different location from the “official” finish. Ironically, this same fire is impacting our Great Divide Trail hike. Most of Waterton National Park is closed due to this same fire, so our starting location was along Yarrow Creek – outside Waterton, and somewhere I’d never heard of.

Keith and Leslie drove us to the end of the dirt road, and after hugs all around, we started off, bear bells jingling. After passing some sort of power plant (oil or coal was my guess, complete with eternal torch thrust towards the sky), this alternate varied between dirt road and cross country travel across cattle grazing lands, but soon we were emptied out onto beautiful trail, wildflowers ablaze all around, and huge piles of fresh bear scat every few yards along the trail.

Up and up we climbed, taking our first snack break at a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by towering mountains, red and green bands streaking through them, and lingering snowfields glittering on their flanks.

Up, up, up we climbed, passing by another couple who were also starting the trail. Monique and a man I didn’t catch the name of had tried to start in East Glacier in Glacier National Park in the US and had run into a lot of trouble because of all the trail closures in Waterton. Already our Banff friends were proving to be a great help to us on this endeavor with their local knowledge. As we crested our first pass, a stunning view expanded out before us.

Towering mountains extended as far as the eye could see and I found myself choking up a bit. A month ago I had been crying for days on end, devastated by what I felt was an unfair situation. Now, the vast expanses of the Canadian Rockies stretched all around me, enveloping me in their rocky embrace – mine to explore for two whole months.

We traversed along Avion Ridge, a gigantic flank littered with scree. Footing was tricky along this side hill, and we continued to climb along the ridge as thunder boomed and cracked in the distance. As the spaces between lightning flashes and thunder crashes grew closer and closer and the trail climbed still higher, we finally dove off the side, scrambling down the ridge towards tree line, where we hastily erected our shelter none too soon. Lighting flashed across the sky, thunder cracked over head, ringing in the ears, and a wet mess of hail and rain pounded down.

We pulled out the stove and cooked an early dinner while the skies exploded all around us. Part of our bear management plan for this trip is to cook dinner, eat, and then continue on down the trail, leaving the tasty dinner smells behind. Just as we were finishing dinner, the storm rolled by, so we packed up and left.

The ridge continued to climb for a while longer, and then dropped down into a larch forest. I was surprised when a branch struck me across the face and it was soft – I’m used to pine trees where getting those needles to the face is a very unpleasant experience, but larch drop their needles in the fall, and these new needles were velvety soft.

Down a steep trail and just as I was stepping over yet another downed tree, I looked up to see the most classic black bear I’ve ever seen: deep black, with a brown muzzle. Dan and I raised our arms and trekking poles, talking to him, until he trundled off up the hill.

As the evening wore on, we passed a tent set up next to a creek, although we saw no humans, and we started looking for our own place to set up. The extremely dense underbrush made it difficult, as well as looking for a tree that would make for a good bear hang, but we found one and were soon tucking in for the night.

The next morning dawned cold and wet, and as Dan and I were layering on our rain gear, a couple passed us, different from the couple we had met the night before, and we assumed they must be from the tent the night before. We were following what seemed to be a very old logging road, quite overgrown in places, decent in others, that sloped gently downwards, getting the proper car wash experience as the dense brush on either side of the trail offloaded their rain-drenched leaves on us as we passed.

Is it not perfection?

We played leap-frog with the other couple as we each took snack breaks, eventually joining the official GDT and climbing up to a creek that was the last water source before a 14 km stretch of challenging, slow ridge walking – the hiker notes say it often takes hikers 8 hours to do the upcoming stretch. The other couple stopped to camp there, but as it was only 2 pm, I didn’t think Dan and I could manage not hiking for that long. We loaded up on water and started climbing.

Yes, this is the trail.

And up it was! Soon the trail disappeared and we were left to clamber up an almost vertical wall of slippery plants and mud, gaining 490 meters in less than 4 km. The view was richly rewarding.

La Coulotte Ridge was a jagged knife-edge, requiring a bit of scrambling and a bit of navigating to avoid a descent over cliff faces, made a bit more challenging by the rolling clouds that were wafting by, sometimes so dense we could hardly see what was directly in front of us, sometimes lifting up so that we could see the spectacular ridge line stretching away from us.

The climb to La Coulotte Ridge was followed by a just-as-steep descent down, and then up La Coulotte Peak, a peak standing at 2360 meters, and a total mess of scree. Our feet punched through the scree as though it were rotten snow, and I found myself very glad we had decided to bring two pairs of La Sportiva Raptor shoes for this hike – this was going to tear through shoes pretty quick. On the way up, Dan found what I’m pretty sure is a fossil. We may be wrong, but it was pretty cool.

Anybody know if this is a fossil?

A very tough trail on shoes. Thank you La Sportiva for helping us out with this hike.

The Barnaby alternate takes off from the top of La Coulotte, but we decided to stick to the main trail – Barnaby Ridge is Class III/IV terrain, extremely dry and exposed, and our luck with the weather had been tenuous at best so far.

We descended about a kilometer off the peak, found a tiny but suitable flat spot and set up camp for the night, watching more weather move in. To our east, dense fog billowed up and up, reaching tendrils through the little dips of the ridge, and to our west, British Columbia basked in the glory of the setting sun, the Continental Divide acting as the barrier between.

Fog Camp

Heavy rain came and went throughout the night and a cold wind blew underneath the shelter to kiss our faces with brisk fierceness, making sleep a fitful thing, and we arose to dense fog. I also awoke to an uncharged phone. I had plugged it in to my charger the night before, but it seemed to have mostly charged it, and then stopped.

“Perhaps it was just trying to conserve battery power,” Dan suggested as I lectured my battery.

“It’s not your job to think,” I told my battery sternly, “It’s your job to charge!”

I was actually quite cross at it, but when Dan started laughing, I couldn’t help but join in, it sounded so much like a line for a ski film, and that became the theme for the rest of the day.

It was another wet start, decked out in our rain gear as we navigated our way carefully through a cliff band that wrapped the flanks of La Coulotte Peak down to a saddle, and then up yet another steep ridge. Visibility was almost nil, and it was slightly vertigo-inducing to climb up, rocks beneath your feet, nothing but fog to the sides, not knowing how steep – or how far – the drop off was. The white out caused me to navigate down a bit too far to the west, but we corrected and soon had summited the next and last peak of the ridge and began our long, long descent into a valley, and then – lo and behold! What appeared to be an old mining road appeared out of nowhere and travel pace picked up a bit.

The rain continued as we dropped lower and lower, crossing several rushing rivers until suddenly we were on a dirt road and hit Castle Mountain Ski Resort. Now, I still haven’t seen the place properly, given the cloud cover and rain, but from looking at pictures while we sat in the small pub, demolishing pizza and nachos, I think we might just have to come back. After searching for a trail map (there were none, it is summer after all, I suppose) for a friend who collects trail maps from around the world, it was back out into the dreary evening for a few more miles.

Sun’s out, feet out!

A picture of what Castle Mountain looks like!

We were dumped unceremoniously onto a highway that we walked for all of a hot second before the Great Divide Trail took us off to walk through a knee deep river for a way before spitting us back out on to the highway, then veered off onto an old dirt track. We followed this for a while, observing the damage from a flood in ’13, wondering if it might have been the same storm that caused our own floods back home in ’13.

As we climbed gently up, passing through the dense brush, I suddenly stopped, looking off to the left where I saw a tiny little erosion gully coming down.

“That can’t be anything,” Dan said.

But after checked the maps and notes – “rest assured, this is the correct route” – yes, yes it was the GDT. So we stepped off the old dirt track and climbed vertically through yet more rain drenched bushes, becoming properly soaked now, and talking loudly in the hopes of scaring off any bears around, as we could see no further than the branches in front of our faces. Quite abruptly, after 400 meters of vertical climbing, we were spat out onto yet another two track and witnessed our first GDT marker of the trail!

First GDT marker!

We set up camp just off the trail while thunder began and lightning flashed over us, counting the seconds between flash and boom, like some count sheep to fall asleep.

Rain poured down that night, and I had dreams of floating away, but we awoke to a weak sun filtering through the thick clouds, slowly burning them away, and we were both so thrilled, we soon shed our rain gear, only to be swarmed by mosquitoes, intent on our fresh, sweet blood. They were so bad, we actually busted out the bug spray for the first time.

The flowers are in full force!

It was mostly two track that morning, passing through muggy, swampy areas. As we stopped at one junction to consult our maps on which way to go, I looked up and saw a cow moose trotting off, long legs making easy work of the swampy land. As we located where we were and read the notes, we laughed aloud:

“Watch for moose, on my hike in 2013 I saw a beautiful cow”

Much of what we’ve been hiking through is what I would consider moose terrain, but this was our first moose, and here was a note about it. I couldn’t help but laugh.

All too soon, we joined a gravel road, where miles became easy, but the sun soon became baking hot and we were stripping to shorts and t-shirts in no time.

We stopped for lunch along Lynx Creek, to fuel and camel up on water before ascending to Willoughby Ridge, another long ridge walk with no water. One butterfly took a liking to Dan’s head, and wouldn’t stop circling as we ate. As we sat, shoes off, feet baking in the sun, a couple stopped along the road and came down to us.

“We’re looking for the waterfall,” the guy said by way of greeting, full of friendly Canadian cheer as he waved his coffee enthusiastically through the air and his pup chased butterflies through the grass.

“I’m sorry, we don’t know where it is,” Dan responded, and was in the process of saying we could probably find it on our maps, but they were past us and in the creek before the words came out. Several minutes later, they came back, the guy dripping.

“I’ve traveled from coast to coast in Canada,” he declared, a huge grin on his face, “and I like to baptize myself in every body of water I find!” With that, they got back in their truck and were gone, and it was time for us to move on as well.

The climb up to Willoughby Ridge was a very steep two track, and with the sun beating down, and the high humidity from all the recent rain, both of us were soon drenched in sweat, even little rivulets making their way down my legs. My foot also began to give me a bit of grief as we climbed up – I’d felt it on some of the steep descents the day before, and it was getting angrier. It felt like a tendon behind my big toe was angry at me. Probably rightfully so. Not knowing that we were going to be doing a thru hike this summer, we hadn’t prepared very well, taking a full month off in April and only resort skiing, and in May doing a ton of backcountry skiing as pow day after pow day hit us. None of which does any good whatsoever for toughening feet up for the trail!

Willoughby Ridge had incredible views!

As we reached Willoughby Ridge, a vast view of the Continental Divide opened up to our west, stark and gnarly. It was no wonder the trail was not located there through this section – it would take a skilled rock climber to navigate those peaks. But from our vantage point along the ridge, it made for spectacular viewing.

A fire in 2003 devastated the forest around Willoughby Ridge.

Descending from the ridge, we ran into the tail end of a local endurance race, the Sinister 7, a hundred mile ultra race that climbs some 21,000 feet. This was the last of them, and many were not hitting the time limit. It was a little depressing to watch someone’s summer goal ending, to be honest. We ate dinner, watching them go by, trying to be encouraging, while they staggered past. One woman stopped, staring at Dan.

“Is that? Do you have a poodle with you?” She asked in disbelief.

“I – what?” Dan asked, taken aback.

“I, you, I’m sorry, I must be seeing things, I thought you had a poodle on your shoulder,” she stumbled off, staring back at us. Fortunately, there was an aid station just beyond the bend, so we didn’t feel obligated to make sure she was ok.

It did make us reminisce about some of the odd hallucinations we had on the Greenland icecap. At one point, we saw a pack of wolves in the distance, and at night, we always saw lights a ways behind us, as though there were a group a day behind us. It is crazy what the brain will come up with.

As we climbed up another ridge, our weather luck broke, and thunder heads gathered with alarming speed overhead. Just as we reached the top, lightning struck way too close for comfort, and at the same second a crash of thunder so loud it left our ears ringing boomed through the sky, and we both dropped to the ground, arms over our heads out of pure instinct. The next second, we were up and running, pell-mell, trekking poles clattering on rocks, slipping in the mud and hail that was now thundering from the sky, hair frizzing and hearts leaping in our throats.

Running down and then dropping into the trees, my foot began to scream at me, and I shouted at Dan that I couldn’t run, and continued on at a fast hike as the rain and hail pounded into the mud, the saturated ground unable to hold any more moisture, instantly turning the trail into a river.

I limped into camp at York Creek, now well below tree line, foot severely aggravated, but nobody struck by lightning. It was with trembling fingers that we tied out our guy lines. So far, I haven’t figured out the weather patterns. Thunder and lightning roll through at any time of day or night. Cold and wet again, we fell asleep, glad that at least it was an easy walk into town.

Overlooking Coleman

Indeed, it was a very easy walk into Coleman, at first on a two track, then a wide gravel road, then finally a few kilometers on pavement. My foot was still quite angry from the night before, and greatly favored going uphill instead of down, but this was mostly down, and what do you do besides walk?

As we stepped into Coleman, the most delicious smell of cinnamon washed over us, and as it was only 11 in the morning, we headed into the Cinnamon Bear Bakery, where we purchased cinnamon rolls and cookies, and sat down outside, where we were joined by Paul.

This is where the magic of the trail comes out – we came into town a bit hurt, a bit put out about being wet and cold for the last few days, and the very first person we run into in town is the most friendly, warm, encouraging person imaginable. It turned out Paul had guided in the Kakwa Lake area in the ’90s. Kakwa Lake is one of the ending points along this trail, though many end in Jasper National Park, or at Mt. Robson, as Kakwa Lake is quite a long, remote section, and requires an 80 km road walk out of. In fact, I have yet to meet someone in person who has actually been there. Paul’s eyes lit up when he heard that we were trying to get there, and we spent an hour listening to his tales of the area.

Our stoke for our adventure re-kindled, we checked into the Paddock Inn Motel, where the landlady is the kindest, most helpful human, and took a long warm shower each.

Trail life – it’s where your lows are very low, but your highs are even higher for it, and it’s all of that that makes this life so very, very special.

Thanks for the marvelous beginning, Canada!

And perhaps, truly, there’s a nugget of truth in what I told my charger: It’s not your job to think, it’s your job to charge.