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!

Into Wonderland: Kananaskis to Sunshine

Excitement pumped through the blood as we neared the trail again, the heady rush of embarking into a land that you know will blow your mind with the wild wonder of it all making us a bit punch drunk. We said our farewells to Leslie and headed off, beginning the long trek around Upper Kananaskis Lake. It appeared to be a popular loop to go around the lake, many tourists doing the trek around it, and even some runners.

A couple bald eagles made their debut above the lake, the incredible mountains with glaciers embracing their flanks and the classic turquoise lake the perfect background for their huge circling. We left the people behind as we turned off into the Upper Kananaskis River valley. The storm that was predicted for this stretch began practicing, the skies opening up and raining hard, then closing again for a short breather, repeating the process as it rehearsed for its big performances over the next couple of days.

Passing through a dense thicket of brush, a cow moose stomped across the trail, checking us out over her shoulder as we traipsed by, reassuring her that we were simply passing through. The chill in the air kept us in our rain gear for the remainder of the day, as we began climbing higher up the valley. Nearing our camp site for the evening, a black bear crossed paths in front of us, all teddy-bear furriness as he trundled up into the dense trees.

We arrived at Tourbine Campground with a lull in the weather, where we seized the chance to set up camp not in the rain. Fingers cold, we fumbled slightly with the guy lines, but soon the mid was up, sleeping bags laid out as we sought the cook area.

A steel table stood in the middle, but the cold and wet of it was uninviting to sit on, so we contented ourselves with standing around it while preparing dinner, a drizzle beginning to fall around us. Hastily downing a hearty pasta meal, we reveled in the ease of this backcountry site complete with bear lockers. The speed of pack up was so delightful, not requiring the trek around, searching for the perfect bear-hanging tree. Dumping all our smellies in a bear locker, we dove into our sleeping bags.

All throughout the night, it rained hard, and every time I rolled over, I checked to make sure there were no small rivers of water making their way through our sleep spot. The rivers were content to wind their way around the tent, and we woke to spotty rain, and a cold wind. Donning the rain gear (for the first and last time of the day), we followed easy, beautiful trail up to Kananaskis Pass and a beautiful alpine lake. For the first time this trip, no views greeted us from the top, socked in and foggy as it was. The dense clouds blanketed us in a damp, bone-chilling cold that set in gradually.

Cresting the pass, we left Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and entered Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, and as we descended the other side, the quality and amount of use of the trail immediately declined. Faint trail, often simply a remnant of feet passing through the same place on the rocks, cascaded straight down the steep slopes.

The loose, steep, slippery situation was exactly the terrain that caused Dan’s ankle to act up, so we were forced to a slow pace that enable the damp’s creeping fingers to get a good grip on me, and soon I was shaking with cold.

The lower we dropped, the colder I became, as dense brush rose up on either side of the trail, sopping wet, gracing us with the dreaded phenomenon known as the “car wash”. This is where you must push through drenched brush, causing all the collected rain to slosh down over you. No rain gear is impervious to this, as the repeated pressure will eventually push the moisture through the membrane to you. Thighs and arms are exceptionally prone to this, and soon those body parts were very cold. Remnants of our large furry bear friends littered the trail: large piles of veggie filled scat, and footprints the size of plates going every which way caused us to hoot and holler into the surrounding brush.

Eventually we began the long climb up to Palliser Pass, the same wet bushes to the face slowing and cooling us further. Maintaining easy breath, convincing my body it wasn’t as cold as it was, we climbed up, until we crossed into Banff National Park.

We had been doubting the probability of us reaching our campsite – it was 23 miles away, and at 1pm, we had managed all of 7 miles. However, as we crossed into the National Park, the trail improved considerably. We could see where the brush along the trail had been cut back so that we could pass easily, and soon we were swooping down the Spray River valley, passing what seemed like hundreds of alpine toads along the trail – so many of them we had to watch carefully to avoid trampling them or poking one with a pole.

We were on our way to meet Leslie, who was coming in to hike with us for a couple days. As we hurried on into the evening, we finally neared Big Springs camp, and lo and behold, a lone figure stood under a tree as we arrived.

“Friends!” The familiar voice rang down the trail as we approached and soon soggy hugs were being exchanged, and then magically, what seemed like two pizza’s crammed into a tuppoware appeared in front of us, and frozen fingers immediately began to transfer the delicious food to hungry mouths.

Bodies exhausted, we crashed hard that night, even sleeping in a bit in the morning. Dragging ourselves out, we found the day to be cool, but very little rain yet, which raised spirits immensely.

The lack of rain also meant the views were back, and they were coming out in full force as we traversed wild flower carpeted meadows above the large Marvel Lake.

The morning was filled with trekking-pole whirling, whooping to warn bears, and jaws dropping at the fabulous views as we climbed to Wonder Pass.

Just we crested the pass, the weather decided to move back in, and as we began to descend, the temperature plummeted, and soon a mix of rain and hail pummeled us as we traipsed through enchanting larch forests.

This changed to sleet, thunder began booming, and then the snow fell, big fat flakes coming down thick and fast. At the bottom a small group of huts were nestled, with a cook hut between them.

Leslie peered through the window.

“Not too full yet,” she said, “Let’s make a quick cup of tea!” Peeling off all of the wet layers, we were soon inside, steaming profusely as we wrapped cold fingers around steaming mugs of ginger tea. The snow began to come down heavier, clinging to the larch branches as we watched with trepidation. As the feeling came back to fingers and toes, we left to go the rest of the way to our campsite. It was a bit shocking, after traveling through so much unpopulated wilderness, but as we walked towards Mount Assiniboine, we were entering a very popular area – one of those bucket list places. People can even pay to get a helicopter ride in, and stay in fancy little cabins. The snow was picking up, and as we passed the first real viewpoint of Mount Assiniboine, we laughed at the gaping white void where the mountain supposedly was.

However, once again, as we neared our campsite at Lake Magog, the weather gave us a bit of a break.

Dawn, one of Leslie’s friends, was on a trip of her own with another woman, Brenda, and she met us at the entrance to the confusing mess of trails that was the sprawling camp site, and led us back to a secluded area where they had saved us a spot.

She and Brenda regaled us with tales of their trip so far as we set up camp, wonderful, cheerful women opening their arms to us immediately.

“Well, friends,” Leslie announced once our shelters were set up, “we have a decision to make.” She gestured at the clearing skies around us. “We could do tea,” this tea was something of a trail legend, as the Mount Assiniboine Lodge was known to open its doors to the “public”, as us campers were known, for an hour to serve unlimited tea and loaf (which I was told was essentially cake), “or we could climb the Nub.”

Not even an alternate listed for the GDT, the Nub is a very quick little side trip that gives crazy good views over the Assiniboine basin. The clouds were lifting, lifting, drifting around the peak, and it was an easy decision in the end.

The five of us made our way from the campsite back towards the Assiniboine Lodge, where we parted ways, Dawn and Brenda to partake of the tea, and the three of us to climb up the nub.

Indeed, it was a short jaunt, and after just a wee bit of a huff, we popped out above tree line, the incredible basin of Assiniboine expanded out below us.

It was one of those moments, where trail lore is not just truth, but the real thing is greater than you imagined. Also known as the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”, its reputation preceded it – and most appropriately. We stood, watching sun beams dance on the glacier warped around it, the plume from the top indicating the whipping winds up there, and snow cascading from its many layers.

As we descended, a storm ripped back through the valley, bringing more snow, whipping winds, and thunder cracking overhead.

Back down at the camp, we discovered that a truly lovely cook shelter existed, and we settled down amongst the other campers. A young Israeli fresh out of the military sat with us, along with Dawn and Brenda, and the evening passed with folks rushing to find more layers, but unwilling to truly leave the conversation for the warmth of their tents.

Dawn, Leslie, Dan, and I took an evening stroll down to Magog Lake, where we learned about modern pentathlon (Dawn went to the Sydney Olympics – and we were all fascinated to learn more about this little-known sport).

Finally, we all curled up for the night, relatively warm and dry. It was still a restless night, unfortunately. This particular camp site had ready-made boxes they wish you to camp on, filled with these sharp rocks. Of course, with light weight gear, this would be avoided at all costs normally, but as that was what we were supposed to do, we did it. It also meant that Dan’s sleeping mattress received several punctures and he was blowing it up all night.

The cook shelter also proved to be a strong pull that morning, and even though we were all packed up and ready to leave, we lingered at the shelter, chatting with our new friends. Finally, the call of the trail pulled us from the shelter and we set out into the cool, but thankfully precipitation-less day.

It was perfect hiking weather, long-sleeved top and tights just warm enough, but brisk enough to barely break a sweat. We soon came to Og Lake, where we came upon another group.

“Your boots!” Exclaimed a woman as we approached them, pointing at Leslie, and we all stopped, surprised.

“Yes, what about them?” Leslie asked, leaning on her poles.

“Are they yours?” This was such a strange question, we were all laughing at first, but it soon came to light that when we had ducked into the cook hut for tea the day before, Leslie and this woman had inadvertently traded boots. As they switched back mid-trail, we all had a good laugh, and then we were off into the Valley of the Rocks.

This was a wonderful, magical place. It was the oddest, rolling terrain, dotted with gigantic crumbling rocks. The trail weaved through these massive rocks, and the mist drifting amongst the towering cliffs above us added to the expectation of Orcs leaping out at us unexpectedly from behind a boulder.

Whooping and hollering, we ascended Citadel Pass, stopping to look at the diggings of the resident grizzly on our way up, bumped along past Howard Douglas Lake, and then were deposited into Sunshine Meadows.

The clouds finally opened at this point, but even with the rain coming down, the ground squirrels still frolicked through the meadows and even a pair of Mountain Bluebirds graced us with their presence. We joked that wherever Leslie went, all of her friends came out, even the squirrels, no matter the weather. Soon we were in Sunshine ski resort, and descending a long road to where Leslie’s husband Keith was meeting us to take us all back to Banff, where warm showers and clean laundry awaited us, and where we would eat all the things.

Despite the weather, or perhaps because of it, it had proven to be an incredible section. Dan’s ankle seems to be on the mend, and though challenging, the trail continues to be rewarding beyond belief.

Coleman to Kananaskis: Forget-Me-Nots, Tornado Mountain and the Most Beautiful Spot on Earth

July 9, 2019 – 24 miles, 3,300 of climbing

Aspirations for getting out of town quickly rarely go as planned. The pattern of the trail gets broken, conversations happen and breakfast places keep serving food – all delaying departure. Such is life and the cause of us departing Coleman at an extremely lazy 9:45 am bound north on a six-and-a-half day ration to Kananaskis.

It was a productive break. My blisters healed, Elaine’s foot is feeling better and I traded in my sieve-like raincoat for a functional Patagonia Torrentshell that I got at a local fly-fishing shop in Coleman. If we open our own store someday it’ll look and feel a lot like this one: an earthy, wood-feel, a casual vibe with coffee and soup and pastries and a spattering of functional gear to get people into the outdoors. There are few things in life as wonderful as a small town gear/coffee shop.

The trail today was as if we got tossed back to Colorado. It was a mostly two-track day thru aspen groves and less dramatic gray mountains, reminiscent of Kenosha Pass or the eastern side of the San Juans. The sun was shining and there was a slight breeze making the trees quake, about perfect hiking conditions really. The area north of Coleman has been logged heavily, but the trees seem to be restoring themselves nicely.

While the landscape reminded me of Colorado, the animals tracks told another story. Big bear prints and scat were prominent, and for awhile we also followed what I’m positive was a wolf track. At the very end of the day we climbed a steeper pass and found a wonderful flat spot on its shoulder to sleep for the night. As I write this, the birds are chirping, the creek is gurgling and Elaine is fixing up some pasta for dinner. Life is simple, and life is good.

July 10 – 18 miles, 4,100 feet of climbing

Leslie and Keith told us this section had the most human resource impact of the entire trail, and we saw a big part of that today. After a blissful sleep we started up Race Horse Pass, a wake-up call stouter than the strongest espresso. I’ve always held the simple mantra that the perfect start to a day is to wake up early and climb a mountain. It’s good for the lungs, legs and soul.

We walk back down the other side on a long meandering ATV track as a light drizzle falls. I enjoy the insular feel, listening to the rain patter on my hood, letting the mind do nothing but be present in the moment. Humans spend too much of our time being busy. Yet what is particularly wrong with just being in the moment, listening to the rain or watching the wind blow through the trees?

After a long decent we came around a bend and saw what looked like Mordor. A quick glance at the map told us that this was the Line Creek Coal Mine, a massive scar on the landscape that resembled the Climax Mine back home. While we’ve passed numerous logging clear cuts, the impact from that seems minimal compared to this. I suspect it will take till the next ice age for the impacts of this mine to completely disappear. It’s always a tough balance, the need for energy and preserving the environment. I understand that balance but out here I tell what I see, and it isn’t always pretty.

The trail climbs out of the mine basin and up something called North Fork Pass. This pass is the official starting point of the original Great Divide Trail way back in the 1970s before they decided to include Waterton National Park. It seems a bit of an odd start, as it’s seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Then again, that’s part of what makes it so perfect…jagged grey mountains erupting into the sky from forests of dark pine and crystal clear streams running in the valley below. As if to prove a point of the wildness of this place, a buck leaps across the trail in front of us, stops, and stares at us for a good 30 seconds before moving on. It was almost as if the deer was evaluating us and decided we passed the mustard test to enter. Thank you deer, and may you have good luck this fall avoiding the hunter’s rifle.

We drop into a rowdy looking basin and turn left up towards Tornado Saddle. Tornado Saddle marks the beginning of the truly jagged part of this segment and promises to be a highlight. We follow an old ATV track up the mountain that gets more and more faint as we climb. We rise out of the trees and cross a talus field left here by the last ice age. The clouds rip by and build at a quickening pace. A check of the weather on the InReach calls for storminess this evening, and while a crossing of the pass might be unrealistic, we don’t feel like stopping yet.

The trail is more of a goat track than anything else now, and soon we come to a 100 yard section of blowdown that turns the trail into a 25-minute hopscotching ordeal. We arrive at a flat meadow with huge mountains on all sides. The weather is brewing up higher and this seems like a good spot to stop for the day.

I’ve been to many places in my life, but this particular place may take the prize as the most beautiful spot yet. It’s a mountain pass with lush, flat ground with scattered fir and spruce trees. Animal trails dart off in all directions, and cliff walls rise on all sides of the pass. A massive monolith shoots up 3,500 vertical feet to the east, and I believe I could spend a lifetime looking at this wall. Sheer cliffs rise up to the sky, broken up only by vertical gullies and snowfields. Rock fall echoes down the face, and the wind gives a haunting whistle as it rips thru ledges, towers, nooks and crannies. The top is constantly shrouded in misty clouds and fog, and below the wall is illuminated by the last rays of sun of the day.

Below the cliff wall, a slope of jagged talus and scree eventually relents to alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers. Below that small firs emerge, and lower, the dark northern forest with towering trees, deep and mysterious. And finally, further down, but still up above the rest of the world, the forest breaks into our valley were we are spending the night. Down here that howling wind that is ravaging the peak is a mere light breeze, keeping the mosquitoes at bay. Birds sing to one another, their chirps echoing across the forest.

Oh what I would give for a small cabin in this spot, to spend autumn and winter here, to see bears and wolves and watch the clouds roar by and the half moon hang in the darkening night sky. Today we did not see another human, just the way we like it. This may indeed be the most perfect spot on earth.

July 11 – 17 miles, 5,700 feet of climbing

Well this was a demanding day. It started off with a bushwhack out of the most perfect spot on earth through thick spruce forest on a steep sidehill that eventually gave way to alpine meadows. I have never seen so many Forget-Me-Not flowers in one place, hillsides of them covering the entire tundra. Forget-Me-Nots are my favorite flower, and I’ve never seen them spread so copiously.

I didn’t sleep too well last night. I had haunting dreams of the other world – work and the passage of time – and I wonder what brought it on. Remote places like this make you address your weaknesses head-on. My dad was a worrier, and it’s one thing I strive constantly to not do. That’s a big part of the reason I like to be out here – no time to think of frivolous things and let the undisciplined parts of the mind rule the days, not with a steep mountainside that was growing looser and rockier as we go up.

As we climbed the mountain grew steeper and the wind roared through the cliff walls. Tornado Saddle was living up to its name. As conditions got worse, I found myself getting more comfortable, the muscles and mind relaxing and flowing with the climb. Soon we crested the steepest part of the loose climb, and with a raging wind blowing in our faces, we reached the summit. As the wind howled, Elaine broke into a howl right into the face of the wind, wild and free, exactly where she belongs.

The descent down the other side of Tornado Saddle was less dramatic and steep, and soon we hit trail. We dropped back into the forest and onto the most perfect hiking trail, a remnant of the old GDT built decades ago. Logs were placed across the river, and after a nervous crossing high above on the first one we discovered that they were no problem and enjoyed the high wire act on the crossings to come.

We were meandering along when Elaine stopped dead in her tracks. On the ground in front of her was trigger device for a bear spray canister. While it’s possible it fell off, it’s more likely somebody in front of us actually had a bear encounter in this spot. That certainly got our attention, so we adjusted our bear bells to make them ring a little more jingly and talked and sung a bit louder. Some people find the ding of bear bells annoying, but I quite like it. It reminds me I’m in a wild place, that I’m not at the top of the food chain here and that we’re not walking thru Disneyland.

As the trail dropped lower still, we saw numerous wolf and moose tracks, but no bear signs. We took a lunch at a creek, enjoyed her sweet water and began the next long climb up. This one was very steep, and in the heat of the day sweat poured off of us, making the go a bit uncomfortable. After a long climb we eventually hit the ridge. Looking at the map and checking the GPS, we realized we’d reached the 50° north latitude of planet earth. As the border sits at 49° we’d now traveled one degree north in a little over six days.

When taken into perspective with our walk a few years ago, it’s an accomplishment to be proud of. When we started walking the Continental Divide Trail back in 2017 at the Mexico/US border we were at the 29th north parallel. We’ve now come 21 degrees north of that. We’ve migrated from rattle snakes to grizzly bears, ocotillo plants to larch trees, desert sand to glaciers and snowfields, all by putting one foot in front of the other. The further we go, the novelties of society – burgers and showers and internet – have a harder and harder time competing with a simple trail diet, a cold stream and the sound of birds in the morning and evening outside our Mid.

We’re now closer to the Arctic Circle than Mexico, and I’d be lying if the thought hasn’t crept into both our heads about continuing this northward walk in ensuing years to the Laird River, which is the geographical northern end of the Rocky Mountain chain, and then beyond that, following the caribou migration north from the valleys of northern British Columbia all the way north to the Arctic National Wildlife refuge and Arctic Ocean. That’s a massive project that may prove to be logistically impossible, but what an adventure it would be.

It sounds crazy to even write about it. But I do find a certain irony there. It’s funny how the most basic things – walking, drinking from steams and sleeping in the forest for extended periods of time – essentially migrating under your own power – is seen as “crazy” or “extreme” when in actuality it’s probably the most natural thing a human being can do. Humans have been doing this for many millenniums. Meanwhile, sitting in a cubicle, staring at a computer screen and accumulating more-and-more stuff, an evolution that has happened in the last 50 years, not even one human generation, is deemed “normal.” Normal for who, and normal for what purpose?

Big thoughts for the head, but there is trail to hike. After the climb the route began an equally as precipitous descent back down to another valley floor. Before the hike I rolled my left ankle on a training session, and for the first time it began to bother me. I’ll have to keep an eye on that. The bottom of the trail was a horse shit, trampled mess and we wearily took a break and assessed our next move. We certainly didn’t want to stay here, so we began the next vertical wall climb, a slow go to the Beehive Mountain Cirque. This was the time of day when mental toughness ruled the roost, when the process of putting one foot in front of the other becomes more deliberate. True happiness comes on the heels of suffering, so there would be some happiness tonight!

After a roller coaster ride through fields of Forget-Me-Nots and stunning views, we found a place to set up camp for the night on the edge of a ridge underneath the stunning cliff wall of the Continental Divide. As I review the day in my head, a little battered and bruised but also ecstatic, I’m beginning to realize the purpose of all this: to feel totally comfortable in all natural environments.

I was a little nervous before Tornado Pass. On our Greenland trip, I think we were both constantly a little nervous. Being attentive is key. But being nervous is when mistakes happen. We have little interest in racing competition anymore, as we’ve kind of accomplished everything we need to accomplish in that realm. Going around in circles with hundreds of other people holds little interest to us now. But getting comfortable in all environments, no matter how harsh or alone or wild…now that’s something to strive towards. It’s a goal that may take a lifetime to attain, but it’s a good goal nonetheless. I am beyond lucky to have a life partner like Elaine who wants to do this stuff with me. I know of no other team like ours so well matched and motivated in this regard.

July 12 – 21 miles, 5,000 feet of climbing

There is a line the Bad Religion song “Sorrow” that resonates: “Let me take you to the herding ground, where all good men are trampled down.” Truth be told, this hike was the direct byproduct of a failed work situation that I’ve been thinking about, and at times feeling guilty about. As we walk on, clarity about these situations is becoming clearer.

The situation involved leaders degrading, harassing and belittling fellow co-workers. After months of this, after speaking up and trying to change the situation, we essentially left. We were far from the only one’s experiencing the situation, and in actuality we were carrying the burden of others who were. And I’ve been feeling bad about this. Perhaps we were too idealistic, and needed to be more compromising. But on the trail, where rules are simple and right and wrong are defined, clarity is emerging. We were right. We were absolutely right. Fighting for decency and the fair treatment of fellow human beings is the right thing to do.

It feels like we passed a test of one of those life moments where we were, like that Bad Religion song, brought “to the herding ground,” but instead of “being trampled down,” and compromising our values and morals, we made the harder choice, we fought back, we took a stand and we maintained who we are. And for that I am beyond proud. Thank you trail for providing that clarity.

Today is another day to rage in the mountains and walk north. After descending to a river valley, we climbed up another huge ridge and entered a mountain cirque with a lake perfectly placed underneath. Looking up, an eagle circled overhead and in the far distance, we heard the deep echo of a wolf howl. We crested another ridge, looked south, and saw the jagged undulations of the mountains we had just crossed. We have not seen another human in three days, and we are becoming as wild as the landscape around us.

We pass by remnants of an old gold mining operating, rusted buckets and cranks melding into the earth, a tale of a bygone era where fortitude and toughness and the chance of failure ruled the land. Onward still, into a Larch forest. Larch is a coniferous tree that sheds its needles every winter, defying logic and the norm. In the fall, it turns the most golden yellow, glowing on the hillside. If you have not seem a larch tree in the autumn, then you sill have things to do in life. Unlike most conifer trees, larch needles are soft when new, and when passing through them they brush your skin like a soft kiss. The have quickly become my favorite tree.

We descend to an mangled river valley, with stream beds everywhere, downed trees and clogged mud making navigation challenging. A flood ravaged this area in 2013 and the evidence is clear that this is huge country and we are mere blips to nature’s power. We take a break and a pine marten scurries through roots and moss, comes within ten feet, stares directly at us, and scampers away at a rapid pace. We suspect we might be the first humans the marten has ever seen.

We climb another ridge, another 1,500 feet, and come to another stunning vista, raging grey mountains erupting to the sky. As we head back down through the forest we come across something that I assumed was only legend. Tree shrapnel was scattered across the trail like a bomb had gone off. I’d heard stories of trees exploding in extreme cold when the sap freezes and expands, but until now had never seen it. If a person was close by when this tree exploded, it could easily kill them. I imagined a cold January night, so cold that sap freezes and trees explode like bombs. We are now north enough for trees to explode. That is a beautiful thing.

Wearily, we head down to a creek and debate camping there. We’ve learned that camping on creeks is a recipe for a cold, wet night, so we drag our bodies up yet another hill and plop our shelter down right on top of the trail, exhausted and dehydrated, but souls full and hearts happy and clear.

July 13 – 23 miles, 4,400 feet of climbing

Today was a strange day. We met other hikers. After being alone in the wild for so long, our social skills have declined. Like us, they were thru-hikers, one guy from Glenwood and one from Auburn, California. It was good to see other people, other like minded migratory folk out here, but I can’t imagine hiking something like the Appalachian Trail where groups of hikers are the norm. I crave more solitude and wilderness than that, at least at this time in my life.

After a couple warm up passes, we crested the final big rise of this stretch, Fording River Pass, which offered the most extended stretch of alpine tundra yet. In just the short 150 miles we’ve travelled, the land feels more wild. Near the top, I climbed a short stretch of rock and noticed that I was walking on top of fossilized sea shells. This high mountain pass used to be deep under the ocean where barnacles clung to rocks. It’s hard to comprehend that sort of transition in the span of human life but it brings to realization that this earth we live on has been here for a very, very long time.

We drop down the other side of the pass, and the mosquitoes, which had not been much of a problem thus far, begin to ravage us. We put on our head nets, spray on the deet and forge on, down the valley, to a creek. After five hot and humid days of sunscreen, bug spray and sweat, we take the opportunity to jump into the river, bathe and feel clean again. And just like that, another human civilization nicety, a shower, becomes unnecessary. I suspect, if we knew plants and animals and how to live off the land, we could stay out here forever and be perfectly content and happy.

The trail meanders down a river bed and I roll my bad ankle. Ouch, that hurt. Fortunately, the trail turns into a dirt road walk which is easy on it. We walk eight more miles and camp in an open field, watching the gophers scurry about and listening to the birds sing as the sun sets over the big mountains to the west.

July 14 – 20 miles, 2,100 feet of climbing

We’re up at 5 am for a road walk to Kananaskis and civilization. My ankle hurts to start but after a half hour it warms up and feels fine. Elaine is dealing with some aches and pains too, but walking on easy road for 20 miles is certainly not a problem. Walking is good for a person…the problem is being sedentary too much. We simply have to walk our bodies into shape.

We pass a ranger cabin and stop at a bench to eat a snack. A cycling group, riding an array of jeep roads to Whitefish, Montana passes the other direction, friendly folks enjoying their own adventure. At the end of the group, a young woman passes by and asks if she can share our bench and eat her lunch with us. Of course we say yes. She admits she is terrified of bears and appreciates our company. Bear fear aside, we love this woman’s style. She’s riding a rigid, 26″, steel Mountain Goat bicycle in some of the most remote terrain on the planet. Mountain Goat hasn’t made bikes in over a decade but she tells us that she’s ridden this very steed to Mexico and back and has no need for anything newer. After working in a bike shop this summer that sells $14,000 bikes, it’s refreshing to see that adventure requires no such price tag. It’s the size of the heart and bravery of the soul that creates true greatness, not the size of the wallet. After a jarring experience in the past month, it restores a little bit of my faith in that sport.

We depart ways and walk on north as she peddles south. As road walks go, this one is stunning. These mountains surpass anything I’ve seen in the lower-48, yet they don’t have a name. Eventually the road ends and we enter Elk Lake Provincial Park. If this is a provincial park, I can’t imagine what the national parks here in Canada will look like. We hike right to Elk Lake, the most beautiful alpine, glacial fed lake imaginable, and take another swim. There is a simple rule of the trail. If the day is warm and there is a mountain lake, by all means swim.

We continue on another five miles to the end of the segment. We’ll be back here in two days with our Banff friends to continue our journey north, but for now, it’s a hitch hike back to Banff for some R&R, healing our our bodies and fixing a couple equipment issues. True to Canadian style, the people who give us rides are some of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met, and we arrive in Banff safe and happy, restored and ready for the next phase of the journey.

“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.

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

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

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

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

nordicskis

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

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

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

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

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Doorway to the CMC Brainard Cabin.

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

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

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Enjoying some spring nordic skiing at Brainard Lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Upper Little Raven Trail usually features some fantastic snow conditions.

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

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CMC and Little Raven Junction. Skiers Only!

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

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Early season creek crossing on the CMC Trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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Drifted area views near the CMC Cabin.

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

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Navigating the descents on the Waldrop Trail.

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

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

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December Alpenglow off Longs Peak from the Waldrop Trail.

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

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

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