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).

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

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

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

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

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Doorway to the CMC Brainard Cabin.

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

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

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Enjoying some spring nordic skiing at Brainard Lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Upper Little Raven Trail usually features some fantastic snow conditions.

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

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CMC and Little Raven Junction. Skiers Only!

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

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Early season creek crossing on the CMC Trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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Drifted area views near the CMC Cabin.

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

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Navigating the descents on the Waldrop Trail.

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

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

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December Alpenglow off Longs Peak from the Waldrop Trail.

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

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

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

Thunder’s (Dan) CDT Wrap and Impressions

Team Thundersnow was a cohesive unit on the trail and in life, but of course we are two individuals! As such, we decided to decided to each write our own “Impressions and Wrap-Up” post. Here is Dan’s…Elaine’s will be posted in a few days.

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It’s been 22 days since we walked to Chief Mountain Trailhead on the Continental Divide Trail, headed north on the final 100 yard section of paved road, and touched the Canadian border, officially ending our thru-hike from Mexico to Canada. In a word, the time that has followed has been, well, muddled. Muddled in thought, muddled in motivation and muddled between pride, happiness but also an overwhelming feeling that something is missing. People hike these trails to find clarity. I find just the opposite – things seem even more open than ever and that can be a little disconcerting.

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Snow and sky rage in the Red Desert, Wyoming.

There are no two ways about it – life priorities have changed. Look, when you’ve lived in such a beautiful world, when your morning wake up call has been elk bugling, coyotes howling, or a stiff wind rattling the tent for the past 160 days, it changes you. It’s unavoidable. They say a behavior can be modified with 40 days of consistent pattern changing. Imagine what 160 days can do? I’m beginning to realize, it can devastate or complete a person, depending on which path you choose to take.

Meriwether Lewis was a hero, a great explorer. A lesser known fact is that he took his life barely two years after the expedition across the western part of the United States ended. He failed at going back. He’d simply seen too much beauty, and lived to purely. How painful it must have been to know he would never see that kind of beauty again. In the end, it was too much. It ended him.

We are more fortunate than Meriwether Lewis. The return to this world is more subtle. We live in a glacial carved valley with trails everywhere and the CDT a mere two hour hike away from our doorstep. There are plenty of other outlets than the route Meriwether took. We will certainly not be going down that trail. But on some level, I can now relate to what he went through. I hope his world after death involved endless western prairies, grizzly bears, buffalo, glacial carved peaks and rivers that wound into the sunset.

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Triple Divide Pass, and into the Hudson River Basin, Glacier NP, Montana.

It’s common in thru-hiker world to “summarize” the journey in a final blog post, offer witty thoughts on the trail and tell how the hike changed them.  The latter is almost impossible for me to comment on, but there are a few things I’ve been struggling with, the main one being making decisions. Take work for example. I find myself reticent to commit to anything because I don’t want to close doors on beautiful things in the future. I don’t want to get myself stuck again. I’m still navigating exactly how far “back” to this world I want to go. After seeing so much beauty, after being so free, how do you go back to driving a scary road an hour and a half a day and giving away so much of your life in exchange? So we take baby steps, like a newborn moose calf walking on snow for the first time. Tentative and excited at the same time. All I know is I want to be surrounded by people who help me shine, who respect me as a core human being. And more than that, I want simplicity, I want nature, I want peace. A cubicle is not in my future.

The Continental Divide Trail, oh wonderful trail. My perspective on it? It’s perfection. What makes it perfect is the imperfectness of it all. It’s hardly a Disney-esque experience. Really, it’s a fucked-up, mish-mash adventure that winds through every ecological zone you can imagine and tosses things at you regularly that will make you curse and cry and sometimes land in the emergency room. I have heard that veteran thru-hikers who have completed the Pacific Crest Trail have a hard time with the CDT. They miss the endless perfect tread of that western trail, the comfort of having a group of people to hike with, the more consistent maritime weather, the trail magic, the sheer bliss. And someday I long for that bliss. But all these things, the CDT is not, and that’s what I like about it. In some ways we were fortunate. Being rookies, we had no expectations.

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There are a variety of hazards on the CDT. Afternoon sun melt snow balls is one of them. San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

The CDT is raw. Much of it is wild and untamed. Sometimes there is trail and sometimes there is nothing, no tread, no sign, just a general direction. I saw things I never knew existed. I saw elk in the San Juans, starving with broken legs after a brutal winter. We crossed deadfall that made us scream at the top of our lungs after moving at a 1/4 mile per hour for an entire day. We drank water from cow manure filled troughs with dead rats floating in it. We had lightning explode seconds from our heads. We got brutalized by up-and-downs on the Montana/Idaho border so steep they caused tired legs at best, bad tendonitis at worst. We had blisters so bad we would not hesitate to put a blade to expensive shoes and feet to cut holes and ease the pain.  We were stripped to a core almost every day, forced to pull ourselves back up and keep going. Did we ever want to quit?  Until the very end of the trip, at least once every damned day.

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“Embracing the Brutality,” dodging lightning storms and climbing steep mountains with metal skis on our back. Carson Saddle, San Juan Mountains.

But if we’d quit, what beauty we would have missed. It wasn’t all the time – this is a massive, dusty, cattle overgrazed country – but when it was there, it made the soul sing and shudder. Have you ever cowboy camped near the Mexico border, where there is no light pollution or humidity to cloud the sky, and spent the night watching the Milky Way rotate around the desert as satellites and meteorites dance overhead? Or had a herd of wild horses, 150 strong, run along side you as you move absolutely freely across the Red Desert, as free as those wild horses? Or woken up to a bitter crisp morning with snow gracing the cliffs of the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the best Wilderness in the entire nation? As the fog wanders in and around those cliff walls, you swear there are gods somewhere.

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Storm and snow greet the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana

I can’t imagine never crossing Triple Divide Pass, entering a new watershed and seeing a world carved by the Pleistocene Age, the last Ice Age, and seeing waters running to the Hudson Bay. And then the next morning, heading down the valley as alpenglow danced on high remnant glaciers (dying but not yet dead), being serenaded by elk doing the autumn bugle not once or twice, but for a couple hours straight. That sort of beauty brings a person to tears, and indeed, for me, thinking back, it does. It’s too much beauty to take in without being affected.

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Snow where she belongs. Saddle of Triple Divide Peak, Montana.

The people of the CDT are almost as raw as the land. Take the hikers. Frat party-like pods moving up and down the trail are a reality on the other trails. They are nowhere to be found on the CDT. The CDT is the land of the lone warrior, or in our case the lone couple. It’s normal to go days without seeing another human being. After a few months, pretentiousness goes away, and the urge to move north takes over. It’s a migration, a humbling one at that, and there is no time to be arrogant. Head down and walk soldier, wind and lightning and snow be damned.

Or how about those people who live near the trail in forgotten towns like Cuba, New Mexico, or Encampment, Wyoming or Leadore, Idaho, who open their homes, who took us in, who gave us rides, who made life out here, if not possible, a whole lot better. This is no pre-determined, commercial trail magic. It’s genuine kindness from people who politically and socially probably have next to nothing in common with us. But they are good people, the salt of the earth, and they love the land. And despite our long hair, dirty beards and mountain stench we all wore, they respected us. On a lonely road in Montana, a man, an old veteran, saluted us as we walked past. To have done something to earn that sort of respect…well, that’s about as good as it gets.

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Living life the way it was meant to be. Cochetopa Hills, Colorado.

I’m proud but not arrogant about what my wife and I achieved on the trail. We were humbled and broken, but in the end we did it right. We didn’t skimp a single step. We faced the hardest sections head on: the San Juans in snow, the difficult passes in the Winds, the soul sucking hills of the Montana/Idaho border, the stark wildness of the Red Desert. The boring sections challenged us more, but we learned to keep moving and embrace them. The mundane sections were when we dreamed big and came up with plans to make those dreams real. I wouldn’t exchange that time for anything. Finally, I was especially happy we were able to integrate a big part of our life – skiing – into the hike. The ski across the San Juans has never been done before as part of a completed thru hike. First ever: that’s something nobody can take away from us, and that feels good.

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Snow skis a chute as part of the first ever ski of the entire San Juan Loop in a thru hike.

The United States is a great big complex country, and the Continental Divide is the wild backbone of it. It deserves to be travelled, one step or pedal stroke at a time. When a person is healthy and full of vigor, what a waste it is to be stuck in a mundane class or job, not rambling in the mountains and woods on a great adventure. We as human beings deserve to be free. Not some freedom. Total freedom. We deserve great adventures, adventures so big that they will break a person down and build them back up again stronger than ever. We deserve to go to bed to coyotes howling and wake up to elk bugling. These type of adventures will make a person question EVERYTHING, and that is good.

Where to now for us? A thorough recap of the journey and that world through a book, the realities of earning money, and then, more WILD-ness. There is so much to do. Hike. Ride. Ski. Paddle. Explore. Ramble. Climb mountains. Cross glaciers. Explore icecaps. To do things nobody has ever done before. And then, figure out a way, to inspire, to fight like hell to protect this planet for the next generation, for the future. We can do better. We must do better. And maybe, just maybe, a 3,000 mile long hike along the spine of the continent is the catalyst for it all.  – Dan aka Thunder

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Booting up a 1,000 foot couloir…another day on the CDT. San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Dedication CDT ’17 – To my dad Alex. It was a honor walking the steps you couldn’t at the end. And our companion and best friend, Stella. You were with us every single step girl. 

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Stella hiked with us on our 500-mile CDT shakedown hike in 2015 from Wolf Creek Pass to home.

Summer of the Bear

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It was the summer of the bear. We saw eight black bears (Ursus Americanus) on our Continental Divide Trail trip: one each in the Gila Wilderness (NM), San Juan Mountains (NM), Cochetopa Hills (CO), Never Summer Mountains (CO) and a … Continue reading

Glacier National Park – or Where Did the Summer and the Miles Go?

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Breaking snow on the pass out of Glacier National Park.

Crunch, crunch, squeak. We’re postholing through mid-calf deep snow up to Triple Divide Pass. Dense clouds swirl around us, a sharp this-is-no-longer-summer wind biting the bits of skin we still have exposed. The trail winds through the cliffs, expertly chiseled between rock bands. Mountain goats leap nimbly on the bands above us, seemingly impervious to the late fall snow building up around them. The monolith of Triple Divide Peak looms above, the snow accentuating the great bands of rock wrapping around the peak. Hearts soaring, we continue punching our way up, our winter souls pulsing to the gusts of the wind.

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The Garden Wall rises into the mist.

All summer every footstep, every action, every decision, every motion Dan and I have made has been ultimately directed into movement. Movement north, north, ever north, the end goal being the Canadian border – and one hundred miles through Glacier National Park. When huffing over so many dry, dusty mountains, when there were injuries and infections to battle, motivations to boost, and tired bodies to move, the thought of this land of towering mountains, thundering waterfalls, and glistening glaciers pulled us on when nothing else could. Our hearts beat snow, our blood runs ice. Winter lives in our souls – Glacier National Park was the dream, the reason.

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Dan breaks trail up Pitamakan Pass.

While Dan and I both have been feeling the urge to get home and start prepping for ski season (there is also great amounts of wood that needs to be gathered), I think we even might have hoped to see snow before the end of this trip. Fortunately, northern Montana was more than happy to oblige! The evening before we left East Glacier, fat flakes fell heavy from the sky, and we spend a cold, happy couple of hours skiing around the golf course to get our September ski in.

Starting up out of town, the clouds hang heavy in the sky over us, and soon, as we wind our way through golden and scarlet brush, wet snow begins to fall, becoming heavier and heavier as we climb in elevation. Several big horn sheep pass us by, picking their way nimbly down the ridge by us, unconcerned by our presence. Passing by Scenic Point, we laugh, as we become completely engulfed by clouds. The trail wraps around to the northwest side of a peak, and the trail becomes obliterated by snow and Dan leads, his long legs an advantage in the deep conditions.

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Out of the plains near East Glacier, into the mist and snow.

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Who are ewe looking at? Big Horn sheep ambling about.

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They say it is scenic; I’ll have to take their word for it.

Soon we are down in Two Medicine Campground, we’re too late to talk to the ranger about backcountry sites, so we’ll do that tomorrow. Meanwhile, we eat dinner with the only other people there – a guy who hiked the AT last year and his wife. I’m clumsy and spill wine all over my rain pants.

“That’s something they never talk about,” we joke. “When you spill wine on your pants do they have to go in the bear box?”

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Dan navigating the insides of a ping pong ball.

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It just got real.

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Heading down to Two Medicine Lake.

Glacier continues to awe the next morning, gracing us with more snow overnight. We watch a bull and a cow moose foraging down in a swampy area before climbing up, up, up to the cloud land. We are up to Pitamakan Pass without seeing anyone, I think the cooler conditions are keeping most people away. The trail tops out at a heart stopping overlook of Pitamakan Lake. Good steps here. Don’t tumble over. Over Pitamakan Pass, we dive down into a lush valley, dense with crimson brush, the blueberries overripe and the aspens a deep gold. Autumn is getting on, and we scour the land for animals.

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That poised moment between fall and winter.

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Into the mist land.

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Overlooking Pitamakan Lake

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Don’t look now, but there’s kind of a drop off there to your left.

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The trail showing up faintly over Pitamakan Pass.

Triple Divide is a decent climb. At this point in the game, though the excitement level is high at being here, the body is also just tired. But the beauty pulls us up to where the clouds wrap their cold arms around us and the wind leaves cold kisses on our cheeks and nose. We keep stopping to gape around us, the beauty overwhelming. At the top is a snowman we are enchanted with, little shale rocks for buttons, his whole body icy from the pummeling winds.

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Serious work went into the trail over Triple Divide Pass.

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Dan rising above the valley floor.

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Do you want to build a snowman?

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Descending the other side of Triple Divide Pass.

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The last rays of the day.

The next day is golden, a watery autumn sun shining down, and we let our limbs thaw in the light. We don’t have to go far today, because of the way the backcountry sites are, so we stop for little things, lounging in the rustling of dying leaves. The smells of fall wash over us – sometimes the dank, over powering, too-much-mold smell; sometimes the sharp, bright, spicy smell that makes me dream of pumpkin pie and chai. We are giddy with it, drinking it in, breathing it deep into our souls, filing up with the pulse of life.

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Alpenglow on Triple Divide Peak.

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When they say “suspension bridge”, they mean it.

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Brilliant brush in a sea of standing burnt trees.

We pass Virginia Falls, and we marvel at the luxury of having the time to clamber around on the rocks, the mist billowing over us. The temperature is not quite warm enough for it, but we do it anyway. Finally, after hoping up and down the complex of falls, hands chapped red with cold, we continue down the trail. As we reach St Mary Fall, we see a couple coming up the trail towards us.

“Did you go to Virginia Falls?” They ask and we say we did.

“Is it worth it?” We blink. Worth it? Worth what? After coming this far, it better be!

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Enjoying the lower part of Virginia Falls

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The trail around St. Mary Lake had this stone. That’s quite an Eagle Scout project.

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You tell me: Is it worth it?

As we cross the Going-to-the-Sun Road the next morning, we gleefully pile our trash in the bin. Always glad to be rid of trash! Then it is climbing up to Piegan Pass. The legs fall into a rhythm. Though they are tired, one of the biggest things I’ve learned on this trip is no matter how tired the legs are, it’s not so bad to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Just keep moving. As the clouds hug the peaks again, we decide to take advantage of the wind and dry our tent before heading down the other side. Tumbling down the north side of the pass, the wisps of clouds twirl around the incredible towering presence of the Garden Wall. Huge and dark and slightly foreboding with the snow and the fog, it dominates most of the rest of the day.

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Heading down Piegan Pass

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The Garden Wall looms to the left.

We round a brushy corner and come upon a grizzly digging up the tundra, woofing quietly. He looks up at us, and I feel his eyes land on me. Then, as though shrugging, he goes back to his digging. We navigate down and around him, breaths fast in our chests and bear spray out.

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Fascinating snow formations

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Fortunately not interested in us

It’s our last night. We’re in Many Glacier campground, a crackling fire warding off some of the chill. A melancholy fills the air. Maybe it would be good to spend this night with others. There are a few tears. At times, I’ve wanted nothing more than to be done, but now that it’s so close, I think that desire was wrong. As the last embers die, we crawl into our tent, tucking into the familiar feel of the small space, all our things arranged just so around us.

We drag in the morning. Leaving camp for the last time? How is that a thing? But eventually we are all packed up and begin up our last pass of the trip. Not a mile into the day, we meet a lady moose coming down the trail. She is making odd grunting noises, and we hop off the trail to skirt around her. The trail meanders for a while before climbing up. We scan the wall ahead of us. There is the Ptarmigan Tunnel, and I’ve been trying to imagine what it even is. It is, it turns out, to be an actual tunnel! As we round a bend, we see it is a tunnel with doors, both propped open for now, but soon to be closed for the winter. It looks like something from the Lord of the Rings, and we walk through the tunnel listening for orcs. On the other side, it is not a stretch to imagine the stone giants living here, heaving boulders crashing over the cliff walls to the glacial carved valleys below. The trail is incredible, carved right into the cliff, but bitingly cold – it feels like this cliff rarely sees sun.

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Looking back from Ptarmigan Tunnel into the depths of Glacier National Park

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Inside Ptarmigan Tunnel

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Dan on the other side of the tunnel

Staring in awe up the next valley – Helen Lake sits beneath some of the tallest peaks in the Park, and seems like a good place for a future trip – we soon lose all the elevation we gained, meandering through the changing leaves. We can’t help but stop frequently to stare backwards at the peaks, rising mighty above us.

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The trail hugs the cliff wall on the other side of Ptarmigan Tunnel

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Looking up the valley towards Helen Lake.

But too soon, we are climbing, the very last of all the climbs on the trail. My parents appear around the corner – they are picking us up. And then the last sign post. There is a small CDT marker, as well as one for the Pacific Northwest Trail. Just a bit further is the boundary line between the US and Canada, and we get our passport stamped. Pictures at the boundary line – it feels surreal. Just this little spot, this mark on the map, is this really it? Where we’ve been hiking towards for months? But this is it, the finish. I don’t think my brain computes it. This little spot doesn’t seem like much, it’s not the most incredible place on the trail, but it’s the end.

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It’s the last trail head sign

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Sorry it’s over, but stoked to finish!

I think I thought I would have answers at the end of this. I think I thought I would feel satisfied. Maybe the thirst for adventure would be quenched. But for all the questions I answered, I have more questions than ever unanswered. We are not satisfied – I think the desire for adventure was a small flame, and we just poured gasoline on it. More, more – more wild, more mountains, more rivers, more vastness. The soul wants it all.

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There’s a heck of a lot more trail out there…