Leaving behind the pristine and well maintained trail of Mount Robson we headed onto the lesser known North Boundary Trail for the last few hundred kilometers of the Great Divide Trail. Our bags were packed to the brim with food for the next 11 days but weirdly it didn’t feel too heavy as our bodies are slowly becoming accustomed to the heavy loads on our backs. Even though it seemed like I had alot of food I found it really hard to not eat too early into my supplies, this food had to last me a long time and I was already very hungry. The trail towards Chown Creek was easy going and we we’re quite surprised by what we found. I think we we’re expecting challenges every step of the way from Mt Robson to Kakwa lulling us into a false sense of security as I knew it was about to get harder.
It was a pleasant night chilling out by Chown Creek and I was excited about the next day. Unfortunately around 4am I was woken up by the smell of smoke in my nostrils as the smoke from nearby wildfires had swept over the mountains during the night and swamped the valleys with a thick smog. It’s scary to be in the middle of the woods not knowing where to fire might be and whether you’ll be hiking toward it or further away. We made the decision to carry on North and see how the smoke changed. What we knew was a beautiful area surrounding us with yet more glaciers and mountains was now shrouded in smoke clouds with nothing more to see than the trail on front of us.
We skirted the edge of the large braided Chown river and crossed at a safe point whilst losing the feeling of my toes due to the temperature of the glacial melt water. The trail continued to surprise us with it’s quality and we headed towards the Jackpine High Mountain Alternate. This is an alternative to the brushy & boggy route along the Jackpine River. Keen to avoid anymore battles with the bushes we opted for the alternate whilst confident in our navigational skills and scrambling experience. Unfortunately we couldnt see much from the top of the Jackpine but luckily it wasn’t too tricky to find our way to Blueberry Lake. I woke early the following morning apprehensive about the outcome of the smoke. I poked my head out of the tent door and to my surprise the smoke had receeded and the mountains appeared. The weather was near enough perfect especially for heading up into the high alpine. The route took us up & over many passes covered in boulders the size of houses and mountain sides layered with loose rocks. The ascents we’re long and arduous and the descents sketchy and steep. We took a much needed break down at Spider Creek and considered our options. We had been travelling at a really slow pace of no more than 2km per hour and it was already 5pm. We decided to carry on to Perseverance Mountain and tackle the ridge just in case the weather changed it’s mind.
Just before we reached the summit of Perseverance Mountain we checked the route on the map and came across a risky but luckily avoidable scramble. This is when I doubted that following the route from the maps or apps would be a very clever choice. Once on the summit we were faced with the entire ridge line stretching out into the distant and we now had to fathom the challenges that lay in front of us. This was going to be a long day. After a few summits later and some questionable ‘scrambling – climbing’ ascents, we waved the white flag of exhaustion and set up camp on the ridge. I had an unsettled night’s sleep due to the apprehension of the upcoming climb the next morning. Once again we double checked the route on the map and decided to make our own route choices to avoid some risky climbing sections. Joe was my hero throughout the entire stretch and even when he was uncomfortable himself he still stayed strong to guide me along the ridge. This was quite possibly the hardest day I have ever had in the mountains and yes it’s hard to deny how beautiful & wild this place is but I know that I never need to do it again.
When we thought we were in the clear it was only about to get harder. To descend off the alternate and back to the original trail we had to bushwack for 5km which nearly took us all morning. We collapsed into a heap on the shores of the Jackpine and collected ourselves. Hopefully that was it for surprises from the GDT. Just as we approached Pauline Creek camp a baby grouse decided it was a good idea to jump into the river and attempt to swim, badly. I waded into the muddy waters and scooped it up. The little fluff ball started to shiver so I stuffed it under my shirt and tried to warm it up. It drifted off to sleep for about an hour before it decided it was time to head back to momma grouse back on the other side of the water. That will be the first time I ever ford a river three times to save a baby bird.
The final big climb up Big Shale Hill was steady and easy to navigate. I was constantly waiting for more carnage to come around the corner but the trail was in good condition with grand open spaces of green grassy meadows and wild flowers filling all the extra spaces. With such good trail ahead we could enjoy just actually hiking once again and we cruised into the Willmore Wilderness Area which has to be one of my favourite parts of the Kakwa section. I had heard this was prime Grizzly territory but sadly they must have all been at an annual grizzly bear meeting elsewhere.
36km later we landed at the Casket Creek camp with yet again lovely facilities. And when I say facilities this doesn’t include a toilet or the kitchen sink but simply somewhere flat & dry to pitch the tent with running water nearby. By this point we were a mere 36km away from the finish line. I couldn’t contain my excitement not only at the idea of completing the trail tomorrow but if we finished sooner I could eat more food. Just as we were snug in our sleeping bags a crashing sound came from the trees behind us, maybe this would be the Grizzly I’ve been waiting for? Nope. It was just Rob from Montana, a solo north bound hiker who couldn’t be more happy to see some people. The three of us clicked and we all decided to cross the finish line together.
Just as we were 3.8km away from the end of the trail the GPS decided to stop working for all of us. We decided it was a conspiracy to stop anyone getting to Kakwa but they didn’t win this time! We arrived at Kakwa Lake at 7pm on August 11th and we howled like wolves in celebration but to our surprise a reply came from across the lake. No they weren’t wolves but a lovely couple, John & Joan who waved us over and invited us in for a hot beverage & cake. A few hours later after exhanging stories of hiking adventures and Grizzly bear attacks they proclaimed it was time for us to go to bed. They showed us to the cabin next door and we striked up the fire. This was the most perfect way to finish the trail (excluding the 100km we still had to hike back to civilization).
In true GDT style we woke up to rain dripping down the cabin windows and the wind whipping around the lake. But nothing could stop me getting back to the highway and back to my food. We originally planned 3 days to get to the highway but decided to smash it in 2 days instead….I was getting hungry. We hiked about 30km when a man & his daughter spotted us whilst out on their ATV. Sean offered to drive his daughter back to their truck and come back for us (we must have looked desperate). When we found out we we’re getting a ride we scoffed our last remaining rations of Cliff bars, noodles and pop tarts. Three hours went by and I soon regretted eating it all worrying that he might not even return for us. Whilst waiting we also came up with the brilliant idea of testing Rob’s bear spray just to keep us occupied. He stepped far enough away and off loaded the can of spray….or what we thought was far enough away. That stuff should most definitely deter any bear attack as I’ve experienced now first hand what it feels like, cheers Rob!
When our knight in shining armour returned he drove us all the way back to his truck and even offered to drive us to the highway the following morning. In the meantime he fired up the BBQ, cooked up some home caught Bison sausages and handed us some beers. He was quite possibly the most Canadian man I had ever met.
Now we’re nestled comfortably back into the real world wearing denim jeans, using deodorant, drinking fresh coffee and sleeping in a bed. We move into a new home in Jasper and start a job working in the mountains first thing Monday morning.
How quickly life returns to normal but it just doesn’t quite feel the same. I’m overwhelmed by all my possessions from books to perfumes to duvets to snowboards instead of the few necessary items I carry in my backpack. There are people everywhere and the world suddenly feel very crowded.
I miss the whistling Marmots and the bothersome gophers. I miss the chirping of the chickadees and squeaking of the Pikas. I miss my profession as a hiker and my home a tiny tent. But you all must know me well enough by now that I will most definitely hike again….
Thank you to everyone who helped make the Great Divide Trail what it is today. And thank you to family and friends for once again putting up with my silly hiking nonsense. Big love to you all. X