Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Great Divide Trail--Dustin Lynx Narrative

The Amazon Outdoor Store

If you plan to hike the Great Divide Trail the first thing you want to do is go out and buy Dustin and Julie Lynx book. It is all I used for route finding and it was well written, accurate and informative. I believe there is a revised edition out or coming out soon. Check with Rocky Mountain Books.

Dustin: I think of the Great Divide Trail quite often. It was my job this summer to share my
knowledge of the Canadian Rocky Mountains with visitors at the Parks Canada Visitor
Center in Lake Louise. Although my experience on the GDT got me the job, I never
answered any questions about the route itself. If people had asked me about the Canadian
Rockies Great Divide Trail, the following is the shortest description that I could have
Physically, the proportions of the Canadian Rockies Great Divide Trail are dwarflike
compared to other long trails on the continent. In respect to its southern cousin (CDT), the
GDT is over 2000 miles shorter. In total, it only reaches 900 miles from the USA-Canada
border to northern British Columbia, near Prince George. Maintaining an average pace of 15
miles a day, one could hike the route in 2 months. It is hardly an easy hike though.
This summer was the 14th coldest one on record in the Canadian Rockies. On July 5,
Highway 93 between Lake Louise and Jasper closed for most of the day until crews could
clear two feet of snow. With over three feet of accumulation in the high-country, the snow
took nearly a week to melt. This was on top of the existing snow. Many passes on the GDT
held on to their winter snow-pack until the end of August. Due to all the melt water, some of
the backcountry campsites in Banff National Park were inaccessible until the end of summer.
It was cold and hikers suffered. I helped more than one beleaguered hiker reorganize their
long trip into a series of shorter outings. On the bright side, the mosquitoes suffered too.
I mention the climate before my thumbnail sketch of the route because the GDT is as much
the weather and the environment as it is a narrow footpath winding through meadows or
forest. The route itself is a series of established trails that link well to form a long route
which follows the continental divide as close as possible, crossing it nearly three dozen times.
Half of the route follows superb trails through five national parks. The other half is in
provincial parks, wilderness areas, and forestry districts. The majority of the route is in the
province of Alberta but it ends at Kakwa Lake Provincial Park in British Columbia. At the
southern terminus, in Waterton Lakes National Park, the route meets up with the
Continental Divide Trail. Here, at the last moment, one could waver between hiking north or
south depending on whether their supply parcels were already in the mail.
The route that I hiked in 1996 is not the same one in my present manuscript. The supply
points are the same but some sections of the route have shifted. The GDT will continue to
shift and the choice of trails will always allow hikers to customize their journey.
Approximately 11% of the GDT is active road or railway. An alternate route usually
incorporates more road or cross-country travel. Experienced backpackers can eliminate
some of the road walking or decide on a more scenic or direct leg. I look forward to my next
hike of the GDT and I know that I will be able to make of it what I want.
A good portion of the first section of the GDT depends on an excellent trail system through
Waterton Lakes National Park. Over Sage Pass, a little known horse trail straddles the
Divide before descending to the West Castle River Valley. The route continues to the small
mining town of Coleman on Hwy #3 mostly on ATV accessible trails with an exciting crest
walk along Willoughby Ridge, just east of the Divide. The first section has two alternate
routes that stay on the shale-strewn crest of the Divide just south of Sage Pass and another
on Barnaby Ridge to the north.
Relying on another 30 miles of ATV trails outside of Coleman, the GDT traverses one of the
most scarred sections of the Canadian Rockies. It is a long section, 130 miles, which teeters
between the devastation of natural resource extraction and remote and impenetrable
wilderness. Nearly half of this section consists of the original Great Divide Trail constructed
two decades ago. The section has a difficult but worthwhile northern finale through Elk
Lakes Provincial Park.
Leaving the second supply point of Kananaskis Village in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park,
the route soon enters Banff National Park. This lengthy section crosses a few hiking Meccas
such as Mount Assiniboine, Egypt Lakes and the Rockwall Trail. It is the busiest section of
the GDT with excellent trail and designated campsites almost the entire way to the town of
The fourth section contrasts all the others. It follows the Amiskwi, Blaeberry and Howser
Rivers to The Crossing, a resort on the Icefields Parkway. It is the shortest section at 74
miles and it is the lowest, never going above timberline. Unfortunately, there is a 14-mile
road walk leading into the next section that leaves the Parkway at the Sunset Pass trailhead.
The fifth section takes advantage of some popular trails in Jasper National Park but unlike
the third section, it is not as busy. A real prize of this portion of the GDT is the slice of the
'hiker only' accessible White Goat Wilderness. The renowned Glacier and Skyline Trails
bring the route past the Maligne Lake Resort to Jasper. Getting reservations for campsites
on the Skyline can be discouraging but Parks Canada does allow bookings up to three
months in advance for a slim fee of ten dollars.
If the idea of reserving campsites sounds deplorable, you may like the sixth section the most
- I know it is my favorite. It penetrates the remote corners of Mount Robson Provincial
Park, Jasper National Park, Willmore Wilderness, and Kakwa Lake Provincial Park. After a
13-mile railway walk from Jasper, the route takes 168 miles to get to the northern terminus
at Kakwa Lake. The trail is sometimes thin and overgrown but there is no where else on the
GDT that provides such an immersion into the untrammeled wilderness of the Canadian
Rockies. I had the privilege to see a herd of Mountain Caribou and follow a wolf pack over
two high passes during my through hike in 1996.
The next time I hike the Canadian Rockies Great Divide Trail, I will do things differently. I
will take my time on those cross-country sections and take the weather in stride. Some extra
food for an extra day en route makes sense for when it snows - an extra warm layer sounds
good too. Not starting until mid-July is my plan of action; I will skip the flooding and take
advantage of those brilliant September days when the larches turn golden. Binoculars will
come in handy for safely viewing wildlife or for scanning the route ahead.
I have hiked the GDT for the past four summers now; I even skied some segments in winter.
Each time I return I get my face slapped by the harsh environment no matter how prepared I
am or how much I think I had learned from my last outing. The Canadian Rockies is not a
fair-weather range. For anyone planning their journey on the GDT, no matter how long, I
suggest having an alternate plan and a 'go with the flow' attitude. I caution inexperienced
hikers against initiating a long distance hiking experience on this unpredictable route.
I realize now that the GDT is more than just a selection of long trails that link well and
happen to lie near the Divide. The route is an expression, a changing face, of a
temperamental mountain range. It is a special means of communication that interconnects us
with the vast wilderness of the Canadian Rockies. The narrow trail is as much a communion
for us to travel on the heels of a wolf pack as it is for the wild heart Mistaya, the grizzly bear,
to understand our brief encampments and exotic smells. It is so much more than a path
blazed for human recreation.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


(An excerpt from "Crossing the Divide")A Family Adventure Along the Continental Divide

Two books in one. Covers my hike from Mexico to Jasper, Alberta along both the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and Canada's Great Divide Trail.

The last leg of the Great Divide Trail took me into the unique and remote area known as the White Goat Wilderness. My entrance would be a long slow day walking along and through Owen Creek. It took nine hours of my day to climb six miles. The trail was nonexistent. The boulder strewn creek bed was nature’s idea of a compound angle, the steep drop creating steep sides. Several times, becoming frustrated with my progress, I would climb the creek bank and have another try at hiking the forest edge. Each time I would be turned back by thick forest tangle. I was now entering the land of unnamed passes. I reached the first one by early evening and my route opened up as I began to hike above timberline. To my right was Michele Lake, a glacial fed beauty framed by an immense background of blue sky and dirt-brown mountain terrain. I lingered to capture the lake in perfect evening light on film then continued to climb to the highest pass on the Great Divide Trail.
At the top, darkness was beginning to get serious about shutting the day down. According to my guidebook I should study the valley below and locate my route to the next unnamed pass before dropping in. It looked simple enough. It was beginning to rain and as I hiked into this verdant valley I thought to myself, "I can’t believe this all belongs to only me. It seemed as though I could see for a hundred miles in every direction and every eyeful was filled with beautiful mountains. Waterfall Creek cut the valley in two and ample moisture gave it a lush look of green, splashed with a rainbow array of wildflowers. The evening light added shadow. Sun rays bursting through broken cloud cover, lighting the field below me, gave the setting a spiritual glow.
I often think about space in time. It takes a leap of faith and much effort to place yourself into special moments during your life. This valley between two unnamed passes would be one of my moments.
I was completely wrong about my enormous real estate holdings. I spent a very peaceful night in the valley before I met the actual owner. Morning broke in a drizzle. As usual I was warm and dry in my down bag and didn’t want to get up and deal with the cold and wet. I can never just lay there and relax. Partly because I know I have miles to cover and partly because I am excited about discovering what is over the next pass. Making plenty of noise I broke camp, retrieved my food hanging in a nearby tree, packed my damp gear into my pack and, covered in my poncho, headed across Waterfall Creek.
Studying the valley from my eagle’s perch the night before, I could see that the bench I needed to reach began to climb directly across the creek from where I had spent the night. Midstream, up to my knees in "wake-me-up" water, I noticed a movement just ahead. Looking up I was a little shocked to see a very large, wet and muddy grizzly working the field on the opposite shore. He had a huge patch of thick grass completely rototilled and he didn’t look like he was anywhere near done.
They say not to make eye contact and I like to follow good advice when it comes to grizzly encounters. I immediately started backing water and slowly making my way back to shore. At that point I continued to walk backwards in the direction of a ridge behind my campsite. I kept looking at the bear to see if he was going to look at me. He never did. He never even acknowledged my presence. He was as intent on his excavating as I was on my evacuating.
After slipping quietly over the ridge and out of sight, I hiked quickly downstream about a half mile before making another attempt at crossing Waterfall Creek. I was confident that my friend was still upstream digging but now I had a new problem. To reach the bench that would take me out of the valley would mean a very steep climb through dew damp vegetation and rock outcropping. It would mean an hour or so of exhaustive climbing but I wouldn’t have to negotiate land issues with an 800 pound earth mover.
By noon I had entered the White Goat Wilderness. Immediately I was confused. I was standing in the middle of the Cline River when two Indians on horseback pulled up along the shore. I could tell by the look on their faces that they thought I was nuts. I scampered out of the river and asked them the best route to reach Cataract Creek. They explained it in two broken sentences, kicked their mounts and splashed across the river. I kind of wanted a second opinion but decided instead to follow the trail they were taking. Had I continued on that trail I most likely would have joined the trail I was looking for but I am too impatient for that. I pulled out my GPS, crossed over and up a new tributary and headed straight north. Within an hour I connected with the trail that would follow Cataract Creek for the rest of the day. I still had the fresh vision of the morning’s encounter in my mind. All along Cataract Creek there were fresh diggings to remind me.
I spent the night at the base of Cataract Pass on a small rock bench overlooking the creek. It rained hard all night and the wind blew cold. My Akto tent had its first good workout. The nylon sang all night but everything held together. Not one leak and it stood the wind like a portable bomb shelter.
The climb in the morning showed no sign of trail. I would not see trail again for several hours. From atop the pass I could see several hours of hiking into the valley below along the Brazeau River. It would be a steep descent across shale slopes. I was so cold I took shelter in a rock crevice and decided to boil water for coffee. Knowing I would be above timberline, I carried a small plastic baggie filled with wood chips I had collected the day before along the creek. I had just enough to fire up my Zip Ztove. Just as I was about to add the boiling water to my cup of instant coffee, I poured it into my wet boots instead. It was wonderful. I started hiking soon after and my feet stayed warm the rest of the morning.