Birth of a Long Trail

Few blazes, fewer trail an­gels: Canada’s Great Di­vide Trail of­fers a rare chance to go back in time and ex­pe­ri­ence the birth of a thru-hike.

Backpacker - - CONTENTS - By Ted Al­varez

Head north to Canada for a real thru-hike.

THE GREAT DI­VIDE TRAIL traces the spine of the Cana­dian Rock­ies for 746 miles, but I only needed 18 to see how wild it can be.

Af­ter miles of sub­lime, airy ridge walk­ing on Jasper Na­tional Park’s Sky­line Trail, I ex­ited a tun­nel of trees into a wide patch of tun­dra sweep­ing up to the fortress of 8,839-foot Mt. Tekarra. The view and a howl­ing wind dazed me enough that it took a few sec­onds to catch a choco­late­brown shoul­der f lecked in sil­ver out of the corner of my eye. A paw the size of a pie fol­lowed, and then I saw the shovel nose, beady eyes, and small ears con­firm­ing this was a griz, 25 yards away. Way too close.

I high­tailed it up an ad­ja­cent tun­dra bench, waited for 30 min­utes, and dou­bled back about 200 yards far­ther down the way. As I neared the trail again, I choked when I saw an­other sil­vered hump pass­ing through a break in the trees, 10 feet away. Way too close. With bear spray in hand and my heart ham­mer­ing, I leapfrogged an­other 200 yards up the trail. Had the griz I saw be­fore re­turned, or was this a sec­ond one?

You want to ex­pe­ri­ence a two-month im­mer­sion in a North Amer­i­can wilder­ness the re­gion’s first ex­plor­ers would rec­og­nize? This is your hike. “This is a hard, hard trail that takes some of the best thru- hik­ers in the world and hu­mil­i­ates them,” says Liz “Snorkel” Thomas, who hiked it in 2016.

It’s the GDT’s com­pos­ite wild­ness that sets it apart from any hike in the Lower 48. For star­ers, three ecosys­tems—Rocky Moun­tain, Pa­cific North­west, Arc­tic—con­verge on the di­vide. The re­gion also har­bors an es­ti­mated thou­sand griz­zlies, along with moose, elk, caribou, wolves, wolver­ines, bob­cats— and any­thing else that calls big wilder­ness home. Glacier-fed rivers and gru­el­ing climbs cre­ate in­tim­i­dat­ing bar­ri­ers. Whole cross- coun­try sec­tions where old First Na­tion and fur-trader trails fade to al­most noth­ing vex even ex­pe­ri­enced ori­en­teers.

Un­like on well-known long trails, don’t ex­pect a crowd of hik­ers to come to your aid if there’s a prob­lem: Long stretches of the GDT are prac­ti­cally de­serted. Whether it will stay that way is an­other ques­tion. As the GDT comes of age as a life-list thru-hike, the trail’s few fa­nat­ics are split on the best way to pro­tect the ex­pe­ri­ence they all had. Some be­lieve the trail’s ob­scu­rity—it’s not even of­fi­cially rec­og­nized by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment—will pro­tect it from the masses, and want to keep it un­der wraps. Oth­ers want to gal­va­nize lo­cal and fed­eral agen­cies to pro­mote and pre­serve it. Hik­ers are still few and far be­tween, but with more peo­ple tack­ling the GDT each sum­mer, the de­bate comes at a crit­i­cal time.

I de­cided to hike a few sec­tions of the GDT last year to see what’s at stake. It be­came im­me­di­ately clear that spend­ing days alone above tree­line is a rare priv­i­lege—one that’s hard to find on any trail any­where—and I’m loath to think that might change. On the other hand, I also learned that com­pany looks mighty ap­peal­ing when you’re out­num­bered by griz­zlies.

IF YOU’RE A FAN of Amer­ica’s long trails, the last cou­ple years have been a lit­tle like watch­ing your fa­vorite bar band turn into U2. Ev­ery­one’s a fan: Af­ter read­ing one of the 1.75 mil­lion copies of Wild sold and cry­ing through the movie with Reese, your golf­ing un­cle with the hip re­place­ment is now plan­ning to hike the Pa­cific Crest Trail. In 2015 alone, 4,453 hik­ers ob­tained long-dis­tance per­mits for the PCT—and that’s not count­ing the mil­lions who nib­bled smaller sec­tions.

On the other hand, just 30 or 40 peo­ple tried to tackle the GDT in one gulp last sum­mer; sec­tion hik­ers num­bered in the dozens. No one knows for sure, be­cause that es­ti­mate is cob­bled to­gether from Face­book group re­ports and wildlife agency mo­tion sen­sors catching the rare mud- caked hiker in be­tween all the cougars and griz­zlies. “It’s like the PCT 30

years ago,” says River Taig, 47, a soft­ware en­gi­neer from Colorado who has thru-hiked the GDT three times.

The GDT be­gins where the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide Trail ends, then hits Canada’s five Rocky Moun­tain na­tional parks, seven pro­vin­cial parks, and crosses the con­ti­nen­tal di­vide 30 times be­fore end­ing at Kakwa Lake. “It isn’t the kind of trail to cut your teeth on,” Taig says. “There are 26 miles of el­e­va­tion gain—it’s a ver­ti­cal marathon from start to fin­ish.”

Travers­ing the GDT is the kind of ex­pe­ri­ence that di­vides your life into be­fore and af­ter. Thruhik­ers turn into ob­ses­sives. They aren’t look­ing for self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion or a shot at a mem­oir. They want deep im­mer­sion in wilder­ness. They want to dis­ap­pear.

Taig is one such hiker, and he’s an evan­ge­list for the trail. The soft­ware en­gi­neer is build­ing a GDT app with At­las Trail Guides and writ­ing a cof­fee ta­ble book. Christine Smith, 52, of Cal­gary, is an­other one, com­plet­ing an end-to- end in 2012 and a sec­tion hike in 2015. But she’s more am­biva­lent when it comes to spread­ing the word.

“I have mixed feel­ings about this,” she says. “I am happy I did the trail when I did, as I en­joyed the soli­tude. At the same time, the word is out.”

Ul­ti­mately, she de­cided pro­tec­tion out­weighs pri­vacy, and, like a lot of re­peat cus­tomers, she joined the Great Di­vide Trail As­so­ci­a­tion, the trail’s nascent ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion. “It’s do­ing a great job main­tain­ing the trail,” she says, “build­ing new trail, and rais­ing aware­ness.”

FOR ALL THIS TALK of sav­ing the trail, it’s worth not­ing that the GDT is re­ally more of a route than a track. Just 44 per­cent is on main­tained trail; 33 per­cent is un­main­tained, of which 10 per­cent is raw, cross­coun­try nav­i­ga­tion (the rest is road or ATV track).

Since the ’60s, many Cana­di­ans have tried to knot to­gether the threads of trail into a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized foot­path. Be­yond at­tract­ing

opened up dis­cus­sions with the GDTA for man­ag­ing hik­ers.

But per­haps the most trans­for­ma­tive re­cent change has been the GDTA’s cre­ation of a Face­book group—a vir­tual trail­head reg­is­ter for a trail that has only three real reg­is­ters. Hik­ers trade tat­tered copies of the 10-year- old guide­book (the only one in ex­is­tence, cur­rently out of print), of­fer tips on sur­viv­ing the Great Di­vide’s capri­cious weather, and, of course, car­pool the Great Di­vide way (“any­body want to share a f loat­plane from Kakwa Lake?”).

All that makes Great Di­vide Trail As­so­ci­a­tion Di­rec­tor Brad Vail­lan­court op­ti­mistic about the trail’s fu­ture. “The GDT truly em­bod­ies ev­ery­thing there is to love and pro­tect in the Cana­dian Rocky Moun­tains, but if we con­tinue to keep if off the map, it may be­come more leg­end than re­al­ity.” vis­i­tors and con­serv­ing un­pro­tected sec­tions of wilder­ness, it could also con­ceiv­ably re­move the byzan­tine mess of per­mits and reser­va­tions thru-hik­ers need to hike and camp legally. But with­out na­tional trail des­ig­na­tion, there are no ded­i­cated streams of money for main­te­nance, no of­fi­cial re­sources for hik­ers, and no real way to pro­tect cer­tain sec­tions from min­ing or log­ging. Vol­un­teer ded­i­ca­tion, love, and pen­nies are ba­si­cally all that prop the trail up for now.

Yet the dream still lives thanks to the Great Di­vide Trail As­so­ci­a­tion, which raises money, builds trail, and shep­herds a grow­ing num­ber of the GDT- ad­dicted and - cu­ri­ous into the be­gin­nings of a com­mu­nity. They’re closer to se­cur­ing of­fi­cial sanc­tion than they’ve ever been be­fore: Al­berta is con­sid­er­ing giv­ing pro­vin­cial pro­tec­tion to its por­tions (about 65 per­cent of the trail), and for the first time, Banff Na­tional Park has

AF­TER THE BEAR EN­COUNTER in Jasper, I spent a day skirt­ing larch groves and pearly tarns on a rolling band of tree­line ter­rain that con­nects the Banff Na­tional Park por­tion of the trail to Mt. Assini­boine Pro­vin­cial Park. Pikas pin­balled be­tween the rocks, and as ev­ery­thing went sil­ver in fad­ing light, I saw two dozen moun­tain goats freck­ling a brow of gran­ite 500 feet above me. Through binoc­u­lars, their coming win­ter coats looked like pulled cot­ton balls. I bed­ded down alone with the white spike of Mt. Assini­boine, a Mat­ter­horn döp­pel­ganger, ref lected in Lake Ma­gog. Frost coated the in­side of my tent, and with the door open, it glit­tered in the moon­light.

Some mis­cal­cu­la­tions in sup­plies, tim­ing, and shut­tles meant I had to re­verse my point-to-point to Lake Og back to my car in one day—30 solo miles in­clud­ing a 4-mile road walk on not much more than a few nuts, some jerky dust, and a rind of Parme­san cheese. For most of the night, I car­ried on jelly-legged and shout­ing at ev­ery bear-shaped boul­der that fuzzed into the wan­ing beam of my head­lamp. I ar­rived at the trail­head be­fore mid­night and went straight to Banff, where I waded through a line of drunken 20-year- olds to eat two large piz­zas at 2 a.m.

It was a per­fect end­ing to my trial- size sec­tion. I’d got­ten a big help­ing of what makes the Great Di­vide Trail so spe­cial, and so daunt­ing: liv­ing through tri­umphs and tragedies of your own mak­ing in the wild, and coming out the other side feel­ing more ca­pa­ble than be­fore.

And af­ter five days on the GDT, I came to my own con­clu­sion about whether the trail needs sav­ing or se­crecy. It needs you, dear reader, in or­der to sur­vive, but I’ll be back some­day soon to fin­ish it, and I hope to beat you to it.

Bighorn sheep sun them­selves above Michele Lakes (mile 410).

In early Au­gust, wild­flow­ers erupt along the bot­tom­lands of the Howes River (mile 346).

A hiker crests the GDT’s 8,500foot high point (mile 411), which, fit­tingly, lacks an of­fi­cial name.

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