Another year has come and gone and the big hike is soon approaching: Jasper to Hudson Hope. The last time I posted about this trip I had a preliminary route mapped out and a rough estimate calculated but as I gathered more data this past summer those numbers changed and the route evolved. As of today, my pre-hike stats look like this:
- Days: 38
- Distance: 890km
- Trail: 395km (44%)
- X-Counrty: 240km (27%)
- Road: 255km (29%)
- Resupplies: 2 (Grande Cache & Tumbler Ridge)
However, route estimates from Google earth and topo maps haven’t proven to be very accurate. My GPS numbers were typically 10-30% greater, with the largest deviation occurring over cross-country routes. I expected there to be some variance so it wasn’t a surprise but it does complicate the food supply calculation. My feeling is that this trip will be closer to 1000km by the end.
If there’s one disappointing aspect to this hike, it’s the amount of road walking that’s involved. Nearly a third of the route is road walking and the majority of it is between Tumbler Ridge and Hudson Hope. That’s a lot of road walking and I hate road walking. Unfortunately, heavy industry has scarred the landscape and the area is a maze of cutlines and dirt roads. The challenge was trying to link the pockets of beautiful terrain together and minimize the amount of road walking that I’d have to do. This is where scouting trips and local knowledge were invaluable resources and helped turn a potentially dull ending into something interesting.
The most challenging section is going to be Grande Cache to Tumbler Ridge. My original estimate was 340km but it’s looking more like 400km. The hike into Kakwa and the hike out of Monkman is straightforward. It’s the section in-between that’s going to be the challenge. Samuel Fay took an uninteresting valley route through the Front Ranges, Chris Townsend got lost and went way off course and Karsten Heuer skied the route. The one fact that I’ve been able to find is that the area has a “healthy” Grizzly bear population. Needless to say, I’ve accepted the vail of mystery that covers the area. It is only 115km of cross-country hiking after all…what could go wrong?
It might be safe to say that this is the last stretch of untouched wilderness remaining in the Central Rockies.
That’s it for now. I’ve posted a few stories from this past summer under the “Canadian Rockies 2017” tab and I’ll probably do one final post before the summer, once everything is finalized. Until then.
Its been a few months since I ended my summer of hiking and re-inserted myself back into the matrix. The transition between trail life and city life is always a unique experience and as much as I’d like to say that trail life is better, I can’t. Both lifestyles have pros and cons and I’ve learned to appreciate the opportunities that each offers.
When it comes to the trail, there’s a saying: hike your own hike. I knew the phrase but it took a while to figure out what “my hike ” was. When I first started my adventures in long-distance hiking I was heavily influenced by the American style of hiking: light and fast. Information on topic was in abundance and it seemed that every long-distance hiker followed that approach. I was sold and jumped on the bandwagon.
In 2014, I started my first long hike. Two and a half months later, I arrived at Mt.Robson and the end of my hike. I did it! My first long-distance hike. I was beat up and exhausted but I did it. I marvelled at the accomplishment but left the trail feeling slightly empty. Memories were a blur and a sadness took hold. The following year I returned, looking for another challenge and another high. I pushed myself to my physical and mental limit and navigated unexplored routes. It was a challenging year. I finished feeling exhausted and beat up once again and an empty feeling resurfaced once again. I realized then that something had to change.
In 2016, I set out to hike the Great Divide Trail one more time but this time with a different mindset. I wanted to experience the Rockies and not simply hike through them. I ditched the light and fast style. I carried more gear and hiked a slower pace. It turned out to be a great year and for the first time I walked away from the trail feeling energized. I knew then that I made the right choice.
I took the success of that year and carried it over to this past summer. I hiked even slower and carried even more gear. I let curiosity and adventure lead the way. I planned my summer as I did in previous years but left room for exploration. Most of my hikes followed forgotten trails and cross-country routes. I took a while to adjust but once I figured out how to deal with cross-country travel and understood its limitations, I gained a confidence and freedom that I never experienced before. In an odd way, I had come full circle. I was hiking the way I had hiked before I started long-distance hiking. Exploration and nature took precedence once again. It wasn’t about hiking from point A to B but about the experience of everything in between. I had found my hike…or maybe rediscovered it.
The label of thru-hiker no longer seems fitting but then again neither does backpacker or mountaineer. I find myself somewhere in between. A hybrid of the three.
Everyone hikes for different reasons and how you hike should match why you hike. Unfortunately, long-distance hiking is heavily influenced by American hikers and lacks an alternate perspective. I struggled during my first few years and had to find my own way because that alternate perspective wasn’t available. I doubt that I’m an outlier in the hiking world but hopefully my experience can point those interested in a different direction.
Another season of hiking is done and I can say that this was the best summer to date. If I didn’t have prior commitments I would have hiked more. The weather was fantastic, the trails were epic and I finally felt like I found my stride.
As I mentioned in my previous post, this summer was focused on scouting trips for next years Jasper-Hudson Hope expedition. I had a lot of questions that I wanted to answer before the hike and I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that Chris Townsend made during his 1989 hike. What kind of terrain will I encounter? How fast can I travel through rough terrain? How accurate are existing topographical maps? What kind of navigational challenges might I encounter and how will I deal with them?
A lot of questions got answered and my ability to orientate, navigate and read terrain grew exponentially over the summer. By the end, I was improvising routes as I hiked. It was a liberating feeling and a humbling experience at the same time. Cross-country hiking is completely different then trail hiking. With trail hiking you can wear a set of headphones, disconnect from the trail and still arrive at your destination but with cross-country hiking you’re constantly engaged with your surroundings. Terrain and navigational challenges keep you focused. You’re constantly scanning the environment, assessing the situation and making decisions. It was complete emersion with the environment and I think that’s why I fell in love with the hikes this summer.
I’ll post stories about the various hikes over the next few months. In the mean time, here are a few stats from this past summer:
- Total days hiked: 60
- Total distance hiked: 1379km
- Amount of new trails hiked: 782km (56%)
- Average per day: 23km
- Total cross-country hiked: 280km (20%)
- Longest hike: 10 days (230km)
- Longest continuous stretch of cross-country: 44km (2 days)
- Highest percentage of cross-country: Kakwa Provincial Park 43% (61 of 184km)
- Grizzly Bear: 10
- Wolverine: 1
- Woodland Caribou: 5
Lastly, before the summer I posted a photo from the book The Forgotten Explorer. I managed to find the right pass but the exact location of Samuel Fay’s campsite from 1914 alluded me at the time. However, now that I’ve hiked through the area and have had time to look over my photos and google earth , I think I know the exact location. Regardless of the historical context, It’s a spectacular area and probably one of the most beautiful places in the Canadian Rockies.
It’s almost time to head out for another summer of hiking. This season is very unique as it’s a departure from the standard long distance hike. There’s no predefined hiking route, no guidebook, just a series of hikes aimed at exploring a potential route between Jasper and Hudson Hope. I’ll be starting with some fun hikes around Banff to get myself into hiking form before I head up north and into the wilds of Northern Jasper, WIllmore Wilderness, Kakwa and Tumbler Ridge.
I won’t say much about the hikes or routes but I’ll leave you with this teaser from Charles Helm’s book “The Forgotten Explorer“.
Lastly, some blog updates to announce: I’ve officially decided to change the name from Hiking the Great Divide Trail to Hiking the Canadian Rockies as it’s more reflective of my current and future plans. The Great Divide trail has been an inspiration and great stepping stone but it has run its course. In addition, I’ve decided to remove all of my hiking resources related to the GDT. It has become obvious that the days of veteran hikers helping new hikers directly has all but disappeared from the GDT. The Facebook group is the new information hub so out with the old and in with the new.
Enjoy your summer and see you again in a few months!
A while back, I mentioned Karsten Heuer and his book “Waking the Big Wild” as one of the resources that I found for my Jasper and Hudson Hope hike. Since then, his name has shown up in a few other places. Most recently, I noticed that his name was associated with the Bison project in Banff National Park. It’s an exciting project and a milestone in wildlife conservation . After a century long absence, wild Bison may once again roam the plains of Banff National Park.
The reason I wanted to write this post is to mention his second journey after the Y2Y hike, Being Caribou. Karsten and his wife spent 5 months following the yearly Caribou migration through the Yukon and Alaska on foot. It’s a great story and an inspiring journey that goes beyond hiking for personal fulfilment and embraces nature on another level.
I’ve posted the documentary below and even if it’s not something that interests you at least go to 48:20 of the video and see how rivers are forded up north. Makes the Smokey River ford on the Great Divide Trail look like a stream crossing.
When I first hiked the Great Divide trail in 2014, I became part of the last group of hikers to hike the old trail. At that time resources and information were limited. The GDT guidebook was the main resource and only a few hiking blogs existed. The trail had a special aura to it back then, wild and untamed. The trail saw few hikers and solitude was part of the experience. It was an intimate experience between you and the Canadian Rockies.
In 2013 the Great Divide Trail Association was revived and slowly started to impose their presence. By 2015, the GDTA had launched a new website and started the GDT Facebook group along with other social media ventures on Twitter and Instagram. Sections of the trail were once again being maintained and a push to have the GDT recognized as an official trail resurfaced. 2015 was also the year that Erin Saver hiked the trail. As one of the most popular hikers on the internet with over a million views on her blog and a faithful following it’s hard not to include her presence on the trail as a turning point in its popularity.
In 2016, the GDT Facebook group grew to a few hundred people, the GDTA posted more resources on their website and a beta version of the GDT app was revealed. Resources for the trail had become plentiful. Free maps, trail notes and resource links were readily available. Questions that couldn’t be answered by an internet search were now being answered by other hikers on the Facebook group. The GDTA started the “GDT Hiker List” on the Facebook group and for the first time you could see how many people were hiking the trail, when they were starting and what section they were hiking. It was also the first year that I overlapped with other GDT hikers on the trail. Social media became a prominent feature that year with numerous hikers posting photos or updating trail conditions to the Facebook group.
2017 has, so far, continued on from the previous year. More hikers have joined the Facebook group. More hikers are planning to hike the trail. The GDT received a feature in Backpacker Magazine. Atlas trail guides released a GDT App for smartphones. And now a private shuttle service is available to pick you up from Kakwa Lake.
A lot has happened over the past 3 years and for better or worse the Great Divide Trail is not what it once was. The current direction of the GDT will open the door for more people to experience the wonders of the Canadian Rockies but at a cost. For the current generation of hikers everything is easier and more accessible. The challenges of trip planning and logistics are all but gone. The need for route finding skills has been replaced by smartphone apps, gps files and trail blazes. Overgrown sections of trail are being cleared and new trails are being built. The elements of ruggedness, solitude and untamed wilderness that one associated with the GDT are quickly fading away. The scenery will always be there and the GDT will always be a premier long distance hike for that reason but the aura that made the trail special over the years will be missing. Over saturation and commercialization are the negatives that come with growth and the problems found on other long distance trails will eventually find their way onto the GDT.
Change is inevitable but it’s unfortunate that we have to sacrifice the elements that made the trail so magical to begin with to accommodate that change. In the end, it’s only those of us that have hiked the trail before the digital era that will understand what has changed and what has been lost.
After my 2015 hike, I was intrigued by the wilderness areas of WIllmore and northern Jasper. I started to think about going beyond the Great Divide Trail and hiking further north. Would it be possible? Has anyone ever done it before? I began to research possible routes and any reference to past trips through the area. The earliest mention of an expedition between Jasper and Hudson Hope was from a book called “The Forgotten Explorer” written by Charles Helm & Mike Murtha about a 1914 expedition by Samuel Prescott Fay. Even though the expedition happened over a hundred years ago, sections of the route still remain undevelopment and are probably as wild as they were back then.
A more recent mention of the route came from a book titled “High Summer” written by Chris Townsend who became the first person to hike the entire Canadian Rockies from Waterton Lakes to Liard River by foot in 1989. The last route mention came from Karsten Heuer‘s book “Walking the Big Wild” about his hike from Yellowstone to the Yukon in an attempt to raise awareness of the Y2Y initiative in the late 1990’s.
All three books were interesting to read and provided insight into the area between Jasper and Hudson Hope. However, as trail resources none proved very helpful and rightly so as none were intended to be trail guides. Each person took a different route with different transportation and resupply strategies. I was left with a general overview of the area but no definitive route. I took what I could from the books and began to research as much information as I could about the surrounding area through local hiking clubs, ATV groups, equestrian groups, and hunting outfits.
In the spring of 2016, I drove out to the Peace River region to explore the area first hand for 10 days. I spent more time driving around then hiking but I wanted to get a sense of the area more then anything. It was a great trip and well worth the time. I managed to gather a lot of good information that included trail maps and GPS data that I otherwise would never of had access too.
After a summer of hiking the GDT, I spent the autumn months piecing together the information that I collected over the last year and created a route between Jasper and Hudson Hope. The entire route is approximately 740km with 3 supply points along the way at Grande Cache, Tumbler Ridge and Chetwynd. The biggest challenge will be the section between Grande Cache and Tumbler Ridge, which is approximately 340km. The square on the map below is what I affectionately call the “death zone”. It’s a slight exaggeration but it is 115km of continuous cross-country. No trails, no roads, no cutlines, 100% wilderness with 2 substantial river crossings of unknown size and depth. If you’ve hiked the Great Divide trail, it’s the equivalent of hiking from Field to the Saskatchewan Crossing without a trail. It will definitely push my skills to another level.
Most of the research and planning has been done. This summer I’m going to hike a few short sections around Tumbler Ridge, Northern Jasper, Willmore Wilderness and the Death Zone to test out the feasibility of my route and get a sense of the terrain. Topographical maps and satellite imagery can only show you so much and there’s nothing more valuable then first hand experience.