The Forgotten Trails

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!

 

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Being Caribou

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.

Future of the Great Divide Trail

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.

Beyond the Great Divide Trail

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 1987. 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.

forgotten-explorer        

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.

jasper hudson hope

 

 

Good-Bye Old Friend

3 years of hiking the Great Divide Trail has finally come to an end. It’s been an interesting and wild adventure. Each year brought about new adventures, new challenges and a new perspective on Canadian Rockies. I’ve seen the popularity of the Great Divide Trail grow exponentially over the last 3 years from an obscure trail full of solitude to an increasing busy and social trail. Yet, despite the growing popularity, the GDT is still an unofficial trail. The Great Divide Trail Association has done a great job of maintaining and promoting the trail, yet I still finding myself wondering what the trail will look like in 5 years or 10 years. Will there still be that element of rough and untamed wilderness that currently exists or will it become a fully developed and oversaturated trail. Time will tell.

Plans for a 4th hike? Probably not, at least not as a continuous thru-hike. There are a few sections that I have no interest in hiking ever again, I think a 4th trip would be a best of the GDT trip connecting my favourite trails and exploring new ones. Moreover, I think it’s time to move beyond the GDT and explore new areas of the Rockies and push my abilities into uncharted terrain. I’ll expand on that in a future post.

The GDT has definitely pushed my abilities to the limit at times and I’ve always learned from each experience. I started out as a novice thru-hiker intimidated by the unknown only to find myself deliberately hiking into the unknown 3 years later, creating my own routes and exploring areas that few people have set foot on. My choice to hike the GDT multiple times has always been driven by a sense of curiosity and adventure and the trail has always delivered in that regard providing some incredible moments and some magical wildlife encounters that I’ll never forget. Good-bye Great Divide Trail, until we meet again.

GDT 2014-2016: 126 Days, 4004.7 km

 

Week 1: Vancouver to Republic

Day 1: Rough Start

I woke up at 5am after a late night of last minute packing and planning tired and wishing I had booked the bus a day later. At 6:30 I was and 8 uncomfortable hours I was in Osoyoss and the beginning of my trip. A 5km walk brought me to the U.S. border where a disbelieving customs officer requested that I show him my maps and route before he let me cross. Once that was out of the way it was back to walking the hi-way. An hour I made to Oroville and my official start on the PNT. A quick walk through town and I was back on the road heading towards Whistler Canyon trail.I spent nearly 4 hrs walking road in the mid day heat of the Okanogon Valley and was beat by the time I reached the trail head. I was greeted by a swarm of Mosquito at the trail head so I decided to hike up the trail a bit and set up camp on a windy ridge to avoid the swarm. It was a long day and felt nice to crawl into bed.

Stats: Osoyoos to Whistler Canyon Trailhead. 4hr 33min, 19.7 km, 219m elev. gain

PNT Day1

Day 2: The Search for Water

I woke up bright and early only to realize that I was down to less then a litre of water. The map and trail guide both showed the next available water source was over 10 km away. That was a bit to far to hike with so little water. I decided to backtrack to a side trail that led to a small pond, unfortunately for me my maps were wrong and it was nothing but a dried up mud patch. I decided to head back down to the trailhead and rethink my options. The ironic part is that there was a large river opposite the trailhead that flows parallel to the hi-way. Unfortunately, it was inaccessible due to the dense brush and steep banks. Luckily for me the local farmer was watering his field with sprinklers so I decided to collect some water from there and shower at the same time. I wasn’t sure if it was safe to drink but I was the best I could do without hiking back to the bridge before Oroville. Once refilled I headed up the trail. 15 minutes past my initial campsite I came across a sign ” alternative route with stream crossing”. I spent 2 hours this morning trying to get water when all I really had to do was hike 15 minutes up the trail. And not only that but there was plenty of water available for the next 10 km. So much for a reliable trail guide. The rest of the whistler canyon trail was great. Views were beautiful from the ridge top and made for a very pleasant hiking. I saw several deer, two snakes and my first wild turkey! By mid afternoon, I made it to my intended destination at Summit lake. Unfortunately, what was written about the campsite and what was actually there were two different things. I decide to keep hiking further and see if I could find a better camping site somewhere along the trail. AN hour later, I had the option of taking one of two routes. Unfortunately I took the “recommended route” and it turned out to a be a bad decision. The route forced me to hike an extra 15km before I could find a decent campsite. I turns out that the “recommended route” travels outside the national forest. That means private property and no trail or road side camping. Eventually I made it to the Highlands Snow Park at the base of Bonaparte Mountain and set up camp at the trailhead. I had hiked 50 km . It was a long day.

Stats: Whistler Canyon Trailhead to Bonaparte Mountain. 14hr 04min, 49.1 km, 1613m elev. gain

PNT Day2-2 PNT Day2-3PNT Day2-4

Day 3: Bonaparte Mountain

My first day of complete hiking trail…well 95%. It was nice to be way from the road walking. As I made my way up Bonaparte Mountain, the forest looked like it had been run over by a giant avalanche. Countless trees neatly knocked over in a symmetrical pattern.Views were non existent along the trail so I made a little detour up to the Bonaparte Lookout. Along the short stretch of trail up to the summit, I ran into snow patches along the trail. A cool breezy wind greeted me as I reached the look out. Views were a disappointing as the day was overcast and the lookout tower was locked. Afterwards, I headed down to Bonaparte Lake on a nice trail which was completely different then the western slope of the mountain.Green and clean. The best views of the day came during the last hour of hiking as I reached a open section of trail just before the lake.

Stats: Bonaparte Mountain to Bonaparte Lake Campground. 9hr 38min, 29.6km, 1156m elev. gain

PNT Day3-1 PNT Day3-2PNT Day3-3

Day 4: It Was Bound To Happen

The day started out with a long road walk from Bonaparte Lake to the end of Cougar Creek road. Part of the road passed through some nice farm land which led to some great photo opportunities but then it turned into a dull featureless road surrounded by brush and trees. At the end of Cougar Creek road I came to two gated roads signed “Private Property, No Trespassing” and no trail in sight. I searched the area for a while but constantly came to dead ends or a private property fence line. It was time to regroup. I walked down to the creek, a few meters from the road, checked my maps, checked my gps, checked the guide. and concluded that the PNT actually crosses private property! As I stood up to pack my gear, I heard some rustling in the bush. I though it was another deer but it turned out to be a small brown, black bear. My first encounter! It crossed the road and headed up hill before stopping to take a quick glance at me before it disappear into the bush. Time to pull out the bear spray. I hopped the gate and made my way down the road. My assumption about the PNT trail was right and I was quickly back on track after some short lived trespassing. The trail to Clackamas Mountain was nice. It was a mix of tall grass and sparse pine trees. Views were limited but a fun forest hike nonetheless. I set up camp on an open ridge just before Sweat Creek to avoid the hi-way noise and fell asleep to the soothing sound of cattle calls from the valley below.

Stats: Bonaparte Lake Campground to Clackamas Mountain. 11hr 9min. 35.3km, 1194m elev.gain.

Day 5: Wasted Beauty

After a steep downhill hike to the valley I had a decision to make. Take the main PNT route along forest service road or take the longer alternative trail. I chose the alternative.It started out very promising, nice trail, several deer and then a dead end. No trail. I spent the next several hours hiking cross-country, occasionally finding over grown forestry roads or short trails. I abandoned my maps and GPS route and went by compass knowing that I would eventually cross the main PNT route on the forestry road. Luckily the terrain was cross-country friendly and made for a fun few hours of random forest hiking. Once I got back on the main PNT route it was all road the rest of the day to Swan Lake. At one of the road junctions, I turned the corners walk a couple of meters and then saw a bear walking towards me. We both stopped and stared at each other. I took a picture before saying “hello bear”, at which point the bear ran off into the forest. 2 bears in 2 days! At least there’s something along these otherwise mundane road walks. The unfortunate part was that the surrounding forest had so much potential for great hiking yet somehow the architects of the PNT decided that walking the forestry roads is the best option. If the trail that ran parallel to the road, the whole experience would be that much better but after 30 years of planning this it all you get with the PNT, a long uninteresting dusty road walk.

Stats: Clackamas Mountain to Swan Lake. 12hr 55min, 42.6km, 1032m elev. gain. 

Day 6: march of the one-eyed pirate

After a night of thunder and lighting I woke up with the realization that something was wrong. I reached for my camera so that I could take a photo of my face. I looked at the image and my left eye was swollen. It seems that the pine branch that hit me in the face yesterday did more damage then I thought, fortunately I would be in Republic by the end of the day which a big enough town to have a hospital. My morning hike to civilization began with more road walking. I took a detour to Ferry Lake and a short cross-country hike before resuming my road walk. Eventually I made it to trail #25 just before 10 mile campground. It was a short 2 mile trail but so nice. Great views of the sanpoil canyon. But, as typical of the PNT so far, the beautiful moments end quickly and I was back to more road walking. 15km of narrow shouldered hi-way to Republic and my first resupply. Walking the road felt a bit like a drunk driving sobriety test as I walked along the white shoulder line with one eye closed trying to alleviate the swelling and irritation. When I reached town I was so happy and felt so beat up. Both my feet were sore, I had 3 blisters, multiple cuts on both legs, my knee was aching and my eye was sore. The exciting life of a through hiker. After acquiring some accommodation and buying food for my next section I ended my day by lying in bed with a large pizza watching the Stanley cup finals. Ahh, the comforts of civilized life. Warm shelter, abundance of food and an endless stream of stimulation.

Stats: Swan Lake to Republic. 9hr 21min, 34.9km, 534m elev. gain. 

 

Week 2: Republic to Northport

Day 7: Prospectors Day Parade

I woke up in the morning with some serious eye pain. My eye wasn’t swollen like the day before but it was so sensitive to light that I could barely open it. It was time for some medical attention. I packed up and headed to the Republic Hospital E.R. The staff was great and the doctor was even better! He came in with jeans, white long-sleeve shirt and brown leather vest. +10 for style points. After a few tests and exams it seems that my eye was just severalty irritated and not scratches or damage had been done. He gave me a tube of anti-bacteria eyeball gel and sent me one my way. I stopped by the public library to update the blog and watched the parade go by. Afterwards I made a quick stop at Subway for lunch and dinner to-go. By 1pm I was back on the trail road down to 13 mile campground along the hi-way. I saw a record 12 deer that day and got caught in a short storm midway.

Stats: Republic to Thirteen Mile trailhead. 5hr 18min, 22.84km, 114m elev. gain.

 

PNT Day7-4 PNT Day7-0 PNT Day7-1

Episode 8: Return of the Hiker

Two days to late from having a great Star Wars reference. Today was my first day since Mt.Bonaparte of all day hiking on a real hiking trail! At first I though I was lost. After all isn’t the PNT a large 20′ wide path of gravel and pavement through non-scenic terrain? All sarcasm aside. The trail from 13 mile was a very fun hike along wispy grassy ridge tops and through dense forest valleys. I ran into another hiker doing a short section of the PNT from Sherman pass to Republic. He gave me a heads up of a bear & cub encounter he had at Cougar Mountain. I got some trail info and tips before we parted ways. A few hours later, I walked around a bend in the trail and heard scattering in the trees to my left. I looked over and saw a small black bear club climbing the tree and another bear climbing another tree just a few meters past. Was that momma on tree #2 or was that cub #2. I backed up and assessed the situation. The brush was to dense on either side to go around so I had to go ahead on the trail. I walked slowly and let the bears know I was just passing through. It was a slightly tense situation but as soon as it began, it was over and I was back to normal hiking speed. No photos this time. Shortly after that I paused at a large stump to take a break. As I got up a giant brown creature thundered across the trail into the brush ahead of me. I just got a glimpse of it. I wasn’t too sure with it was but at least it ran away from me and not at me. I slowly walked along the trail and saw its prints in the soft soil. It was a Moose! So far the best day of the PNT. 2 bears, 1 moose and 100% trail.

Stats: Thirteen Mile trailhead to Hunters Camp. 9hr 8min, 30.1km, 1617m elev. gain. 

 

PNT Day8-0 PNT Day8-1

Day 9: Finding My Own

The PNT provided 2 route options. buch-wack #1 and bush-wack #2. Unfortunately, this is one of those situations were the east to west bias of the PNT comes into play. First, the west bound hiker is coming to the end of their section and only has a day or two of food supply with them, were as I just started the section and still have 5 days of foods in my pack. Second, a long steep bush-wack is easier downhill for the west bound hiker then it is for me who has to go uphill. I decided to ditch the PNT maps and use my forestry maps to find an alternate route. It was a gamble but climbing a long hill in the dense brush of the south Kettle Range on a rainy day was not appealing. I actually found a great route that was 100% old forestry road and trail. I was a bit longer then the PNT routes but it saved me a nasty climb. The route along the forestry road was littered with bear droppings. Every 100 meters there was a new pile. It’s as if it was their outhouse route. Then, half way up, I heard some sounds from the bush behind me. I stopped, turned around and out of the bush came a Moose! We stared lovingly into each other eyes before the moose decided I wasn’t its type and ran off down the trail. I was slow with the camera and just got a distance Moose booty shot. At the higher elevations the rain turned to snow and bear tracks were visible along the trail. Once at the top of Mt.Bald I saw my saving grace. Snow Peak cabin! I had spent the last 7 hours hiking in rain and snow and the sight of a warm dry shelter was exhilarating. I completely forgot that there was a shelter there and as I opened the door a blast of heat hit my face as the shelter was still warm for yesterday’s guests. I threw more wood into the fire-place and relaxed for the next 2 hours waiting for the storm to pass. Around 3pm the weather partly cleared and I managed to get a few decent views from the top and I headed down toward Sherman Pass. 2 bears and 2 moose in 2 days, the Kettle Range has been good so far.

Stats: Hunters Camp to Columbia Mountain Lookout Cabin. No GPS Data Available.

 

Day 10: Saving the Best for Someone Else

I woke to a frost covered tent. It was 1 degree in the morning. Camping on a summit is probably not the best location but decent campsites  have been hard to come by.Luckily, I had the opportunity to have breakfast and pack up in the look out shelter on Columbia Mountain before heading out into the cold rain. Along the ridge top of the Kettle Crest trail I rain into large snow patches and cursed at the horrible conditions. I seems that when it’s nice and sunny I’m walking roads and when there’s trail and potentially beautiful vistas I’m stuck in mist, rain and snow. It was one of those head down and keep walking type of days. Too cold to stop. Just keep walking. No animals today with the exception of a few prints in the snow. I was tired by mid day and eventually stopped by a rock to have a snack. I had a pleasant conversation with a chipmunk about the weather and the unfavourable conditions but it didn’t seem to interested. In the late afternoon it started to clear up, finally! Unfortunately I was on the downhill slope of the Kettle crest trail and back into the forest by then. I was beat and wanted to set up camp but the trail and surrounding forest wouldn’t let me. It was either to dense, or too steep to set up camp so I had to hike an extra 10 miles before I found a decent campsite just before Deer Summit.

Stats: Columbia Mountain Lookout Cabin to Deer Summit. No GPS Data Available

 

Day 11: Sunshine = Road Walking

After a short trail hike down the remainder of the Kettle Crest Trail, I was back to a full day of road walking. The initial forestry roads where old, under used and over-grown which made for a quasi-trail experience. I saw my first elk and 2 rabbits, one of which was kind enough to pose for a photo before hopping away. By mid-day I was back to hard-packed non-scenic forestry roads. I wasn’t fun and worst of all my planned campsite at Taylor lake turned out to be a dud. It was nothing more then a patch of grass between the road and lake and most likely on private property. For the second time now I’ve been caught in a situation were the PNT follows a road that is surrounded by private lands and provides no legitament camping area. Again I had to hike another 10 miles to get back into the National forest area before I could find a decent campsite. Frustrating day. 46km of gravel roads, Yuk.

Stats: Deer Summit to Random Roadside Camp. No GPS Data Available.

 

Day 12: Can I see some I.D.

Today was the last stretch of forestry road before my resupply in Northport, Washington. The day began with more forestry road walking. By the afternoon I was in a walking groove, happy that the end was almost near when a border patrol guard came cruising up the road. He stopped and asked me some questions. He asked for my I.D. and then called in my passport for verification. At this point I was happy that I actually passed through a legit port of entry in Oroville and didn’t hike down on the PCT as I originally planned. A few minutes later 2 other officers showed up but unlike your typical customs agent these border patrol guys were decent and normal. It took forever to get my passport verified but in the mean time I found out the difference between a National Forest and a National Park and why hunting was allowed in National Forests. I also learned  that cougars frequent Sheep Creek road and that Sheep Creek road is a drug trafficking corridor! Not only does the PNT cross private property but it’s also routed along a Canada/U.S. drug trafficking corridor. The whole border patrol stop provided a nice comical break to the day. Afterwards, it was another hour or two before I made it to Northport. I got a place at Matteson B&B, bought some groceries and planned out my route for the next section. Hopefully my PNT stats improve over the dismal 50% + road walking that has happened over the last 2 sections. So far the PNT is more of a road walk then a hiking trail.

Stats: Random Roadside Camp to Northport. No GPS Data Available.