I spent several days hiking with my daughters Alex and Tesha, and Sye, and got to meet Luka as well. This was Alex and Sye’s last week on Canada’s Great Divide Trail (GDT), which they started at Waterton National Park on July 15. Tesha, Luka, and I joined them for their final 75-mile leg from Jasper to Mt. Robson Provincial Park in northern British Columbia.
This is a beautiful and varied chunk of real estate. At times the terrain reminded me of Alaska’s Brooks Range, with its vast river valleys and endless waves of mountains. The vegetation was more like southcentral Alaska – spruce forests, wild cranberries, and crowberry bushes. There was more than a hint of the Cascades, including scrub alder, thimbleberry, and blueberries (mostly Vaccinium membranaceum with a sprinkling of Vaccinium deliciosum). Sometimes the rock formations looked like Mt. Vishnu in the Grand Canyon, minus the red rock. More often, the mountains were uplifted like in the Pasaytens, with broad ramps peaking abruptly above sheer cliffs on the uplifted side of the peak. All around, glaciers sat in stately repose on high benches, or tumbled down toward the valley floor in chaotic icefalls.
Moose Pass, where we lingered for lunch on Day 4 of the trip, is one of the prettiest places I have ever been.
And Mt. Robson Provincial Park, in British Columbia, is a Disneyland of wonder. The Berg Lake trail passes by glacier-fed lakes, towering cliffs, and booming waterfalls, all on a deluxe trail on which one can – and we did – push a wheelbarrow. But more on that later.
This feast of a journey, however, came at a price. Here is our story:
Chapter 1: I hate Canada
At the end of Day 1 it rained. It rained all night. The track, when we could find one, was ankle deep in mud. Broad, attractive meadows turned out to be boggy swamps. We hit the first bog on the morning of Day 2, and my shoes were sopping wet the rest of the way. A typical bog would lure us in, promising a direct line through pretty brush and decaying flowers. At first, you would think that you could step from one hummock to the next and keep your feet dry. After 80-100 meters, however, you would be trapped – surrounded by ankle-deep muck with no easy retreat. Sometimes the muck went over your ankles.
“It always rains in Canada,” someone muttered. The rain, swamps, bogs, and muck were sneaky, insidious. They sucked the heat out of us like vampires.
The Weakerthans have a song called, “I hate Winnipeg.” As the tune began to loop through my head, its words morphed. The Weakerthans were not thinking large enough, I concluded. It’s not just Winnipeg, it's the whole friggin country. I sang the song again, with a larger complaint … “I … hate … Canada.”
Although it was still beautiful:
Chapter 2: Butt gum
“Hey, look at this,” Tesha exclaimed during a break on Day 3. “I forgot that I have a package of gum in my pack. I’m gonna have fresh breath now!”
“You should’ve brought some butt gum,” Alex observed.
Chapter 3: We’re going on a bear hunt!
Do you know the classic children’s story of going on a bear hunt? Well, this trail is where that story comes from. Here’s what I mean…
“We’re going on a bear hunt!
We’re not afraid.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared!
Oh, oh, … what’s that?”
“… Long wavy grass!” (Check.)
“… A deep cold river!” (Check, many times over.)
“… Thick oozy mud!” (Check, a million times.)
“… A swirling snowstorm!” (Ok, only rain and sleet, but close enough.)
“… A big dark forest!” (Doh.)
“... We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it… Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!” (Check.)
The only thing in the story that we did not experience in real life is that we never met an actual bear. We were a large and noisy group of five people bantering much of the time about food, music, the MI-5 TV show, and Ciara's Ride. So, theoretically, our noisiness would give any large critters plenty of warning to keep their distance. But that’s all theoretical. As far as I can tell - from my direct personal observation - there are no bears in Canada.
Chapter 4: Frozen shoes
Sometime as kids we learn that ice is actually water that is really, really cold. I can’t count how many college degrees are represented among the five of us in our merry band. But not enough, apparently, because we all forgot our elementary school physics. I’ve mentioned that our shoes were completely soaked. And I don’t mean just sort of wet. These shoes carried enough water for us to slake our thirst if, by some miracle, all of Canada suddenly dried up and became a desert. John Franklin, the 19th Century British explorer, became a hero when he literally ate his boots to stay alive during a botched expedition to the northern Canadian shores in 1822. Unlike Franklin, we did not have to eat our shoes. But we could have drunk them.
Having wet shoes was, in a way, liberating. We began to plunge into icy streams with little hesitation, not bothering to change into anything – because we had nothing into which to change. Here are pics of just two of many crossings:
Anyway, what I’m getting at is that our shoes now consisted largely of a liquid material that is known to – when the temperature drops far enough – freeze into a solid block. So, when on the morning of Day 4 the temperature did in fact drop quite a bit, our shoes were transformed into solid blocks of ice with Brooks and New Balance logos.
None of us were spared. By solid, I mean really solid. I could not bend those little suckers. I could not fit my feet into them. No matter how much I whacked them on a rock, the ice remained, well, ice. My only hope was to warm my shoes with my own body heat.
Franklin’s 1819-22 expedition was not the only excursion into northern Canada that the British botched. Several expeditions were noteworthy for their dysfunctional gear – including frozen footwear. During the Nares expedition of 1875-76, sledging teams would have to thaw their way into their sleeping bags every night. The bags, made of buffalo skins, would absorb moisture during the night, only to freeze during the day and impose yet another discomfort on the over-extended and scurvy-ridden sledgers.
From the comfort of my armchair, I’ve always gazed with patronizing scorn at these poor souls. How could they have been so stupid as to let their own clothes, bags, and shoes freeze? But now, after thawing my way into my own shoes, I am more sympathetic. Those were tough dudes. And sometimes there’s only a thin line between recreation and misery.
Chapter 5: Melted shoe
Alex’s reaction to her frozen shoe problem was to set her left shoe on fire. Really. Trying to avoid the frozen shoe problem for the next morning, she left her shoe too close to the fire one night, melting the heel. So now, I reckon that she had one frozen foot and the other on fire. My statistics teacher, P.J. Hill, would observe that, on average, Alex was therefore comfortable in both feet.
(I’m not saying this is hereditary or anything, but it appears that Alex comes by her shoe issues honestly. I’ve had my own footware issues, for example, having a boot gallop down a mountain ahead of me, as explained in this Goode-Storm King trip report from a couple years ago.)
Chapter 6: Which way?
We were armed to the teeth with maps and the route description from a book by Dustin Lynx about the Great Divide Trail. But sometimes things did not align. One map had “Miette Pass” before “Center Pass,” while another map had the two passes exactly reversed. One source referred to “Miette/Center Pass.” Whatever.
When we hit the Moose River on Day 3 of the trip, the GDT book said to stay on its east side. A map had a dotted line indicating the presence of a trail on the west side.
Somewhere in this story I should point out that we were on a route that has no official trail. “I don’t know if you want to go there,” warned an officer of Parks Canada when I called for information about the route. “There once was a trail through there, but it has been officially abandoned for years. It is reverting to wilderness status.”
But never fear. In addition to all that information, we had exactly two bits of Priceless Trail Beta from Lee. Lee, it turns out, appears to be the only person other than Alex and Sye to hike the GDT this year. He finished ahead of them, and Sye met him in Jasper as he was rushing to catch a bus home.
“There are two important things I’ve got to tell you about that part of the trail,” Lee warned Sye. “First, there is a 15-20 km stretch through blowdown that completely sucks. It starts at Colonel Creek and goes all the way to Steppe Creek.” Let’s call this Lee’s 15-20 Kilometers of Hell.
That was important news to us. As we headed west from Colonel Pass the morning of Day 3, we saw what he meant. A large fire in 1998 left a huge swath of burnt trees knocked around like Pick-Up Stix. We had to hike through that. And, oh, did I mention that it was raining?
As for the second Priceless Trail Beta Lee had to tell us? “Oh, I forget,” Lee told Sye. Then he hopped on the bus. “I’ll text you when I remember!” he shouted as the bus pulled away. A lot of good that would do. “And while we’re at it,” I thought when I heard this story, “we’ll pick up an Iridium phone to collect that precious text.” Grrrr. [Note to self: Kill Lee.]
We never figured out what Lee’s Second Priceless Trail Beta was. Here, however, are some possibilities:
“Don’t go – it’s a bear hunt!”
“The maps are all screwed up.”
“Do not melt your shoe. Step away from the fire.”
“I hate Canada.”
Chapter 6: Treasure map
It was part way through Lee’s 15-20 Kilometers of Hell that we experienced enlightenment. Really.
By “enlightenment,” I do not mean any new-agey mind rush that comes after prolonged deprivation. No, by “enlightenment” I mean that we got smart. Instead of following the GDT route description and battling our way up the blowdown on the east side of Moose River, we scouted the west side and found a route.
And boy, did we ever find a route. It turns out that the west side of the river sports a genuine, real-life, trail. There are yellow markers nailed to trees and everything. Sometimes we would loose the tread, or ford and re-ford the Moose at odd places, but in general we were now on a path to somewhere.
And, then as if by magic, we found The Treasure Map. We came to a pretty cove along the river, took off our packs, and there it was, a piece of map lying as if some fairy godmother had placed it there for us. It was a sketch of something called the “Moose River Route,” and it had a description of where the route went and landmarks along the way.
This confirmed that we were on a genuine track of some kind, and that our head-scratching days of route finding were mostly over. And, as if on cue, the sun popped out and blue skies dawned.
The sun was infectious and promised blue skies upvalley:
Chapter 7: I love Canada
The sun shone the rest of the trip, and we entered the Shangri-La of the upper Moose River valley. These pictures do not do justice to the beauty of the place.
Chapter 8: Civilization
As we approached the Alberta-British Columbia border for the last time – leaving Jasper National Park and entering Mt. Robson Provincial Park – we heard the chop of a helicopter, our first encounter with humans since we started. It was day 5 of our trip and we were only 25 kilometers from the car that friends had deposited at the Berg Lake trailhead.
The trail suddenly appeared as a superhighway. We chatted with the people deposited by the helicopter, discovered a wheelbarrow with which to enjoy the humongously wide and gentle trail, and lazied our way south through the stupendous scenery of Mt. Robson park.
# people: 5
# miles: The book says 75.1
# river fords: 15?
# with wet feet: 12
# mosquitos: 3 (I love Canada!)
# blown down trees to cross: a google
# genuine treasure maps: 1
# bear and/or wolf tracks: X, where X is a large number
# moose tracks: 100X
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