158 Km, 3 Passes, 9 Days: Hiking Canada's Great Divide Trail from Lake Louise to Saskatchewan River Crossing
We ordered Chinese food to celebrate our return from a very eventful trip. I cracked open a fortune cookie and marvelled at the appropriateness of the saying; If you want the rainbow, you have to tolerate the rain.
Sure, rain was present to one degree or another every day, and so were boggy marshes and torrential streams. Water aplenty this year! Anyway, the story really began in 2014 when my wife and I hiked Kootenay National Park's famous Rockwall Trail. As a day-trip out of Helmet Falls, we explored up to Goodsir Pass and were intrigued by what lay to the north. This led to our learning about Canada’s premier wilderness Great Divide Trail which runs north along the continental divide from the US border for some 1200 km, and by summer of 2016 we had made plans to continue from Goodsir Pass to Jasper in one push.
“Plans” are inadequate to describe working with hotels and hostels, buses, trains, four different National Parks (Kootenay, Yoho, Banff, and Jasper), BC Forestry Service, Great Divide Trail Association, and the Parks Canada online reservation system to secure permits and route info sufficient to even begin our adventure.
Day 1: Edmonton to Lake Louise. We intended to use public transportation and were pleased to discover that Greyhound offers an excellent deal to Lake Louise via Calgary. Our return home from Jasper was arranged with ViaRail.
Day 2: Paint Pots trailhead to Helmet Falls campground, 12.3 km. After overnighting at the Alpine Center, we were dropped off at the Paint Pots parking lot by a local taxi. Helmet Falls was full with groups either beginning or ending their Rockwall journey, or using it as a base for local excursions. This was the last campsite we were to share with fellow humans!
Day 3: Helmet Falls campground to McArthur Creek campground via Goodsir Pass, 13.5 km. Although condensation was heavy in the morning, the trail proved to be quite dry. We enjoyed a cornucopia of wildflowers during the 4 km up to Goodsir Pass. While descending the other side we met the only other hikers we were to encounter for the trip; a team of three ladies who called themselves SOBOSAM (SouthBound Sisters And Mom). Coincidentally they were following nearly the same itinerary as us on the Great Divide Trail, but in reverse. We chatted awhile and learned that a bridge a few days ahead was washed-out, which would present a challenge.
McArthur Creek Patrol Cabin eventually appeared in a clearing, signalling the beginning of the Ottertail River bike trail along an old fire road. Perched high above the river, erosion was bringing the banks steadily closer to the cabin. The campsite was a couple of hundred meters further down the road but we were thankful for the veranda of the patrol cabin when the rains started around dinner time. The camp outhouse was precariously tilted; thankfully the cabin’s facility was adequate.
Day 4: McArthur Creek campground to Field townsite, 23.5 km. Rain continued from overnight, providing an opportunity to try our wet-weather gear. The ponchos proved adequate for light rain and our hands-free umbrella rigging was a success. After 14.5 km we came to the trailhead in a parking lot along the Trans-Canada Highway, which seemed to double as a public toilet judging by the mounds of paper. As we attempted to dry gear during a brief moment of sunshine, a pickup drove in and discharged a couple of very red-eyed young men who watered the bushes, then burned rubber back onto the highway. A small car in the corner was sheltering a nursing mother while the father was walking their dog. The dog, it seemed, didn’t like hikers and was barking madly and straining at the leash to have a run at us. Ah, front country…
We faced a 9 km slog down the highway to our lodgings in Field, but a backdoor gravel road about halfway along allowed us to exchange the constant traffic for constant mosquitoes. I preferred the mossies! Soon we were at Truffle Pigs enjoying the laundry and a cool beer, in that order.
Day 5: Field townsite to Otto Creek random camping, 23.1 km. We stopped by the post office at Field to mail home a few unnecessary items (mostly clothes), then proceeded back to the highway for Natural Bridge parking area. Our trailhead began at the kiosk just past the lot entrance. After a few km we encountered a wooden bridge which granted access to the Amiskwi Valley Trail on the opposite side of Kicking Horse River. For the next several hours we would push through patches of overgrowth as nature slowly reclaimed this old fire road.
We were fully aware of the bear-berry situation (scat was abundant) and made plenty of noise. Nevertheless, as I poked out of one very thick willow patch, I was startled to see a black bear feeding in the bushes about 5 meters away. He turned to look at me, I shouted at him, and he took off downhill like an avalanche.
Wet willows obscured marsh and we became fully saturated while the trail became more obscure. I have to admit to more relief than annoyance when we spotted the occasional evidence of human traffic; a discarded water bottle and errant pepper spray trigger guard. One piece of flagging past Fire Creek, printed with “GDT 2015”, was most welcome as it directed us towards the right opening in the bush for our eventual camp beside the Otto Creek footbridge. And a lovely camp it was.
Day 6: Otto Creek random camping to Ensign Creek random camping via Amiskwi Pass, 20.5 km. By now we were in rhythm with the trail and the morning slid by uneventfully. The Amiskwi Valley Trail became the Amiskwi Pass Trail after Otto Creek, and led to our first ford of the Amiskwi River, which only proved to be shin deep at 2 pm. Signage at the pass informed us we were entering Banff National Park. Another great camp was found at a confluence down Ensign Creek. Mosquitoes tried their best to disturb the zen but head nets saved our sanity.
Day 7: Ensign Creek random camping to Cairnes Creek campground, 26.6 km. Although not on our maps, the excellent book; Hiking Canada’s Great Divide Trail by Dustin Lynx, forearmed us with the knowledge that the Ensign Creek logging road would take us from the top of Amiskwi Pass to a bridge over the Blaeberry River. The road was easily gained from our camp and we proceeded to rack up about 18 km downhill, stopping for frequent pictures of the Mummery Glacier on our left. Signage reminded us this same road led to the self-catered Amiskwi Lodge just 1 km off the pass. Although I contacted the operator to book a stay, we never received confirmation. Considering the charming spot we found, it was just as well.
Crossing the river, we turned north on Blaeberry River Road (really an ATV track) and were immediately confronted with fresh bear tracks in the mud. “HEY BEAR” became our constant refrain. The now abandoned BC Forestry Service Cairnes Creek Recreation Site marked the end of the road some 9 km later.
Floods had devastated the area. Aside from demolishing the campsite, bridges over the Blaeberry and Cairnes Creek were destroyed. Initially the trailhead for the David Thompson Heritage Trail northbound wasn’t apparent, but eventually it was located a short distance from camp. Flood waters had carried away a large sign and left the trail resembling a creek bed. We waited for low water in the morning.
Day 8: Cairnes Creek campground to Lambe Creek random camping, 5.8 km. The day began hopefully as we took advantage of two fallen logs to cross the creek (actually an outflow from Cairnes Glacier) with dry feet. Soon after Mrs. TT slipped along the wet banks and just managed to grab some willows to save a plunge into the frigid waters. Unfortunately she sprained her ankle in the process, which was to have consequences for our trip.
We calmed down with breakfast on the other side and the first aid kit produced a tensor bandage to wrap the affected ankle. After some bushwhacking, we located what was left of the trail and plugged on at reduced speed. Our arrival at the aptly-named Doubt Hill coincided with the appearance of sunshine so we had a pack explosion and laid everything on the rocks to dry. By 3 pm we’d reached the Lambe Glacier outflow and confirmed that indeed the bridge was gone and the waters were high. Time to camp, with a 6 am start planned for the next morning.
Day 9: Lambe Creek random camping to Howse River Trail random camping via Howse Pass, 11 km. Once again our modus operandi was to cross first and eat breakfast on the other side. Even this early it was clear the Lambe Glacier outflow wasn’t going to cooperate. The waters were visibly below last night’s levels but swallowed my hiking stick to the grip. I plunged in and felt my way across but had concerns for my partner and her injured ankle. The solution was an amazing little utility cord from MSR that measures less than 2 mm but is rated for 200 lb tensile strength. A carabiner at one end served as a grip and, using a tree for leverage, she was slowly drawn across the churning waters with the benefit of four points of contact; feet, stick and rope.
We were surprised to find remnants of an old horse camp on the other side, complete with a recently-used fire pit and garbage (folks, we all know foil lining doesn’t burn). This was the only sign of littering we encountered on our adventure. As it was a sooty wet mess, we left it behind.
The trail, as it was, continued through the trees to Howse Pass. Engraved into a tree was a barely discernible signature and the year “90”, which I took to be from the last official trail crew. A small clearing at the pass featured a collection of signs acknowledged the passage of David Thompson in 1807. We proceeded to our next intersection after Conway Creek.
Here it became a bit confusing, for a strong trail continued west while a faint uphill track in our northbound direction was covered with a loose collection of sticks and stones; commonly signifying a closed trail. A Parks game camera was rigged to a tree pointing across the other trail. It was only later we figured out that a warden’s cabin was situated that way. With compass in hand, we bravely stepped across the sticks and entered what we came to call “the matchstick forest”. Some consider this area notorious and others are far less polite. We faced 8 km of bush and deadfall to go over, under, or around, with the trail frequently lost and regained. Thirty minutes of sunny respite from the rain resulted in another pack explosion to dry our tent but by 7 pm it was evident we would not clear this mess today. In anticipation of a bivy we had collected a couple of liters of water at the last stream and were prepared. A suitable site was selected, moss-covered and hummocky with plenty of logs around for impromptu seating.
Day 10: Howse River Trail random camping to Saskatchewan River Crossing, 21.6 km. Refreshed the next morning, we were pleased to break out of the matchstick forest after only one and a half hours of gymnastics. Still, fallen logs continued to present challenges for the rest of the day as we proceeded down the Howse River Trail to the scenic Howse River flood plain. The braided and marshy ground only succeeded in getting our feet as wet as the rest of us so we retreated back to the forest trail. Eventually the skies cleared and a wind helped dry everything but our boots.
We had discussed our options and were resigned to ending the trip at Saskatchewan River Crossing. It was an amazing display of character and perseverance that brought Mrs. TT this far, but it was neither reasonable nor safe to continue. We popped backed into civilization at Mistaya Canyon and mingled with the tourists for a brief time before beginning the 5 km road trudge to our lodgings at The Crossing Resort. With irony we noted the very large road sign identifying the parking lot for Howse Pass. Question for Parks Canada: fix it or forget it, which one?
Day 11: Saskatchewan River Crossing to Jasper. Firstly, let me give a big shout-out to the staff at The Crossing Resort; they are really hiker-friendly and helped arrange a speedy return home. We were able to book seats on the daily Brewster bus to Jasper that afternoon, and the Greyhound to Edmonton the following morning. Our travel-savvy daughter back home used her internet skills to score us what may have been the last available room in Jasper so we departed a little less anxious than we arrived.
Day 12: Jasper to Edmonton. Our room at the Marmot Lodge was a ginormous suite with fireplace and kitchen but we just weren’t comfortable on the soft king-size bed. I was tempted to throw my sleeping pad down on the floor. Up at 5 am to catch an early-departing Greyhound, we hunted around for a breakfast spot and were disappointed to find the locally-operated cafes all closed. Only Tim Horton’s was open for business, so they got ours.
The bus from Jasper to Edmonton was its own adventure, stopping at numerous towns along the way to pick-up passengers and freight. We were not used to being still for so long and our legs ached to stride out. Five plus hours later we arrived in Edmonton and hopped a taxi home. Having gotten one of the more difficult sections out of the way, we are ready to continue on The Great Divide Trail next summer!
Thanks for your patience with the non-VC story; I promise to return with relevant content for my next post