Despite a lot of snow in the first half of the GDT (perhaps 50% more than expected), T and I arrived at the mid point of the GDT two days ahead of schedule. That meant we had to take a few days off because we had a wedding to attend that coming weekend. In total, we had 8 days off trail, which was a nice healing time for my left knee (IT band), which is now probably at 90% and no longer requires any drugs.
On July 4, we started section D – the shortest (101 km) and most brushy section of the Great Divide Trail. We started up the Amiskwi valley via a trail that has seen seemingly no maintenance in the past decade. We enjoyed the solitude that poor trail brings, but it was hard not get a little frustrated with how Parks Canada allocates their funding these days. In Banff, we saw park employees everywhere, with some doing tasks that ranged from useless (staffing viewpoints to tell people how to look through non-adjustable binoculars) to inappropriate (two parks employees staffed a brochure booth on the sidewalk, unrelated to parks operations and services, where they distributed brochures on attractions offered by private tourism companies). Surely the companies selling $200 raft trips and $500 helicopter tours can hire their own sales staff? How they talked Parks Canada into having parks employees be their sales force baffles me.
Anyways, the Amiskwi Valley was actually quite nice – moreso than expected – and we made decent time despite the brush. Other than one section with 1.5km of thick, over-the-head willows, the trail was good enough and the views surprised. We took a frigid but awesome mid afternoon swim in the river while our afternoon coffee brewed. These swims have become the norm for us now that the weather is hot. Getting in a river of barely melted snow is hard, but I’m getting pretty good at it. T used to be the cold water swimming champ. Years ago when I was vacillating on a lake shore, she advised me “if you’re going to get in eventually, you may as well do it now”. I’ve taken that to heart and now I get in quicker, with her often opting to just splash. I stare down the silty, glacier water and ask myself if I’m really getting in, and if it’s a yes, I just do it. I’ve gotten brainfreeze several times already, but I never regret those swims.
That first day we made it 30kms up the Amiskwi Valley. At camp, we did the math and figured two more 30km days and then an easy 11km into town on day four. No problem. The next morning we set out for Amiskwi Pass at the head of the valley. The trail took us past quite a few nice waterfalls, meadows and expansive views. The whole area was a lot nicer than I expected. Over the pass, we didn’t look at the map or GDT app, and fortunately ended up finding a nicer descent route than seemingly everyone else (per the comments). We followed the path of least resistance to the banks of Ensign Creek, where a nice trail took us right to the logging road destination.
The next 25kms were all logging road, which sounds lame but it was kinda nice to crank miles after all that struggling through brush and logs. We cruised 15kms down into the Blaeberry Valley and took another one of our afternoon swim and coffee break at the bridge. I’ve started rated the water temps (from most to least cold) as freezing, frigid, cold and then cool. No need yet for words describing the warmer half of the water spectrum. Freezing is when you jump in and instantly realize your head is entering brain freeze so you must immediately get out. Frigid is when you think this will happen, but you can actually stay for 5-10 seconds before it does. Unsurprisingly, the glacial Blaeberry rated as freezing.
We hiked only another 7km that day to our 30km goal by 5pm. We camped just before our return to single track on the David Thompson Heritage Trail. This trail used to have bridges, but thanks to those funding decisions, now it starts with several fords that are purported to be some of the toughest on the GDT. Thankfully when we reached them the next morning we found trees across at both. The first crossing had a pair of trees and was easy, while the second crossing had just one sapling and required a zen-like focus on the goal to avoid the perilous distraction of the pounding glacier waters below. T started out on the sapling and made it halfway before succumbing to the temptation to look down. Soon after, she lost her balance and fell in. A challenge with silty glacial creeks is that you can’t tell how deep they are, but thankfully this one was only mid-thigh so I was able scamper across the sapling and pull her out.
We spent the rest of the morning hiking up to Howse pass, which like the Amiskwi valley was stunningly beautiful and yet astonishingly neglected. It was tough going, with a pace around 2km/hr as we hopped logs and wadded through willows and green alder.
Over the pass, we anticipated perhaps the worst bit of bushwacking on the entire GDT. Hikers from last year reported trail that “could be used as an interrogation technique”, with GDT app suggesting trying the flood plain of the river or really anything besides the trail, as an easier way to go. We cut down to the flood plain immediately, and found some of the best scenery yet on the GDT. We found it baffling that a valley in Banff National Park this beautiful hasn’t seen a trail crew in 23 years, while the town of Banff is crawling with parks employees that are probably helping McDonalds clean their washrooms.
Unsurprisingly, we didn’t see any other hikers that day (we’ve only seen 3 other parties in the backcountry over the past 650 kms). We trekked along the Howse river, with me regularly opining about how nice a packraft would be here. As usual, we took an afternoon coffee/swim (only “frigid”), and eventually camped mid-valley on the river banks. We had managed to stay alongside the river the entire way, other than two 700m sections where we had to forge inland to the trail to avoid some bluffs. These sojourns confirm that the trail was a terrible log jam. These bits of tough trail plus the brush on the other side of the pass slowed us to just 22kms that day, meaning our hope of arriving in Saskatchewan Crossing for the all you can eat lunch buffet faded.
That third night we slept well along the Howse River, knowing the toughest bits of the section, and hopefully the entire the GDT, were behind us (until our Yo-Yo return). Despite this hardship, the terrain was awesome. Maybe next year Parks Canada can shuffle a few employees onto the trail crews. The next morning, we walked the final 19kms into Saskatchewan Crossing – after swimming in the North Saskatchewan River (“cool”!) of course. This morning we did the all you can eat breakfast buffet. I did well – probably getting my $24 worth.