July 9 – 15
GDT 660km to 850km (190 km)
Section 5 of 12
After a restful 1.5 days in Saskatchewan Crossing, T and I broke the inertia of civilization and headed out on our 5th leg (section E) of the Great Divide Trail. We were looking forward to this section because we knew it would be the first to combine extensive alpine terrain with mostly efficient travel.
On our first day out we started up Owen Creek, which is the longest climb of the GDT (1200m). Other than a few kilometres of walking up a boulder filled stream bed, the walking was good. Soon we hit the alpine, where trail faded out – leaving us free to wander on the line of our choice to the pass. The weather was good, and we loved it. This particular bit of the GDT isn’t in any sort of a park, yet is high enough to be ignored by the forestry industry, so we had the vast alpine amphitheatres to ourselves.
We crested two passes that day, the first around 2400m and the second at nearly 2600m and the highest point of the GDT. At the second pass was an oversized cairn with a trail register and the final swig of a bottle of pumpkin spice whiskey. We weren’t sure if one swig of whiskey was worth packing the glass bottle out for 180kms, but utilitarianism isn’t the right basis for decisions like this, so we swigged away and I added the bottle to my pack. T left a note in the pass register, which sees only a few parties a year. Perhaps this year will be different with about 50 people indicating plans to thru-hike the GDT, but already are fire closures that are affe ting that.
The next morning we climbed over Pinto pass and into the White Goat Wilderness. I appreciate the protection the wilderness designation adds, but that also means the GDTA isn’t allowed to maintain the trails. Thankfully we were well accustomed to such neglect after the prior section, and the forest was appreciably tardy in taking back this trail. We made enjoyable progress up Cataract Creek into the alpine where we camped. Our site that night was near the headwaters of the creek, and at a spot where the whole creek disappears into a hole in the ground – not to resurface for 200m. We deemed it the best campsite of the trip thus far.
The next morning we puffed over Cataract Pass and into Jasper National Park. For the first time on the trip, I could tell that my legs are getting really strong. On any sort of reasonable grade, it’s now tough to walk fast enough to tire them. The pass was also great, with moody clouds over an austere alpine lake.
In Jasper, we’d have well maintained trail for the final 120kms of this section, other than one 20km stretch where maintenance has been discontinued. Like in Banff and Kootenay previously, the neglect is difficult to understand and the park doesn’t assist with any explanation. This particular bit of non-maintained trail is the only link between the more expansive trail systems in the southern and central park. By discontinuing maintenance here, Jasper (Canada’s largest park in the Rockies) is dissuading all but the most ambitious hikers from putting a trek together longer than 50kms. Throughout the Rockies parks, there seems to be a chicken and egg problem with the trails: they are poorly maintained because usage is low, but usage is low in part because of the low maintenance. There’s more to declining backcountry use than just this (e.g. the lack of wifi) but the parks certainly aren’t helping with their funding decisions and obvious push to get visitors into cars, buses and gondolas rather than on trails.
Anyways, the non-maintained stretch was actually quite nice walking – much easier than feared – and we enjoyed the softness that the moss added. We spent most of the day walking this section and saw no one other than deer and a moose.
Eventually we made it to Maligne Lake, which seems to make it on more postcards than any other spot in the Canadian Rockies. The place was packed out. Parks Canada had successfully sold out of their motorized boat tours down the lake for the day, while coaxing zero visitors to venture more than 1km from the trailhead during the time we hiked through. After a week in the backcountry, the highly consumptive modern parks experience was a striking contrast. We did like the coffee though, and spent several hours consuming that. After 140kms this section, we’d earned a few cups. Everything in moderation.
Near dinner time we broke out of the lodge and started up the Skyline Trail, which runs the final 50kms to the town of Jasper. We had a campsite reservation 5km up that we wanted to keep because the sites here book up. Unfortunately this campsite scarcity arises more from the paucity of tent spots (only 4 at our campground) rather than ample numbers of folks wanting to get beyond the parking lot. Despite being the most popular trail in the park by far, we saw only a handful of groups as we ascended.
Nevertheless, the terrain along this stretch continued to impress. Section E of the Great Divide Trail is humbling and inspiring for its full length. I highly recommend venturing out on it.
T and I are in Jasper now, but we venture out in the morning with 10 days of food for the longest stretch of the GDT (280kms). T’s parents are being kind enough to meet us at the northern terminus with our resupply box, so we can do another 10 days southbound back to Jasper. We’re feeling good physically and excited for the southbound leg, but also a little nervous that forest fires might derail our plans eventually. Today Jasper is filled with smoke from large fires further west, and also today one southern section of the GDT has been temporarily closed due to a fire near there. We may need some good fortune to pull off this yo-yo.