Great Divide Trail Yo-Yo: Part 8 – Fall’s Fulcrum

Aug 13 – Aug 19 (7 days)
GDT 850km to 658km (192km)
Section 8 of 12

T and I were supposed to have just one day off in Jasper after our tough 560km, 21 day leg north of there. We rolled into Jasper planning on a fast turn around – quickly stocking up on extra snacks, new shoes and a new camera (Nikon W300). However, T’s ankle had been sore the last couple days and once in town, it turned into a real problem. Despite no clear moment of injury, the next morning it puffed up seriously, and she could hardly walk. We tried hiking out, but it was obviously not going to work that day or any day soon. We ended up hitching 300km south to our van, where we took 5 extra days off to let it heal.

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Finally almost a week after arriving in Jasper, we set out southbound on Section E (Jasper to Sask Crossing, 190km) with T on a still unreliable limb. T was quite worried, as was I, but it’s my role on our team to be the upbeat, optimistic one. I pointed out the positive progress while letting T do all the conspicuous worrying. Thanks in part to modern drugs, her ankle hung in there the first day and slowly improved over the section. She remains in moderate but stable pain that shouldn’t pose any immediate problems to the hike.

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Other than the ongoing ankle worries, this section was fantastic. After the awesome but hard northern-most section, having reliable trail – even if poorly maintained – was a mental relief. Northbound, every section seemed to get harder than the last, but now are we swimming downstream and enjoying the improving trail, even if it does mean more people.

The other day I realized that if you don’t count groups we encountered in the front country or on the popular 45km (30 mile) Skyline Trail, we saw a mere a 9 parties in the ~55 days we spent on our 1100km northbound trek. On the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 I could hardly remember all the parties I’d see in a single day, whereas here I can recount every other backcountry users seen in the first 2 months. Of course, our early season itinerary combined with the remoteness of the northern parts of this trail made our count atypically low, and we will (and are) seeing many more folks now, but that too will fade in two more weeks when school resumes and the rental RVs go back to their winter storage lots.

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Western Anemone in seed looking like rock band hair-do’s.

We are now about 80 days into this trek and fall is truly arriving. Just two months ago we were snowshoeing across often unending white stretches. Now the flowers are mostly gone and the leaves of many plants are painted with reds and oranges instead of green. Fireweed in particular is blazed in every shade from forest green to fire engine red, with most of the petals relegated to the forest floor. Flowers that do remain – such as a few Arnica species and asters – are looking haggard and of little interest to the bees which are slowing their work, particularly on cold mornings.

My respect goes out to the Grass of Parnassus, which is the last abundant flower still looking fresh and interesting to the pollinators. Surely it provides some important, late season, energy for them.

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Grass of Parnassus

The transition from summer to fall should be a gradual thing, not a moment where before it was summer and after it was fall. And yet, when we found this fragile Harebell coated in the morning frost (below) it was a stark inflection point in our hike. A clear notice that fall had arrived and winter close behind. It put a slight jump into my step, as it sunk in how fast these transitions happen while we still had 800kms to go.

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While the flowers are on their way out, seeds are bursting everywhere. The Western Anemones are wind distributing their lacy seeds with every strong gust, while the many pea family plants (vetch, lupine, locoweed and hedysarum) are draped in seed pods of all shapes. One of my hopes for this hike was to see these intrepid plants go from sprouts to flowers to seed and senescence, and over this past week that goal has been realized. Just yesterday, I finally discovered what a yellow columbine looks like in seed after these yellow to pinkish flowers abruptly vanished 3 weeks ago.

Even though flower season is nearly over, the wildlife continue to be abundant. Over the last six days, we encountered three groups of 7-9 big horn sheep, all of which were at ease with our presence and allowed me to encroach within 50 yards for photos. I appreciated their trust, but also got a bit worried for them and their calm demeanor with rifle season opening in a week or two. I expect more than a few will have this trust betrayed. We also may have seen a wolverine, which I can’t be certain of, but did manage to capture some 4k video that I hope will provide the answer.

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The peaks and lakes of the Rockies have been stunning, as usual, over the past week. One night at camp with another party, we discussed how difficult it is to justly communicate the feelings these mountains inspire. Common refrains like “wow”, “cool” and “awesome” seem deeply inadequate when cresting the shale shoulder of an ancient peak and looking out upon waves of peaks, glaciers and forests – each similar and yet quite unique when proper attention is given.

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We were fortunate to have 6 days of continuous “good enough” weather after the first day, where we hid in our tent for 2 hours mid-afternoon to ride out some rain and hail. Intermittently, smoke from fires elsewhere continues to blanket the mountains, which is sometimes unfortunate but other times adds a neat mystery to landscape and also helps us appreciate the hours when the sky and views are clear. It certainly is a beautiful world.

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We are resting now and planning to head out later today to cover a few miles of Section D. That means we are ~1400kms and 82 days into the hike, with ~650kms and ~25 days to go. Fortunately for us, large portions of the previously closed sections ahead have re-opened over the last couple days. Two small but difficult to walk around closures still lie ahead, but the next 170kms are open so we are hopeful that this will be resolved by the time we arrive at the first closure in another week.

Botany Section

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Common Wintergreen

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One Flowered Wintergreen
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Elephants Head
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Monkshood
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Saw-wort
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Alpine Hawksbeard
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2 thoughts on “Great Divide Trail Yo-Yo: Part 8 – Fall’s Fulcrum

  1. Dan, I’m loving following along with you. It will be great to see if that was a wolverine you say. Very very cool if it was.
    Hope the rest of the trail is open for you with fires extinguished
    Cheers to good days ahead

    Like

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