Aug 21 – Aug 23 (3 days)
GDT 658km to 552km (106 km)
Section D SOBO (9 of 12)
From Saskatchewan Crossing to Field, the Great Divide Trail is basically a tour of Parks Canada’s neglect of the backcountry.
Most GDT hikers report these poor conditions as the low point of the GDT, as I expected I would when we first hiked this section. However, I’ve actually found the poor trail to be quite engaging. It’s a puzzle. I tell myself there must be a good way to get through this terrain – I just need to find it. I’ve mulled over what worked and what didn’t on the northbound walk, so it was fun trying this section again with a mix of old and new ideas.
This southbound walk begins with a 29km hike up the Howse river, which hasn’t been maintained in 27 years. I was a recent graduate of kindergarten when the last trail crew went through. Unsurprisingly, the trail is festooned with deadfall and 1.5km/hr (1 mph) is a respectable speed. On the northbound trek we regularly opted out of the trail to walk alongside the river, which has many gravel floodplain areas colonized only by yellow dryas, river beauty and a few other nitrogen fixing plants. It makes for spectacular walking when it works.
This time around we abandoned the trail entirely and stayed alongside the river the whole way to Conway Creek (25km). It was great. I was thrilled with how well it was working (much moreso than T, who doesn’t get the same joy from navigation).
Near Howse Pass we rejoined the trail, as it improves to 3km/hr walking through rock willow and dwarf birch rather than endless, fallen lodgepole pine and white spruce. I was all smiles as we finished the entire valley in 7 hrs, whereas most hikers spend 2 days wiggling through logs. Below are the legs of another hiker who suffered through the “trail”.
Over the pass, we enjoyed brushy but better trail and camped at Lambe Creek. Lambe has 5 waterfalls and quite a nice aluminum bridge that is now unfortunately located about 2 km downstream in the Blaeberry river – not particularly useful.
The next day we walked 25 kms of logging road through the rest of the Blaeberry and Ensign valleys. The GDT contains a fair amount of current or old roads, but it wisely bookends these road sections with very poor trail, so walking the road is exciting than a disappointment. Clever indeed.
Fast progress aside, we actually did have fun on the road. We ran into our first black bear of the entire trip (we’ve seen 4 grizzlies). It was headed up the road towards us – apparently unaware – and jogged off like a good bear once we started yelling.
About 30 minutes later, we ran into our first mountain goat of the trip. So neat – they’re such a strange critter with their jacked chests, goatee and short “wheelbase”. This one stood still for a photo and then sprinted at full speed towards the river we were crossing on a bridge. He splashed across one small channel of the river and was obviously gunning for a crossing of the whole thing. We watched in great amusement as the goat hit the main channel of the quite large Blaeberry River at full speed. He seemed to bounce off the water once or twice, then sink nearly completely under before bounding out to the far bank. He’s definitely a better river crosser than I.
Finally, we ascended an ephemeral bit of good trail to Amiskwi Pass, where we camped for the second night.
The next morning, alpine meadows gave way to willows, then alder, then deadfall. Like the Howse, Parks Canada has given up on the Amiskwi. The “trail” is actually 30km of old logging road built in the early 1900’s. The old road is truly impressive, as the entire thing was “paved” in logs, before these were covered in dirt. The average log is about 8″ in diameter, so there’s about 5 logs per meter of road, or a calculated 150,000 logs for the full 30km. Even at three 10 foot sections per felled tree, thats an amazing 50,000 trees just to build the road to cut more trees. Not surprising that logging ceased here in 1968 when the last tree fell in the Amiskwi.
Also not surprising was the poor trail. The upstream half of the valley isn’t that bad, but the willows get quite serious for about 2km mid-valley. Thankfully I had foreknowledge of this from our previous trek through, so I planned a new route using the river banks, gravel bars and loosely spaced lodgepole forest. Like our success in the Howse, this went great. Instead of crawling through Scouler’s Willow (I think), we made good progress. Actually anywhere besides the trail would be an improvement here, so a win is easy to come by.
I thought we were pretty much clear for the last 10km of the section once the green alder faded out, but unfortunately a windstorm this summer tossed a hundred or so trees down on the final kilometer of road to give us an unexpected final crux. It probably wasn’t that hard, but it felt hard as an unexpected challenge right at the end of the day.
The GDT is pretty hard on shoes due to the often poor tread and brush. Back in 2014 I hiked the PCT on just two pairs of shoes – getting up to 1600 miles (2500km) on a pair of Inov-8 TrailRoc 235’s. Despite a similarly frugal attitude now, I’m on my 4th pair of shoes now, with the first 3 combining for just 1700kms. I started with two pairs of Altra Superiors, which were utterly disappointing at 400-500km before they exploded, before getting an acceptable 900kms out of these Merrell’s. For the last 580km they’ve been strung together like this from a bit of dyneema cord. They went into the trash today.