Great Divide Trail Yo-Yo: Part 12 – Unfinished Business

Oct 28 – Nov 1 (6 days)
GDT 145km – 0 km (145 km)
Section A SOBO (12 of 12)

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Getting forced off the GDT back in early September was a disappointment with just 150kms left in the 2250km trek. We’d already persevered around a bunch of closures and thought we had it in the bag. The end came when Alberta decided to close all the public lands and they deployed a solid enforcement effort with very serious fines. I wasn’t a thrilled with that decision, as I’d rather make my own choices as it pertains to safety, but we didn’t want to risk a serious fine so we took a month off to visit family and let the situation play out.

A couple weeks later the public lands re-opened, but problematically, a wildfire toasted 70% off Waterton National Park, including much of the final 60km of the GDT. We watched the fire updates, and were glad to see heavy snow extinguish the fire in early October. Soon after – with snow already falling out west – we headed back to the Rockies.

I checked the weather forecast regularly during our 4 day, 4500km drive back to Coleman, AB, and it because very clear that we’d have 4 days of decent weather and then the full fury of winter would be unleashed with -15 C temps (5F), high winds and a foot of snow everyday for a week. I spent the long hours behind the wheel contemplating if and how we could pull off the last 150kms in 4 days. We’d spent 7 days hiking this section when we started this trek back in June. That was slow in part because of the major snowpack, but I suspected the snow pack was again getting pretty substantial up there.

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On October 28 we stepped foot back on the GDT after tossing back a few cinnamon buns from the Cinnamon Bear Bakery in Coleman. With miles to make, we scurried along the logging roads that form the start of this section. Just an hour in, we surprised a wolf coming the other way on the logging road. It quickly turned tail and I mentally checked off “wolf” on my list of mega fauna sightings, while contemplating just how rich the GDT had been in terms of wildlife.

Warm but stiff winds battered us all day, with just enough of a chill to bring home the message that winter was near. The forecast hadn’t changed from it’s earlier prediction of a few okay days and then serious winter. The coming 3 days would be just above freezing and then the fifth day would feature plummeting temperatures and heavy snow. The thought of needing to make miles in winter conditions was worrying, and yet it was what I was hoping for when we started this trek. Winter to winter was (is?) my mantra – so I asked for this. So we hurried along Willoughby Ridge trying to get as far as we could, with our progress totalling 35kms that day.

As we set up camp that first night, I was deep in thought/worry about the route ahead. 115kms to go and 84 hours until winter. Hmm…If we stayed en route we’d be lined up for sunny weather on La Coulotte Ridge, but that ridge is the most rugged terrain on the entire GDT and it’s 7kms would consume most of the day. Thus after La Coulotte, we’d be left with only 24 hours before winter to cover the remaining 70kms – difficult math even at race speeds. I contemplated some potentially shorter route options, but they were risks as well since I wasn’t sure whether the potentially shorter trails still existed and in what shape. The Canadian Rockies are replete with trails that only exist on maps.

As I contemplated our fate, a Jeep emerged from the dark and pulled into the small clearing we were camped at. Out came a fellow who introduced himself as a trapper stock piling wood for the winter. I asked him if he was familiar with the old trails south of here, and to my great relief, he knew them intimately and advised on them eagerly. Some were still there.

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With his advice in mind, we started day 2 by backtracking 0.5km to a junction, and splitting off the official GDT to a logging road heading up the South Castle Valley. This road would let us parallel the punishing but spectacular La Coulotte Ridge, saving only a few kilometers of distance but nearly a day of time, after which we would take an old trail to rejoin the GDT in the alpine.

That day, like the first, was cranking miles on old logging roads now overrun with ATV traffic and their ubiquitous camping areas. Thankfully a new provincial park has been announced for this area, with a plan in place to cease motorized use and restore the habitat. We hiked all day and well into the dark, while confirming the trail beta we’d received from the trapper with several hunting parties.

I also inquired with anyone we met about the snowpack up high. I thought things should be – and looked – pretty snowy up there, but everyone else from a conservation officer, to hunters, to local residents, assured me that there was “just a skiff” and snowshoes wouldn’t be needed. I hoped they were right, but went to bed that night suspecting I was unfortunately right. Either way, we had our snowshoes along.

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We awoke on day 3 and began the 2000’ climb to the alpine with fingers crossed that the sun would make it’s scheduled appearance. It was cold – nicely below freezing – as we climbed the old trail trail up the north side of Font Mountain. Tara wasn’t impressed with the cold, so I reassured her the sun would be out soon while hoping the weather forecast would prove correct.

We didn’t have to get far up the climb to solidly settle the debate over whether things were snowy up high. As we strapped on our snowshoes, I wished I’d been wrong and Tara wished things were warmer. Thankfully the climb got our blood going and soon we arrived at the top where the sun did come out.

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The scenery up top was spectacular. It’s one of the best parts on the GDT. We plodding along on our snowshoes a top the ridge. Soon we entered the edge of the burned area north of Waterton. It was remarkable to see. The trees ranged from black charcoal, to toasted orange, to untouched green. The fire up here had been patchy, so it was neat to see it come and go.

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After several hours of great alpine trekking, we dropped over Sage Pass and into Waterton. The upper valley here in the Twin Lakes area had escaped the fire, so wondered whether things had really burned that bad in the park. We hiked several kilometers down hill and camped amongst the trees. I was glad we got a solid day of high alpine trekking, but also relieved to be through that exposed section in time. We still had one more day of good weather, but even that was forecasted to have high winds.

On the fourth day we awoke and I knew that continuing along the Tamarak trail the official GDT wasn’t going to work. It was just too far, too burnt and too windy, so be a reasonable choice. So we headed down on another trail that would deliver us to the Waterton townsite more quickly and with less exposure. Everywhere we went was burnt to a crisp but there was something wild and captivating about it. Fire is sad but it’s also a fresh start. Quite a bit of beauty was lost, but more beauty will replace it.

We made good time despite the fire and soon we were climbing over the last pass and onto a stunning rise overlooking Waterton Lake. In this moment the end of the trail became real. This lake was the end. We walked down to the town while battling stiff wind gusts. It had been windy all day, but now it was super windy – a clear sign that the weather was changing and winter was moving in.

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We did a lap of the town but found everything closed. No coffee for us, so we trekked onwards along the final 6km to the border. We could have scurried to the finish that night before winter hit, but it would have been a rush and I didn’t want to trip to end in a hurry. So we set up camp and went to bed, curious to see what winter would bring.

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The snow started early in the night but thankfully the temperature didn’t drop right away. I had to get out of the tent at 2 AM to brush off the snow, with close to 10” falling by morning. We packed up camp for the last time and walked the last 3km to the USA border.

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Ending a long hike is always a weird feeling. There is an end, but it’s not a destination. The end is only significant in what it signals: the journey is over. I loved the GDT. It was hard and punishing, but also very wild and challenging in a good way. I was sad for it to be over but the weather made it obvious that it was time for this chapter to end. We took our last steps to the border monument, hugged and reminisced over the last 5 months.

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Back when we started this trek we took a swim in the lake and it was ice cold – colder than we thought possible for June at low elevations. Along the trek we always said that we’d have to swim at the end to see if got any warmer. So I announced my intentions to complete that final dip. I invited T but she was unequivocally not swimming.

I skied down the dock in my bare feet towards the water. My plan was to dive in, but I couldn’t summon the courage when my momentum reached the end of the dock so I cannonballed into the cold waters – punctuating the trip. It was ice cold obviously. T helped me dry off, suit back up in my warm gear and we headed back to civilization to whatever is next.

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Botany Section

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Bear Grass (post fire)
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Whitebark pine (post fire)
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Golden subalpine larch. It’s amazes me to think this tree was hardly budding when we started this trek.
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