We now had a 20km highway walk ahead of us. Both Nicola and I were a bit apprehensive about this section because road walks had proven to be the absolute worst for our feet. We were only a few minutes into our hike we decided to stop and tape Nicola’s feet, just to be extra careful.
The shoulder on the side of the highway was wide, but the vehicles were loud so conversation wasn’t really possible. We put in our headphones and got into a rhythm. By this point in our journey walking was like breathing, and the long walk went by easily. We finished the highway section feeling good and blister-free.
Once we were off the pavement the route quickly deteriorated into very overgrown trail. I had to put on my sunglasses just to protect my eyes from all the overgrown branches. Thankfully, navigation was simple despite the aggressive vegetation . We couldn’t really see the trail, but we could easily feel it with our feet.
I started to feel a familiar twinge in my shin, this time on the right leg instead of the left. I groaned inwardly, but we only had about 8km more of hiking before reaching our campsite. I hoped that if I took an anti-inflammatory and got some sleep it might be gone in the morning. Regardless, I knew that I would push on whatever it took. The shin was not going to slow me down when we’d already hiked 800km.
After what seemed like forever, we finally reached our campsite for the night. Our food cache was so heavy that we struggled with the bear hang, but after 30 minutes of heaving we decided it was good enough. We had been hiking through a treasure trove of huckleberries and bear scat was everywhere. We theorized that the berries were so delicious, human food would be unappetizing.
Approximate Distance/Elevation Gain = 61.6km/??
The next morning we woke up to frost on our tent. It was a cold morning, but we didn’t realize just how cold it would get. Our bear hang was fine, and we enjoyed a quick breakfast before heading up the trail. The trail up to Miette Pass was muddy and rocky. At no point could you ever just stop and relax, rather you had to constantly be planning your next foot step. It was mentally exhausting and we were relieved when we finally broke out of the forest, away from the rocky trail. The scenery in the alpine meadows was incredible, but navigation was tricky at times as the trail disappeared into the bog. We discovered a common theme on the north section of trail, if you aren’t in forest you are in bog. Eventually we stopped trying to avoid the mud. I tightened up my shoelaces so I wouldn’t lose my shoes and just embraced the muck. It was such a relief to stop trying to avoid dirty feet.
The route alternated between bog and trail, eventually leading to the expansive meadow of Miette Pass. The pass was filled with wildflowers and was absolutely stunning. The trail was non-existent so we just tried to pick the most efficient, least boggy line. While we had been doing occasional bear calls in the forest, we fell into a prolonged silence during our meadow crossing. Suddenly we heard a grunt, and we looked up to see a momma grizzly with her two cubs running away from us. It was an incredible sight to see. It was obvious that humans were infrequent in this area, and it felt special to see animals being wild.
The weather was unsettled with occasional squalls moving through. This limited our picture taking and motivated us to keep moving. We crossed Grant Pass and began our descent toward Colonel Creek. The trail was a bit muddy, but otherwise in good shape. It was covered in bear tracks.
As we descended we were surprised to meet up with a solo hiker heading southbound on the trail. This area felt so remote and we hadn’t seen any evidence of other humans. The hiker had just begun his journey 2 days prior, and was intending to hike all the way down to Waterton.
We continued on down the trail and soon found ourselves hiking through an old burn scar. For several kilometres we crawled over and under dead trees. It was slower going than we would have liked, but at least navigation was fairly straight forward.
It had been raining off and on all day, but now it started to really come down so we had our rain gear on. I was crawling over some deadfall when I heard a gut-wrenching rip. I had torn a 10cm hole along the inseam of my Gore-tex pants. Immediately I started to panic, these pants were essential to staying warm. I took the pants off, worried about ripping them further and hoping that I’d be able to duct tape them back together when we made camp and were able to dry them out. Unfortunately, the rain continued to fall and it was very cold so I had to put the pants back on and pray I didn’t make the rip worse.
We got out of the burn scar and began to work our way up the Moose River. It was like the Howse River floodplains again, except worse. Navigation was challenging and the river was up to hip deep at times. The water was ice cold and the rain continued to fall. We pressed on while the rain turned to snow. More water crossings. More bushwhacking. It was so unbearably cold!
We had been determined to make it at least to Timothy Slides that day, but when we reached the Steppe Creek campsite it was obvious that we needed to stop. It was snowing hard and we were very cold. That night we ate dinner in the tent and didn’t brave the blizzard to hang our food. Ironically, our first day where we didn’t practice proper safe food storage, was also the day where we saw the most bears.
Approximate Distance/Elevation Gain = 46.5km/ ??
The next morning was wet and cold, but at least it had stopped snowing. The trail was invisible in many sections because of the overhanging, snowy foliage and our feet were freezing. We climbed up to Moose Pass and I was so thankful to be out of the wet grass and onto rocks. Nicola was in poor spirits and was worried about getting frostbite on her feet. I didn’t think frostbite was an issue at that temperature, but I was concerned about hypothermia. Snow was pouring into the hole in my pants as I walked through the brush, and my leg muscles were starting to cramp. Our feet warmed up a bit as we stood on the rocks on Moose Pass, and we made the decision to message Peter using the In Reach to ask for the weather forecast. I didn’t feel safe continuing for another 200km with this kind of weather, but I thought we could manage if the rain and snow stopped.
Peter responded: More rain later that day, then some sun but cold tomorrow, then rain/snow for the next few days. The forecast high temperature for the next 3 days was 4*C. Ugh.
Moose Pass was beautiful, but we soon descended into more overgrown meadow which froze our feet. We scared off another momma bear with her cubs and watched them gallop across the meadows. It was surreal, I wish I could have enjoyed it more.
It started to rain again. I had forgotten my down vest in Mark’s car in Jasper, so I had no puffy layer. I was wearing a synthetic base, a merino long sleeve and then my Gore-tex jacket. We were soaking and I could feel my core temperature dropping. I moved as fast as I possibly could, powering up the hills in an effort to raise my body temperature. But no matter how I hard I tried, I couldn’t get warm. My back muscles were starting to cramp. My quad was totally seized up next to the hole in my pants, and I fell over a couple of times because I couldn’t bend my knee properly with the seized quad. I stopped in my tracks to eat some candy and have a little cry. My hands were frozen from trying to navigate with the app on my phone, the rain falling on the screen was making the map jump all over the place.
Nicola caught up to me as I cried and ate my candy. I don’t remember what was said. All I could think about at that time was that I needed to keep moving.
I was very focused on getting to the Smoky River ford. We had read that this ford could be dangerous, so I really wanted to get it over with. This is also where the junction was with the Mt Robson trailhead. The Mt Robson terminus had always been our Plan B. Neither of us had ever been to Mt Robson, so finishing there definitely had some perks.
My muscles continued to cramp, and a cold breeze combined intensified the cold when we were out in the open. Nicola seemed to be doing better now, but I was not in a good spot. My hands could barely function my phone and I resented being the navigator. (My memory is fuzzy, but I think at this point Nicola’s phone was dead.)
The Smoky River crossing was only about knee deep and completely underwhelming. As soon as we got across I insisted on setting up the tent and warming up. I was physically and mentally done. Unless it stopped raining, there was no way I was going to hike deeper into the wilderness. I knew that I would regret the decision to stop early, and I made a promise to myself that I needed to remember how miserable I was right now.
This was my thought process as we set up the tent and began to warm up:
· The only way to safely continue would be to warm up in the tent at semi-regular intervals. This would take a lot of time. We would likely only be able to hike ~40km/day.
· We were headed into the most remote section of the GDT, navigation would be critical as the trail would be faint and likely impossible to find in the snow.
· I only had one charged powerbank which we needed for my phone and the In Reach. If we took more than one extra day we would run out of power. (We’d also run out of food, but I wasn’t as concerned about that as we could ration.)
· It was likely that with all this precipitation the access road at the end of the GDT would be impassable. Potentially adding 1-2 days of hiking onto the end of our trek.
· I needed to be back at work on Monday
Out of all these concerns, the powerbank was my biggest concern (followed closely by being late for work). If we took too long, we would lose our ability to navigate, and then we would be screwed. Running out of power would force us to hunker down and wait for someone to find us. How brutal would that be?? This is the problem with relying on electronics for navigation.
We set up the tent, snuggled up in our sleeping bags and enjoyed our lunch. It was 11am and the rain continued to fall for the rest of the day. We didn’t leave the tent for the next 20hrs, other than to pee and get water.
When I told Nicola I wanted to exit at Robson she didn’t argue. She was dealing with the cold a lot better than I was, but I think she also just wanted to see Berg Lake and now we had our opportunity.
We ate food and napped, then ate more food and then napped some more. Once again we slept with the food in our tent. We also were sleeping on a floodplain, next to the river, in the rain. It felt like mile 80 of a 100 mile race, when you don’t even bother to get off the trail to pee. Zero fucks given.
Approximate Distance/Elevation Gain = 18.3km/ ??
The weather forecast was accurate. The rain let up overnight and the morning dawned misty and cold. The clouds cleared as we hiked, and our first views of Mt Robson were incredible. As we crossed over into Mt Robson Provincial Park the sensation of wilderness quickly disappeared. There were people and campers everywhere. I have never seen such a densely populated area of backcountry sites. The trail was immaculate and it felt like we were hiking in a different world. We stopped briefly to sit on a bench at Berg Lake, and had a quick snack inside one of the warming huts. Such luxury!
The rest of our hike down to the trailhead went by without incident. My shin was grouchy, and my seized quad was also giving me some knee pain, but these were minor concerns. As we descended we yoyo’d with a couple of Parks staff on e-bikes who were doing repairs on the bridges. We told one of the staff about our 6 grizzly bears (2 moms, 4 cubs) and he seemed happy to hear the news. I guess they don’t have any way to track wildife in that area, and they were happy to hear of the bears successfully breeding. We also talked about the deadfall in the burn scar. He said that area is normally better maintained, but they hadn’t gotten back there this year due to issues with COVID. Lastly, we passed a group who was asking about the Smoky River crossing and the route along the Moose River. We let them know that the Smoky River had been a non-issue and that travel along the Moose River was very cold and wet, but the flow rate was not strong. It felt good to be able to pass along some (hopefully) useful knowledge.
We finished our hike at 2pm, and Matt and Mark were waiting for us with dinner and prosecco in the parking lot. Matt had cooked up an incredible hot stew and we devoured it. After 18 days on the trail, it was surreal to be done.
We could have messaged Mark to meet us with another powerbank and warm clothes at Blueberry Lake. I now realize that we would have been safe if we’d decided to continue, but I would have been very late for work.
I really want to try again. Next summer the goal is to do the Kakwa Lake section. And then the following summer my aim is to do a southbound solo hike. Friends could join me for sections if they’d like, but I don’t want to give myseIf the option to blame my personal shortcomings on a partner.
In my next attempt I would also want to follow the rules regarding camping as closely as possible. With this attempt I felt good that we paid for all of our camping nights, but I also felt badly that our reservations were in the wrong locations and someone else may be missing out on a campsite because of this. Sticking to the rules may necessitate some night hiking (which we didn’t do on this attempt). I didn’t want to do any night hiking this time around because there were so many areas I’d never seen before. I’ve now been through most sections enough times that I’d have no problem hiking in the dark to get to my actual reserved campsite, or an area I could legally random camp.
Next time I will take a month off work instead of just 3 weeks. Nicola had a lot better understanding of some of the challenges that may occur with thru-hiking, and how these challenges could add several days to the timeline. I was totally naïve in this regard. If I want to successfully complete a thru-hike I need to channel some of her ability to go with the flow, even if that means taking several days more than intended.
I love long distance hiking. I will definitely aim to do more 7 day+ hikes in the future. I strongly prefer wilderness to highly populated areas, so I don’t feel the need to do any other official long trails. But as I explore more terrain, I am excited to put together my own adventure treks.
I have a million people to thank for helping us along on this journey including:
- The crew – Matt, Brian, Jamie (and family), Mom, Marika, Jessica and Jay, Becky and Mark. We could not have done this without you!
- The supporters – Ian and Susan at Spry, Bliz (sunglasses), Ultraspire (packs), VIMFF (adventure grant), Arcteryx (Gore-tex pants and jacket), Swiftwick (socks), Clif (bars and chews), Salomon (clothing and filter bottles), Silva (headlamp).
- Andrew for letting us use your beautiful cabin.
- Extra thanks goes out to Alicia who came up with this crazy idea, and put a ton of work into applying for the grant, wrangling permits and arranging housing in Field and Jasper.