Trip Report: Three Weeks, 300 km in as-sin-wati, Part 1

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Editor’s Note: This is the first piece by Angelique Tardival exploring her experience hiking the Great Divide Trail (GDT) in Summer 2019.

Part 1: Kananaskis Lakes to Sunshine Village

Our campsite by the Amiskwi River on Section D of the GDT

On July 21st, 2019, my friend Heli Huttunen and I set out to hike a 500 kilometre portion of the Great Divide Trail GDT (sections C to E) in complete autonomy, in order to raise awareness about We Matter, an Indigenous organization founded by Tunchai and Kelvin Redvers.

We Matter has the important mandate to curb the suicide crisis affecting Indigenous youth across the country. So far, they have successfully created numerous programs supporting and empowering youth, such as the #HopePact, the We Matter Campaign, and the Hope Ambassadors Program. We got to speak with quite a few people along the way during the first two weeks of our trip, as section C was a lot more popular than section D, where we only met four other hikers in a week. People’s reactions were mostly positive: the vast majority of people showed interest in We Matter and its mandate, and some had already heard about We Matter in the past.

Our adventure started on the shores of the Kananaskis Lakes in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, just south of Banff National Park. It ended on August 14th, over 300 kilometres north, near Saskatchewan Crossing, not too far from a place currently referred to as “Unnamed Pass,” the tallest pass of the Great Divide Trail (GDT).

While we did manage to hike two of the three sections, we had to drop out early due to an ankle injury and a work emergency. What follows is a three-part trip report and reflection on our journey in as-sin-wati.

Proudly wearing our We Matter swag on the shores of Marvel Lake.

The GDT is a 1130 km trail going from the border of the United States in Waterton National Park to Kakwa Lake, north of Jasper National Park. The GDT is managed by the Great Divide Trail Association (GDTA), whose volunteers have done an amazing job throughout the years building and maintaining it. It is worth noting that the GDTA has made significant efforts to work with local indigenous populations. For example, the Great Divide Trail Association has worked with the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, the original inhabitants of a large part of the Canadian Rockies, to give a Stoney Nakoda name to “Unnamed Pass.”

Why choose to hike a section of the Great Divide Trail and not another trail in Canada? The GDT is known for being one of the most beautiful and challenging trails in Canada. (1) It crosses some of Canada’s most famous national parks like Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay. We hoped that by undertaking a more difficult and beautiful trail, we would be able to reach more people for a cause that is dear to our hearts.

In this first part, I focus on the first half of section C, from Kananaskis Lakes to Sunshine Village. In this section, the trail crosses several parks. It starts in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, then crosses the divide to the BC side to reach Height of the Rockies Provincial Park. Then it brings us across the Spray Valley back to Alberta in Banff National Park, before crossing the divide once more to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park.

Section C was the focus of the first formal proposal for the creation of the GDT. (2) This trail started as an idea submitted by the Girls Scouts to the National Parks standing committees between 1966 and 1967 in Banff and Jasper. In 1967, architect and mountaineer Pierre Delesalle submitted this first official proposal to use the already established trail system of the region to “…[make the area] more accessible to all the visitors who wish to walk away from the car parks and enter into closer contact with nature.” (3) After the initial effort, led by Banff local Jim Thorsell, to conduct a survey and write a memorandum to the National and Historic Parks Branch, Jean Chretien’s endorsed the project in 1971. This endorsement led to the formation of a federal Great Divide Trail committee. In 1976, a group of six students started exploring possible routes for the GDT and founded the Great Divide Trail Association.

The Great Divide Trail, courtesy GDTA website.

It may be because of my grad school supervisor, Keith Thor Carlson’s book the Power of Place, the Problem of Time: Aboriginal Identity and Historical Consciousness in the Cauldron of Colonialism was still fresh in my mind, but while hiking the GDT, I could not help but ponder the connections between time and space, and between Indigenous spaces and national parks. The Great Divide Trail is an effectual place to think about these issues.

From an environmental history perspective, the Great Divide Trail is a fascinating location. It is a physical space that can be understood through its distinct geographical characteristics. It is also a legal space divided into distinct legal entities split between several jurisdictions – national, provincial, wilderness and wildland parks, a portion of Treaty 7 territory, logging and mining zones, even some private areas. It is the natural habitat of complex ecosystems.

GDT is the homeland of several Indigenous groups and a product of a long history of colonialism and environmental policies. Indigenous groups have their own understandings and consciousness of space, and they have often been driven out of these homelands by the federal assimilation and reserve policies. European settlers were led by Indigenous guides down trails who originally used them in their everyday lives. The GDT’s landmarks sometimes carry Indigenous names and are sometimes named after fur traders and explorers.

GDT is also an economic space providing revenues through the tourism and natural resources industries. From a hiking perspective, it is a long series of trails and wilderness routes crossing some of Canada’s most beautiful landscapes. It is also tied to the history of several decades of human effort to build this trail into what it now is. The trail also resonates with trail tales, names of famous thru-hikers, and stories about how the GDT came to be.

Time seems to stretch differently on the trail than in the city. There is the human timeline, that our western societies like to think of as linear. People talk about the meditation aspect of “slowing down” while in nature. At the same time, thru-hikers tend to be very conscious of time on the trail. As we need to cram as many hours of hiking as possible between sunrise and sunset in order to walk these long trails during a short hiking window and little vacation time, it is easy to feel rushed.

We also met two other GDT hikers, who called themselves “thorough hikers”: the GDT was their third long trail, after the Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest Trails. But contrary to most other thru-hikers, who usually hike these 4000 km hikes from Mexico to Canada in one season (give or take 6 months), they hiked them in increments of 1000 miles, one summer at a time, in order to go at their own pace and enjoy the sights. Others try and beat speed records. This summer for instance, hiker Elaine Bissonho beat the speed record on the GDT and hiked the first solo “yo-yo” of the GDT (hiking the whole trail northbound, and then turning around and hiking the whole thing back the other way).

But in all of these situations, hikers think about time and how to best use it to hike. For hikers, time sometimes goes slowly, such as on long ascents down steep slopes under the scorching afternoon sun, and sometimes it flies by, when you catch a sunset on top of said pass. The hours become long when you wait for a lightning storm to pass at night, and they become seconds when you cross an enchanting valley under the summer rain.

There are rapid weather changes throughout the day: a storm can appear from beyond peaks in an instant and dissipate as fast as it arrived. There are the cycles of seasons. There are animal lifetimes.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the heartbeat of geological time, with glaciers and summits that have seen more time and history than one could imagine. (4)

The global history of the GDT is the sum of all of these timelines and understandings of space, which sometimes clash and sometimes coexist with each other. Walking these trails is an act of engaging with all of these different elements of history…

The global history of the GDT is the sum of all of these timelines and understandings of space, which sometimes clash and sometimes coexist with each other. Walking these trails is an act of engaging with all of these different elements of history, some of which have been consigned in history books and Parks Canada information signs, others that have been passed down from generation to generation since time immemorial, and some of which have been left out or forgotten.

Then, there is also the very exciting history of how hiking technologies evolved. Of how maps and compasses became used alongside satellite phones and hiking apps without ever being fully replaced. Of how furs, cloth and leather were replaced by lighter and more efficient fabrics like gore-tex, dyneema and ripstop nylons. And of how our hiking practices changed as a result.

It took several months to prepare for this endeavour. Our preparation involved physical training, putting together resupply parcels, acquiring the necessary permits and insurance policies, testing our gear, building our itinerary, brushing up on our backcountry navigation skills, and planning our exit routes. Thankfully, the GDTA website contained a lot of information and resources that we found to be very useful. We carpooled with two friends who were going on a road trip to the Rockies. We dropped off our resupply parcels at the Crossing Resort of Saskatchewan Crossing, in Field and at Sunshine Village, and then reached the starting point of our adventure: Kananaskis Lakes. From the get-go, the views did not disappoint.

On our way to Forks Campground: Upper Kananaskis Lake

We purposefully kept our first two days fairly short, in order to let our bodies gradually adjust to hiking every day. On the second day, we climbed the first mountain pass of this adventure, and we spent our second night in Turbine Canyon, where a park ranger came and checked our permits during dinner time. We were glad to have all of our documents in order. Trying to obtain permits in some of the more popular areas can be difficult. This year, all the permits for the Skyline Trail were gone within minutes of the system opening, so even with having pressed the booking button the second it opened, we were only able to score two out of the three campsites we wanted for this section.

Maude Lawson Trail, on our way to Turbine Canyon

As you can see from the pictures, we mostly got sunny weather during our trip, and we only experienced two days of rain in three weeks. We did experience some occasional storms, which usually ended as fast as they appeared. About an hour or so after reaching Maude Trail (pictured above), a storm hit the mountains above Lawson Lake.

Beatty Glacier and Maude Lake

On the following day, we set out early to try and get the most of our day. We got to watch the sun rise while having our breakfast on the top of North Kananaskis Pass.

Crossing the Divide into BC, between Peter Lougheed PP and Height of the Rockies PP: going down North Kananaskis Pass

One incident altered the course of our hike. While going down North Kananaskis Pass, only three days into our hike, I sprained her ankle rather badly, reviving an old ballet injury. This slowed our pace considerably. We had to push another 80 kilometres before reaching Banff, which took us a few days. The day after the sprain, we enjoyed a beautiful rainy day across the Spray Valley (very reminiscent of Skyrim landscapes) and reached Marvel Lake in the evening. The following day, we enjoyed gorgeous views of Mount Assiniboine. We crossed the Assiniboine valley at sunset, so despite this being one of the most popular areas of the GDT, we had the entire valley to ourselves! Given that we had to go around Wonder Pass and miss its legendary views and climb Assiniboine Pass instead, it was a welcome surprise.

Waking up by Og Lake with a sight on Mount Assiniboine, before our first resupply in Sunshine Village.

Mount Assiniboine was even more striking than on the pictures I had seen. Its sight was enough to convey the sacred importance that mountains have for the Stoney Nakoda people.

Our tent with Mount Assiniboine in the background.

The following two days were filled with adventures. We crossed the very dry Golden Valley and Valley of the Rocks, where we ran into a fellow GDT hiker to whom we gave an extra 100 gram gas canister we were carrying (important to remember for later). We faced a lightning storm shortly before reaching the top of Citadell Pass. We took a break below the top to wait for the storm to pass, and then resumed our climb. Once we reached the top, there was barely a cloud in the sky, and we saw a group of day hikers huddled together, warming up under the sun as they had been caught up in the storm on top of the pass. We had a nice chat and talked about We Matter. We then continued towards our destination. But a few kilometres later, clouds started gathering in the sky once more, and we had to hurry (as much as we could) to catch the gondola to Banff at Sunshine Village, which closed at 6 pm. Which means that we had to run the last few kilometres, as we did not want to spend another night on top of a mountain pass under a storm. While running these kilometres with a backpack and a sprained ankle was not fun, it was worth it.

We got to the gondola at exactly 5:59 pm. As we were getting maybe twenty metres from the gondola, the staff member put up the “closed” sign. Thankfully, the staff still let us in once we explained our situation. Gentleman from the Sunshine Gondola Station, if you are reading this, thank you.

After an emotional ride down the gondola and then on the bus shuttle, we finally arrived in Banff. After getting burgers, taking a shower and enjoying a good night in real beds, we went to see a doctor and got some x-rays done to make sure my ankle was not fractured. Thankfully it was not, and after getting a brand-new ankle brace and two bottles of painkillers, we got ready to get back on trail…

The Golden Valley and the Valley of the Rocks, beyond Mount Assiniboine and Og Lake.

To Be Continued…


Notes:

  1. Ted Alvarez, Hiking Canada’s Great Divide, North America’s Loneliest Long Trail. https://www.backpacker.com/trips/canadas-great-divide-trail-where-nobody-knows-your-trail-name.
  2. For more information on the history of the GDT, see Dustin Lynx’s guidebook Hiking Canada’s Great Divide Trail, pp. 17-22.
  3. Pierre Delesalle, cited in Dustin Lynx, Hiking Canada’s Great Divide.
  4. If you haven’t, read Julie Cruikshank’s Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (UBC Press, 2005).
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Angélique Tardivel

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