Day 4, August 14th, North Pinto Lake to Boulder Creek CG. 30 km, 910 m elevation gain, 620 m elevation loss, 10 hrs 55 min (Segment 25, Segment 26).
This was the first day on the trip I used an alarm and I am glad I did, as 5:15 am came very quickly after being up taking photos in the middle of the night. I packed up the tent as quickly and as quietly as I could and headed over to retrieve my food for breakfast. It may have been an early start but I still wanted a hot coffee to start my day. Jason and Bent were already eating their breakfast so I hustled as quick as I could so as not to delay the start of the hike. I threw my pack on and said goodbye to my camping spot at 6:07 am. This would be the earliest start to a day on my trip.
We set off at a good pace out of camp. No one else was up yet. The first view of the morning sky was gloomy as the smoke had returned. It was hard to believe just 4 hours earlier I was taking photos of a clear night sky and now I could barely make out the tops of the mountains. Our first misadventure came after just 10 minutes when we turned left at a junction and headed up the trail to Sunset Pass. I was following blindly but after a few minutes of not hiking beside a stream we all stopped to check our location on our devices. We quickly turned around and were soon back on the GDT.
The ground in the area around the confluence of the Cline River and Cataract Creek was quite soft and boggy. In a few places side streams occupied wide areas, making for shallow but muddy crossings.
After 40 minutes of hiking we left Banff NP and entered the Whitegoat Wilderness Area. Where Huntington Creek joined the Cline we once again did a bit of wandering as we tried to find a dry way across. Huntington Creek was probably one of the more perilous crossings on the hike. The creek was quite deep and some downed trees provided a very suspect bridge that could be used to cross. Depending on which side you fell off the logs, the penalty for falling ranged from wet feet to complete submersion in the creek.
We hiked along the north shore of the Cline River for a short while before the Cline turned right and away from the trail. We soon came to Cataract Creek and were faced with an easy but long crossing. I was contemplating switching to my sandals to keep my shoes dry when Jason charged across the stream, almost falling twice. Bent then took his turn, recording the crossing on his phone. It was already very evident that I was the slowest hiker in the group, which was compounded by my repeated stopping to take photographs. So I decided to not delay and switch to my sandals and headed across after Bent. The Salomon shoes I had on were Gore-tex, which meant I would be hiking in wet feet for the rest of the day. I do not think my shoes dried out completely until after I had completed the Skyline seven days later.
We stayed on the north side of the Cataract river for the next four hours, so we did not have very many route-finding challenges. I was having some trouble keeping up. Bent was leading with Jason second. Every so often Jason would yell back to me to make sure I was still coming. About 30 minutes after crossing the Cataract I spied a side trail that would take me to some First Nations pictographs painted in ochre on a rock. I yelled back up the trail to Bent and Jason, who both came back to view the pictographs. When I got home I did some research on the pictographs. The Alberta government had done some research but it had been removed from the public and sealed. The stories behind the pictographs are for the First Nations people to share.
The trail was very well defined in this section but was it was difficult to keep a good pace with all the downed trees. Despite the obstacles Bent kept us at a good 4 km/h average until lunch.
I don’t remember much about this section except hustling hard to keep up and whenever we came out from the trees the views were obscured by smoke.
We stopped for an extended break in a field below Mt Stewart. We had hiked just shy of 15 km in 4 hours. This was supposed to be my finish point for the day. According to the GDT App there was camping here. We had passed a little campsite just 15 minutes prior but I really did not see any camping at this location. As we stopped and relaxed I decided that there was no good reason to stop here and set up my tent to spend the rest of the day by myself. So when it was time to leave I grabbed my pack and told Bent and Jason that I would join them all the way to Boulder Creek CG. This meant that tomorrow I would only have a 3.2 km day to Four Points CG, where I would meet up with Micah, who would be hiking in from the Nigel Pass Trailhead to join me for the rest of the hike.
The valley we had been hiking in forks into two smaller valleys as you approach the bottom of Cataract Pass. The GDT follows the left fork. The trail got a little confusing as we approached the junction and we ended up a fair way from the creek. The easiest way to navigate this section is just stay close to the creek and go to the left. We came out of the trees high on a bank above the creek draining the right (east) fork of the valley. A large cairn marked our way back down to Cataract Creek and the upper valley we wanted to follow.
The valley dramatically narrows as we head into the alpine. We had another little challenge route-finding, as there was a trail going up the side of the valley embankment. I let Bent and Jason explore the trail, which disappeared very quickly, forcing them to retreat back down the trail. I have no idea why the trail is there and I am guessing many people go up it just to come right back down. The route was up along the left (west) side of the the creek so we had another little stream crossing.
Staying creek-side made route-finding simple, but I do remember a few little scrambles that we had to do to get around little waterfalls. The going was much slower than before. We passed by several narrow sets of rapids before arriving at a little plateau that would take us to the base of Cataract Pass.
We stopped for lunch on a little bank above the tiny stream that was Cataract Creek at 12:45 pm, we had been hiking for 6 hrs 40 min and covered 19.6 km.
The little plateau area where we had lunch would be a great place to camp. Later I talked to some backpackers coming southbound over Cataract Pass who said that in good weather you would see 20 or more tents scattered around the area where we had lunch. Since Cataract Valley is an Alberta Wilderness Area you do not need a permit to camp, unlike in Jasper NP, which was just on the north side of Cataract Pass.
A drawback of letting someone else guide you along is that you can become unaware of the route ahead. For some unknown reason I thought where we had lunch was the top of Cataract Pass. All I had to do was check my Viewranger to see that the trail went up a few hundred metres more to the pass. It was a bit of shock to the system when we started working our way up the slope that would take us to Cataract Pass.
Cataract Pass is not the longest (2 km and 50 minutes), biggest (270 m) or highest (2500 m) pass that I had done on the GDT Sections C, E and part of D, but I found it to be the most challenging. The pass may have been more difficult than others, as it came 20 km into a tough day. Despite the difficulty I still feel the pass was a fun and exhilarating experience. In my view, one of the reasons Cataract Pass was so tough was that you could never see the top of the pass. The trail to the pass works its way clockwise around the mountain, never giving a view of the pass until you are just a few minutes away. Many times I thought I was approaching the top just to find another ridge line appear in the distance.
The way down off the pass was steep but easy on a well marked trail. I had hiked in the Brazeau back in 2017 but had come over Nigel Pass. It was very interesting to hike through the headwaters of the Brazeau to see where the river and the valley begin.
The trail to Nigel Pass is dominated by an ancient rock slide that deposited enough rock to fill the valley between Cataract and Nigel Pass. There is a reasonably clear route through the rocks. Bent and I spent a few minutes looking up at the ridge from where all the rock had slid. The hiking was fun, with little ups and downs through the rubble, if a little slow.
Just as we finished passing through the rubble, we came across a pair of northbound hikers. I stopped to talk for a bit as they were very interesting. It was a father/son duo and the father must have been in his 70s; they had hiked in from Owen Creek. They were finishing on this day, heading out over Nigel Pass. The father was from Parksville on Vancouver Island, just about 15 minutes from where my own father lives in Qualicum Beach. Small world.
Shortly after leaving the father/son duo we arrived at Nigel Pass and back onto Parks Canada Trails. Nigel Pass marks the end of Segment 25 and the beginning of Segment 26 of the GDT. It was now only 3 km to our campsite at Boulder Creek CG. I was feeling very tired and having a great deal of difficulty in keeping up with Jason and Bent. I am quite sure that Jason slowed up to shepherd me to the end of the hike. It was appreciated. There was not a lot of talking going on during this section. With the smoke obscuring the views and it being the end of a long day, the goal was to finish and get to camp. I still did stop at an overlook to take some photos of the Brazeau Valley. Never too tired to take pictures!
I arrived in camp at 4:55 pm. I was a bit worried about camping at Boulder Creek as I did not have a permit. I need not have worried, as no other campers would arrive. Boulder Creek CG is a functional if unexciting campground. It straddles the trail with campsites on one side and the dining area and food storage on the other. My campsite was a mere 10 feet from the trail. I took the time to have a bit of a wash in the river before dinner. It was a chilly little experience. I hung my shirt and pants to dry on some trees. Luckily both my pants and shirt dry quickly, because there was little in the way of sunshine or a breeze to aid the drying process.
Dinner was very relaxed, with everyone in a good mood. We all headed to bed at about 8 pm. I only had 3.2 km to hike the next day to Four Points CG while Jason and Bent would be heading all the way to Waterfalls CG. We delayed our goodbyes until the morning since I felt it would be best to get up and see them off on their day, after spending a couple of great days on the trail with the two of them.