I learned about the Great Divide Trail after our Assiniboine trip in 2019. My Viewranger App (Android Version) had a the main trail that we followed highlighted in brown. The brown trail extended north and south of where we hiked at Assiniboine and when enlarged I was able to read the words Great Divide Trail. A little bit of searching and I discovered that I had a long distance trail right in my own backyard.
Hiking long distance trails had become a topic in the family. I had a subscription to Backpacker magazine where they would highlight/idolize long distance hikes and thru hiking. Emily had completed a solo trip of the John Muir Trail in 2016, section hiked the Te Araroa and has plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. We had all watched the movies Wild and A Walk in the Woods. Plus in 2018 Emily and I had spent 14 days hiking the GR20 in Corsica.
The knowledge of having a major long distance hike running through my backyard was very exciting. It was time to start doing some research. In September of 2019 I picked up a copy of Hiking Canada’s Great Divide Trail by author Dustin Lynx (side note: I taught both of Dustin’s kids at high school, math and physics). I knew I could never hike the entire trail in one go. I teach summer school in July and there would not be enough time before I had to return to school for the new year. More importantly, I had never hiked more than 14 days so scaling up to the 45 days necessary to hike the GDT would be challenging. Section hiking the GDT would be a great option as it would allow me the flexibility to explore the trail over several years while allowing time in the summer for other hikes and adventures.
During the initial planning stage a caretaker at the school who had done a lot of hiking in the past, including the GDT, recommended the book Backpacking the Canadian Rockies – High Summer by Chris Townsend. This is the same fellow who lent me the copy of No Picnic on Mt Kenya which we read during our hike on the GR20. I photocopied part of the book by Chris Townsend for us to read during our trip on the Arizona Trail. The book was captivating as Chris Townsend is both an experienced hiker and a gifted storyteller. High Summer is a must read for any GDT enthusiast. When Chris Townsend hiked the GDT in the late 80’s there was no unified trail and he hiked it all the way to the Northwest Territories.
We have a saying as far as trip planning goes: “things don’t get real until dad has a spreadsheet”. I like to put things down and visualize how things are going to play out. Sometimes I feel I walk the entire hike before we actually set boots on the trail. I purchased the guide book on September 14th and by the 26th I had created a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet comprised the hiking plan, a to do list, and a packing list that also calculates weight. I have tried to minimize the weight that I carry since I start with a 6 lbs penalty due to the camera gear that I carry.
Once I had the hike planned the next hurdle would be to book the campsites. As we were hiking the section of the GDT that passes through one of the most highly trafficked areas of the national parks I would have to be quick on the online booking. When the online booking system opened on January 22nd I successfully booked everything.The one hitch was that our first of two nights at Egypt Lake was in the Egypt lake Shelter. Egypt Lake campsites were all booked up for the date I wanted 10 minutes after the online booking opened! This would not become a problem until May, when Parks Canada shut down all the shelters due to Covid restrictions.
We changed plans due to the loss of the 1st night at Egypt Lake and decided to do two nights at Mt Assiniboine. This meant trying to move our Howard Douglas booking by one day. I checked the booking system multiple times a day looking for an opening at Howard Douglas. It only took a few weeks before there was an opening for the date we wanted.
Getting myself physically ready is very simple living in Canmore. I would do hikes up and down Mt Lady MacDonald or Grotto Mt carrying a 50 lbs a couple times a week to go along with my daily runs starting as soon as the snow melted off the trails in April. I had a few challenges during our hike but physical fitness was not one of them.
Emily’s note: I was at university and working that summer in Kelowna, where the heat in July/August got so high I could barely hike. I took to going running early in the morning, and on the rare days I woke up to a cloudy sky I booked it outside to the nearest mountain to get as much elevation in before the clouds burned off and it got too hot to move. I was a little nervous that dad would be far ahead of me fitness-wise, but we seemed to make it through alright on that front.
My original plan for resupplies was to carry 7 days of food to arrive at the parking lot for Floe Lake where we would take on the resupply for the remaining 8 days to take us to Saskatchewan River Crossing. Emily went behind my back and organized a resupply for Field, which reduced the second stretch from one 8 day stretch to a 3 and 5 day stretch. Link to the Resupply Plan.
An unexpected challenge came up when I went to purchase our dried meals for the trip. Due to a few reasons—but mostly Covid—there was very little freeze dried food available at any of the local retailers or online. This was cause for panic as we had less than two weeks before our departure date. I purchased what I could locally and put in an order online with a national retailer, but we were about 5 meals short for both of us. The solution was simple, as Emily had bought me a food dryer for my birthday. We both dried some homemade meals to make up for the shortfall. I was totally impressed how the little dryer handled drying the entire meals. The weight on the cannelloni went from 700 g to just over 200 g after drying. Given more time I would definitely make more homemade meals. When re-hydrating on the trail we purposely ate a store purchased meal on the first night and then reused the empty bags to re-hydrate our homemade meals to keep from having to dirty the our pot. I have learned since returning home that there is a company in Canmore that prepares backcountry dried meals, Peak Eats. I will definitely be purchasing meals produced locally for my future backpacking trips.
Emily’s note: I had some experience with dehydrating meals before, since I did all my meals for the JMT. Still, then I’d always used recipes from a backpacking cookbook, with meals designed to be dehydrated. It was pretty neat to just dehydrate our own meals and see how well they worked.
Once I got around to packing the food I got concerned because most of what I had read and been told was that you should plan for about 2 lbs of food per day. After packing up our food I discovered that we were well under the 2 lb guideline. My solution was simple as I just added more food. We ended up with way too much food on the first leg. This was a good problem to have but quite amusing as we watched our food bags not decrease nearly as fast as they should have. I should have trusted what I had packed to begin with which was based on my previous backpacking trips.
The Great Mistake of the trip came just a week before we planned to leave. After a short day hike I noticed that my Salomon hiking shoes had a hole in the material over the toes. In Canmore we have a shoe repair store, Comfy Shoes, but I needed the shoes in less than a week. I should have gone and pleaded my case for an emergency repair but I didn’t. I went to the local hiking store but they did not have my shoes and they were not available. I had been thinking of switching from Salomon because I was not a big fan of the quick lace system. I have been wearing Salomon’s for about 6 years, first a pair of boots then hiking shoes. Never had I had a blister so less than a week before a major hike was a bad time to switch brands, but I did. I switched to a pair of hiking Keen Targhee shoes. I went on a couple hikes up Grotto Mt and except for a bit a rubbing on the soles of my feet they felt fine. The decision to switch not only footwear but brands right before an extended hike would have dire consequences for my both my feet and the trip.
Emily’s note: While not so dramatic as dad’s, I also had some footwear issues that summer. I got a pair of Oboz’s in May, but by mid-July it became evident that all my efforts to break them in were futile. After an aborted two-night overnight where I bailed due to large blisters after one day, I went back to MEC and picked up a reliable pair of Salomon X-Ultra shoes. The pickings weren’t as good this year, due to COVID impacting production, so I had to get a slightly different version than my ideal. The only ones available were the Gore-Tex quick-lace version. I prefer non-Gore-Tex since they dry faster, and I just don’t like the Salomon quick-lace, but I wasn’t in a position to be picky. The X-Ultra has served me well on several trips and I knew I’d be best off with a familiar model. So while I hadn’t changed brands right before the trip, I still had two-week old shoes when we started, so my future foot issues were probably at least partially due to the shoes not being broken in before the trip. Definitely by the end of the trip my blisters had mostly cleared up, while dad’s only got worse due to the unfamiliar shoes.
The trip did not work out as planned. Due to the condition of my feet we ended up stopping at Field after 10 days on the trail. It was a fantastic trip full of adventures and great people. What we/I learned will help make future trips more successful. Our 2021 Trip from Field to Jasper is already planned (you can see a tab for it on the bottom of the Excel sheet).
What we/I learned:
- Less food, we barely touched our dried fruit, did not need “extra” Logan Bread snacks
- Shoes must be at least 1 month old and have been on at least one hike of 8 hours in length
- Do not switch brands of shoes a week before trip
- Keep days to under 25km if at all possible. Attempt to start with a couple of medium days, in the mid teens in terms of distance, to work into the hike
- On long backpacking trips, have full strapped sandals that can be used to hike in on flat/easy trail, help allow the feet to keep cool
- Bring full rolls of blister tape to start hike. White tape for blisters, clear tape to shield toes from white tape
- Have a paper map of each section. Mark up with potential campsites for Wild Camping sections
- Physical preparation was perfect. Using a 45lbs pack and 600m – 800m elevation trips up Mt Lady MacDonald or Grotto Mt twice a week. No muscle soreness at all on trip
- For summer in the Canadian Rockies, have horsefly repellent
- Summer in the Canadian Rockies means possibilities of near zero morning temperatures, need adequate warm clothing
- Carrying a near 50 lbs pack (complete with camera gear) is not a big deal with good physical preparation.
- Read the guidebook description of the coming day to uncover any unique details. The section from Og Lake to Citadel Pass is listed in the guidebook as dry, wish I had read that before we had to ration our water as we hiked up Citadel Pass in the afternoon sun.
- We might be able to hike at 5kph in good terrain, but rely on a 3kph average over the whole day. It just seems to work out that way, however carefully we schedule our breaks
- Tap heels on first day to prevent blisters