Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Great Divide Trail Trip Report Day 1-6 : Waterton to Kananaskis Lake

    Back in the spring (pre- Covid), my friend Alicia Woodside asked me if I was interested in thru-hiking the Great Divide Trail (GDT). I should mention she wanted to hike the 1100km trail in a record breaking 18 days. Without hesitation, I said Yes. I fell in love with thru hiking in 2014 when Peter and I hiked 1200 miles along the PCT and I've been eager to do another one. It's not often you find like minded amazing women who are willing to use all their vacation time to go on an adventure of this sort. Joanna Ford, a badass mountain runner from Calgary, would also be joining the crew. At one point we didn't know if she would be able to participate due to a health issue but it ended up being ok and she quickly rejoined the team. During the initial stages of COVID when all the parks were closed we didn't know if we were going to be able to go ahead with the trip but as cases eased off and the parks opened we felt good about continuing to plan our adventure. Alicia applied for and was successful in receiving a Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (VIMFF) adventure grant! This helped us pay for things such as parks permits/passes, thank you's for the crew, and gas for transport. Alicia also recruited her friend Mark Locki to film the project, which is scheduled to be showing at VIMFF in February. We were also fortunate to get some gear donated in kind from Salomon, cliff bar, Arcteryx, Ultraspire, Silva headlamps, and swiftwick socks. 

    Alicia and Joanna did the majority of the spreadsheet brunt work/planning. They figured out roughly how far we would walk each day, how much elevation gain we'd encounter, as well as rangled friends to help support us. I owe them both dearly for that. I am now much more experienced with google docs but could probably still benefit from a tutorial. Figuring out the distances was actually quite challenging because of the way the camping permits worked. You see, in PCT land, you just hike and camp wherever there is a "tent site", which could be just a flat spot in the woods. In contrast, for the GDT, you need many camping permits because you are in Provincial Parks and the rules are more strict. You aren't suppose to just rogue camp anywhere. To set the record we would have to do well over an ultra marathon each day for 18 days without any rest days. I'll be honest, I wasn't sure it was possible (without breaking myself) but I may have kept that too myself. The record was 21 days so I knew we had a couple extra to spare. 

    The next thing to plan was my food for 18 days. One of the biggest hurdles for me was going stoveless. The girls didn't want to bring a stove and there was no way I would be carrying the weight of a stove/fuel on my own so I jumped on board. Alicia introduced me to cold soaking couscous and I decided that would be my dinner meal for 18 days straight lol. I tested it out on the Sunshine Coast Trail prior to the trip and it was delicious. I went to the store and bought 18 packages of Kasbah Couscous. I would later come to tire greatly of couscous. But still a fan of cold soaking! Side note: if you are taking a more relaxed approach to hiking and have the time, bringing a stove is brilliant. If you need to hike allll day, quickly, with minimal breaks, cold soaking is hands down the way to go. Also side note: your food isn't really cold, its more room temp. 

    The girls were recommending trying to consume 5000 cal a day. My brain doesn't love counting numbers so planning my food this way doesn't work for me. However, I've been doing this long enough that I know what a days worth of food looks like. I also remember what snacks I enjoyed on the PCT. I am a pretty simple human and so is my trail food. In fact, I planned to eat the exact same foods for 18 days straight. I knew I would get variety at crew stops and in towns and I try to pick things I don't tire of. I also planned to pack a little bit more in the last week or so because hunger is far greater then.

    It's tough to really prepare the body for a trip like this. You kind of just get fit doing it. My training consisted of trail running, hiking (sometimes with pack loaded), and doing a prep fast pack on the Sunshine Coast Trail to test out the gear and get a couple big days of hiking in. I also ate plentifully leading into the hike because I knew I would lose a decent amount of weight. 

    Alicia and I flew to Calgary and Joanna picked us up at the airport. The airport was practically empty and I had a row to myself on the plane. We wore masks. We each checked a bag because we were bringing all of our food for the 18 days. We got to Joannas and quickly put our already organized drop bags into the designated bins.  Mark, the videographer was there and filmed us prepping our stuff. He also drove Alicia and I to Waterton so he could be there to capture the start of our hike.  Joanna had arranged for us to stay in a beautiful "cabin" in Waterton that belonged to one of her friends. It was stunning and a great place to hang out and rest the night before the big day! Matt, Joanna's husband, made us a beautiful spaghetti dinner and we went to bed with full bellies and excited hearts :)

Day 1: 57.8km/1948m

    We got up and ate oats and piled into the cars and drove into Waterton Lakes National Park. Alicia had described this park as the Grizzly capital of Canada and I was slightly terrified of this designation. Luckily, there were 4 of us together at the start and I just reminded myself that grizzlies usually don't attack groups of 4 or more! I went pee one last time just before we were supposed to start and was shocked to see I just got my period. I definitely didn't plan for that. I think Alicia had an extra tampon to spare and I was very greatful. My back sometimes gets really sore when I get my period and this day was no different. Luckily, Alicia had some pain meds and that seemed to help. Alicia appeared to be acting as the team's shoppers drug mart. It took a while to kick and I had to laugh at the adversities that were already plaguing me! We had pre-planned to run with small packs for 30k and then grab our "bigger" packs when we met Matt around lunch time. We had to first run out and back 6km (one way) to the border/official start of the GDT. Mark joined us to capture video of the start of our journey. Life of a videographer is tough! He would set up his camera, capture his footage, and then have to pack up and sprint ahead of us to get the next shot. This happened many times and Mark was getting quite the interval workout! Running with tiny packs was a great way to start off the trip. Our first crew stop at Red Rock Canyon was pretty amazing too as Matt had prepared Bacon stuffed pancakes! 

    Putting on the pack for the first time felt good. We only had 1.5 days worth of food in the pack so it felt pretty light. Mark joined us to Twin Lakes where the girls went in for a dip. I normally always join in for swims but I didn't want to disturb the tape on my feet. We made our way towards La Coulotte Ridge and camped below it at Jutland Creek. 

     We ended up doing 58k on day one and finished the day off at 730pm which would be one of the earlier nights to bed. The bugs weren't great at camp. We all wore our bug nets. Alicia bought hers from the dollar store and she said it was the best $1 she ever spent. I would come to learn that Joanna very much dislikes bugs. We only faced one moment of adversity (period aside) on day one and that is when Joanna tripped and smashed her face into a rock towards the end of the day. The oddest thing was that Alicia randomly had blood across her nose. We joked about it being Joannas blood but there's just no way it could have shot that far. It provided a good laugh and turned a potentially bad moment into a funny one. 

Day 2: 57.3km/2351m

    We woke up at 5am and were walking by 6am. It was a blue bird day on the GDT and I found myself saying "Just another bluebird day on the GDT" every morning for the next 8 days. We slept without the fly on and it was very nice "sleeping under the stars". 

    I really loved the summits and ridges and passes we walked on this day. The adversity highlight was Joanna almost losing her pack off a cliff. Luckily, it didn't roll off the edge and neither did she when she leaped to grab it! Another highlight was being so hot and thirsty that we laid in a pile of snow and did snow angels and shoved snow into our filter bottles. After lunch we ended up on a wide flat gravel path that was quite hot and exposed. Our feet would cross many creeks this afternoon and this may have been the start of foot issues for Alicia. We met our friend Brian (RD of Sinister 7/Death Race/black spur etc) mid afternoon at Castle Mountain resort. He brought beer and our food re-supply. I spotted a vending machine and bought myself the most delicious tasting A&W root beer. The walk from there to where we camped felt long. I remember cows and steep ATV trail. The cattle made me feel like I was really in Alberta. We would later meet Brian on top of Willoughby ridge around 9:30pm! He ATV'd up and had stew ready for us. He also made us pancakes and coffee in the morning. The hospitality Brian showed us was soooo above and beyond. I will forever be grateful and thankful to make this new connection. I will 100% have to check out his races in the future when those are a thing again. 

Day 3: 53.22km/1634m

    The highlight of day 3 was walking to our first town...Coleman. Sounds crazy to be so excited for a  town after all the pampering it seems we've had but when your hiking 55-60k/15 hours a day it feels like you've lived a lifetime and are continuously ready for all the pleasantries. We stopped just before getting into town so Alicia could tend to her blisters. We had pre-planned to stop at one of Joanna's friends houses for a shower and lunch but we decided there was no time for that and instead sat on the concrete outside 7/11 drinking slurpees. Plus, it was day 3 and we didn't really need showers, there's creeks for that.
It was so hot out and I was dunking my shirt and hat in any water source I could find. There were a lot of gravel roads that were exposed and hot. Soooo hot! 

    The silver lining of this day was that we were going to get to walk on the newly built High Rock Trail (HRT). It was just finished weeks prior! It served up so much goodness: beautiful alpine, wild flowers and delightful single track. Alicia's feet were not doing so good but she was still maintaining a really good cadence! I was impressed by how well she was doing despite being in immense pain. I don't think I would have done as well as she did under the same conditions. She always found a way to crack jokes and make l    light of the situation. I was quite inspired. I also liked when she shared her cheese and crackers with me, which happened that night at dinner. 

    We pushed on late that evening to Window Mountain Lake. The campsite here was sooo nice. We revelled in the fact that there was string strung from trees so we could wash and dry out our hiking clothes. We even had time to bathe in the lake! We were starting to fall behind schedule which I wasn't all that concerned about because I always knew it would take longer than 18 days. In my mind, we were right on schedule. But when you have crew you are supposed to meet, at certain times with your re-supply, it starts to become a little tricky. Luckily, we had an inReach device and were always able to communicate via satellite where we were at. At this point Alicia was getting up well before us to tend to her feet. She was doing everything she could to try and find a way to keep going. 

Day 4: 52.6km/2372m

    Hiking away from Window Mountain Lake was spectacular. The morning light was a sight to behold. My favourite times to hike were always early morning and later evening. At some point Joanna had the bright idea of sending an inReach message to Brian, (whom we were meeting later that day) to pick up Alicia some new socks and Hoka trail running shoes from Spry, the local running shop. They unfortunately didn't have her size in the shoes but he grabbed her the socks. She had been wearing wool socks and Joanna thought the swiftwick would work better. At some point Alicia had contemplated leaving the trail with Brian and ending her hike there but was rejuvenated by the thought of these new ideas! 

    We ended up walking along a very wide path that was covered in Daisies. There were literally daisies for days! The trail was also littered with wild strawberries. Have you ever had a wild strawberry? I hadn't. I couldn't believe my eyes when Joanna gave me one. They're so tiny! I couldn't believe she was even able to spot such a miniscule object on the ground. But once you start seeing them its hard to stop seeing them. Sadly, we didn't have time to just pick berries endlessly. It was here that we met our first GDT thru-hiker named Paul. We wore the same calf sleeves and I felt instantly bonded to Paul. He was a man in his 50's/60's perhaps and was solo hiking. Kudos to anyone who was hiking this trail solo. We said hello and chit chatted about the trail for a short while before having to say goodbye. Afterwards, I couldn't stop talking about Paul as if he was our new best friend. As an extrovert, I get quite energized by people and seeing another human definitely got my spirits up! I don't think the euphoria lasted long however, as this section of the HRT seemed never ending. It also wasn't as nice as the single track earlier in the day and all I wanted was to get to Brian and my re-supply. We were very relieved when we heard Brian. He greeted us with a smile and bottles of coke! Eventually, our new best friend Paul showed up and he sat with us momentarily. He didn't stay long though and decided to get a head start onwards to Tornado Pass.

    Every time we saw our crew we spent extra time hanging out. It was impossible not to. The presence of other humans is contagious and its hard to want to leave. Dealing with a re-supply also takes time because you faff around with what you actually want to bring with you for the next leg of trail. Sometimes I'd change my portion of something that I wasn't eating much of. At the beginning of the trip I packed a small ziplock full of GORP and thought that would be a 1 day portion. It was taking me 2 days to go through it. The same thing happened with my couscous dinner.  This meant at every re-supply I was having to leave behind some of my food to save weight.  

    We finally got it together, thanked Brian, and promptly walked 1km in the wrong direction. That was a bit of a bummer! At this point we didn't really have unnecessary time to waste. The climb up to Tornado pass was a bit of a bitch. Luckily, Joanna had been there before and was able to somehow navigate through avalanche debris. We saw our best friend Paul here and he followed a long with us through this section. I'm hoping Joanna's sick navigation skills saved Paul some precious energy. That was the last time we would see our best friend Paul. 

Photo by: Joanna Ford

    Eventually we started to wind our way up the rocky/loose slope towards Tornado Pass. There was a trail that appeared to delightfully and gradually switchback up the slope. Joanna was out in front and didn't seem to share the same sentiments towards these switchbacks and just B lined it straight up the steepest part of the slope. I wasn't sure why she had chosen this but alas I accepted my fate (and also questioned her motives) and put my head down and charged upwards. I really enjoyed the loose rocky ascent. I appreciated the "choose your own adventure" route up to the pass. It felt rugged and wild and I was proud of what we were accomplishing. We ate some snacks at the top of the pass and discussed where we should try and camp for the night. Alicia's feet weren't doing well but I believe she popped a T3 and pushed as hard as she could. As a morale boost we played music out loud. To my surprise Joanna is a big fan of the jungle book and knows the lyrics to all the songs. I saw another side to Joanna that night. We sang and laughed and it really helped to distract our minds and pass the time. 

Photo by: Joanna Ford

    Because we were always trying to go as far as possible each day, we were probably moving the fastest at the end of the day. We were always chasing the last of the daylight and pushing hard to make it as far as possible in those last couple of hours. This usually meant we were pretty shattered by the time we got to camp. To top it off we still had to filter water, set up the bear hang, and tent/sleeping set up etc. This is the reason I never once used the roll of floss I carried the entire time. I had many chances to discard the floss but I held out that I may muster up the energy to use it - nope - never once. 

    Alicia's blisters had now gone from bad to worse. We shot a video of how bad they were in the tent that night. We discussed that it was unlikely they would heal if she continued to hike 50+ km a day on them. She was hopeful that maybe her Hoka's that she had in the next re-supply would help with the pain but it's unlikely they would heal. She was sad this was happening so early on in the trip. A trip she had spent so much time planning/preparing for. It's hard watching your friend suffer. Alicia is such a bright light and always finds a way to make me laugh. I felt so helpless. I was also incredibly inspired by her grit and perseverance. I can guarantee I would've been off the trail much sooner if I was enduring the type of pain I witnessed. I can honestly and without a doubt awknowledge that she gave it everything she had out there. 

Day 5: 57.6km/2922m

    I wish I remembered more about this day but I don't.  It was this day that we saw the first grizzly bears of the trip! We startled them and they took a running pivot towards us and then immediately away from us. Phewww! It was quite the exhilarating encounter. From that moment forward (or the next few days) I carried my bear spray in the front of my pack. That night at camp we started to talk about Alicia's options. She knew she couldn't continue in her state and was starting to lose her joy. When Peter and I did the PCT his blisters were really bad at one point. We got off trail for 2.5 days and they healed quite well in that time and we were able to continue without much issue. We hoped that maybe with some time off she would be able to re-join us later in the hike. We knew there was a dirt road roughly 17km away where she could hitch out to civilization and apparently her aunt lived there. She even thought maybe her aunt could pick her up on this road. We went to bed knowing there were options. 

Day 6:
62.4km/1500m - ish 

    This was a big day. For starters, we were going to get to our next re-supply at Kananaskis Lake and we had to walk 62km to get there. I imagine we were up at the crack of dawn knowing we had a huge day ahead. Getting in the miles is a numbers game.  There are only so many hours in the day and if you want to do big miles, you need to give yourself the maximum amount of daylight. On a trail like the PCT, you can easily walk in the dark because the trail is nicely manicured and easy to follow. That is why you see FKT'ers walking upwards of 50 miles a day on the PCT. The GDT is none of those things and it's pretty easy to get lost in the dark. We were typically only sleeping 6 hours each night. We got up in the dark and went to bed in the dark. With 3 of us it usually took 45 min - 1 hour to get out of camp in the morning or into bed at night. 

    Joanna knew that Fording River Pass had reception so once we got to it we each called our loved ones.  After we were off the phone, Alicia came over to us and told us what she had discussed with Julian. He thought it was unwise of her to continue in her current state and to get off the trail immediately and seek medical attention. It was his opinion that she could be doing permanent damage to her feet if she continued on in the state she was in. Especially since she was taking pain killers to dull the pain in order to continue. We made a plan that she would hitch hike out on the dirt road that would take her to Elkford. Julian had also recommended this option. It was Joanna's impression that this road was heavily trafficked by campers/loggers and it wouldn't be a problem to hitch a ride. This road intersected the GDT and Joanna and I would continue in the opposite direction along the GDT towards Kananaskis Lake. 

    Alicia managed her pain quite well over the pass but once we got to the creek below, we were in and out of water, and that really started to take its toll. Reading her account of the events its quite clear that she was experiencing something totally different from Joanna and I. Group dynamics are so tricky, especially when you don't know the needs of the other person. I felt shitty to read that she felt like she was being dropped. Emotions were running high and we were trying to offer her some space. In hind sight, I wish I had just asked her how we could've best supported her. Once we got to the road we used the inReach to message her husband Julien. We notified him of her whereabouts. We sat and ate lunch together and eventually hugged goodbye. Almost immediately after walking away we saw humans who were RV'ing around the corner. I was so relieved to see people and it gave me great joy to know she wouldn't be alone out there while she waited for a hitch. We approached a man who had an ATV. Joanna told him of our situation and asked if he could give Alicia a lift out. He said he was up here for the weekend (it was Friday) and was waiting for his family and wouldn't be leaving until Sunday. Joanna told him to watch out for our friend. As we left, it appeared that Alicia had cell reception and was talking to someone on the phone. As it turned out, that man and his family did end up driving Alicia out that day and she crushed beers with the fam on the ATV! 

    Joanna and I now had a 30km walk on a logging road ahead of us. I'm not going to lie, it was shit. It was exposed and hot AF. I had been experiencing some digestive issues (insert really bad gas) in the heat. I thought it was because of chocolate but it was the heat. I was also acutely aware of how swollen my hands would get in the heat. I tried to do everything I could to stay hydrated and cooled. This meant dunking my shirt, hat and arm warmers in every and all bodies of water as well as drinking tons and using extra electrolytes. We tried to listen to podcasts to pass the time. I learned everything I might want to know about John Legend. Neat guy! 

    Although my feet were doing good, I was craving a trail to walk on. A good 20km along this gravel road I noticed a trail off to the side that appeared to reconnect with the dirt road. I suggested we take it and Joanna agreed. It turned out to be a muddy marsh and filled my shoes with really thick mud. It's hard to describe how angry I was at this trail. Also equally as mad that I had suggested it. Having any type of debris in your shoes/socks can quickly cause hot spots/blisters. I believe we didn't stop to address the mud as there was no water source to wash our feet off in. I was pretty fixated on my feet after that and could tell that this mud was taking it's toll. Once I saw a tiny pool of moving water in a ditch I suggested we stop and clean our feet. I took my sock off and for the first time of the entire trip the bottom of my left foot looked soggy. I was concerned there were blisters forming underneath. After watching what Alicia had gone through with her feet, I was suddenly quite paranoid that the same thing would happen to me. I washed my socks and my feet and taped areas that were feeling vulnerable. 

    I don't recall how long after but the bottom of my left foot started to feel weird. It felt like I was walking on tiny pebbles except there were none in my socks or shoes. By the time we reached Elk Lake, my left foot felt swollen. It was as if I were walking on a sack full of fluid, covered in small sharp pebbles. At first it was just in some isolated spots on the bottom of my foot but then I felt the fluid expand to the entire soul of my foot. Every step after that was extremely uncomfortable. 

    After 30km and 6 hours on a dirt road, we finally got to the Elk Lake trail head. It was roughly 7ish pm and we had 15km to go. Morale at this point was pretty low. I felt feverish and I am pretty sure I had a mild form of heat stroke. I tried to choke down some couscous but I don't think I made much of a dent. We sat in silence. Joanna had reassured me that the trail was very well manicured for the next 15km. I remember putting my rally cap on and spouting off some random stat about how many miles per hour I can hike and how fast we could get it done. We motored as fast as we could. I did my best to forget about how shitty my left foot felt. Joanna remembered that the trail connected to a road where we could get picked up and dropped back off the next day. This would save us from having to hike an extra 5km. At this point, that savings would be huge for us. There is no service where our crew was and although we sent an inReach message, it was unlikely they would receive it but we held out hope. 

A couple kilometres before this pull out we saw a biker coming up the trail. It turned out to be Joanna's friend Jamie who had come out from Calgary to crew for us! They didn't get our message but he said he would bike back to camp and tell Matt to come pick us up. To say we were overjoyed would be an understatement. I can't tell you how happy I was to get off my foot. As soon as we got to the road, I took off my shoe and could hardly bare weight on it. The soul of my foot was very swollen and it looked like it was full of fluid. I was a limping mess back at camp. Matt scored a lakeside camp spot at the Interlakes campground. Apparently, its near impossible to get a site there unless you book well in advance. Back at camp we were spoiled with bacon, pancakes, delicious juices, and fruit. I just sat there and revelled in all this food that wasn't couscous. We probably stayed up too but it was nice to hang out with our crew who had driven a long ways to see us. It was also really nice to meet Jamie and his family. He has become quite the adventure buddy of Joanna's and I was hearing a lot of stories about their adventures. Great to put a face to the name! That night I got to sleep in the 4runner with Joanna on a nice mattress with a real pillow. It felt luxurious. I went to bed with the hopes that my foot would dry out and feel better in the morning.