Bruce and Marlaine spoil us with fresh vegetables and cheese burgers. In the morning, they press us to stay for breakfast and coffee. We leave together. They ride their bikes with us for the first 5km, showing us cool spots by the river. At a natural bridge, where the raging Kicking Horse River rushes through a tiny spot in the rock, we see a tall man with a distinctive look. We’ve never met before, but he recognizes another thru hiker too and a smile splits his dark beard. This is Joe, who we’ve heard stories of from Oliver and Tanya. We say goodbye to Bruce and Marlaine where the trail narrows and deteriorates. Almost immediately, a tangle of blowdowns block the trail. We spend kilometres jumping over and ducking under them. Joe passes us, then doubles back, trying to find his phone which a tree stole from him. He finds it and passes us again an hour later. We’ll leap frog all day.
The trail alternates between blowdowns, road that looks like you could still drive an ATV down it, and alders. The alders grab at my arms, and we frequently check each other’s packs to make sure we haven’t lost anything. The plants are wet from the rain the day before and we’re quickly soaked. After lunch, the sun comes out and we steam in the first few rays.
A kilometer from the campsite, the alders are thick and brushy. We’ve heard they’re almost unnavigable, so we opt to bushwhack down to the river instead. We follow meadows filled with fireweed, then wade across the river to our spot for the night.
We leave before Joe in the morning, quick to pack up. We’re working our way up to Amiskwi pass, alternating rough trail and river fords. A few miles up the trail we meet Melissa, who’s packing up a tent heavy with condensation. We introduce ourselves and tell her where we’re heading for the night.
We climb gently, through a wildflower meadow. Then we drop down to a logging road. We find a horse camp, where we spread our gear still wet with morning dew on the fence. Then we take an alternate and things get spicy. We drop down to Collie Creek, on barely there trail, slipping and sliding down steep slopes on moss and roots. At the bottom, glacial Collie roars. We work our way down the flood plains, where we see Joe try a line and then back out. He tries again while we scout a different spot. He makes it and we pick our way down to join him.
The creek is fast and tears at my legs. Shake’nBake stands next to me and pushes me down, keeping me from being swept away. It rushes up to mid thigh. Then we’re across, giggling on the far shore. The rest of the day is slightly less exciting. We pick our way up by the rushing Blaeberry River, where the water moves so fast it makes me dizzy. We cross side streams as fast and high as the main river on rickety bridges in danger of being swept away. We camp near one of them, mist from a waterfall drifting over the camp.
We cross Howse pass in the morning. It’s barely a pass: just a soft meadow where a river burbles. Then we drop down. The valley opens up before us and we see the Howse River flood plain. It’s beautiful: silty waters beneath tall, snow capped peaks. We follow it down all day, alternating between soft, silty flood plain, bushwhack trail and deep glacial fords. We find a perfect campsite on a bend in the river, where Joe finds us later.
We oversleep in the morning- it’s 6:40 by the time I open my eyes. We run the 10km to Saskatchewan River Crossing. We stop to pick up our box and ask the woman behind the desk if the rumors we’ve heard about a breakfast buffet are true. She says they are, but they stop serving at 10. It’s 10:10. We head over to the restaurant, where some clean looking thru hikers tell us they’re serving till 10:30. We load up massive plates. It’s no Timberline Lodge, but we still do some serious damage. We get to know the other hikers- they were a day ahead and took a zero. Two more hikers who we saw a few times on the last section arrive. Suddenly there are eight of us and I’m completely overwhelmed. I wasn’t expecting the GDT to be a social trail, especially when we saw so few other thru hikers the first few sections. Now it seems like we’ve caught up with the tail end of the bubble.
We pass the day hanging out in the lounge, charging our electronics and drinking beer and Gatorade. All of the other hikers have rooms for the night, but Shake’nBake and I plan on doing another 7km to camp on the park boundary. Clouds mingle with the smoke overhead and we have to don our rain gear before camp. Clouds of bugs swarm as we hang our extra food in a tree with our ursacks tied below.
It rains on and off all night, and in the morning I don’t want to get up. We only have 25km to do, but with a crazy amount of elevation gain, three alpine passes and a section of trail so rough that Guthook, our GPS app, marks it with a warning exclamation mark.
We drag ourselves out of bed and head up to our rough trail. It reminds me of going down Moosilauke on the AT. Except instead of going down, we’re going straight up. And instead of rebar, solid rock and wooden steps, we have wet gravel and handholds that disintegrate when we grab them. We pick our way up, careful on the wet ground, route finding between sparse cairns. Then we hit treeline and bad trail turns into no trail. We cross Owen’s pass, a family of big horn sheep coming over to investigate us. Clouds race overhead and the wind has a bitter bite to it.
We drop down the other side of the pass towards a clear alpine lake. It looks like a moonscape. Nothing grows up here. The only living things are the marmots, whistling at us from rocky perches. For days now, smoke has been thick, and the sun when we see it is blood red even at noon. The moonscape adds to the apocalyptic feel. Maybe the world has ended, and we’re the last people to find out about it, out here on the trail.
We climb up to another pass, the highest point on the GDT. It spits rain at us but it doesn’t matter: we put our rain gear on a long time ago to cut the cold wind. We drop down again, to a chilly, windswept valley, where we finally pick up a trail.
We have one more pass to do. Pinto climbs steep to treeline, then takes its time getting to the crux. The sun is chasing the clouds and we have our phones out for photos as much as route finding. Finally we drop down to a tree lined lake. More snowy peaks rise behind it, and a loon howls, fishing in front of us while we eat dinner.
A smatter of rain wakes us in the morning, but it’s stopped by the time we take the tent down. We have gentle climbs today, winding besides rivers while the clouds threaten more rain overhead. Then up to Cataract Pass. Magically, the sky clears as we leave treeline. Glaciers hang over the pass as we hike around snow patches. Then we crest the pass proper and we’re in Jasper National Park. Everything is stunning. The skies are clear for the first time in days. My head turns on a swivel as pointed, jagged peaks touch the clouds in front of us. We drop down by a glacier, feeding a milky lake. The lake itself is silt grey, but the river running out of it is crystal blue. We scramble down beside it. Then, finally we hit Nigel Pass trail. Gone are our route finding issues. We follow the clear path to our campsite while the sun peaks through the clouds.
In the morning we climb up glacier ringed Jonas Pass and cut over Jonas Shoulder. We spread out a little for the first time all trail. We’re far above treeline and not worried about surprising any bears. Besides, we haven’t even seen one since Kananaskas. A comment on Guthook reads “Obscenely pretty. Children should cover their eyes.” I can’t really put it any better than that. We’re surrounded by 360 degrees of jagged spires, with glacier fed alpine lakes below us.
We drop down below tree line, hiking closer together like normal, chatting away. I stop to pee and Shake’nBake keeps going to wait a little down trail. The trail is brushy, so I only take a few steps off. I trust Shake’nBake to stop any people ahead, so I look back the way we came, watching for hikers. I’ve just pulled up my pants when he comes around the corner. Square face and a ruff of light brown fur around his neck: Grizzly!
He’s closer than I’d like, and from his viewpoint, I’m effectively alone. “Hey!” I yell. He starts walking towards me. I yell again, half at the bear and half at Shake’nBake to get back down here. Shake’nBake yells back, and at that point, the bear decides bushwhacking is better than dealing with two humans. He ambles into the bushes as Shake’nBake rushes back, safety off his bear spray. I put myself back together, picking up my scattered poles and bear spray safety. Shake’nBake pouts about missing the bear half way to camp.
It rains overnight and well into the morning. We don’t have many miles to make, so we have a lazy morning: sleeping till eight and two cups of coffee. We climb up over Maligne Pass as the rain gives way to clouds, then drop down to camp. It’s a shwacky morning as we fight our way through overgrown alders, pines and willows. When we’re sick of the alders, the trail pushes us back into the forest, where we have to climb over blow down after blow down. Oh well. It’s beautifully sunny and we take a long lunch, cooking fried rice and drying our damp sleeping bags. The trail continues to annoy me after lunch, but improves substantially the closer we get to the trail head.
We have to walk a little down a gravel road to get to the Skyline trailhead, but we make a slight detour to a lodge on the shore of Maligne Lake. We find Sarah, a thru hiker we’ve bumped into a few times, sitting at the cafe. I stuff myself with poutine, and then have to drag myself up the hill to our campsite for the night, clutching my stomach and moaning about how full I am.
Something crashes through our campsite in the middle of the night, but that barely disturbs us. We have a lot of distance to cover, so we’re up early. The Skyline trail is easy and well graded to the first pass, and the second isn’t anything complicated either. Then we’re climbing up the Notch, a low point on a crumbling ridge. The view from the top is stunning. The weather is clear, the smoke is gone, and we can see all the way to Mount Robson. We wander along the ridge for a while, taking in views and enjoying the weather. Then we drop down, contouring around the mountains to a fire road. A friend of Shake’nBake’s meets us at the trailhead to take us into town for burgers and beers. We’ll have to come back tomorrow to walk into town, effectively turning our zero into a Nero. But with the permits being what they are, our only other option was a thirty mile day, and we’re both far too tired for that.