Somewhat surprisingly, we wake up in the morning. Heavy flakes of snow lie on our fly, melting to rivulets of water. We’re damp and a little cold, but very much alive. A few inches of wet snow lie on the ground and the trees, and fat flakes fall from the sky. It’s above freezing, but barely. The snow shows no signs of stopping. All of our hiking clothes are sopping wet, and I know we’ll have seconds after putting them on before we have to worry about hypothermia. We lie in our sleeping bags and talk through our options. We can get dressed and hike as fast as we can. But we’re heading up towards the alpine, where the trail has a nasty habit of disappearing even when it’s not snow covered, and moving fast is difficult. Or we can stay here and wait out the storm. We’re already a day behind schedule thanks to our tent issues, and that means there’s a good chance we’ll be hungry with our limited food.
Thankfully, we’re not alone. Sarah, and Joe and Alison are all camped close by. We yell through the trees to figure out what they’re doing. We can’t hear Joe and Alison, but Sarah relays their thoughts. As individuals, we’ve all already decided to stay put. Hearing the decision as a group cements that it’s the right call. We lie in our sleeping bags listening to podcasts on Shake’nBake’s phone. I’m simultaneously happy to be safe and warm, and anxious to be hiking.
In the early afternoon, the weather breaks. The snow stops, and the clouds part enough for a few cold rays of sun. Cautiously, we leave our tents, careful to protect our dry clothes from the snow dripping from the trees. Joe strings up a line, and soon brightly colored layers are flapping in the wind. Shake’nBake starts a fire, and we huddle around it, chasing the chill from our bones. I hold my pants as close as I dare and still burn a few new holes. Around us, the snow melts from the ground. Above, the mountains hold on to their white winter coats. Despite such a dire start to the day, we’re soon in high spirits, enjoying our unplanned on trail zero. Each of us does food math, counting candy bars and dinners to see what we have to ration and eating as much as we dare.
In the morning, frost has replaced the snow in the meadows. Wildflowers past their prime crunch under our half frozen trail runners as we finally leave our little haven from the snow. Soon, the sun comes out. For the first time in days, there’s heat to the rays. We climb up away from the trees, and the snow on the peaks above us melts almost as fast as we can walk. The high peaks behind us are still white. I wonder if this is the end of summer for the high places along the GDT.
We drop down to cross meadows, then climb up to passes. On one pass, we build a snowman from the dregs of yesterday’s snow. The landscape changes around us as we hike. All summer, the peaks have been close, rising steep and sharp above valleys not much wider than the rivers that shape them. Now, the peaks spread out, smaller than the mountains further south. The valleys widen, filled with wet meadows that span kilometres. We only have a few days left of the GDT, and it feels like we’re running out of divide to hike. We camp on the edge of the widest valley yet. The sky above is clear, and the temperature dips as the sun creeps towards the horizon. It’s our last night camping with Joe, Alison and Sarah, but the cold curbs our desire to chat, and sends us all scattering to our separate tents.
I wake up and my shoes are frozen solid. A thermometer clipped to my pack reads -5c (23f). We pack up, fingers frozen inside our gloves, then sit and drink coffee with Joe and Alison. It’s our last day on the Great Divide Trail, although we’ll still have 110km to hike from the end of the trail to the closest highway. Joe, Alison, and Sarah have all paid for a shuttle to meet them on the dirt road that’s little more than an ATV track. Shake’nBake and I are walking to the highway. They have more miles to do today than we do, since our snow day put them behind, and they’ll have to run to make their pickup. They prioritize drinking coffee with us over an early start, and we’re happy for the company. Shake’nBake tips the last of our instant coffee into the Jetboil. We’ll be ok for food, but I’m not happy about running out of coffee.
We head out as the sunlight hits the tops of the trees overhead. We trek back out into the meadow, where we find gorgeous trail. Which peters out into nothing, before starting back up again. We find and lose, find and lose the trail, over and over, before climbing up to Surprise Pass. It’s our last real pass, and we linger, reluctant to leave the Alpine for our final time. We drop down to alders so thick we can’t see our feet. We thrash through like bears, before dropping down to more mud, broken up with avalanche debris and a spicy river crossing. We joke that the GDT is giving us a royal sampler pack of all of the problems we’ve already faced: a reminder of why it’s time to go. “We just need a bear,” Shake’nBake tells me. “Sitting by the road, he’ll ask us how many berries we’ve eaten. If it’s more than one, he won’t let us leave.” He shovels another handful of blueberries into his mouth. They’re the size of grapes here, and so plentiful that some bushes have more berries than leaves. We cross meadow after meadow, in wide, wet valleys. I dream of dry feet, and clean, cotton t-shirts. We’re so close to being done, but so far from civilization. The best we can hope for in the next few days is drying our socks over the woodstove at the cabin.
Finally, we see the cool, light blue of a glacial lake. Kakwa lake is ringed with mountains, not the meadows we’ve been walking through lately. We see a small wooden cabin, with a dock in front. A white floatplane with green trim is tied up at the dock. Shake’nBake is ecstatic, certain the pilot will give us a ride to town. I’m disappointed, knowing at best we’ll have to share the cabin. We take our finishing photos by the lake, then check out the cabin. There’s no one there, but food is everywhere: cheetos lie spread over the table, surrounding a half empty vodka bottle. Gear is stacked high on every bunk. My desire to sleep inside evaporates.
Finishing a trail is always anticlimactic, but this seems more so than any other hike. Maybe it’s knowing we still have 110km to walk, or our struggles with the weather in this section. We sit on a bench outside the cabin and eat a sad celebratory dinner of Mac and Cheese. Joe and Alison show up, and seem just as underwhelmed. They still have 10k to hike tonight, but they sit and eat dinner with us. We’ve almost finished when we hear a motor. A small inflatable boat putters into view. Inside are two men, old as time. They pull up at the dock, and come up to say hello. One holds a fillet knife in his fist, apparently unaware of how threatening it looks. They repeatedly ask where we’ve come from, unable to grasp that we’ve walked from Jasper in one stretch. They ask where we’re sleeping, but make no move to offer to make space for us in the cabin. Joe and Alison say goodbye, and head out to do more miles. We pack up our dinner things, then walk a short distance away to set up our tent. I’m so ready to be done, ready to go home. But we still have so far to walk.
We wake up to rain spitting on the tent fly. Great. We pack down, shrug on our rain jackets and start walking fast. Luckily, it’s all downhill today. The rain never gets too heavy, and frequently stops just for long enough for us to dry back out. What starts as trail quickly turns to an ATV track. After 30km, it’s officially a road, although it’s so rough and overgrown that it doesn’t look any different. We take a break between showers, and I find a four leaf clover. “Maybe that means we’ll get a hitch,” Shake’nBake is still optimistic. Still, there’s no point sitting waiting for someone to come along. We pick ourselves up and hike on as the rain starts back up again.
Just a few kilometers down the road, Shake’nBake grabs my arm. “Do you hear that?” Over the rain on my hood, I can just make out a motor. Soon, an ATV roars across a rise in the trail. Shake’nBake is taking no chances. He stands in the middle of the road, arms out to flag him down. The driver is a pale man with red rimmed eyes. Shake’nBake asks him for a ride to the highway. “We’re cold and wet and tired. I will pay you if you take us to the road.” Shake’nBake is upfront. You can hear in his voice just how desperate he is to be done. The driver hums and haws. First, he says he’ll take us, but then quickly backtracks. He wants to go a bit further down the trail, but he’ll give us a ride on the way back. Maybe. If he has enough gas. We don’t have much choice, so we agree. He drives off down the trail. We put our rain jackets back on, and keep hiking, as much to stay warm as anything else.
10kms later, and I can’t hike much further. It’s been two hours since we saw the ATV, but there’s no sign of him now. We’ve done almost 50k today, and I’m so tired. We stop and cook dinner, but procrastinate on setting up the tent. There’s still time for him to come back. We could still be somewhere warm and dry tonight. Then the rain starts again in earnest, and we don’t have a choice anymore. We set up the tent, as far off of the road as we can manage. Disappointment sits heavy in our stomachs, but we fall asleep to the patter of rain on sil-nylon.
I’m dead asleep and dreaming when he drives past. Suddenly awake and disorientated, I’m convinced he’s going to run us over. I yell, and next to me Shake’nBake is yelling too. His engine revs inches from our heads, and then he is gone. He hasn’t even slowed down. I check my phone: it’s 11pm. Still rattled and upset, we whisper back and forth. Clearly, he hadn’t intended to stop and pick us up after all. How could someone leave others in the woods when they’ve asked for help?
It’s still raining in the morning. Shake’nBake has an inreach message from Joe. They made it to Jasper and picked up their car. They think they can drive 40km up the road. They’re about to leave to come and get us. We’re still upset from the night before, but suddenly our spirits are much lighter. We fly down the road: we have at least 20km left to do before we can see Joe and Alison. The rain doesn’t matter anymore. It feels like the GDT is trying to prevent us from leaving, but maybe now we can finally be finished.
We’re just about to hit our 20km goal when we see him. He’s a good distance away, but he’s big, and it takes me a few seconds to figure out that he’s black, not brown. “We didn’t eat any berries!” Shake’nBake yells at him. He stands and watches us for a few seconds, then ambles off into the bushes. We laugh, happy to see one last bear.
It takes another hour, but finally, we see headlamps. An army green jeep barrels through the alders, swerving around the worst potholes. Joe and Alison jump out, clean and happy, and hand us sandwiches. We can scarcely believe it. Despite finishing the trail almost 48 hours earlier, we’re finally going to get to go home. We stand around chatting for a few minutes, then load up the jeep. It doesn’t feel real, and I’m sure the jeep will break down, or a bridge will break, or there’ll be some other final catastrophe that will keep us in the woods.
Instead, the trail gives us one final surprise. 20km from where Joe and Alison found us, we see a red truck with a hand painted canoe on top. A woman gets out of the truck to flag us down. Shake’nBake recognizes her instantly. “Hey! I’m related to those crazy people!” Bruce and Marlaine have been tracking our Inreach, and driven up from Field to help us get back to civilization. Bruce emerges from the woods holding a basket of mushrooms, and we are so, so, so happy to see them. We make plans to meet up in Jasper the next day, since we’re already piled into Joe and Alison’s car. Before we drive off, Marlaine loads us down with vegetables, brownies, and clean town clothes to wear once we find a shower. We are overwhelmed by the kindness of others: people willing to drive for hours to help out hikers struggling through a difficult section. Our rude ATV from the day before is completely forgotten.
We’ve been home for two weeks now, and I am still working through my feelings towards the GDT. It was by far the most beautiful trail I’ve ever hiked. There wasn’t a single day without breathtaking scenery, and the Canadian Rockies might just be the most stunning mountain range in the entire world. But the trail was tough, especially north of Jasper. I know how lucky we were this year: no major fires close to the trail, and no bad weather apart from the last two weeks. But this summer had unusual challenges too. Many resupply points were closed, including Mount Robson Visitor Center, giving us far heavier food carries. In many ways, the GDT was what I hoped the Continental Divide Trail would be: stunning wild places, with just the right amount of challenge. We completely fell in love with the Divide. We might be home in Ontario now, but I know it won’t be long until we return to the Rockies.