H is for Hard: Misadventure on the GDT's Section H

Posted on: Friday August 11, 2023 Hiking Great Divide Trail

There’s a trail that runs for over four thousand kilometers from the Mexican-US border in New Mexico to Kakwa Lake in BC. It follows the greatest watershed divide in North America, which splits the Pacific and Atlantic oceans at first, and then later divides the Pacific from the Arctic. The trail ends in the middle of nowhere, at a tiny provincial park that no one has ever heard of. But the divide continues.

Our route was first created by a long distance hiker named Walking Jim over thirty years ago, but only a few groups have attempted it since (most notably Dan Dursten and Ben Millen last year). Apart from the access points, and a few miles to a remote cabin on Jarvis lake, there’s no trail at all. Some of the route is easy alpine walking, over gentle passes lush with wildflowers. Some is awful bushwhack, with alders and rhododendrons that twist and grab at your limbs and pack. There’s no grace when dealing with this kind of bushwhack: Shake’nBake pushes through with brute force, but I often find myself stuck, trapped in the thick brush.

Our adventure begins with two days of prep. We hike into Monkman Lake to cache food. Our plan is to continue west of here following the divide down Fontiniko creek, and across the flattening landscape towards Bear Lake. Fires will quickly scupper this plan, but we don’t know that yet. So we hike 25 kilometers, stash 25 pounds of food in a bear locker, and spend the night, before hiking back out again.

It’s a long drive from Monkman to our Kakwa access point (and another two days of hiking from the parking lot to the start of our route). We camp on a forest service road an hour away, then hustle in. The morning passes in a flurry of construction: we rig chicken wire around our car in an attempt to keep out porcupines, who apparently love to chew on brake lines. Our Subaru protected, we lift our packs, heavy with twelve days of food, and head up the long road towards Kakwa lake. It’s four wheel drive accessible for a long ways, and we make good time, as clouds build overhead, breaking into storms on distant peaks. We leave the rutted, rocky ATV road for an old tote road, which is now half swamp, half snowmachine route. We wait out a storm under the protection of an old spruce tree, dry under the thick branches. When we venture back to the road, a baby moose ambles ahead of us. We watch as mum follows behind, pushing baby back into the bushes. We continue until the storms force us to set up our tent for the night. There’s an Inreach message from my mum: new fires have started on the far side of Monkman.

We’re up early. There’s more storms forecast for today, but if we hurry we might make it to the cabin at Kakwa lake before they really get going. Thunder roars at seven thirty am, when we’ve already been hiking for an hour. The storm passes to the east of us, racing down the valley. We make good time, spurred by thunder fear, although the trail is marshy and muddy, and our feet are soaked through. We make it to the cabin as lightning jumps from peak to peak, thunder rumbling across the divide. There’s volunteer hosts this year in the ranger cabin next to the public use cabin. They’re lovely: excited to have someone to chat with after only three visitors in a month. They also have Starlink internet, which they generously let us use to check the weather. A day of storms, one good weather day, and then a wall of rain.

We fall asleep quickly and deeply, sleeping through a storm so powerful that the camp hosts will remark on it in the morning. We don’t sleep through our nocturnal visitor however. At one am, we’re woken by the powerful sound of teeth on wood, and the distinctive chirps and murmurs of a porcupine. Shake’nBake gets up to deal with him, and from my cabin bunk I can hear him, talking to the porcupine like a bartender to a drunk: “Go home bud. Come on, it’s time to leave. That’s enough.” It works: the porcupine slinks off to find something else to chew, and we fall back asleep.

We’re up early again, so early that fog obscures the mountains around the lake. We chat with the camp hosts as the sun burns it away, and then it’s time to head for the cabin on Jarvis lake. We retrace our steps from yesterday along the lakeshore. We find huckleberries that we missed the day before, but also fresh bear poop in massive piles. Two caribou crash through the brush ahead of us, making for the alpine up an avalanche chute. We make good time to the turn for Jarivs, where the trail becomes even less used. The only tracks ahead of us are from bear and caribou, and the trail disappears in spots. Above us, the clouds grow, swelling with the heat of the day. We make it to the cabin just before the storm hits, and sit on the porch to watch. We’re only the second people to write in the cabin log book this year: the only others were the camp hosts, who took a helicopter over.

There’s another porcupine tonight, and Shake’nBake gets up again: “Go home bud. You’ve had enough. You’re drunk.” The porcupine wanders off, and Shake’nBake worries about the car. The cabin is wrapped in chicken wire, but there’s clear teeth marks even through the protection.

Fog sits low on the lake again, lifting as we drink our coffee. Mount Ida presides over the lake: a queen of a mountain with a crown of clouds and a ruffled glacier skirt. We leave the cabin and start the real challenge of the trip, following an old trail that’s more bushwhack than tread up towards a burn. We try to find old blazes, losing them more often than we follow them, and thrashing through alders until exhausted. We move at glacial speed, until we hit the burn, where suddenly the going is much easier. We glimpse Ida through the trees, clouds streaming off her summit like smoke from a fire. We wind through this graveyard of trees, pink fireweed the only colour against bone white trunks and scorched rocks. We cross an alpine meadow too wet to burn, tarns reflecting Ida behind them.

Finally we reach Moonias lake. So far the terrain has been relatively mellow, with only a short, steep climb through the burn to make us huff and puff. But the headwall behind Moonias is an impassible cliff. Already, we’re so remote that my risk tolerance is low. How will we get past this? Shake’nBake checks the GPS track. It routes us just right of the cliff, up a boulder field to a grassy slope that looks just as steep as the rockface. It doesn’t look any better, but I’m willing to give it a shot. We make it a third of the way up, jumping from boulder to boulder, with exposure that makes my knees shake. I try not to look down, but we just can’t do it. The consequences of a fall here are just too high. I sit and cry a little. I’d half expected we’d have to turn around at some point: that’s the risk with doing more and more challenging routes. I just hadn’t expected it to be so soon.

Defeated, we turn back and set up camp at the lake. Shake’nBake looks at the map. It might be a long bushwhack, but there’s another valley we can head up to connect with Fay Lake on the other side of the Moonias headwall. We’ll try that tomorrow.

Before we trek up an unknown valley, we decide to give the headwall one more shot. It’s easier to be tenacious in the morning, with fresh legs and sleep washing away the fear from the day before. We find a route through the trees instead of up the boulder field. It’s surprisingly open: barely a bushwhack between stable, mossy quartzite boulders. We’re on the top before we know it, following open alpine tundra between stunted trees. Overhead, clouds run, blocking the sun but high enough to leave the mountains unobscured. We drop down towards Fay Lake as the clouds part just enough for a single sunbeam. We explode everything to dry immediately, mindful of the rainy forecast, worried we won’t get another chance. Shake’nBake makes another jetboil of coffee while I rotate socks and sleeping bags in the sun. It’s not a bad place for a break: Fay Lakes immediately ranks as one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been. A cliffy headwall rises above the clear lake, steeper than the one behind Moonias, a battlement of sheer rock and stone rather than broken boulders. Behind it (across a valley, though you’d never know from this vantage point) rises Ida’s backside, encased in an icefield which swoops over the entire valley, with dark craggy peaks breaking through the glacier to touch the clouds. It’s moody in the broken light. There’s no sign that another human has ever visited this valley: no broken trail tread, no single cairn. We’re not the first through, though you’d never know.

The sunbeam passes as the clouds gather closer. We pack up and head down through increasing trees towards the Narraway River. The Narraway is the biggest unknown on this trip. Last year, Ben and Dan had to swim across, although they hiked with a far larger and later snowpack. This year has been hot and dry: fires are more of a worry than river crossings, so I’m hopeful we can avoid a swim. The forest is open at first, long meadows providing easy passage below the steep cliff walls of the peaks above us. Two kilometers from the river, it closes in. We find dry plateaus where sickly looking whitebark pine grow, before dropping down to weave between tightly growing spruce. The rain starts, gentle at first, then heavy drops. We reach the river. It’s glacial, the silty water making it difficult to judge depth, although it doesn’t look too fast.

“Well, I’m here to scout,” Shaken’Bake says. “Pack off, pants off!” He drops his pack on the side of the river, pulls off his trousers, replaces his shoes, and heads into the water. He crosses easily: the water is fast and rushes to his thighs, but it’s not too much of a problem. He comes back and helps me cross, and then return to the southern shore again.

We’ve decided to turn around here. We’ll camp on the river bank, then head back up to Moonias lake tomorrow. It’s not an easy decision, but there’s a few factors at play. We’ve received multiple messages from my mum, warning us of new fires on our route after Monkman. We can’t safely continue our hike after Monkman, which makes getting back to our car without doing an out and back almost impossible. We’d have to get to Monkman, pick up our food cache, and then walk all the way back to our car. And we’re just not making good enough time for that. Our Moonias setback cost us half a day, but even without that, the going has been slow. And now, the forecasted four days of rain have started. We experienced Kakwa rains on our GDT thru-hike. I suffered mild hypothermia: Shake’nBake just suffered. If we turn around here, we can be at the Jarvis Cabin in two days, dry our stuff, and then hike the last two days to civilization. If we continue, we have no idea what we’ll find, and we’ll be even further from an exit point.

We hike down the riverbank, looking for an opening large enough for our tiny tent. We find one at the foot of a gravel bar. “That looks shallow,” Shake’nBake says, and crosses the river once more for fun, keeping his pants on this time. The water doesn’t even reach his knees. Even in a high snow year, surely this is the perfect place to ford the river. Shake’nBake tags it on his gps, so we can share the location with future hikers. I set up the tent as it pours. We eat dinner under our umbrellas, then dash into the tent, shedding wet gear.

It rains overnight, and we’re awoken several times by an almighty splash. It repeats: a familiar sound we recognize from Algonquin park. A beaver tail slaps the river again, angry that we’ve pitched our tent by his home. It’s still raining in the morning as we head back up towards the pass. I don’t feel well today. My eyes are strangely blurry, in a way that makes my head spin. Shake’nBake makes me sit and drink some electrolytes, and after a while, I feel better. Today is cold, so cold that we shiver if we stop for too long, but we’ve been pushing hard on hot days for a while, and it’s finally caught up with me. The wind rises as we cross the pass, which is still as moody and beautiful as ever, even with the lower clouds. We stop at Moonias Lake for dinner, intending to push on for a few more miles, but the rain picks up and we’re soon shivering so hard that it’s all we can do to hike on for a few hundred meters so we can camp safely.

The night is cold, so cold I’m surprised we don’t wake up to snow on the tent. We take down the tent in the rain, and cross the tarns in fog so thick we navigate by GPS alone. It lifts just enough as we hit the burn for us to glimpse a dusting of fresh powder on Ida. The skeletons of the trees seem haunted as we cross the burn, wailing in the wind, and swaying alarmingly over us. We hit the overgrown trail to Jarvis cabin, and manage to follow it a little better the second time around, though it is slick with mud and wet alders. We reach the cabin at midafternoon. Shake’nBake starts a fire, and soon everything is steaming over the woodstove. I’m warm for the first time in two days.

It rains hard overnight, hard enough that our porcupine friend stays away. We wake late to more rain, then linger over coffee until it lessens. There’s no view of Ida today, and we’re soon just as wet from the car wash of sodden alders as we would have been if it was still pouring. We work our way back to the old tote road, hiking faster as the terrain improves. It rains off and on all day. Today marks six days without seeing any other people.

Finally, the sky clears. Our last day at Kakwa dawns without precipitation. We walk quickly on the road back towards the car, following bear prints and bear poop. We reach the car after lunch. Our fence has worked to keep out porcupines, although a mouse has made its home inside the car. We clean up the damage as best we can, then start the long drive towards Grand Prairie, and a hotel room. We stop for two lynx on the side of the road, yowling and hissing at each other. We’ll regroup after a night in town, then head north to Monkman Provincial Park to continue our adventure.

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Eloise Robbins (Fun Size)

About the Author

Eloise Robbins (Fun Size) is a writer, triple crown thru hiker, and adventurer. She is a lover of the outdoors, hiking, canoeing, and most of all mountains.

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