In 2016, I applied for a PCT permit during the second round of applications. I didn’t bother with the first round, since I was sitting on a beach in Puerto Rico and I was reasonably sure that it wouldn’t fill up. I got my first choice of date. I would have been able to get my second choice too, and my third.
Five years later, things are very different. Shake’nBake and I joined a lottery application on Tuesday for sites in Waterton National Park, at the beginning of the Great Divide Trail. On one computer, we were 3,000 in line. On the other? 20,000. We managed to get the site we needed, but we’ll have to go through the entire stressful process again on Friday, when we book Banff, Yoho and Jasper sites. The thought of how many people will be in that queue makes me feel nauseated.
Permits are a necessary evil, and one that becomes more and more essential every year. 2016 was towards the beginning of a massive boom in thru-hiking. The trail never felt crowded, and we never had difficulty finding a campsite, but there were also very few nights that we camped alone. Now, I worry about the places that I love being used to death. Last summer in Algonquin Provincial Park, we put out two unattended campfires. We packed out pounds and pounds of trash, and left far more behind that we couldn’t reasonably carry out. There’s a slight silver lining to this of course- I now have a beautiful cast iron frying pan that we use daily, courtesy of someone who was too lazy to finish carrying it on a portage. But still, as someone who is rabid about Leave No Trace, last summer was difficult. And this summer promises to be even worse.
I know that things are tough for everyone. We don’t deserve a camp spot any more than someone who’s never been camping before. Everyone needs a vacation, and we’re limited to what we can do in our own backyards (or at least our own countries). And I love seeing so many people discover the outdoors. If we want to keep our National and Provincial parks well funded and operating, it’s essential that people get out and enjoy them. People need to fall in love with our wild places if they are going to want to protect them. And the only way to fall in love with somewhere is to go out and explore it. You have to listen to the loons calling, and watch them dive into a glassy lake. You have to be mesmerized by your campfire, embers sparking up to mingle with the stars. You have to go home tired and smelly and dirty and so, so happy. But you also have to pack out your trash, and douse your fire, and leave everything better than you found it. And you have to get the right permits, so the most spectacular wild places aren’t overcrowded, and so we don’t love them to death.
I do miss the simplicity of my other thru-hikes. One of the greatest pleasures of a long trail is freedom. You can wake up in the morning, decide how many miles you want to hike, and stop whenever you are tired. There’s none of the traps or obligations of “real life”. You don’t have to follow a set schedule, or worry about being behind. The Great Divide Trail won’t be like that. We have to book specific campsites. We have itineraries and spreadsheets telling us where to be, sometimes down to the hour. If we get behind, we face long days and skipped zeros to get back on track. But the GDT also promises to be one of the most beautiful and challenging trails in the entire world. It will be worth it.
So, we’ll join a queue of other hopefuls on Friday. I’ll moan and grumble, and Shake’nBake will get frustrated with how long it takes, and get stressed when the computer freezes. But we know the importance of making sure we don’t overrun the trail. Hopefully we’ll get the sites that we need. But if we don’t, we’ll find routes and alternates that let us pass through quickly, and not leave a trace.