Section B: Coleman, AB to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. 196km
Our rest day, or Zero day as it is commonly called, was sufficient. We dined well, imbibed and did some ole’ fashion laundry. There was no laundry facility at our hotel, so doing the best we could, we filled the tub, tossed in some detergent tabs and started stomping around in wardrobe soup. Also, lacking a proper dryer, we strung our rope around the room, creating an impromptu clothes line that split the room in two. Ahhh yes, the luxuries of living. The rain fell while we huddled inside, the power went out several times. Simply glad to be dry and in a room.
JULY 4TH: COLEMAN, AB > WINDOW MOUNTAIN LAKE. 27KM
Departing that dry and warm room was a sad farewell, clouds hid the mountains with a high chance of rain in the afternoon. On we go. Leaving Coleman is a walk along the highway shoulder, up through a quaint neighborhood proudly flying their “I <3 Crowsnest Coal” and “Fuck Trudeau” flags above their yards. The pavement transitions to gravel, winding along forested roads. Several RVs pass us, coming from our destination, in tow with all the fuel burning toys one could adore on muddy backroads. Pulling up alongside us is a yellow Ford explorer, glancing at one another we think “A Ride?”. It’s a local who has lived up the road all his life, he warns us with concern that there have been several grizzlies spotted in the area recently. “Cool!” I say, wanting to see a grizzly myself. Looking at me sternly with a majority of his teeth, he counters “Not Cool. You best be careful. Hope ye got bear spray.” We point to our belts. “Good”. The aged man goes on about a grizzly mother raising one black and one brown cub “If you see those three, I hope you get a picture. You’ll see nothin’ like it again….” Pausing in thought, then “Take care now.” Off he drives.
We have walked 12km on forest roads now, packs loaded down with seven days of food, shoulders aching while UTV after UTV zooms by carrying passengers in neon slickers searching for silty mud and opaque puddles. We reached the trail, but not after making a couple of wrong turns and walking a kilometer in the wrong direction, making it a total of two kilometers back to the correct path. Mohammed, a fellow GDTer joins us, but not for long, he is on day one of his GDT journey, having skipped section A, his pace far outweighs ours.
The single track trail is a relief, the sound of cylinders is muffled by the forest. At last, we are back on a hiking trail. Through clear cuts and along seismic lines we go, walking under the ever darkening sky.
The official GDT route has changed since 2017, the year our maps were last updated, and now is rerouted to include the High Rock Trail (HRT) which takes hikers above treeline to the base of a rock wall, heading north. Misty clouds soon swallowed the vistas that the HRT is known for. With 10 kilometers to our campsite, the rain was upon us. High hopes encouraged us to stay out of our rain gear “it’s a light sprinkle” “it’s just a bit misty, we’re fine” “dress like the weather you want it to be!” Oh my. Silly hikers.
It was about 5pm when we climbed onto the HRT, the mist was setting in, and, within the hour, deluge.
Misty drops opted for heavier precipitation. Now we listened, putting our rain jacket and pants over damp clothes. Visibility dropped to 50 meters, in the cloud we hiked as the wind and rain bullied us along the scenic trail. The stomach of the sky deity was hungry, rumbling from the skies, at first from afar, but closing in. Streams ran where our trail should be, mud caked our saturated feet as we slipped along. The sky cracked, illuminating the rock wall to our left, a monolith spanning all visible sight. We had no choice but to continue walking, there was no out. Solange’s hip began to twinge with pain, it commonly happens during changes in weather, slowing us down, prolonging our exposure to the storm. I’m cold. My gloves are wet, my fingers are losing feeling. I grow frustrated. “Can you walk any faster?!” I quipped. “No” Solange replies. Knowing that there is no option but to embrace the situation, we gradually walk. Somewhere amongst the rain, my mind and the cold we have gone off trail. I don’t want to be here. Soaked through and freezing. I know Solange is too. Determining the correct way to the trail we begin the off trail sidehill and approach the trial from above, between us is a steep grassy slope. I begin to tread carefully down, but that won’t do. I slip on the grass, begin to slide, hit a fallen log, tumble, and land on my ass in the middle of the trail, water bottles strewn about. I grumble, slowly raising to my feet, leaving some pride in the mud. Solange opts for a smarter alternative, sitting down and using the wet grass as a slide down to the trail.
Enduring several more hours of heavy rain, the clouds have been wrung out and cease their falling misery. Not far from camp now, our shoes squish with each step. A lake at last. The other GDTers have already set up tents and are eating dinner when we arrive at 9:45pm. Their spirits are not as waterlogged as ours. It wasn’t until we began to set up camp that I realized, apparently Solange had known, that our bags were not waterproof. We erect our wet tent, and assemble our sleeping arrangement. My wet sleeping bag slides from the stuff sack. Solange uses a dry bag. The day will not end.
Our saving grace is our food. We did not spend hundreds of hours on food preparation to create unsatisfactory meals. Spicy Ramen in broth was the sole option to warm our dampened spirits. We dined with thanks, the rain had stopped. Finishing our meals, I volunteered to place our food in the bear lockers which sat nicely in bitter cold shin deep water. Wading in slowly, I made it 15 meters to the lockers. First Locker, full. So was the second. A random locker it is then. Whether through pity or praise, the gods smiled down on us as I opened the bear locker. It was not empty. Staring back at me from the center of the locker sat a glass bottle, nearly full, of Elijah Craig small batch bourbon. The tonic for saturated souls, a warming jacket of the frozen. I returned to the shore with the treasure, toasting to completing a day of misery, we took a swig. The bourbon warmed us from tongue to tummy, easing our pain, a lullaby for sleep.
Notable Features: wrong turns, rain-rain-rain, wet pack, whiskey!, swollen knee.
JULY 5TH WINDOW MOUNTAIN LAKE > ATLAS ROAD / DUTCH CREEK JUNCTION. 25KM.
We awoke to a blue sky. Thank goodness. Today would be better. A late start and we started hiking at 10:40, after yesterday’s beating, we allowed ourselves the comfort of sleeping in and taking things slow. My knee was beginning to be more troublesome, not so much on the up or flat, but the down. How had I messed it up? I was uncertain. Section B turned out to be the antithesis of flat, an elevation profile reveals an erratic irregular heartbeat that the finest pacemaker couldn’t settle. In other words, my knee would be put to the test. Today 1200 meters up, 1600 meters down. The summits clung to their snowy caps, each pulled down over their ears, meaning we had bottomless trudging through slippery snow. My knee began to give me grief and occupied a place in the corner of my mind. The twinge grew more intense during the day seeding doubts of a successful trip. It’s easy to get caught up in a negative thought cycle. My mind swirled, with each consecutive slip of the feet, my knee’s seeds grew. Coming down the second hill, or perhaps third, of the day I went to cross a snow bridge over a creek, the water was clearly audible under the snow. The trail was covered, but footprints guided us along, bringing us to this bridge and further, I crossed. My last step to the other side and I fell through, one leg on the bridge, one on the other side. I performed my one and only ever gymnastics move, a near splits in unison with a faceplant and soaked foot. Like yesterday, I groaned as I crawled up. This damn trail is beating the shit out of me. That was enough, I resorted to an advil, I didn’t want the pain anymore.
A large descent led us to a snowless, replanted clearcut. We felt like giants towering above the cohort of trees, standing about 1.5 meters tall. A trail junction with a logging road coerced us into stopping for lunch before our next climb. I was feeling pretty beat up after the last 36 hours, was I going to make the 900 kilometers of hiking? At lunch we pored over our maps. At this point we had more or less given up map and compass navigation, the trail was hard enough as it is and we already hiked all day, we didn’t need more complications. Lunch was over, our pepperoni stick and hummus wrap with a sprinkle of goldfish hit the spot.
Standing up and turning around, I froze. “Guys. Guys!” I whispered, “Look”. There roaming among the young trees was a grizzly bear. We all stopped and watched as it carried on. Had it seen us? Does it know we are here?! I was sure that it knew exactly where we were, how could it not? We were by no means quiet while eating lunch. My bear tour self emerged, ensuring that everyone stayed quiet and still. The bear was going to cross the road right in front of us and sure as hell, it did. 40 meters away the magnificent bear walked into the road, looked over at us and continued on, not changing its gait, not missing a stride, looking at all of us dead on.
I was revitalized, my moral compass upended, this is why I am out here. All the suffering, rain, and cold was worth it for those few seconds. To be in the WILD, to walk with bears, to be at the mercy of the natural world. Holding reverence for the wild, we challenged ourselves in its arena, not to win or conquer, but to test ourselves, to prove that WE are able.
It lifted my spirits immensely. In the Wilderness, no barrier separating, to look upon a grizzly while it looks at you. Amazing.
Notable Features: swollen knee, advil, grizzly, fell through snow bridge, forests.
JULY 6: ATLAS ROAD / DUTCH CREEK JUNCTION > HIDDEN CREEK. 25KM.
Today was emotionally hard. I doubted my ability due to my knee, the rain was incessant (It’s July!!!) and eventually got cold.
Today we climbed Tornado Pass and descended the other side, that is about it. A long up paired with its partner, long down. We crossed a stream several times while hiking up, eventually coming to snow within the old forest. Laid in the snow were two sets of wolf tracks, clear as day, they could’ve been from this morning. One of them had paws that were as large as Solange’s hand!
Rising above the trees, the pass became clear. We needed to cross two residual avalanche paths before arriving at the base of the steep climb. The avalanche paths, although perhaps crossable, were too risky to be crossed. Without an ice axe, one slip would send us sliding hundreds of feet. A risk not worth the reward. We scrambled up alongside the snow on loose cobbles and stone, shifting under each step, occasionally sending a rock down towards Solange. We clambered on offset from then on. More than halfway up the rocks we looked down to realize our mistake, if we had gone below the snow, rather than above, we could be walking on a trail and not this loose sharp collection of cobbles. No turning back now. We find that once above the snow we needed to follow a goat trail along the tops of abrupt drops. I wouldn’t call these cliffs exactly, for they were four or so meters tall, but the trails were thin on the loose rock. No slipping here. Carefully stepping along, I slid once and jumped onto my other foot. Heart racing, I teetered across to a safe resting place. Solange’s turn. She does the same, more methodical, crossing with grace.
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