The Beginning of the End – Section F + G
Time to tackle the beast.
Sections F and G are typically done in one big push. There access between F and G is Mount Robson along the incredibly beautiful but very popular Berg Lake Trail. However in 2020 the trail washed out and it was closed, so access was now prohibited. While we had already planned to do sections F and G in one go, a lot of people ended their hike early in Jasper because they didn’t want to necessarily do all 280km without a resupply.
On the morning before we were heading out we loaded up on Tim Hortons, and snacks from another café. This would be the day in town on trail so we took full advantage of it.
The section starts out with almost 30 km (20 miles) of road walking, thankfully Karly and Phil drove Tanya, Stefan, and I to the trailhead. We heard that Sarah and Heather were catching an overly expensive cab and we would meet up with them on trail.
Our packs weighed a ton, I should have used a scale but with 11 days of food, it had to have been close to 25 pounds of just food, bringing me pretty close to the 40-pound marker. I was happy I had the pack I did, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to fit everything inside.
The trail was easy and looked like an old road but it was still a slow go. Thankfully there were lots of wild raspberries that kept us motivated. This was short-lived as we eventually went into the denser forest and were met with mud and deadfall. With a very full and heavy pack, this became a slog. Every hour we were taking breaks, it made me happy that we weren’t attempting to the whole trail at this kind of pack weight or it would have been an entirely different experience.
Most of the day was a bit of a suffer-fest but we did see a huge porcupine which was awesome! I couldn’t believe how big they are. We had our goal of hitting Minette Lake and a swim sounded great, but when we arrived it was essentially a bog. After sinking in ankle to calf-deep in mud all day I washed off in the creek and then got ready for bed. It was very cold by 9 pm and the dampness was beginning to set in.
You could really tell it was August when we woke up at 5am and it was still dark and I needed my headlamp until 6am.
This made the mornings much more difficult and the fall cold was beginning to set in. What a crazy change in just 6 weeks. We got going quickly and skipped breakfast so we could warm up first.
Our idea of warming up didn’t entirely work out as the trail disappeared and were fending for ourselves as we travelled across this meadow with rolling hills. The grass was wet with dew and my feet were absolutely frozen and quickly becoming numb.
We took a much-needed break at Colonel Creek Campground and reassessed our 35km goal. We had been entertaining the idea of bumping up our distance to knock off a day, but most of the campsites in F and G were pretty far from one another so our options were a short 22km day or 35km without anything in between.
It seemed we made the right choice as the last 5km (3 miles) had tons of deadfall and we had to go through an old burn. At around 4 pm we hit camp and it was obvious we weren’t going to keep pushing on. We made dinner and watched the rain come in, then spent a few hours in the tent and chilled before falling asleep.
We slept in until 6 am the next morning which felt like quite the treat and didn’t end up leaving until 7. The theme of the section so far was “wet”. North of Jasper everything had started to feel different. The weather was much cooler, the days were shorter and it was much wetter. Whether that was dew, rain, mud, or rivers.
The wetness kicked in immediately with more cold dew and swampy trail. Tanya ended up going knee-deep in the muck and nearly bailed.
It was cold and windy today and everyone’s bodies were hurting. The huge food carry was beginning to wear on people and although we had already gone through 2 days of food and we were closer to a normal food carry, the damage had already been done. My calves were killing me on any ascent, and I had to walk like a pirate to avoid using it. The cold weather certainly wasn’t helping either. Thankfully I picked up a weed pen in Jasper that was high in CBD and it did wonders.
We eventually came to a nice pass with a meadow at the top and there was a beautiful lake and angry-looking skies. The dark, stormy skies paired with the glaciers were a very cool site. We could also begin to see Mount Robson, the official marker between sections F and G. Although it was a slow go, we were still making progress.
There was a small shower, the first precipitation we had on the entire trail so far, at 45 days in. Something absolutely unheard of in the Canadian Rockies.
We eventually hit a nice camp with great spots for tents and some spaced-out trees. We packed out some cheese so we added it to our mac-n-cheese for dinner which really amped up the morale. We found enough dry wood to have a fire and it was great to feel warm dry heat. Unfortunately, my synthetic socks which I had just become accustomed to and started to appreciate enjoyed the fire a little too much and caught fire.
Sweet, now I have to carry out a pair of burnt, holy socks for another week.
I considered tossing them in the fire to burn them completely just to save myself the hassle of packing them out.
By 730 we hit the tent and it started lightly raining. The weather was clearly changing.
We didn’t realize how much the weather was changing until that night when we woke up from super high winds. We were in a protected site and didn’t want to imagine what it would have been like at a higher elevation. We stayed bone dry in our tent and really appreciated the storm worthiness of the tent Dan Durston let us use.
With the lack of sleep at night, a sleep in felt great. We agreed to leave at 7 and I nursed it until 6:38 before getting out of bed. I choked down a bar and then we took on our first major river crossing, the Smoky River.
We all scoped it out for quite a while, figuring out where it was shallower or moving more slowly. The water was filled with rock flour which meant you couldn’t see the bottom so we just prodded it with trekking poles to get an idea. The rocks on the riverbed were also pretty big and usually bigger than a basketball which meant footing wasn’t ideal.
At mid-thigh depth it was serious and required proper pole placement, and a solid lean into the current to keep upright.
We made sure to put everything electronic in my bag since it is nearly waterproof and then crossed one at a time with some people downstream in case you went for a ride.
It was awesome and I loved the intensity of it. I wish there had been more experiences like this but fortunately, there were several more before the end of the trail.
After we all crossed we made it to the turn-off towards the Berg Lake Trail.
Section F was done!
We were now on the North Boundary Trail and the quality of the trail drastically improved. While it’s not a very popular trail due to the remoteness, it clearly has more maintenance than any part of Section F.
We started to cruise on the good trail and eventually ended up at Carcajou Creek, river crossing number 2 for the day. There used to be a bridge but it had been washed out and the remnants were still left behind. The creek was much narrower than the Smokey but nearing waist-deep. It’s hard to imagine crossing anything much deeper as the sheer force of the river can easily take over.
We made it across and then kicked it into gear with another forest walk with good trail. We arrived out our third river crossing of the day, the Chown. Again, the bridge was washed out and there isn’t any indication it will ever be fixed, especially this far into the park.
Chown is big, wide and fast. It was rinse and repeat by this point of the day and I may have been getting a little too comfortable.
I nearly got swept.
As I was crossing, one foot didn’t quite find a proper spot and I was pulled sideways so I was facing the shore rather than facing upstream. Survival mode kicked in and I leaned in hard to stay balanced. I took it slow and dug in to keep crossing. After making it I was ecstatic and totally hyped from the adrenaline rush.
Once we were all across we had the choice of 2 campsites, each super nice. One was right on the floodplain and had exceptional views down the valley towards some massive mountains with the sun setting on them. The other, up into the forest a bit with more protection. Knowing the weather had been variable so far we opted for the one in the forest and found a couple of fire pits.
We had a fire and dried out all our clothes from fording rivers all day.
The group dynamics were certainly changing and the ecstatic optimism and joy that engulfed the start of trail were dwindling.
Tanya and I took this opportunity to head down to the riverbank and enjoy a few moments of serenity while watching the sunset. We really hadn’t spent that much time in isolation and it was great to sit and enjoy each other’s’ undiluted company in a magical place nearing the end of this journey.
We went to bed and little did we know this would be the craziest night of critters on the entire trail.
Sometime around midnight, I woke up hearing an animal very close to the tent and I could tell it was much larger than the classic “squirrel you imagine being a grizzly bear”.
I woke up Tanya quietly and pointed outside the tent mouthing the words “ANIMAL”.
We concluded it couldn’t have been a bear so I poked my head outside looking for them, it wasn’t overly clear what they were but neither of us could really relax and fall asleep again. Tanya took matters into her own hands and discovered it was a porcupine. She started clapping and chasing them away. Her little clapping/chasing performance still makes me smile. We didn’t have any idea what to actually do.
What we thought was one porcupine ended up being a family, and one of the babies was nestled in the bushes just a couple of feet from our tent. While a couple of adults were scavenging around the campsite making these cute little squeaky grunts. It was like a little train of porcupines going back and forth until nearly 3 am.
We woke up the next morning and swapped tails of the porcupines. Sarah said one poked their little head under her rainfly and was scoping out her shoes. For years I have seen chicken wire at trailheads to wrap around your car, with the reason being that porcupines like to chew on rubber and thus brake lines at trailheads. Apparently, they were eager to chew on her shoes.
Right after our 7:15 departure, we were back in the Chown, but it was never above the knee. Either way, the water was truly frigid and my feet were so cold they were burning with pain.
This was the story as we crossed the floodplain and kept going through small tributaries and keeping our feet nice and icy. We eventually came up through some crazy alder brush and made our way to a pass.
This spot was one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful spots on trail. We were coming up the Jackpine Pass. A legendary spot on trail that very few ever get to see. It’s a logistical nightmare to access and less than half of all GDT hikers go past Jasper or Mount Robson. It felt very special and almost as if we knew a secret that nobody else did.
This would be one of the last passes on the trail and truly served as a reward for how far we had come. After this we would be descending into the Jackpine Valley, potentially the most challenging section on the entire trail. So we were eager to appreciate the beauty as we travelled across this pass, choosing our own adventure as the trail disappeared.
There is something so remarkable about wandering through these beautiful alpine spaces, as they are only hospitable for a few weeks out of the year, and finding them on a clear day is like winning the lottery. Having no trail feels like a new level of discovery and immersion that can’t compete with established trails.
We took lunch and then eventually decided it was time to drop into the valley. An infamous section of trail that involves following a river valley with very little trail and consistent navigation through swampy, brushy and wet land that is more suited for travel in a boat rather than on foot. The GDTA was actually coming to clear a substantial amount of trail in this section for the reasons listed above, however, it was one week later. Meaning we were one of the final parties to traverse this legendary Jackpine Valley in its original, feral state.
Coming down off the pass and working our way to the valley was a little harder than expected. Moving through the meadow was much longer than we anticipated and then upon seeing Blueberry Lake, our campsite for the night, we couldn’t find a way down.
I walked through some very steep trees hoping it would flatten out but I was cliffed out and looking at over a 50-foot fall. Pulling myself up using my hands I made it back to the group where we walked back and forth several times looking for access down.
Somehow we eventually saw the trail descending down to the lake, even though we walked by it multiple times. It reminded me of the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter as we couldn’t see it until we really needed it.
We setup near the lake in some soft, squishy, damp ground but it was the best we could find. It was a very big day and everyone was feeling pretty tired and grumpy, somehow I got another shot of afterburners like I did on 6-pass and felt great. It was hard to be in a group that didn’t mirror my sentiment and mood.
I went for a swim, ate dinner then hopped in the tent to avoid the bugs. Overall, a remarkably special day I hope to never forget.
Such a special day deserves its own respect, part 2 of Section F and G will follow.
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