By Brad Vaillancourt, President of the Great Divide Trail Association
To call 2020 a historic year feels like an understatement. 2020 has been one the most unusual, most challenging, most stressful years ever… and yet unexpectedly, 2020 has also been one of the GDTA’s most successful years ever. Early in the year while the world was shutting down to deal with the growing pandemic, the Great Divide Trail Association was considering what was best for the health and safety of the trail community that we served. In March, the GDTA cancelled all in-person events, activities, and meetings, including all trail building trips. Our Outreach Committee had been poised to host a number of exciting events, but chose to cancel them before they were cancelled by health restrictions. We are hopeful we will be able to provide new outreach opportunities for the GDT Community in 2021.
But the lockdown didn’t stop us from continuing to work behind the scenes. The GDTA Board and committees started meeting virtually every month, ensuring the GDTA would be prepared when the world moved into the next phases of living with COVID-19.
Thanks to the huge amount of work by Mary Jane and our Ensuring Financial Capacity Committee, on April 1, the Great Divide Trail Association obtained Charitable status. This means that the GDTA can now issue official tax receipts for charitable donations. This is a big step for us and we quickly set up a system to accept online donations and administration of charitable receipts through Canada Helps. Even in this time of pandemic, we have received a steady number of donations from generous supporters. These donations have become especially important as many of our past grant providers and sponsors halted their grant programs and support in 2020. We want to thank all of our supporters for their past and ongoing support, we couldn’t do the work we do without you. A good example of this is the Alberta Equestrian Federation which generously awarded us an $8,000 grant to go toward our trail building activities this past summer.
Other GDTA committees continued to work hard behind the scenes in 2020, including our Organizational Excellence Committee, organizing a Board of Directors Strategy Session, developing policies and organizational improvements to create a more robust and nimble organization enabling the GDTA to better navigate this new challenging environment.
Meanwhile, our Protecting and Advocating for the Trail Committee worked hard to get and keep the GDT on the map by representing the GDTA on the Livingstone Porcupine Hills Castle Recreation Advisory group, working with CPAWS and Alberta Hiking Association to start a Crowsnest Coal working group, and attending Spray Lakes Sawmills Forest Management Plan reviews for the new 5 year operating plan.
Our Trail Building & Maintenance Committee and Safety Committee refused to give up hope of a trail building season and worked quickly to develop a modified plan that adhered to public health restrictions and guidelines. In June, as provincial and national parks re-opened, we announced a new schedule of modified trail building & maintenance trips and put out a call for volunteers, not knowing if anyone would be comfortable coming out to build trail under the pandemic conditions.
The volunteer response was incredible, showing us that people were looking for opportunities to leave their pandemic lockdowns, get out in nature and build some trail. Like last year, we hired a Trip Coordinator which proved invaluable with very short timelines and challenging logistics due to the modified pandemic trip plans. Against the odds, by mid June we had volunteer crews out on the High Rock Trail, working hard to attempt to complete enough trail construction so that we could open the new High Rock Trail this summer, something we thought would be impossible only a few months ago.
As you may know, we started construction of the High Rock Trail in 2016, as the first new section of GDT built in more than 30 years. 5 years, dozens of trail building trips and hundreds of volunteer hours later, we celebrated the soft opening of the 45 km High Rock Trail on July 24 and saw the first thru-hikers on the new trail only days later. While the trail isn’t actually 100% complete yet, it is completely hikeable and totally awesome.
In total, we did 7 trail building trips on the High Rock Trail this summer, 1 trip on the Original GDT, and 3 trips to the Blaeberry, with almost 100 individuals volunteering over a span of 50 days on the Great Divide this summer, including groups from the Junior Forest Rangers and the Outdoor Council of Canada. And all of this done under pandemic restrictions without a single incident, other than maybe a blister or two.
Only a few months ago, as the world locked down, it looked like there wouldn’t be a hiking season this summer. But as things opened up, people quickly began looking for opportunities to staying active in the outdoors as an excellent way to keep their bodies and minds healthy. To limit the potential transmission of the virus between GDT hikers and others, the GDTA encouraged hikers to be self-supported on GDT outings, stay local, bring everything they need, avoid side trips from the trail to resupply, and always Leave No Trace.
While it may not have been quite as busy as previous years, day hikers, weekend hikers and thru-hikers were on the GDT in large numbers this summer, and for the most part, everyone did their part observing 2-metre physical distancing on the trail and minimizing interaction with people in communities along the GDT. Thank you to all GDT hikers for being responsible and taking precautions to keep yourself and others safe out there. While we don’t know what next year will look like, we feel confident that we can continue to adapt to ensure the health and safety of the trail community that we serve.
At last year’s AGM, we said thank you and farewell to four board members Barb Lauer, Darrell Aunger, Jean-Francois Cianci and Dave Hockey. We welcomed two new board members as Chase Holthe and Robert MacLaine joined our existing board of directors, Jeff Gruttz, Deb Yanchula, Mary Jane Kreisel, Doug Borthwick and me. Later in the year, we welcomed three ex officio board members Donna Rutherford, Doug Whiteside and Peter Claghorn, who put their names forward for election at the AGM. I would like to personally thank each of the directors and ex officio board members for all the work they have done to not only allow the GDTA to operate successfully during the pandemic, but also make some significant improvements along the way. It has not been easy, but everyone has pitched in to move the organization forward.
And finally, I wish to extend my sincere thanks to the life blood of our organization, our dedicated volunteers. The Great Divide Trail Association is a membership organization built by the support of people like you. Your hard work and positive energy are what keep us doing this every year and were a huge part of what made 2020 such a success.