By Brad Vaillancourt, President of the Great Divide Trail Association
At the beginning of the year, we gladly said goodbye to 2020 and we looked forward optimistically to a new start in 2021. Unfortunately, as we’ve all experienced, the pandemic continued and 2021 has produced its own share of challenges and stress.
As we approached another year under pandemic conditions, the Great Divide Trail Association continued to consider what was best for the health and safety of the trail community that we serve, while at the same time acknowledging that staying active in the outdoors is an excellent way to keep your body and mind healthy. Only a few months ago, as the summer hiking season approached and non-essential travel in BC was restricted, it looked like there might not be a hiking season this summer. But similar to last summer, things improved, re-opened, and people quickly began looking for opportunities to get out on the trail. Despite the pandemic and mother nature’s best efforts to keep people off the trail with flooding closing the Berg Lake Trail in Mount Robson Provincial Park and a devastating wildfire season in BC, day hikers, weekend hikers and thru-hikers were on the GDT in record numbers this summer; and by all accounts it was a spectacular summer to spend on the Great Divide!
Whether hiking on the trail or volunteering on a trail crew, life on the GDT offered people a little taste of normalcy – connecting with nature and like-minded individuals in the magnificent wilderness of the Canadian Rockies – it might not have been a cure to COVID but it sure felt good. With this in mind, we began preparing for a busy year, both behind the scenes and on the trail. The GDTA Board and committees continued meeting virtually every month, moving our Organization ever forward even if we never met in person. We learned a lot in 2020 and the continuing pandemic didn’t stop us from making plans for a busy trail building season and achieving several other significant accomplishments.
In the spring, our Outreach Committee began offering online webinars with the help of some fantastic members. The virtual presentations included different approaches to backpacking and gear selection and trip planning with safety in mind and were very popular, demonstrating the strong desire for events and connections in the GDT Community. Earlier this month, the Outreach Committee completed one of its most significant and exciting accomplishments, the launch of the online GDTA Merchandise Store, where you can find t-shirts, hat, mugs and more, all emblazoned with the GDT logo. Thanks to Robert and the rest of the Outreach Committee for all of their work this past year!
Led by Mary Jane, our Ensuring Financial Capacity Committee continued their excellent work to, well do exactly what the name of their committee says: ensure financial capacity for the GDTA. Fresh off of obtaining our charitable status, we launched our first ever Trail Supporter Campaign in late 2020 and raised over $8,500 in charitable donations. By the end of our fiscal year 2021, we had received over $16,500 in corporate and individual donations – an increase of $10,000 from the previous year. Remember that the GDTA is a charitable organization so all donations over $20 receive official tax receipts. With the loss of some of our previous funders, these generous donations were critical to the success of our operations this year. Thanks to the committee’s expertise in grant writing, we received four grants to fund our trail building operations, from Alberta Environment & Parks, Columbia Basin Trust, Alberta Culture and Status of Women Community Investment Program, and the Alberta Equestrian Federation. Thanks to all of our generous donors and supporters, and the Ensuring Financial Capacity Committee – we couldn’t do the work we do without you!
Our Organizational Excellence Committee continued to be incredibly busy behind the scenes, developing policies and systems to take our Organization to the next level. They implemented a new Document Management System and will implement new Member Management Software shortly. They developed Terms of Reference for all 6 GDTA committees, updated the GDTA’s bylaws, vetted new candidates for the Board of Directors and developed a new GDTA Board Manual. Thanks to the work of the Organizational Excellence Committee, the GDTA is a more robust and nimble organization able to navigate the challenging world we now live in!
Also behind the scenes, our Trail Protection and Advocacy Committee continued to build relationships, this year providing recommendations to the Livingstone Porcupine Hills Castle Recreation Advisory Group Final Report, working with Travel Alberta to get the Great Divide Trail listed on their website as a premier destination in Alberta, and participating in the Bighorn Steering Committee. Thanks to Ben, Dave and the rest of the Trail Protection and Advocacy Committee for getting the GDT on the map!
Folks looking to learn more about the surprisingly long and interesting history of the Great Divide Trail can now order Tales from the Great Divide 2nd edition from Amazon or as a PDF from the Nature Wise Consulting website.
Thanks to all of the work of our Trail Building & Maintenance Committee and Safety Committee in 2020, we were well prepared for another pandemic trail building season, with modified trips plans that adhered to public health restrictions and guidelines in place. Similar to last year, the volunteer response we received was incredible. It feels like I say this every year and I’ll probably say it again, but this year was our busiest year yet, thanks to the hard work of more than 100 volunteers donating over 5,600 hours of their time for onsite trail building and maintenance on the GDT. By the end of the summer, we had successfully operated 15 trips through an ever evolving pandemic with zero incidents or injuries.
With the help of 3 youth leadership groups: Crowsnest Bible Camp, Outdoor Council of Canada, and the Junior Forest Rangers, Great Divide Trail crews performed maintenance and trail enhancements on more than 150 km of trail including significant improvements to the remote Jackpine Valley Trail, a temporary bridge over Cairnes Creek, a long-term bridge over Cataract Creek, repairs to Lambe Creek bridge, and 8 km of new or improved tread on the High Rock Trail. 6 years, dozens of trail building trips and thousands of volunteer hours later, we can now officially open to the HRT as the main route of the GDT in 2022! This new section of the Great Divide Trail is a legacy achievement for the GDTA, all thanks to the many volunteers who dedicated their time and energy to make it happen. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge two guys in particular, Dave Hockey and Doug Borthwick. Without their dedication and efforts, the High Rock Trail would still just be a dream. Thank you guys!
At last year’s AGM, we increased our Board of Directors to 13 and welcomed six new board members as Donna Rutherford, Doug Whiteside, Peter Claghorn, Gina Van Haren, Ben Millen and Josh Edwards joined our existing board of directors, Jeff Gruttz, Deb Yanchula, Mary Jane Kreisel, Doug Borthwick, Chase Holthe, Robert MacLaine and me.
As this is my last meeting as the President and as a Board member, I would like to personally thank each of the directors for all the work they have done to move our Organization forward during these challenging times. Being part of the GDTA for the past 8 years, working with all of you to protect and preserve the GDT has been some of the most rewarding times in my life. The Great Divide Trail does more than just physically connect places by a path on the ground, it also connects people. Common purpose unites us and creates a community of individuals and organizations all pursuing the vision of the Great Divide Trail. I will always be passionate about the GDT and if you are too, I encourage you to get involved: become a member, join a committee, volunteer on a trail crew, donate, or just go for a hike or horse ride. I promise you won’t regret it.