2021 Trail Building & Maintenance Trips

For this year’s Trail Building & Maintenance article we decided to let the volunteers tell in their own words about the trail crew trips. Over and above these reports there was one major “Scouting Trip” early in the spring, which besides setting the stage for all the High Rock trips, resulted in some major switchback building north from Window Mountain Lake. Also there were our first “Adopt a Trail” trips to test a new way to monitor and perform needed light maintenance on sections of the GDT. There is a separate article explaining them. In the meantime enjoy these volunteer trip reports and their stories.

Trips 1, 11, and 12

by Paul Jollymore

Three years ago my wife and I were enjoying a motorhome tour of Europe, when I thought to myself, that hiking in the mountains with a backpack held little appeal. Way too much effort. Upon our return home I realized that chocolate croissants were not on the recommended guidelines for daily breakfasts, and a demand for a fitness routine prompted me to the GDT. I’d completed Waterton to Sunshine in 2020, then the Rockwall to Saskatchewan River Crossing in 2021, and Jasper is planned for 2022. Joining the GDTA in 2020 was a great way to contribute to a trail I intended to use. Plans were in a flux in 2020 due to Covid but significant work was made along the High Rock Trail.

In 2021, the call for volunteers was disrupted over the winter but June approached and the preliminary bridge building project at Cairnes Creek – Trip 1, got the green light just in time. Enroute to the site, a road washout prevented progress so plan B prompted Dave, Doug, Rob, and I to head to the Atlas staging area north of Blairmore to do a little work on an alternate trail bypassing a section of road walk.

A second attempt at the Cairnes Creek bridge project – Trip 11, later in June brought Dave, Robert, Rob, David, Linnie, Doug, Tommy, and I out in an attempt to drag a generous size log across the creek as a suitable crossing. Our chainsaw winch and rigging wasn’t quite up to the task so a temporary crossing was left in place to accommodate foot traffic for the season. Our crew also headed to Lambe Creek crossing, clearing some trail along the way, and completed a repair job on the handrail at the bridge.

The third attempt – Trip 12, was made early in September when Dave, Rob, Robert, and I returned to Cairnes Creek with more rigging hardware. Robert provided us with a setup that managed to wrestle a 2.5 tonne log 40 feet across the creek without it even touching the water. Kudos to a well executed plan!

Each of these work parties required members to bring their own camping equipment and food. A common shelter area and cooking facilities were provided. Members had to come prepared to daypack to a worksite, pack a lunch, and bring suitable clothing for the day. While each of these work parties had a clear objective, the leads remained flexible when facing obstacles and reasonable alternatives were adopted as we went along. The work was strenuous but never overwhelming and the participants all expressed positive feedback on the experience.

I completed my GDT hike through the Cairnes Creek section in July and stopped for a break and encountered two other GDT hikers NOBO, and one hiker SOBO, as well as a family of four out for a dayhike in the 20 minutes I sat there. Andrew was the SOBO thru-hiker who completed the entire GDT in 20 days, aiming for 60 km per day and setting a record for the GDT’s Fastest Known Time in the process. The trail is only going to become more popular and it’s rewarding to know that our efforts contribute to the success and enjoyment of others.

Trip 2

by Melanie Sampson

The cool mountain air is crisp and the larch trees have turned, adding a splash of vibrant gold across the landscape along the Great Divide Trail. After an unusually hot and dry summer, the change in temperature is welcomed. During this transition of the seasons, I find myself reflecting on some of those long summer days; this year, I look back upon my incredible volunteer trail building and maintenance trip with the Great Divide Trail Association, and do so with much gratitude.

My name is Melanie and I have lived in the Calgary area for over a decade and have made our nearby Rocky Mountains a huge part of my life. I love to hike, trail run, crosscountry ski, bike, and am usually even keen for a swim in frigid glacier waters. I have built a career in aviation that allows me to travel all over the world, but when my feet are back on Canadian soil, I am typically mountain bound. With the slowdown of travel throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been able to spend more time exploring our nearby trails, and found myself gravitating towards taking part in one of the GDTA’s trail building and maintenance trips. I was fortunate enough to sign up for Trip 2 along the High Rock Trail in the Crowsnest area. I had no prior experience with trail maintenance and was relying on the instruction and guidance of Trip 2’s crew leads, the positivity and encouragement of my crew mates, and my own eagerness to contribute to this ongoing project that is, quite frankly, remarkable.

Upon our crew coming together and meeting each other for the first time, we quickly bonded over our shared love of the trail, exploring wild places, and this magnificent thing called the Great Divide Trail. Together we shared stories from the trail; our favourite backcountry snacks and meals, how to make said meals from scratch and as close to gourmet as possible, swapped gear recommendations, and of course, shared tales of everyone’s previous wildlife encounters. While we all came from different walks of life, with varying degrees of experience building and maintaining trails, we came together naturally to dedicate a week of our time for the betterment of the trail so that others, like ourselves, could enjoy the beauty that lies within the Crowsnest area.

The days were extremely hot – topping out at 37°C! – but our team worked tirelessly, as we were all keen to make our trip leaders, Dave Hockey, Doug Borthwick, and Peter LaBastide proud. What our group was able to accomplish was incredible; the Scout Clearing team was able to flag and chainsaw nearly 2 km of new corridor south of camp, while the Tread team cleared blowdown and improved 3 km of trail north of camp, built new tread for 200m in the First Creek Valley, and 160m of new trail towards Racehorse Shoulder. Trip 2’s crew led the way and set the standard for the next six trail crews to follow, and the first 160m of trail built was used as an example for the next 5 km of trail up and over Racehorse Shoulder that saw more than 200 grateful hikers this summer. What an accomplishment!

I feel very honoured and grateful to have been able to spend a week with such fine individuals, who were all so inspiring and dedicated to maintaining, protecting and promoting the Great Divide Trail. I’d recommend taking part in a trail building trip to anyone, especially if our Rocky Mountains held a special place in their hearts; what a fulfilling experience! Thank you, Great Divide Trail Association for your incredible work; I’m already looking forward to next year!

Trip 3

by Emily Mayes

My name is Emily and I am an undergraduate student at McGill. I stumbled upon the GDTA website and signed up for this trail maintenance trip without knowing much about the Great Divide Trail or any idea of what to expect. I am so glad I did! I could not have asked for a better opportunity to learn about the trail building process and to spend some time in the mountains.

The trip was a resounding success. Most of us were first time volunteers with the Great Divide Trail and had little previous trail maintenance experience. We learned a lot from Doug, Dave, Peter, and the returning volunteers. I really can’t thank the trip leaders enough for sharing their knowledge and for their constant support and kindness. What our team might’ve lacked in trail building experience, we made up for with enthusiasm. It was energizing and motivating to be working alongside people with such passion for the mountains and the Great Divide Trail.

Trip 3 was a hot one. It had been +35C degrees for a week across most of Alberta and BC when we arrived at camp. It was slightly cooler in the mountains, but we were very much still in the midst of a heat wave every day of trail building. It didn’t slow us down too much though! Everyday we’d hike a very convenient 5 minutes from base camp to the start of our trail. From there we’d split into a few groups – scouters/chainsawers, trimmers, pulaskiers and then a finishing crew. Doug was great at noticing people’s predispositions for specific jobs and the work went very smoothly. We plugged along, breezing through sections of nice soft earth and taking our time on various other terrains permeated by stumps, roots and rocks and on intense side slopes. All said and done, we managed to complete about 1.3 km of beautiful 15 degree grade trail, nearly completely free of tripping hazards. (I will never be able to walk a trail and take it for granted again.) After four days of intense sunshine, the weather cooled down and we woke up to foggy skies instead of mountains on the final day. It rained on our way back down to the Atlas Staging Area and the rain was such a wonderful (and refreshing) conclusion to such an incredible week.

Trip 4

by Doug Borthwick

This trip saw the second of three youth groups help with building new trail. The Outdoor Council of Canada (OCC) on this outing, Crowsnest Bible Camp on the previous, and the Junior Forest Rangers on Trip 7, were major drivers to get this year’s work done up and over Racehorse Shoulder. Their youthful vigor and enthusiasm inspired other veteran trail builders immensely.

Trip 4 was the only one other than the Jackpine (Trip 10), which saw any significant rainfall during a very dry and hot summer. There were two nights of heavy rain and hail and the new tents and wood stove were very much appreciated.

This trip was the final one for the forward crew of trail blazers and chainsawers to finish their work, and at the end we said goodbye to Dave, Peter, Julien, and Jim. The tread crew built another hard earned 1.2 km of new trail.

The OCC having now become veterans, recruited an amazing cook to add to their camp. There were usually lots of leftovers, and Allistair was front and center showing the rest of the camp how to properly yogi an extra meal. I really don’t think we worked this crew hard enough as every morning at 5am, we had one ambitious volunteer who had to complete a 5 km trail run before breakfast. The last day the heat and dry weather returned and this crew was glad to dry out before heading home.

Trip 5

by Cody Hemmerling

I am Cody Hemmerling, a fourth year university student that took part in High Rock Trail (HRT) Trip 5. I signed up for the trip because I thought it was a great way to get involved with the GDT, and it provided an excellent opportunity to spend a longer amount of time in the bush. My experience was so much more than that. We had a small crew of seven, and while these people were complete strangers to me before the trip, by the end of the trip it was sad to leave them all, even the girl who wouldn’t shut up about Denny’s 😉. It is really true that the outdoors brings people together.

I remember the first day Doug mentioned that the average volunteer makes about 20 metres of new trail in a day and thinking to myself “that seems like nothing, I bet I will do so much more than that”. Turns out Doug knew what he was talking about, trail building is hard work. We ended up finishing the switchbacks on the north side of Racehorse Shoulder before blazing a trail across Racehorse Shoulder, and beginning to build the trail coming down the south side towards Racehorse Road. We were fortunate enough to meet around 20 thru-hikers throughout our trip, all from different backgrounds, with a surprisingly high number of hikers hailing from Quebec.

Highlights of the trip included working atop the stunning Racehorse Shoulder, seeing mountain goats, and above all else the time spent in camp storytelling and hanging out with such an amazing group of people.

Trip 6

by Jeremy Bateson

In mid-July 2021, the GDTA ran Trip 6 to Cataract Creek on the Original GDT. Dave Higgins led a group of six people to install a new bridge over the creek and a smaller bridge across a nearby gulley. A helicopter and personnel from Alberta Parks dropped the 30 foot bridge logs across the creek as well as all the tools. The work crew hiked in 4 km from a nearby logging road access and set up tents around an old snowmobiling shack. Dave tried out a small motor bike and trailer to bring in extra load, but the trail proved to be too boggy. The bridge construction went well. As it turned out, six people was a very good group size for this work.

To start the creek work, the remains of the old bridge were cut away and cleared. After the sills were prepared, the logs’ ends were shifted into position. Dave brought a small chain fall with tripod to help shift the log ends. Once the work was done the tripod legs were used as additional materials. The group made an improvised winch with two 2×4’s to drag the logs to final position. The bulk of the bridge was complete and braced by the end of the second day. The bridge deck was finished with planks and an edge runner.

On day 3 the main group headed up the slope to bridge a large gulley. The gulley bridge was made with locally felled trees and was mainly complete by the end of that day.

On the final day the group walked back to the ridge north of Lost Creek, doing general trail maintenance as they went. They cleared some minor blowdown and trimmed back overgrowth.

The overall trip was a success and accomplished a lot of work with a small team. The use of a helicopter for select work was definitely a benefit.

It was a pleasure to see many hikers during the four work days. At least 10 people passed the crew and shared their insights with the crew.

Trip 7

by Kathleen Gallagher

Trip 7 began at a very civilized 11:30am at the Atlas Staging Area near Coleman in Crowsnest Pass. There I met my friends for the week: Jud, Christine, and Tom, a small but mighty crew.  After a quick backtrack into town to pick up some washers to repair the hose, we were ready to drive up the gravel road to the snowmobile staging area where we would hit the trail. As we neared the parking area, out popped Doug on an ATV from the trees, smiling, waving and ready to embark on another successful week of trail building.

Unbeknownst to me, Doug would be towing our gear on the ATV, to the base camp for the week. Truly a missed opportunity since I had packed “backpacking” style. Next time I’m bringing a cot! A quick jaunt up the road and we arrived at our luxurious accommodations: two large common area tents, one for the food preparation/cooking and another for lounging, complete with a library of Great Divide books and a woodstove! We set up our individual tents and Doug gave us a tour of the camp, instructing each of us on our duties. The brave campers touched the live wire for the bear fence to ensure it was working, Christine and I did not. The bugs were crazy bad that first day but got better as the week went on (not sure if that is related to my tolerance or actual conditions)!

The first day as we walked to our worksite, Doug gave us tips and tricks, pointing out challenges and opportunities experienced by the previous groups. His teaching speaks for itself as we were spoiled by the beautiful trail that had been created by the volunteers before us, providing us with smooth sailing and a seamless hike to our starting point. On our commute to work we were fortunate enough to travel over a beautiful ridge, treated to magnificent views of Crowsnest Mountain, Seven Sisters Mountain, Mount Ward and the valley below. I had been a bit nervous about using the heavy and sharp tools required for trail building in the wild, but after a few minutes watching my skilled colleagues Jud and Tom, I felt up to the challenge! I’m glad I tried it out since trail creation is so rewarding! It felt awesome to demolish giant roots and also to look back at what we had achieved each day and think about how we were contributing to a little piece of history.

Day two and three were our main working days and our supervisor Doug was not too tyrannical. Some breaks were allowed and we even had lunch off! I would escape off to the beautiful ridge at lunch to catch some wind to cool off in the heat. An added bonus would be if the gusts blew the bugs away. All in all we had spectacular weather, not a drop of rain and I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Day four was a more lenient day, as it was the last and everyone was rather tired.  Still, we built about 330 metres of trail through varied terrain, which we were happy with as only a four person group. 330 metres doesn’t sound like much on a 12,000 metre trail, but a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step and that is 330 metres that wasn’t there before! I know that the folks that were going in straight lines up and down ridges with no gentle switchbacks to smooth the elevation appreciated it – they even brought us beer!

On our last night to close out the trip, Bartender Jud was generous with his supplies, and Tom and Doug shared countless stories from their past years of trail activities. Christine finally revealed her age to us and went from very impressive to legendary. Thank you to my wonderful companions of various backgrounds for coming together and sharing such a great week with me. I still smile every time I remember the sense of accomplishment and I can’t wait to get back out there next summer!

Trip 8

by Sebastian Kanally

The backcountry, an important refuge. The pristine mountain air fills you with life, the human noise was left behind hours and days ago, the backcountry is a palate cleanser, the backcountry is always there to remind us who we really are.

I am Sebastian Kanally, I live in Amherstburg, Ontario, and the mountains have called my name ever since I first laid eyes on them in 2018. I flew out to hike in the mountains this year- 2021, and I saw the email that the GDTA was looking for volunteers to help build sections of the Great Divide Trail, and I could not pass up the chance. I am a philosopher that is humbled by our natural world. This was an awesome opportunity for me to give some of my labour to the GDTA and meet a diverse group of people interested in volunteering and the backcountry.

Volunteering with the Great Divide Trail Association is a truly enriching experience. I had never done it before, and the experience exceeded my expectations as it was lots of fun. I enjoyed learning how trail is built and why trails are built the way they are. It is a great experience to look back at a day’s work, to see a trail there that was not there the day before. The hard work you put in that day to help build a trail so that others can see these beautiful places. My small amount of work comes together with hundreds of other volunteers to help hikers and equestrians of all abilities to experience the sublime nature of this landscape, in this small corner of the largest intact land biome left on earth.

To volunteer one’s time to go live in the backcountry, no cell service, just living a truly minimalist and essential life, limiting one’s footprint and working collectively to achieve a goal, is brilliant. The walk to work is stunning. The greatest part of the trail building experience for me was learning and developing a more intimate knowledge about this beautiful landscape. The intricate and symbiotic relationships between all the plants and animals, such as the White Bark Pine, the Larch and Spruce trees, the Clark’s Nutcracker, the Grizzlies, and how this is all being impacted by climate change and human activity. The ecological wholeness of this pristine environment demands our respect and work to protect. You can learn about it, but until you spend time and actually experience the landscape it is hard to appreciate how complex of an ecosystem this is.

If you are looking for a fun way to get out into the backcountry with a group of people, I would highly recommend trail building with the GDTA. In an era of climate changing our ecosystems, to meaningfully contribute and do so with an organization that values keeping the ecosystem intact, is priceless. Different people bound by their passion and appreciation of the Rocky Mountains made this a very fun and enjoyable experience. These are amazing people and friends I never would have met without volunteering. All these different demographics coming together truly speaks to the value of building trail and volunteering with the GDTA.

Trip 9

by Doug Borthwick

This trip almost never got off the ground and was very close to being cancelled. What had started as a promising crew size of nine had seen multiple last minute cancellations to come down to a final crew size of three with an added trip camp manager. A last second appeal brought out two fresh young recruits – Mark and Shawn, who worked back to back trips with no breaks. Combined with the Junior Forest Rangers working the changeover day, Jud leading, Stuart staying an extra changeover day, and three camp managers on Trips 7 and 8 wanting to help with the trail work, the three Canmorians who drove through the night to help for two critical days, and the dedicated work of all the original crew members, we were able to complete the remaining 1.5 km of trail south of Racehorse Shoulder. There cannot be enough thanks to this amazing group who were critical in finishing the final connection to Racehorse road.

The volunteers who worked Trip 9 were treated to a meeting with two of this year’s GDT legends. First was Andrew Cottrell who came flying at the group from the north during his record Fastest Known Time (FKT) 20 day hike of the GDT. This guy had time to stop and kibitz for a long time with the trail crew and in fact had to be encouraged to leave so they could get on with building more switchbacks. The second was Peter Whitehead, the 77 year-old who’s thru-hiking story inspired so many. Peter did not have any switchbacks to work with as he climbed determinedly from Racehorse road but he still had a laugh and a joke as he passed the trail crew trying desperately to get just a couple of extra meters done to help him on his way.

This crew amazingly finished their goal of attaining the road one full day early.

Trip 10

by Samuel Yamamoto (Prepper)

I’m someone relatively new to backpacking and thru-hiking, and I’m working my way up the GDT in sections over many summers. Last year I had the pleasure of doing Section A from Waterton to Crowsnest Pass and I was hooked! This summer I was going to embark on my own solo excursion on Sections B and C of the GDT until I saw the call for volunteers to help with trail maintenance in the Jackpine Valley. The dates lined up perfectly for me and being flown out by helicopter sealed the deal. I emailed Dan Durston right away to let him know I’m interested and available, and thankfully I was chosen to go. The journey started with about an 8.5 hour drive to McBride, BC from Lethbridge, followed by about another 45 minutes on a dirt road to where the helicopter would pick us up the next morning. Our crew consisted of nine of us from Alberta and BC.

During the first night, it gradually started raining and did not let up. The helicopter came in the rain after a search and rescue delay. We were dropped off just short of the peak of Big Shale hill where the peak was too socked in to be dropped off safely on it. It took the helicopter three trips to get all nine of us, our gear, and trail maintenance gear up. The trail maintenance gear included three brush saws, three hand saws, three large cutters, one chainsaw, and a ton of fuel in jerry cans to match. In addition we had several trail cameras to monitor trail traffic and wildlife that needed to be set up, and some cans of orange spray paint to “blaze” the trail. We started right away at the treeline on clearing the trail. At first we had three crews of two, a brush saw operator and another to follow, clearing the trail of cut debris. Chainsaw operator and spotter were together throughout the week as they were the only ones that had been trained and certified, and then a swamper in the back. We worked through the rain on day one with little glimmers of sun giving us a small reprieve from the rain.

We set up camp at the end of day one and I discovered most of my gear got wet through and through. My sleeping bag was about 50% wet and I was worried I was going to have major issues through the night. When I started warming up, even in my wet bag, I realized it was going to be okay. We also coincidentally had 7 X-Mid tents by Dan Durston on the trip! In the beginning of day two we had to ford our first of many river fords.  By this time, the rain clouds had subsided and we welcomed the warm sunlight.

Day two was working mostly uphill toward another ridge where our pace quickened as we went back up the treeline and the foliage of the trail lightened up. We averaged about a kilometer an hour with our pace. We also changed to a lead team of three brush saws, sweep, followed by the chainsaw and spotter, then three in the rear sawing and cutting brush and trees as well as clearing debris. By this time we had found a groove that was working for all of us.

On the evening of day three, we shared our site and spent time with Fidget and Neon on their trans-American journey through South and North America. They were quite delightful and brought a fun energy to our camp.

There was a burn zone that we crossed through that was heavy work for the two-person chainsaw crew. They were well behind the pack clearing away fallen burned trees. We continued along the Jackpine River for the most part, clearing mostly thick willows. Our pace improved as each day went, and overall we were able to clear about 18 km of the trail.

The difference from the before and after our maintenance was enormous. Before, you couldn’t walk without getting whipped by willows or having to navigate through a thicket of trees or brush. After, you could hike comfortably without any foliage getting in your way.

As the end of the week came, we changed our focus to route finding through the marsh of the upper Jackpine Valley. Anyone who has traveled through this section knows what a nightmare this area is. We blazed trees through this section as an actual trail through the marsh is near impossible to establish. The established trail heading up to Blueberry Lake past the marsh was much more pleasant and the abundance of berries along the trails were a fantastic treat.

The views at the top of the pass were incredible and the weather treated us well. We descended to Blueberry Lake after six days. Most of our crew went ahead and finished to our cars while three stayed back and camped the night at Blueberry Lake.

The entire week was an amazing effort from nine different people who came together to make our GDT just a little better. It was tough, grueling work at times as the outdoors often are, but the rewards of not only spending a week in remote wilderness but making a tangible difference on the trail for years to come were worth every bit of the tough grueling work.

Thank you to all 

Many thanks to all of this years volunteers! Thanks also go out to our supporters whose generosity has greatly enhanced our trail building and maintenance capabilities, including Alberta Equestrian Federation, Alberta Environment and Park, Alberta Culture and Status of Women, Alberta Forest & Garden, Stihl, and Columbia Basin Trust. 

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