by Brent Wray; photos by Brent Wray; videos by Peter van der Gugten
I’ll never forget the text message that changed my life. It was from Curtis, a Willmore Wilderness guide and outfitter I’d ridden a 10-day pack trip with in July 2021.
“Hey Brent, that guy I was telling you about is riding the Great Divide Trail in 2022 and looking for company. You interested?”
It was now late October. I’d just finished checking out both the guy and the GDT online. The guy was Peter van der Gugten, a Swiss guide and adventurer, who travels the world doing epic, ultra-light long-rides on horseback.
“Hell, yeah!” I responded.
A few days later Peter interviewed me from Switzerland, via FB Messenger, asking about my riding and backcountry experience. I told him I’ve owned and ridden horses for years, successfully started a few colts, done a couple horseback treks, plenty of hiking and camping, but nothing of this magnitude. I’ve always wanted to, though! He said he’d discuss it with his riding partner and get back to me.
Three days later he contacted me and said, “Ok, you’re our #3. Welcome to the Adventure!”
Then began a serious baptism into route planning, researching trails, learning to use GPS, optimizing clothing and gear, acquiring permits and permissions and conditioning myself and my horse.
Route planning was interesting. I’d started with the standard backpacker route, but quickly found out there are many areas where horses aren’t permitted. Fortunately, an equestrian route is in development, which I was able to obtain, along with some great intel on certain sections that might be problematic.
Obtaining permits also proved interesting. National Parks require backcountry camp sites to be booked well in advance, as well as grazing permits. It is extremely challenging to know exactly where you’re going to be three weeks into a trail; trail conditions, bad weather, or a lame horse are just a few uncertainties making it a virtual impossibility. You do the best you can. Provincial Parks may also require letters of permission.
On August 22, we met for the first time at the Waterton Park gates with huge smiles, big hugs and tremendous excitement about our upcoming adventure. Tina Boche was the other member of our party; a long-rider in her own right, she owns a horse academy in Germany where she trains horses, mules and people, teaching riding, packing and driving. We consolidated gear and horses into my truck and trailer, then drove to Grande Cache the next day. One more day of preparations and we hit the trail August 25.
We travelled ultra-light, with saddle horses only. To make it easier for the horses, we dismounted and walked all steep terrain or tough, technical stretches, stopping every 2-3 hours to allow the horses a grazing break. At night horses wore a mixture of hobbles, bells and tracking collar, and were contained in portable electric fence on the best grass we could find. For us, on clear nights, we’d sleep under the stars; but most nights we’d sleep side-by-side, sardine style under a tarp shelter. As for meals: breakfast consisted of coffee and oatmeal; lunches: meat, cheese, nuts, dried fruit and water; dinner was Mountain House dehydrated backpacker meals fortified with extra protein, along with tea to drink.
A second Peter, Peter G, would be driving my truck and trailer as support and shuttle vehicle, meeting us in pre-planned, strategic locations and providing emergency support, if required. We communicated via Garmin InReach messaging. For navigation, we had redundant Garmin handheld GPS. We all carried Powerbanks for recharging electronics on the trail.
Leg 1 of our journey was Grande Cache to Jasper. Peter rode Rodeo, his Kentucky mustang; Tina rode Ahi, Peter’s Criollo from Argentina; and I rode Charlie, my Morgan from Alaska. All horses were shod with Duplo composite horseshoes. The trail was great and travelling easy for the first couple days, but our no-trail shortcut to connect to the Great Divide Trail from Ptarmigan Lake was a painfully slow bushwhack through thick brush, deadfall, bog, rough terrain and intermittent rain. After the better part of two days, we finally hit the GDT. Nothing makes you appreciate a trail like two days without one. Gratitude!
We were very grateful for the trail clearing efforts of volunteers from the Great Divide Trail Association and Back Country Horsemen of BC along the Jackpine River. It had consistently come up in my trail research as a long, nasty bushwhack through thick willows. Instead, we were treated to a wide, clear corridor that was almost a superhighway after what we’d been through.
After a steep grind up out of the Jackpine River valley, we were rewarded with epic views above Blueberry Lake, over Jackpine Pass, past Mount Bess and Chown Glacier. Weather steadily improved as we worked our way down the Smoky River, crossed spectacular Moose Pass and followed Moose River out to where our shuttle driver was waiting with the Adventure Rig. Longer than planned, tougher than anticipated, but we’d made it. Leg 1 was complete!
August 28, 2022
August 29, 2022
August 31, 2022
September 1, 2022
September 2, 2022
With all North-South routes through JNP closed to horses, our planned Leg 2 route was to start at the Cardinal Divide, onto South Boundary Trail, then through the Blackstone/Waipiabi Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ) to Saskatchewan Crossing. Tina’s horse, Ahi, had a sore front leg, so she stayed behind with Peter G while he recovered, so it was just Peter and I for this stretch.
All was going according to plan, until it came time to cross the Brazeau River into the Blackstone/Waipiabi. It was running way too high, fast and deep for us to cross at Dowling Ford, so we decided to stick to the South Boundary Trail, crossed the Brazeau further upstream, and over rugged Nigel Pass to the trailhead on Highway 93. Thanks to our Garmin InReach we were able to communicate the change in plan and meeting place to Tina and Peter G, our driver.
September 3, 2022
September 4, 2022
September 6, 2022
Leg 3 was from Saskatchewan Crossing to Banff. Ahi’s leg was still sore, so we got a loaner horse from Astoria Outfitting (Dixon) and Tina rejoined us. Herd dynamics came into play and our two horses weren’t very welcoming to the newcomer, so after getting beat up by both of them and a zap from our portable electric fence on the first night, he decided to go home, resulting in an extra 28 km of unnecessary travel. Fortunately, we caught him, got back on the trail, enjoying great trail, then lost the trail, endured a nasty bushwhack, found the trail again and made our way into Banff National Park to great trail and amazing scenery, over Clearwater and Pipestone passes, eventually pulling out at Lake Louise.
September 9, 2022
September 10, 2022
September 11, 2022
September 12, 2022
September 13, 2022
Ahi was recovered, so our driver took our loaner horse back and after a rest day we embarked on Leg 4 of our journey, Banff to Coleman. The horses must’ve really enjoyed their time off, because after grazing peacefully and lulling us into a false sense of security, they headed back to the trailhead on the first evening. It was many kilometers later and the wee hours of the cold, rainy morning before we caught them and got back to camp. They’d usually been hobbled when turned loose to graze, but they’d been so good we’d allowed extra freedom. So much for their rest day in Banff; no good deed goes unpunished, I guess. Hobble-free privileges lost.
Up, over Allenby Pass the next morning, we left BNP at Palliser Pass, crossing into Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, where we traversed three rock slides along Joffre Creek, endured a grinding climb over Sylvan Pass and then got our butts kicked as we worked our way through an old burn on the Middle Fork of the White River. At Connor Lakes, we decided we’d call it quits the next day in the Elk Valley. Tired horses, another mountain pass to cross and bad weather in the forecast, it was the right call to make.
September 17, 2022
September 18, 2022
September 19, 2022
September 20, 2022
September 21, 2022
So, after four weeks on the trail, covering 750km, we loaded up and went back to Waterton. All in all, an epic adventure, tremendous new friendships, a world of new opportunities and a whole new level of appreciation for a great mountain trail horse.
September 24, 2022
Needless to say, a trip like this doesn’t happen without the support of an amazing group of people. We are incredibly grateful for all those who supported us with their time, energy, skills, homes and knowledge: Tania, Caro (Duplo Canada), Frederic, Christine, Curtis and Melanie (Indian Trail Adventures), Rocky (Entrance Ranch), Gunner (Astoria Outfitting), Sean and Steve (Banff National Park), Kerry, Eric, Guy and Deb, Jenika and Ashleigh (Alpine Stables) and of course, spouses, family and friends who held the fort at home.
And here is the detailed story embedded in this two-part video series. Enjoy!