By Clara Hughes
I’ve spent recent years walking thousands of miles on trails in America, always leaving the magnificent setting of our home in the Bow Valley. Routes like the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, Arizona Trails, as well as more obscure and less linear walks like the Grand Enchantment, Inyo-White traverse and Lowest to Highest routes have been the best form of vacation. However, it’s been far more than harvesting miles (although I do enjoy crushing big days). In a more profound sense, this has been a path of healing. These walks have allowed for the processing of trauma, a connection with nature and thus, with self, and an arrival at the mindset of awareness that there is only one thing we have on and off trail: the moment we are in. The present moment. The beautiful moment. Hiking has allowed me to feel alive in the most meaningful ways. Hiking has taught me all these things and more.
When Covid hit, back in early March, I was down in Tucson, Arizona, ready to set out on another of Brett ‘Blisterfree’ Tucker’s obscure desert hiking routes: the 700+ mile long ‘Sky Island Traverse’. Enter the global health pandemic. I came home to Canada with the thought of staying home, an unusual concept for me.
Things shifted late spring. The idea that seemed preposterous, and irresponsible, months before, like attempting a thru-hike, now seemed reasonable. A friend I met on the CDT a few years before who worked locally messaged and asked if I’d be interested in hiking the Great Divide Trail. He was planning on setting out in less than two weeks, was I interested? I’d just finished telling my husband Peter that I looked forward to spending the whole summer at home. I’d signed up for the community garden, had planted a crop of carrots, leeks and radish to add to the collective we would harvest from, and committed to watering each Sunday.
The idea of walking many miles through this backcountry backyard was too much to resist. I normally hike alone or with my husband, Peter ‘Windwalker’ Guzman (by the way, I’m ‘Redfeather’ on trail). He’s pretty legendary in my eyes, having walked the PCT back in 1993 and the CDT in ’94. He was a thru hiker before it was cool to be one. When I asked him about hiking the GDT he said ‘Do it. Why hang around here? I can bring you resupplies. You can do this safely. If my knee wasn’t injured, I’d be there with you. Do it!’.
I said yes.
Most people in this space have an idea of what the GDT is. I had an image of a rugged, mountainous walk, a struggle to get permits mixed with a disdain for having to be somewhere on a specific date, camp reservations, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, moose, large and small creatures in abundance along the way, epic water crossings and navigational challenges. Yes, all of these things were there in abundance, but what I did not anticipate is JUST HOW BEAUTIFUL THIS ROUTE IS.
Of all the hikes I’ve done, the thing that I come out with is no matter the views (or lack thereof), the terrain, the toil, is this: I simply like to walk. I love to camp. I like the independence of moving through nature, being self-contained, of listening to the forest speak not just for hours but for weeks and months at a time. I like having just what I need in my pack. I take satisfaction from honing a system that I make better and adapt to the elements of each different route along the way. The athlete in me enjoys repeating a template that works so that I can get into a mental space of the movement happening through me. I enjoy simply walking all day, every day, listening, smelling, tasting and feeling my surroundings and my Self (okay maybe not smelling myself) along the way. Finding the interconnectedness of all living things during the many hours of movement. Connecting to the rhythm of breathing, of step, of wind and water. Yes, I enjoy all of this so much that I can be walking through a garbage dump and be completely content.
The GDT? My reflection is this: if you take the thousands of kilometres from these other trails, take their most beautiful sections, you have the GDT. It’s like the GDT cherry-picked the best sections and said here you go, enjoy. Yes, it is that majestic. That extraordinarily beautiful. It is wild, unpredictable, and comes full of challenges. The fear of bears is real, the river crossings are intense, navigating the permit/camp bookings is confusing and yes I made some serious errors even with doing everything I could to understand the matrix of these boundaries, where and when I needed a permit etc. Hiking this route with a partner is in many ways less stressful, yet hiking it alone is something very special (I did both, my hiking partner ended his walk at Saskatchewan River Crossing), my feet were wet all but two of the 33 days it took me to walk from Waterton to Mount Robson. I took the shorter option to end the walk because quite frankly I had my fill – the GDT kicked my ass in the best of ways. Yes, I do hope to come back and finish the Robson to Kakwa section one day. One day!
There is no one way to walk the GDT. I would hike the entire route again in a heartbeat. Section, NOBO, SOBO, Yo-Yo or day hike, whatever a person’s intention or constraints that allows for or limits the time they have on this route, I salute you. It’s worth it, every step of the way.
Special thanks to the GDTA and all the volunteers who make the trail what it is. I have made a donation to support the continued building and maintenance of this route and encourage others, whether hike it or not, to offer what you have: time, funds, awareness.
‘Redfeather’ on trail
6x Olympian, winter and summer
6x Olympic medalist, speed skating and cycling