The Slow Way – 50yrs (and counting) to Complete the GDT

by Peter Rowlands

I just wanted to send a “thanks” to the GDTA for your work on the “High Rock” trail. This September I did the southern section of the GDT, starting at the U.S. border in Waterton and finishing at Spray Lakes / Shark Mountain in Kananaskis… around 380 km in all. I did it in one push (no food drops along the way). Took along enough food for 3+ weeks but made good time and finished in 16 days. A couple of rainy days and a bit of new snow on one higher section north of Castle Mountain, but other than that glorious fall weather with the larch trees in full golden colour.  

Looking north toward Racehorse Shoulder
Camp north of Racehorse Shoulder

Doing the southern section of the GDT has been on the radar for a while now. Back in the mid-1970’s a friend and I did what was at the time the newly proposed Great Divide Trail, (I remember there being a short write-up at the back of the old Canadian Rockies Trail Guide), starting in southern Banff and hiking northwards to Jasper. As the trail does now, we mainly made use of established trails in national and provincial parks, but also had to do a bit of challenging cross country hiking leaving Yoho into the Blaeberry River valley and up to Howse Pass. We got as far as Jasper townsite but never did the final connection up to Mt. Robson… a good adventure for a couple of young guys still in their teens. Quite a bit different back then; no need to make advance reservations for campsites, no need to stick to a set itinerary, random camping in lots of places where it’s now forbidden.  

With a good weather forecast this fall I decided that it was time to give the southern section a look, especially as there was now a shiny new trail from Coleman north, avoiding plodding along roads and ATV trails up the Elk Valley in BC where the trail used to go. The work you guys did on building the High Rock Trail was amazing! Expansive views, lots of challenging ups and downs, still a few places where a close eye on navigation was needed, a few challenging creek crossings, but all in all a great adventure on newly constructed trails. I was hoping to meet a few people along the way, but was quite surprised that I met only ONE other GDT hiker the whole time I was out (and that was in Peter Lougheed Park only a few kms from the road). Other than that, the only people I saw were day hikers the first couple of days in Waterton and in places with road access like around Coleman and near Kananaskis Lakes. Only one bear sighted but lots of signs; diggings in almost all high meadows, lots of scat and tracks. I did a lot of yelling and singing as I went along and kept the bear spray close at hand.  I tried to camp up high as much as possible, sometimes carrying water from a lower creek to get to a nice spot above treeline up high.

Fording River Pass
Very re-assuring to see GDT markings after a faint section of trail

Looking at the GDT website it seems there are a fair number of people now doing the trail; interesting to read their accounts and see how fast they are doing it. On the other hand, if and when I do the final section from Jasper to either Mt. Robson or Kakwa, I think I will log in and claim the record for the longest time taken to complete the GDT. Back when I started backpacking with Mom, the second trip we ever did was to the Egypt Lake area via Sunshine Village and Simpson Pass in the summer of 1972 when I was 13 years old. That trip covered a section of what became the GDT and I’ve been back there many times since.  

If I use the trip in 1972 as the first time I hiked on the GDT, this year marks my 50th anniversary on the trail; I’d be surprised if there are many other GDT hikers who can claim that level of longevity (and lack of speed). If I finally finish Section F north of Jasper, it will be at least 51 years; not sure if that’s a record to be proud of (or that others will be keen to try to match). However, you never know… still lots of greybeards out there and there may be a few others who have been at it just as long as I. Although nowadays I sometimes feel old as I watch the younger generation(s) blast by on the trail.

Then and now!      Backpacking with Mom on the Egypt Lake hike in 1972 — external frame pack, open cell foamy, running shoes, blue jeans. Me 50 years later in the burned area of Waterton NP.  (the hair style is remarkably similar)

Once again, thanks to the GDTA for all the work you have done trail building; I often thought of you guys toiling away as I cruised along on the new trail, admiring the skill and perseverance that went into opening up such a wonderful route.

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