Trail Work – The Most Fun You Can Have If You’re Not Thru-Hiking

by Eloise Robbins   

I haven’t done much trail work before. I don’t live near a long distance trail, and I’m a thru-hiker, through and through. That means my summers are for hiking. If I’m going to get on a plane for a couple of hours, it’s going to be to hike the Great Divide Trail, not to spend a weekend working on it. Sure, I’ll donate some money, become a member, and even write the odd piece for a newsletter. But that’s about as much as I thought I could do, living halfway across Canada from my favourite trail.

That all changed last spring. I opened the same email we all got from the GDTA with a list of dates and locations of work weekends. “That looks really fun,” I complained to Steve, my husband. “Shame we can’t go. Oh well. Maybe when we live closer.”

“What are you talking about?” he said. “We’ll be in the Rockies around then for our summer adventure. We can add a weekend to our trip. Maybe the one around Canada Day on the High Rock Trail.”

Exploring the High Rock Trail on our 2021 GDT thru-hike

So at the end of June, we pulled into a clearing a few kilometers away from the High Rock Trail a day before the trip was supposed to start. Steve, Joe (our friend from our 2021 thru-hike) and I were greeted by canvas wall tents, a smoking firepit and GDT legend Doug. We wandered off to set up our tents, and by the time we returned to the firepit, Emily and Julien had arrived, also a little early.

“Well, we’re supposed to be building trail for an equestrian bypass around Window Mountain Lake this weekend,” Doug told us once we were settled. “But no one else will be here until tomorrow afternoon. Emily and Julien are going to go scout a route to get some of the trail off the ATV tracks tomorrow. Maybe you’d like to go with them?”

Go bushwhack through trailless subalpine forests underneath one of the most stunning rock walls in the world, getting scratched up by branches and potentially a little lost? It sounded like a thru-hiker’s dream. Helping choose where future thru-hikers would walk would just be a bonus.

In the morning, we loaded up with orange flagging tape, lunch, and our normal hiking gear. Julien led the way up towards Window Mountain Lake on an ATV track, where we connected with the GDT.

Jaw dropping Window Mountain Lake

If you’ve hiked the High Rock Trail, you know Window Mountain Lake. It’s a highlight: up there with Floe Lake. Massive snowy rock walls ring a clear green lake, and campsites dot the surrounding trees. It’s popular with weekend hikers, section hikers and thru-hikers alike. It’s one of the best bits of the High Rock Trail, if not the entire GDT.

The ATV trail preceding it is another story. Rutted, eroded and steep, you’re more likely to be buzzed by four wheelers than to see other hikers or cool wildlife. Rerouting the trail away from the ATVs would significantly improve the wilderness experience on this section.

We headed away from Window Mountain Lake, bushwhacking towards an already completed section of singletrack. We jumped small streams, wandered through bogs and climbed over avalanche debris, before finding a clear route through a mostly open spruce forest. Julien and Emily taught us the best way to tie flagging tape to indicate switchbacks, and how to find the steepness of our potential new trail. By the time we were ready to quit, we had a good idea of where the trail would go. It was by no means perfect, but it was a start.

Flagging a route surrounded by stunning scenery

Tired and happy, we returned to camp. The rest of the work party had arrived, including a few familiar faces from our thru-hike in 2021. We made some dinner and settled around the campfire to eat.

One of my favourite things about thru-hiking is the community. I’ve met most of my closest friends on thru-hikes, and even met my husband on the Pacific Crest Trail. There’s an instant connection: you’re out there doing this crazy thing, and so are they. You build connections quickly and deeply, in a way that just doesn’t happen in the “real” world. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find a sense of community doing trail maintenance. But here we were, instantly clicking with a bunch of awesome, outdoorsy people.

Day two dawned bright and sunny: perfect scouting weather. The rest of the group headed off to move rocks and build switchbacks, but we hiked back up to the HRT with Julien and Emily to pick up where we left off.

Hopefully one day the trail will go right here

It didn’t take Julien long to find a route hugging the rock wall. “What do you think about going up here?” he asked. “We can connect back to the route we found yesterday at the top of the hill and miss the worst of the ATV trail.”

We looked at it for a while. The terrain this close to the sheer cliff face was mostly open: easy to navigate through with no bushwhacking. But new trees grew close to the scree slopes at the base of the wall. It looked like an avalanche had taken out their predecessors. I thought about some of the worst sections on the GDT: climbing through a pile of trees snapped like matchsticks at the approach to Tornado Saddle, or being delayed by 45 minutes north of Mount Robson by a wall of avalanche debris as tall as a house.

We debated for a little while. We were here during an epic high snow year with a late melt, earlier in the season than most hikers would come through and the path was clear of snow. There were no big trees around: it looked like they were swept away before they got large enough to block the path. We decided it would probably be fine (sorry future hikers if we are wrong!)

Flagging tape to mark prospective trail

We spent the morning flagging a path that curved along an open rise, with 360 views of the cliffs above us and the valley below. Clouds built on the peaks, and after lunch we hurried back to camp, racing the thunderstorms.

By the time the other group returned, the storms had turned into drizzle. We huddled in one of the canvas tents, setting our camp chairs into a circle. Someone passed around a bottle of whisky. We told stories and shared hiking advice, until everyone forgot about the rain outside.

Bad weather but good company

Rain canceled our last day of work. We took down our soggy tent, and loaded up the car, ready to drive to the next adventure. But we’ll be back this year. Trail work is incredibly rewarding, and it’s important for thru-hikers to give back to the trails they love. We wouldn’t be able to hike without the hard work of volunteers. The entire High Rock Trail wouldn’t exist without GDT trail building crews. And while it’s vital for us to contribute to building trails, it’s also just a really good time. We’ll sign up for a trip as soon as we can. We’ll time our summer adventure around it, hiking in the Rockies after a rewarding trail work trip. And I hope I’ll see you out there.

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