What is the Great Divide Trail Signature Trip?

by Wayne Marshall

The Signature Trip is many things.

It is Historical

The concept began in 2003 while two hikers (Dan Wallace and Wayne Marshall) were walking the Great Divide Trail (GDT) when it just disappeared.  The pair had spent many of the previous summers hiking The Trail and decided losing The Trail was a sign – it was time to ‘give back’.  The need was obvious – the existing Trail required maintenance.  These Trail hikers pivoted to become Trail maintainers.

1996 Dan and Wayne – first GDT trip

With no experience, no money, no tools or equipment – only an idea, the pair spent the winter of 2003 researching and reaching out which culminated in the organizing and implementation of a Trail maintenance ‘trip’ in 2004.  The intention was to interest like-minded people in volunteering to come on a few-day trip to camp on the Great Divide Trail and be willing to work. This would include using specialized tools and equipment to cut and remove deadfall, repair The Trail tread, clear the corridor, blaze The Trail and connectors, and replace or build log bridges.

2004 Trail maintenance

The 2004 Trip was unique:

  • It was the first of many annual trips reviving the Great Divide Trail that was built in the mid 1970’s.
  • It was scheduled to be ten days, two weekends and the week in-between.
  • It had ‘organization’ support (Alberta Wilderness Association), some financial assistance from a private donor and a sponsor (Stihl).
  • Trail maintenance tools and equipment were borrowed.
  • It had a ‘camp’ set up near Perky Perkinson’s cabin in the Cataract Creek Valley.
  • Since the campsite had no road access, an outfitter with pack horses was used to transport the required camp gear, tools, equipment, and supplies.
  • Ten volunteers and a horse were the crew. They backpacked their own personal gear to and from the camp.
  • A cook planned the breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus; purchased the food, prepared and cooked the meals over a campfire along with a two-burner camp stove.
Perky Perkinson’s Cabin 2004
Crew 2004

It is the Longest Running GDTA Trip

The success of the inaugural Trip led to subsequent annual Trail maintenance trips.  These were usually held at different locations along The Trail with some being for specific purposes, for example bridge building.

These early trips introduced hiking enthusiasts not only to the beauty of the Great Divide Trail but also to its remoteness and ruggedness.  It gave them an opportunity to not only hike but also work on The Trail therefore appreciating the efforts of those Trail maintainers and builders who came before them.  These trips initialized a community of like-minded people. Many of these came back many times to become veterans acquiring skills and expertise which they willingly shared with new recruits.  Some were so motivated by their experience they continued to give back by becoming Great Divide Trail Association (GDTA) Board and/or Committee members.

These trips continued, with the latest being held in 2022, however there were some interruptions along the way including a forest fire, a flood and a pandemic.

It Evolved

Over the years, with increasing membership, sponsorship (funding) and experience, the annual Trip developed, matured. and grew.  The first Trip was born from a perceived need and has grown into a vital component of what the GDTA does.  Every Trip was an opportunity to learn through experience and feedback from volunteers with the intention of making the event more efficient, enjoyable, comfortable, and memorable. 

The pair of lost hikers – Dan and Wayne, morphed into a group – the Friends of the Great Divide Trail.  It was highly recommended the group not be formally recognized for political reasons however, it would not last.  One year, while attempting to get a Trip permit, a pointed comment from a government agent told the group “to grow up” which inspired the reactivation of the Great Divide Trail Association in 2013.

The appetite of thru-hikers and new members encouraged the creation of the GDTA website and more.  Social media and the increased workload revealed the need for committees. With the formation of GDTA committees, the Trip became the responsibility of the Trail Building and Maintenance Committee (TBMC) always with a desire to improve/enhance Trip working and living conditions. Trip leadership roles and responsibilities were identified: Trip Coordinator, Trip Manager, Safety Officer, Camp Manager to name a few. Trip participants signed up for camp positions/tasks. Thus everyone contributed. 

The ‘realignment’ of The Trail from the British Columbia side to the Alberta side, creating the High Rock Trail, resulted in big Trip changes one of which was converting from Trail maintenance to Trail building. The TBMC decided one Trip a year was not sufficient to construct the new Trail in a reasonable amount of time therefore more trips were added.  As a result, in 2015, the original Trip became named – The Signature Trip; referring to “something that serves to be set apart or identify” (Merriam- Webster).  It is important to note the Signature Trip birthed the many ‘specialized’ trips that are common today.

What started with ten adventurous people offering to maintain the Trail is now a Signature Trip with twenty energetic Trail builders and supporters.

In the beginning people sat on logs around the campfire. Now, with transport, volunteers can relax in their own comfortable lawn/camp chairs while sharing their stories. 

2009 – Logs around the campfire
2019 – Campchairs around the campfire

If one felt a need to wash/bath, a clean mountain lake or a pool in a cold stream was usually available (it was also a fridge). 

Clear mountain lake – brrrrrrr……..
Cold streams make good refridgerators

Now one can choose a warm shower (solar heated) in a private, tarp-walled, stall.

Solar heated shower bags

Since water is a necessity for drinking and food preparation, the camp was normally located near a stream enabling volunteers to haul water in barrels and pails. Now a solar panel charges a battery powered electric pump providing ‘running’ water almost to camp – still a work in progress.

A filtering system was also devised for drinking water.

Left – Bringing water to the campsite
Right – 2022 – Water filtration system to go with the new water pump

Volunteers slept on foamies in personal tents that were initially backpacked in. Now with ATV support some choose to sleep in larger tents allowing a person to stand to put on work clothes or bring a folding cot.

Large tent courtesy of ATV support
And cot also hauled in on the ATV

When it rained, campers huddled under tarps tied to the trees, next it was a car shelter, then it was two.  Now people meet and dine comfortably in walled, heated, canvas outfitters tents.

2010 – Commons shelter
2011 – Commons shelter
2018 – Commons shelter
2022 – Commons shelter

From day one, feeding the Signature Trip crew well, was a priority.  The cook planned menus, purchased the food which was organized and packed for shipping to the campsite.

Shopping for food (top); Organizing and packing food (bottom)

Initially cooking equipment was primitive but effective and efficient. The cook and helpers prepared the food to be cooked on Coleman stoves and the campfire.

2009 – Burgers grilled over the campfire
2009 – Cooking on the Coleman stove
Meals on the campfire

Over time, the Colemans (the stoves, not the people) were replaced with a heavy-duty propane camp stove, and then two.

2010 – The heavy-duty propane stove
2014 – Two heavy-duty propane stoves

And then supplemented with a BBQ to keep the prepared food warm.  One year, a beef roast was cooked in the BBQ.

Full blown propane barbeque

In two of the latter years, workers had the fortune of enjoying their meals created by a backcountry chef who used chaffing pans.

2021 – Meal prepared by the chef

And of course, steaks by Lianne and Dan.

2009 – Yummy steaks over the fire (top)
2022 – Personalized steaks on the barbeque (bottom)

In the early days, food was eaten on ‘paper’ plates with whatever utensils each of us brought with us.  Today, camp drink and food are provided in/on re-useable cups and plates along with real utensils.

2022 – Real plates, cups, forks, knives, etc.

Some participants have more of a food ‘experience’.

Digging right in, Ah, to be young again…

An outdoor portable/folding kitchen pantry provided a workspace, a storage area for pots and pans, and even a sink. 

2010 – Portable outdoor kitchen

Of course, what goes in must come out.  As the book (now in its 4th edition) says, people had to learn “How to Shit in the Woods”.  Over the years, the latrine also advanced.  From a cat hole with a strategically placed log, to several logs to give elevation, to 2 x 4’s appropriately and securely stacked topped by a toilet seat, to a luxury commode complete with a roof, and all with an open-air view.  The latrine is a defining structure for the Signature Trip.

Commode evolution

It is a Learning Opportunity

Since its inception, the Signature Trip was designed to be a learning opportunity.  The Trip, with its experienced leadership, offered knowledge and safety for people who may never have backpacked and camped in the bush overnight. Participants, with the guidance of mentors, experienced the rigours of setting-up and taking-down the camp. At the end of a hard day’s work, volunteers tasted the nutritious meals that they did not have to plan, purchase, or cook even though they helped prepare or cleaned up.

The Trip supplied unfamiliar tools along with the training and opportunity to learn their safe use, some even being taught how to use trail building and maintenance power tools. A few seized the opportunity to ‘scout’ the new Trail route.

2014 – Trail maintenance tools

At the nightly campfire, after a traditional knot tying session, volunteers learned, from others, about their hiking adventures all over the world.  As an experiment at the 2022 Signature Trip, participants also had the chance to discover where they were camping by interpreting a topographical map and competing against other teams to locate geocaches.

Knot tying session

It Builds Community

The Signature Trip typically attracts, due to the reasons above, participants that are ‘new’ to the Great Divide Trail.  They may have heard of it, or even walked on parts of it.  Most have little to no experience backpacking and camping in a remote location but are open to the possibilities. 

Some volunteers return to the Signature Trip many times.  Signature Trippers discover ‘community’; they find like-minded people with stories and experience to share, outdoor enthusiasts wanting to give back, adventurists who are looking for excitement and a challenge.  Instructors and learners.  Knowledge and skill.  Practice and expertise.

Many first timers chose to re-live the exhilaration and come back on this or other types of GDTA trips thereby creating a community supporting each other to achieve a common vision.

It Has Tradition

Since 2004, what is now called the Signature Trip has been held almost every year, with some exceptions.  The Signature Trip introduced many to the Great Divide Trail, its supporters and promotors, its community, its sponsors.  The Signature Trip has become a tradition for the Great Divide Trail Association.

At the conclusion of the Signature Trip on the way back to Calgary it has become a ritual for the tired and dirty volunteers to convene at the Black Diamond Bar and Hotel pub to celebrate their Trip achievements. 

2010 – Annual after party at Black Diamond Bar and Hotel pub

Is it a Brand?

If an organization’s ‘brand’ has these features: memorable, defining, unique, long lasting and mass recognition perhaps the Signature Trip has become the brand of the Great Divide Trail Association.

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