THE END – Into the Wild Divide SOBO – Section A
My sleep was restless, my body tense from shivering my way through the night. I’m grateful for one final, pillow-top mattress sleep in our van Tic-Tac, but I vow to always have a down sleeping bag within easy reach – winter is upon us! It’s still dark outside when we emerge from the van. I take Sitka for a quick pee, knowing that she will get her fair share of hiking in over the next five days.
We groggily (but excitedly) head on over to Cinnamon Bear Bakery for a preemptive sugary high in the form of cinnamon buns. I have done nothing to deserve this gluttony – sitting in a van for four days isn’t exactly carb worthy – but the trail lies ahead in all her undulating glory. So I feast!
The owners of the bakery are completely enamoured with our upcoming hike, but even more enamoured with our dog Sitka. They ooh and ahh at her as she sits daintily outside the cafe door. I’m really happy to have her joining us for our final Great Divide Trail section. She may be cute and cuddly, but she’s also strong and mighty!
When we head outside, the sun is mostly up, with final traces of the pink sunrise on the mountainous horizon. It’s a stunning backdrop to begin our final chapter; to welcome us back to our familiar trail home. My stomach is tense with anxiety concerning the inevitable upcoming cold nights, and forecasted snowstorm in a couple days. This area has already had some substantial snow falls, and the next one is predicted to be a 4 day snow dump! The GDT has been a wild ride…rarely a walk in the park!
Today is all about walking ATV roads. The conditions vary between icy and muddy, but we manage to make good progress. There are several trees down on the trail indicating infrequent use. We maneuver our way along, log hopping, log ducking, and log skirting along Willoughby ridge. The sun is blazing today, and to my amazement, I am comfortably warm! I soak it in.
We roll into camp after sunset, having completed 35 kilometres. We resume our usual trail duties – Dan sets up our den, I make dinner. We discuss our route options over our old and faithful mac n’cheese. There’s a lot of snow on the north facing slopes in the alpine. We have snowshoes, and we’re prepared, but there’s a snowstorm in the forecast, and we want to make sure we time our alpine hiking wisely. Luckily, a local trapper pulls into camp, and offers us some advice on the condition of the roads and trails in the area. We manage to piece together a route that allows us some time in the alpine, and also keeps us out of the closed trails of Waterton Lakes National Park. A substantial amount of the park was burned this summer, and the park staff have decided to leave everything closed until next spring.
So it’s going to be a balancing act between respecting the closures and Mother Nature’s snowstorm, and also getting some scenic ridge walking in. The timing of it all is extremely delicate, but we think we can do it!
We have to backtrack 0.5 kilometres this morning, having decided that we are better off heading up into the alpine sooner than the official GDT would allow – gotta beat the flurries!! We catch glimpses of the snowy alpine, and I have mixed feelings – it looks spectacular up there, but the snow cover looks ominous and challenging! So I enjoy the ease of the roads for now.
There are a surprising amount of people out here using these roads. Our progress is slower than it should be, as we stop and chat with everyone. I imagine we’re a funny sight – lightweight backpacks, worn out running shoes, and a “toy dog.” Quite a contrast to the ATV and mule riding, camo-clad hunters!
We talk to two hunters for a while about the trail conditions ahead. One of them is eyeing our footwear as he listens to where we’ve been and where we plan to go. The roads are muddy, full of puddles and occasionally snow. “And you’re hiking in those?!”, he says, finally voicing what I have seen written all over his face for the last 10 minutes. I know. It looks unconventional, but it works for us!
We roll into camp after sunset. It’s getting really cold and windy, with a sprinkling of snowflakes mixed in. Is this the beginning of the huge snowfall? I walk faster just thinking about it. I shed a few tears (I’m sorry…cold and tired and scared is a perfect formula for tears!), and collapse into camp. Dan sets up the camp, and I bundle Sitka in any unworn clothes. She’s shivering as well, but quickly recovers.
After dinner, we cuddle up into our beds, and my tears subside. I’m one of those people who really FEELS my emotions – no suppression, and no shame. I know thats not for everyone, but if I don’t physically allow myself to release my emotions through crying or dancing or belly laughing, I BURST. I feel healthiest when I’m honest with myself.
Dan brought an extra sleeping quilt along for this leg – another Enlightened Equipment bag, to help top up the warm factor a bit for these cold nights. When he whips it out, he smiles at me and exclaims, “Guess what I found!” I get it on my first guess. It’s my down socks. The. Best. Thing. Ever. No more cold feet! I’m ecstatic.
“You just made my day Dan!” I hastily pop them on my chilly toes, and collapse into a down-filled, dreamy sleep.
Today we get to venture above tree-line and into the wild, vast, rugged alpine! It feels like it’s been forever since we’ve walked along mountain ridges, and I have to say, I’m excited! Sure, I’m worried about the snow, but what’s a thru-hike without some difficulty and worry?
We hit snow as soon as we begin climbing. It’s absolutely gorgeous up here, but my nerves get wonky when we strap on our snowshoes. My mind bends back to when we started this trip in June, and we spent a lot of time on snow. It was slow, trying, and exhausting. But we survived. I can do this…again.
When we reach the alpine, there’s snow everywhere. It’s a cold day, and as the terrain levels off a bit, my core temperature drops. Luckily we came prepared and reach for all our cozy down-filled layers.
We walk along the most spectacular ridge from late morning to early afternoon. By lunch, it’s starting to warm up with glorious toasty sunbeams. As we eat our hummus and crackers in the sun, I decide to send a text to my dad to let him know how we’re doing. We brought our Delorme with us for this section just in case we need to radio for help due to bad weather. It’s also really nice for communicating to family. My dad texts back with a message of motivation, and I feel reenergized by his faith in me.
Our route has us skirting right along the forest fire area that burnt in and around Waterton Lakes recently. The amount of devastation is disheartening; as far as the eye can see. It’s all so tragic, powerful, yet painstakingly beautiful. We walk in silence for a lot of the afternoon, taking in the surroundings of hollow, charcoal trees.
We eventually descend a ways and set up camp along a lower ridge. I can tell it’s going to be cold, and decide to make Sitka a warm “nest” at my feet with all my extra clothes, including one of my down jackets. She collapses into the soft bed, and stays that way all night. We have a doggy down!!
So. Cold. Last. Night.
I kind of regret giving Sitka all my extra clothes; turns out they weren’t entirely extra, as I could have slept a lot better with them! Oh well. The price I pay for being responsible for her comfort as well.
The town of Waterton Lakes is so close, I can taste it! We walk through further Forest devastation areas; it’s hard to believe this is the same park we started our thru-hike in way back in June. Everything is black with charcoal or white with snow, creating a colourless landscape. It’s so strange. However, regeneration is bound to happen, and Mother Nature will work her magic. The forest will return!
It’s unbelievably windy ALL DAY. The air is crisp, cutting our faces with it’s chill. Winter is coming!
We skirt off a side trail that allows us to walk a roadside trail into town. The trees are dangerously swaying in the wind, they’re shells of what once was, threatening to crash down at any given moment.
Waterton. We are here! We walk around, soaked and cold, looking for somewhere…ANYWHERE that we can be inside. But nothing is open. Seriously…nothing. We see the occasional person packing up things in their shed or starting their car, but it appears that the entire National Parks town has shut down for the winter. We pass by the hostel and notice a light on! False alarm; they’re closed too.
No use sulking around this anti-climactic town…let’s keep hiking! I can hardly bear to ask Sitka to keep moving – she looks cold, pathetic, and DONE. But we may as well make a few more kilometres as tonight is when the snowstorm begins. Before long, she’s back to her inquisitive, feisty self, leading her pack down the trail with pride. Today, I trail name her “Tough Cookie” for obvious reasons.
We decide to stop hiking when we are 4 kilometres from the border monument. It’s beginning to get dark, and we want to take our time enjoying the end of the trail.
Around midnight, it begins to snow.
This is it. Our final day on the Great Divide Trail. It’s unreal.
We emerge from our fox-den one last time, greeted by a thick, blanketing of snow! We truly did experience every season on this thru-hike, and we laugh at the craziness of it all.
The snow is soft and fresh, but we eventually decide to wear our snowshoes. We punch right through the fluff, but no worries as we’re almost there! It’s cold and uncomfortable out here, but we’re both beaming. We’re actually going to finish our hike…for real. No longer a maybe, or an I-sure-hope-so, but a definite yes.
I’m grinning from ear to ear. My body is tingling with excitement. We’re so close. Our beginning…our end.
We don’t talk a lot this morning on our short hike to the monument. We’re very reflective. Thoughtful. Processing it all. The good times and the hard times…all flooding back to me in vivid detail. This trail was so much more than I could ever have imagined! More wild. More scenic. More difficult. More sacred.
I loved the Great Divide Trail in all her glory. She’s not for the faint of heart, but she is for the adventurer, the wanderer, and the “off-the-beaten-path” type. I didn’t always get along with this trail, but overall, I wouldn’t take the experience back for anything. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right?
We’re getting really close now. The snow is continuing to fall in thick consistency, with over a foot of snow loaded on the tree boughs. It’s truly magical. A winter-wonderland forest. We turn the bend, and slowly begin to descend towards the lake.
“There it is Dan! The skinny clear-cut of trees!” (that separates Canada and the USA). The border markers come into view, covered in snow.
We walk to the end together, and embrace. “We did it.” One of us says. I honestly can’t remember! I am just so happy; so overwhelmed with the finality of it all. Here’s a project we’ve spent so much time and energy on; a project we thought was over more than once. But we did it. We waited out injuries. We skirted around forest fire closures. We spent a month and a half off trail waiting for the closures to re-open. Now here we are!
As expected, I get a little emotional and shed some happy tears.
Dan does not waste any time reminding me that we said we would swim in the lake again. We started the trail that way, and we had planned to finish in the exact manner.
“No way!” I protest. “It’s snowing, it’s cold, and we have to hike all the way back to town!” There’s no way he’s serious, I reason with myself. We thought we’d finish in August, not October. No one would EVER swim in these conditions!
But he’s changing out of his down clothing and into his summer shorts. SHORTS. Out here! He’s adamant about this, so I offer to film the entire thing. He does it. He’s completely nuts!!
We dry him off as fast as we can, and get moving! Back to town for these two hikers!
And at town, the trail ends. Just like that. We find a restaurant open (yay!) and order food and coffee. We are in full on lounge mode, shedding layers as the cold melts away. Coffee. Still the best “luxury” as a thru-hiker.
What’s next for this wandering duo? New adventures? Long trails?
To Tic-Tac our van…the open road…the limitless possibilities. It’s a mystery. The future is wide open.
We like it that way.
Stay wild my friends,
Thank you everyone who has followed along us on this amazing adventure! Stay tuned for some videos in the (hopefully) near future.