Miette River to Blueberry Lake – 135km
July 19 – A Wet Walk in the Woods
I awoke to a wet world in Jasper. The trail starts off quite gently as it follows the Miette River up toward its headwaters. I knew I was in for a soggy few days when even the initial bit of road was saturated with water and muddy.
Honestly, though, I prefer it chilly and wet rather than hot. Crossing little bits of old broken boardwalk, rotting from years of rain and snow, made me feel like I’m entering into a more remote part of the GDT. North of Jasper, the trails don’t see much use other than horse trips and a few intrepid hikers.
July 20 – Follow the Horses
All that rain yesterday made for a steamy morning as the sun came out and began to evaporate pools of cold water hidden among the grass and moss. It must have been fairly cold up high. The peaks glistened with a fresh dusting of snow.
This section is known for being notoriously difficult to follow but I found it dead simple. Some horses must have been through recently as the trail was very chewed up. That made for muddy feet but easy to spot the trail.
I stopped short of Moose River, knowing I’d need to cross it six times and hoping that a night without too much rain might help the water levels drop a bit and the crossings go easier.
July 21 – Moose River & Moose Pass
My first peak at Moose River in the morning looked a bit swift and a bit deep but not overly scary. I’m very cautious with river crossings. Luckily, I made it across all six fords without any trouble, apart from chilly feet.
It really is remote out here. Most of the trail users are probably wildlife. I’ve never seen animal tracks on top of other animal tracks before.
I really enjoyed the walk up to Moose Pass. I stopped at a very inviting but also very cold lake for a quick swim, washing away the day’s dirt.
Tomorrow I have to do the most notorious river ford on the whole GDT: glacial Smoky River. Logically, I should try to get as close to that crossing as possible tonight so I can attempt the ford first thing in the morning. The author of the GDT app notes that it is “likely to be too high to cross at any time save for very early morning” and that trying to cross further upstream “is certainly suicide”. Despite all those considerations, though, Moose Pass is just such a beautiful place that I really wanted to spend the night there. Experience over practicalities.
July 22 – Crossing Glacial Rivers
I figured if I arrived at Smoky River too late with water levels too high, I’d just make camp on the flood plain and wait until the next morning. Reaching the river at 9am, that would make for a pretty long day of lounging around, so I was quite happy too see that the river didn’t look too bad.
Instead of using my hiking poles for balance, I found a big sturdy stick (actually, a small dead tree). The water flowing down Smoky River is thick with rock flour ground down by the huge glaciers that feed the river. That sentiment coats the big round rocks on the bottom of the river, making them slimy and slippery. I made my way across one step at a time, happy to reach the other side without taking an unintended swim. I’m getting more confident with the river crossings.
I had a nice break after crossing the Smoky River, contemplating my next stage of this Great Divide Trail journey. I was now at an important fork in the road: turn left and walk 28km out the Mount Robson trail to the traditional end-point of the GDT or turn right and embark on a very remote and challenging ~200km to Kakwa Provincial Park. I was originally planning on the shorter and easier option. My achilles tendon problems reinforced that idea. But my achilles has been bugging me less over the last week and I’m really keen to travel through such a wild place.
Decision made: let’s push on.
The trail began by crossing more unbridged glacial streams, quick-flowing but all manageable.
When I had the opportunity, I left the trail to walk along gravel bars. I love walking across wide flood plains. Such grand views in every direction.
The trail through the forest is wonderful too. This section of the GDT follows Jasper’s North Boundary Trail, a trip I’ve always wanted to do. I should do that soon because Parks Canada has decommissioned the trail, meaning they will no longer do any maintenance or upkeep.
I reached Chown Creek in the evening. Fortunately, there’s a bridge across this glacial creek, although it’s beginning to fall apart.
I checked the depth while crossing the bridge: belly button deep. The water tried to grab my poles from my hands. No way I would make it across without the bridge.
I set up my tent next to the river with grand views across the flood plain. What a wonderful place to spend the night after a day full of water crossings and a big decision made.
July 23 – Jackpine Pass
Rather than continue on the trail in the morning, I checked the river depth (barely lower at all) and decided to cross back over the bridge. If you continue on the trail, you have to ford back across Chown Creek upstream. Some brave people would give it a go but that’s beyond my skill level.
I had to do a bit of bushwacking and following animal trails, but it wasn’t too bad. I kind of like seeing how animals navigate through the wilderness by following their footsteps.
The views really opened up as I climbed toward Bess Pass and above treeline. Beautiful waterfalls streamed off Mount Chown.
As I approached Jackpine Pass, the sky darkened and it began to rain as waves of thunderclouds swept by. Thunder boomed in the distance.
I was fairly certain the rain and thunder would blow by and I was happy that the sun came out as I reached the pass. I really really wanted to camp right at the pass. The GDT used to drop down into the next valley, following the Jackpine River, but now takes a sharp turn before getting to the pass, so I suspect most hikers will miss this amazing view.
The author of the GDT guidebook describes the upper reaches of Jackpine River as a “quagmire” and it certainly looks foreboding.
July 24 – The Storm Hits
I awoke to a very different world. The sun no longer shone. I could no longer see grand, intimidating glaciers towering above me. Instead, fog and mist drifted up from the aforementioned quagmire of a valley below. I rolled over, deciding to sleep a bit longer, waiting for the skies to clear.
That ended up being a bad idea. I awoke again but this time to wind blasting my tent, trying to lift it up and carry it (with me inside) down into the Jackpine far below. So much for sleeping in. I packed up and got moving as soon as the wind became tolerable.
It continued to rain as I made my way up higher and higher on a cross-country route that serves as a much nicer alternative (in good weather, anyway) to the infamous Jackpine valley. I did a pretty inefficient job of navigating through the fog, having to adjust my course a number of times. I even resorted to checking my GPS! I do my best to rely on map & compass alone but I just didn’t want to stay still long enough to figure it out on my own. I think I need more practice navigating in harsh conditions.
When most GDT hikers reach Blueberry Lake, they probably set up camp or simply continue along the trail. I decided to break things up differently. Actually, I had to, as I hadn’t carried enough food from Jasper to take me all the way to Kakwa. I dropped off the GDT, heading down the Blueberry Trail toward McBride where Sil would pick me up and I could resupply. They say it’s only 7km to the road but the horse trail was in pretty rough condition. It drops 1000 vertical meters and, like me, all this hard rain also decided the trail was the quickest way down to the valley. Roughest 7km on the entire GDT.
I’m taking two days off to check out the towns of McBride and Valemount (which is planning on building Canada’s first ever year-round ski hill!) before heading back for the final and most challening leg of the GDT!