Last January, my friend Megan mentioned that she was planning to thru-hike the Great Divide Trail in the summer of 2020, and was happy to have company for some of the sections. I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to catch up with a friend and challenge myself to a longer trip. She had been hiking the trail with her dog, but due to park restrictions, wouldn’t be able to bring her for Section E , Saskatchewan Crossing to the Town of Jasper, as that is a Woodland Caribou protected area; so I decided to join her. As soon as the campsite reservations opened, we were on the phone quickly booking our campsites. My sister decided to join in on the fun as well, so come August, our trio would set out together. Finally August arrived, and my sister and I set out to Alberta.
Day 1 – Saskatchewan Crossing to Michele Lakes
Our first day of hiking hit me like a brick wall. I began my day eager and excited, and soon found myself struggling to make it up the grueling 1150 metres of elevation gain with my full pack. We took a discouraging wrong turn about halfway into our day and ended up bushwacking back through the forest to correct our mistake. Regardless, we had plenty of laughs as we got hung up on branches and squished through the mossy forest.
After a pause at the Owen Creek Campground to make some dinner and regroup, we were refreshed enough to make it up to Michele Lakes. It was an incredible feeling to finally be above the tree-line, and we stopped to admire a spot where the two different colours of crumbling rock met between the mountains. We also had our first few glimpses of pikas watching us hike past their rocky homes.
Michele Lakes was breathtaking. We set up our tent surrounded by cute little puffs of plants that swayed and danced in the wind, resembling a Dr. Seuss story. Because there were no trees in the area for a bear hang, we set up a rodent hang above some rocks. We heard plenty of small critters moving around the tent through the night.
Day 2 – Michele Lakes to Pinto Lake
The sunshine woke us up, and we packed up our beautiful campsite to set out for another morning of elevation gain. Oatmeal was our breakfast of choice for each day, Chantal had thoughtfully prepared them with different flavours so we wouldn’t get bored. Our rodent hang was nearly infiltrated by critters, made apparent by some scratches on the side of the Megans tortilla bag, but the goods inside seemed to be fine.
The weather was perfect and sunny, and we happily reached the highest point of the GDT at 2580 metres just as another friendly couple who was hiking the trail made it. We snapped some photos of each other and enjoyed the view, we couldn’t celebrate for long though, as the rain clouds were rolling in.
I enjoyed the meadows filled with hearty little flowers, ready to brave whatever weather would be thrown at them, and the little mountain goat prints that trailed through.
As we made our way down the rain finally started to fall. Just as we began a steep descent down a mountain side an outfitter came up behind us with his three horses. He kindly offered to carry down any garbage, which was greatly appreciated, but we didn’t have much because it was only our second day. The horses made their way around the more gradual grade as we went straight to the steep stuff because the rain was beginning to come down. You could feel the water beginning to make the mountainside muddy and slippery, and we were thankful to make it down just as the rain started to fall harder.
The best treat we could have asked for was a wolverine rushing out of the trees, pushed out of hiding by the man and three horses on the other side. It ran across the rocks as Megan and I both looked at each other, wide eyes, to confirm what we were seeing. At this point the rain was falling down hard, and we were all soaked. We continued on for a few more kilometres and decided to hunker down and wait for it to stop.
It just so happened that we waited out the weather right beside the outfitters camp, and listened to the soft jingle of the free range horses with bells around their necks as they grazed along. The rain cleared after an hour or two, and we packed up to make our final hike to the Pinto Lake campground. As we walked in to camp there was a woman who was seconds away from putting out her campfire when she asked us if we wanted it. Chilled from the rainy day, it was gladly accepted.
Day 3 – Pinto Lake to Random Camp Site
The warm sun finally made an appearance in the morning! We excitedly hung all of our wet gear in the trees and even jumped in the cold lake for a quick splash. This camp had about 4 other tents in it, so it was also a great morning to chat with other hikers. The hiking day ahead was lovely because there was not a lot of elevation gain, but that also meant that we would be crossing plenty of little rivers and streams. No escape from the wet boots and socks. My feet are blister prone, and they were beginning to get sore because the protective tape I put on each morning wouldn’t last much longer than the first creek crossing.
A beautiful feature of this stretch of the trail is a pictograph found behind a large boulder that overlooks a rocky Cline River bed. The age and cultural affiliation of the pictograph is undetermined as far as I am aware. This was a perfect spot to stop, for lunch, and enjoy the work.
We continued on the area that we planned on camping for the evening, a little spot with a fire ring from past campers along the river, but as soon as we sat down we found ourselves in a cloud of mosquitoes. After a quick and delicious supper, we continued on to find higher elevations and hopefully fewer bugs. Our first task was to cross the water again, and we were met by steep rocks with only inches of stepping room on the other side. It must have been a sight to see, three ladies in Crocs, grasping on to handfuls of vegetation and hoping that the loose rocks we were balancing on didn’t give way and send us back into the icy water. Luckily, we made it just fine, and the river bed leveled out enough for us to appreciate how beautiful it was.
Megan was determined to find a beautiful campsite, and she certainly outdid herself. We hiked up to the edge of the treeline and found the perfect spot overlooking a small glacier fed lake and with the perfect view of the mountains around us.
Day 4 – Random Camp to Four Point Campground
Snow dusted some of the mountains around us in the morning, and we sipped our coffees in the sun. We watched another GDT hiker pass and go up on to the rocky moraine beside our campsite, and decided to keep our elevation gain and do the same thing. It always looks easier before you’re doing it, and we soon found ourselves on a daunting boulder field.
This was actually one of my favourite sections though, I enjoyed hopping from rock to rock much more than sloshing through creeks. It can be a little nerve wracking moving across such unsteady terrain, and any wrong step could have easily been a sprained ankle, but we managed well.
We kept a close watch on the few grey clouds above us and continued on through the rock. Eventually, with some careful stepping, we were at the top of the next pass. There was a place to sign-in and take a quick look through the hiker log book, and it’s a great feeling to see the people who hiked the same trails days, months, and even years ago. We found a signature from an Olympian, a man who had hiked all of the way from Mexico, and the kind couple from the days earlier who were hiking the GDT as a 25th anniversary celebration. How incredible to see people from all walks of life, with different goals, walking the same trail.
This pass was also the border of the White Goat Wilderness area and Jasper National Park. It was an enjoyable stroll down the pass, a lazy marmot came out of hiding to watch us as we walked from harsh rocky terrain in to what looked like a tropical paradise.
The diversity of terrain that we hiked in this day was incredible. We scrambled over rocks, trudged through snow, strolled past glacier blue water, and then made our way through the trees and brush in a river valley. We passed a few day hikers and trail runners along the way, a clear sign that we were finally in a National Park.
This was also the first day we crossed a bridge. Three cheers for dry boots and maintained trails!
The pain of four days with a heavy back and wet boots was really setting in. My shoulder gave me a lot of grief for the last 5 kilometres of trail, which I have never experienced carrying a heavy pack before. I carefully peeled off my wet socks and put Polysporin and loose bandages on the raw spots between my toes, but at that point there was damage done and not much to do to save it. Thank goodness for Advil.
Day 5 – Four Point to Jonas Cutoff
A huge part of hiking is mind over matter. If you can’t get out of a negative head space, it will haunt you every step you take. I struggled on the morning of the fifth day. We started out with a delicious breakfast and high spirits. Soon, I became frustrated when my boots started to feel like tiny swimming pools. It had rained overnight and every branch that we brushed by sent a stream of water down on to us. I knew that every sloshing footstep I took was doing more damage to my torn up feet.
We eventually made our way out of the dense brush and I had time to sit and wring out my socks. My head was still stuck in a grouchy cloud, but the mood could always be lightened by Chantal and Megans jokes. I decided to tie my wet socks to the back of my pack and hope that the sun and air would dry them as I hiked. Dry feet were a huge mood booster, and we continued on on a much happier note.
We stopped for a lunch break in a sunny meadow and spread out all of our wet gear in hopes of drying it out. The trail was gorgeous, with little to no elevation gain it was a lovely break from our rocky days earlier.
The next section of trail was up over Jonas Shoulder. Chantal was certain that a shoulder massage should be included with a hike up Jonas Shoulder, and I must say I agree. We stopped for some mountain view snacks before the last few kilometre push to camp.
The weather was so lovely when we arrived at the Jonas Cutoff campsite that we all quickly did some laundry and hung it to dry. I washed my hair, which felt amazing even though the water was freezing cold, and sat out in the sun to tend to my sore feet. After I was done cleaning and wrapping my toes, I looked up to Megan and Chantal giggling as they returned from the bathroom. Outdoor toilets and bear lockers are a huge perk of backcountry camping in a park.
At Pinto Lake we had the luxury of a ‘green throne’ open air toilet. and the other sites had no facilities along the way, so I was excited to see what was they were so giggly about. I made my way up the little trail away from camp and snorted when I saw the them. They were set up with three toilets in a row. A single open air toilet may be enough for a hiker to feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of using the facilities outside, but the thought of doing your business in the morning with a stranger sitting beside you was hilarious.
Day 6 – Jonas Cutoff to Avalanche
It was hard not to laugh in the morning as we woke up to frost covering our tent, and then quickly realized that the laundry that we carefully washed the night before was frozen in place on the line. We really couldn’t catch a break with drying out our gear. The day was lovely though and we hung as much as we could off of our packs to dry.
Our day was mostly covered by trees, and over plenty of bridges. While it was too bad to have the mountains views around us hidden, it was a relief to take another break from high elevation gain. We passed a warden’s cabin, and a few other campsites along the way. It felt different to see so many signs of human life as our first few days felt so remote.
The mud was a great way for us to see what was on the trail without actually seeing it. We passed over plenty of deer tracks, some huge moose tracks, and even some cougar tracks. After a trip of not seeing much for larger wildlife, it was exciting and a little nerve wracking to be reminded of the animals who were sharing their homes with us for a week. We were the only ones at the Avalanche campsite that night, and took all precautions to be bear safe.
We had dinner and chatted about the next few days. We were concerned about fording the Maligne River, especially because the forecast expected plenty of rain in the next few days. My feet were also in even worse shape, and I was nervous about how they would be for 60 more kilometres. Regardless, we enjoyed the evening and read our books beside a small fire to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
Day 7 – Avalanche to the Poboktan Trail Head
In the morning, I woke up around 5 am to the sound of rain. This continued on until around 10 am, with sleet being rained down on us at times. Everything was soaked, and we nervously talked about the state of the river we were due to cross. We poked our head out of the tents to the snow covered mountains around us and decided to make a call that none of us really wanted, but I think we needed.
I sent a message from my Garmin Inreach to one of my friends in Jasper and he kindly agreed to come pick us up at the Poboktan Trail Head. The satellite signal was delayed and I didn’t receive a reply from him until 45 minutes after. We had already begun hiking our route as planned, but quickly turned around when we knew that someone was able to pick us up! We ended up hiking about 14 kilometres out, through plenty more mud, to be greeted by my amazing friend who had even brought us each a beer and poutine.
That evening in Jasper, we were determined to get back out on the trail again the next day. We ate as much pizza as we could, and I patched up my feet to the best of my ability. That night, even though I was snuggled up in a comfortable bed, I woke up around 2 am to my feet aching. I made the tough call in the morning to not continue on the trail with Chantal and Megan, and instead dropped them off at the trail head for three days on the Jasper Skyline.
While I was disappointed to have to end my trip early, I know that my feet needed it. I enjoyed a few nights in a cozy hotel room and some time to drink delicious coffees in Jasper. I am thankful to have enjoyed 120 kms with my sister and friend, and so glad that Megan let us join in for some of her Great Divide Trail thru hike!
Here’s hoping you have a warm sleeping bag and even warmer hot chocolate!