7 Days on the Great Divide Trail – Jasper National Park

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.

Owen Creek
Owen Creek Campsite

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.

Over the first pass of the trip

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.

The highest point on the GDT

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.

Sub alpine flowers

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.

Trying to dry out the tent

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.

Cougar track

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.

Avalanche campsite

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.

Enjoying a celebratory beer.

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!

5 Ways to Feel Safer in the Backcountry

It is a strange feeling in this day and age to not be connected to world around you. As someone who keeps their phone no farther than an arms length away at all times, it is a huge adjustment to be completely disconnected, but also an incredibly freeing experience. Education is your power when you want to feel and be safe during your outdoor adventures. Here are a few ways to prepare yourself and hike with confidence.

  1. First Aid Training

Give yourself the tools to problem solve efficiently and confidently. It’s a wonderful idea to have First Aid Training in every day life, and incredible to have in the outdoors. Standard First Aid is great, and you can even expand your knowledge with Wilderness First Aid as there could be hazards in the outdoors that you may not see in day to day life.

It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with your first aid kid. I carried a first aid kit for years without ever opening it, and if I was ever faced with an emergency situation, I likely wouldn’t have known what was in it. Practice splinting and bandaging so you can help yourself and others in case of an accident. You’ll feel more confident and better equipped to adventure out of cell service range.

A mock first aid scenario in Wilderness First Aid

2. Build a Solid Trip Plan

I have mentioned before that the West Coast Trail felt like a breeze because I had researched it down to the kilometre so we would have no trouble with navigation or tide tables. I have also been on the flip side and found myself taking many wrong turns or not knowing what to expect due to lack of research. There is information available everywhere now, especially on Apps such as AllTrails, to learn exactly what you need to know about your adventure. If you know what you’re in for, you’ll know how to pack and be mentally prepared for your journey. It’s also important to create a trip plan and share it with someone who will know when to expect your return.

Write or type out your plan and send it to someone who will look out for your arrival and ensure that you have made it back safely. Let them know where you will be going, how long you expect to be there, and what to do if they do not hear back from you by the chosen time.

West Coast Trail information board

3. Research the Area and Local Wildlife

A question that I see often on hiking groups is concern about wildlife encounters. Whether it’s bears in the forest or rattlesnakes in the desert, there is always the potential for running into wildlife. Instead of hoping an encounter doesn’t happen, prepare yourself for what to do if one does. Research different species you’ll find in the area, what their behavior is, and what to do if you happen across them on the trail. Carry bear spray, wear closed toed shoes and long pants, or whatever else is recommended in the area and you might feel a little better about the rustling in the bushes.

It’s also a great idea to read up on current trail conditions and reviews from other hikers. You’ll often find out little bits of information that make your hike safer and more enjoyable, such as which direction to travel first, what to avoid, and which beautiful spots you must see. It’s good to know beforehand if the trail is under a lot of snow, if a bridge has been washed out, or if there has been a lot of wildlife active in the area.

A mama bear and her three cubs

4. Know Your Gear

You know what is ridiculous? The fact that I have had a compass in my pack since 2017 with not a clue how to use it. Fortunately I have been able to work on my skills, but it makes me wonder what else I throw in my bag because a hiking book told me to, and not because I actually know how to use it. In Search and Rescue training, the instructors are constantly reminding us to try out our gear before we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere with it with no idea how to properly set it up or make the most out of it.

Confidence in your gear and your pack means that you know which tools you have at your disposal in case of emergency. Try setting up your tent in your backyard for a night, cook dinner on your camp stove, or do some compass and navigation work in local parks. Make note of which gear you use often and what my sit in your pack untouched so you know what you want keep and what can be left behind.

5. Invest in a Satellite Messenger

I have hiked through areas of no cell service plenty of times without much worry. It can be either scary or nice to be fully cut off from contact from the outside world. That being said, if something was to go wrong, it’s comforting to know that you can still contact emergency services or loved ones if you needed to. I recently purchased a Garmin InReach and have just started bringing it on adventures with me. While the price may seem a bit steep, it could be an invaluable tool in an emergency, and may be a good idea if it is within your budget.

There are many different devices to choose from, from simpler emergency beacons all of the way to two way messengers with GPS and tracking capabilities. Research which device would be best for you, for me I wanted to two way messaging option to be able to send my family ‘I’m okay’ messages. I was also able to find a device second hand but in great condition on a buy and sell website and save myself a few hundred dollars.

My Garmin Inreach Explorer

More Quick Tips to Adventure Safely

  • Clap, shout, or sing as you make your way along the trail so that you don’t surprise wildlife
  • Ensure that you are drinking enough water and stopping for breaks. (Powdered Gatorade or electrolyte tablets are a great addition)
  • A Search and Rescue trainer of mine always says ‘two is one, and one is none’ in terms of gear. Think to yourself about what you would do if you were suddenly without a core piece of your gear and consider carrying a backup.
  • Brainstorm what multiple purposes a single item may have. For example, the mirror on your compass could also be used as a signalling device,or maybe even a fire starter.
  • Adapt your First Aid Kit to your adventure style, if you are often travelling in a group you may consider adding enough to care for multiple people or different medical conditions.

Is my list missing anything? What makes you feel safer in the back country?

Safe & happy exploring!

Jewell Pass via Prairie View Loop – Kananaskis, AB

With restrictions beginning to lift and new safety procedures being set in place, my cousin Anya and I decided to head to Banff for the weekend to get a few nights of camping and a few quick hikes in. We were careful to follow all of the safety protocols, and wore masks whenever necessary as well as packed most of our food to eat at our camp site instead of in restaurants all weekend.

Unfortunately I was sporting a few nasty blisters from a earlier trip and mentioned to Anya that I would be taking it easy hiking-wise. We decided on a trail in the Kananaskis area and set out in the morning. ‘Taking it easy’ turned in to a 22km adventure, which was a lot of fun but maybe not the best foot care I have ever practiced.

Barrier Lake, Kananaskis AB

We decided to hike Jewell Pass via the Prairie View Trail. This is a moderate 16km trail that turned out to be much longer than expected when we were turned away from the parking lot. The Barrier Lake parking lot fills up quickly, and we were waved on by the parking attendant immediately, so we decided to park a few kilometres up the road and hike to the trail head along the lake side. We found our way back to the parking lot rather easily, and counted nearly ten empty parking spots on our way (sigh!). We were glad to be there and get started though. The lake is lovely for day use, and has picnic tables and washrooms. You begin on a gravel road crossing the Barrier Lake Dam and travel up a small hill to a bench, then continue following until you see a posted trail sign at an intersection.

Heading up the Prairie View loop section

I packed my day pack with plenty of water and snacks, a light jacket because the clouds were looking a little grey and the wind was beginning to pick up, and most importantly my trekking poles. I found poles to be most helpful on the second half of the trail when we were heading down over loose rocks and uneven terrain. I also brought my regular day pack essentials such as my first aid kit and bear spray.

The first lookout point

As suggested on AllTrails, we decided to travel counter clockwise, which turned out to be the best route. The first half of the trail is a steady incline with switchbacks, but it’s also very wide and well maintained. We stopped for a few short breaks, but found it quite easy to make our way up to the lookout point. The first half of the hike was busy, but we only ran in to a few other hikers and mountain bikers for the Jewell pass section. The entire trail is well marked with plenty of signs posted along the way to help navigate the many trails that overlap.

Piper the mountain dog

The second half was a lot quieter and a little more technical, but still well maintained. We crossed a few beautiful little bridges and enjoyed walking through the trees. There was some evidence of bear activity as the berries are in season now, but we kept talking as we hiked and didn’t run in to any furry friends.

Bridges on the Jewell Pass portion
Jewell Pass section

Eventually the trail meets back up with the ‘Stony Trail’ portion that seems to also be used for horseback riding. My puddle loving dog pranced through all of the water on this trail and spent the rest of the weekend smelling like a barn (sorry we had to share a tent Anya ๐Ÿ™‚ ). The last bit is out of the trees so be aware that you’ll be in the sun for a while if itโ€™s a warm day.

The race back to the car with sore feet

We made it back to the car with a few more kms than expected, but happy as can be. I would absolutely recommend this hike to a beginner who is looking to try longer trails, and also suggest that hikers try to get to the parking lot earlier in the morning before it fills up.

Happy exploring!

A Day in the Life of a Dog Sled Tour Guide

What goes in to being a musher? Getting paid to pet dogs all day? Here is a snap shot of an average day of a dog sled guide, working one of my favourite jobs but also by far the most difficult!

Every morning I would scramble and gather all of my gear and quickly eat before heading out the door. The funny thing about seeing dog food all day when you’re hungry is that it starts to look kind of… appetizing? I found myself buying chocolate cereal that looked suspiciously familiar to the kibble I was scooping out for the dogs. Every day I brought a 48 litre pack of gear and a smaller 20 litre pack to work with me, the smaller bag to sit on the sled with me with extra mitts/gear for guests, and then a larger bag for extra layers of clothing and another pair of boots. We would all arrive at the dog kennel and throw our bags in a pile on the deck to start the morning chores.

While it’s easy to see the fun part of the tours, a lot of work goes in behind the scenes to keep the dogs happy and the tours running smoothly. The first tasks of the day are regular chores before we load up the dogs and drive to the dog sledding trail. Morning chores included feeding, poop cleanup, giving medications to dogs who needed them, loading hot water canisters and other supplies into the trailers, and getting the trucks running and warmed up. Winter in the mountains also means that morning chores were done in the dark, so a good head lamp was a must! Each of the 150+ dogs received a portion of food specific to their dietary needs, and we followed a written food board to make sure this was correct. As guides, we were expected to learn each and every dogs name and which house they lived in (their names were not written on their houses or collars).

Indy and the food board

My favourite chore in the morning was preparing the feed. My least favourite was loading the trailers, because I wasn’t tall enough to lift the hot water canisters into the trailer and often spilled them all over myself in the process. It is rather uncomfortable to start a 12 hour day outside in the winter soaking wet. After those tasks were done, we were all given a list of what the teams would look like for the day. Then we would run to collect the dogs and put them in the appropriate boxes in the trailers so they could be unloaded according to team. This was a workout, because we would be running with two dogs at a time and lifting them into boxes. I often struggled to get the bigger dogs in the boxes up over my head, and was thankful when they would cooperate by putting their front paws up on the trailer. After everyone was packed up, we grabbed our radios and set off.

The driving time was our ‘quiet’ time for the day, as the trails we ran our teams on were about 30 minutes from the kennel. As soon as the trucks pulled up to site, we were on the ground running to get everything ready. A drop line was set up between posts to clip the dogs in to get their harnesses put on before the team was hooked up to their sled. Then we would take the sleds down from the trailers, set up the lines and sled bags, then get the dogs hooked up, and drive them to the starting chutes to park until guests arrived. We typically would bring 120 dogs up to site with us every day. Any pups that weren’t heading out on the first tour would then be taken out to pee and given some warm soup while they waited for their turn. In addition to the set teams, we would bring up spare dogs to put in place of older dogs half way through the day or if any dogs were too tired or feeling unwell.

As the guests arrived and the tours set off, some guides would stay back to prepare a campfire for the cold returning guests, look after the dogs staying at the trailers, and prepare any dogs who would be running the next tour. Another two guides would set off on a snowmobile behind the running tour to clean up dog poop along the trail. Guests were often surprised to hear that clean up is done after every single run, but it was important to keep things as pristine as possible.

It is truly a magical feeling to be driving a dog sled across a frozen lake, and I tried to pause often to appreciate exactly where I was in that moment. What a privilege to live and work in the mountains, and be a part of a an experience of a lifetime for so many people.

As a guide I was responsible for three sleds, mine in the lead, and two guest driven sleds behind me. I had to ensure that the guests were driving safely and confidently, and that the dogs were doing well. If one sled was moving slower than the others, I could stop and rearrange my teams to even out the speeds. Sled dogs have best friends who they prefer to run with, and dogs that they do not get along with. It’s important to learn their personalities and understand those relationships to keep your sled moving and your pups happy. Happy dogs also need encouragement, so we asked guests to try and remember the names of the dogs on their teams and cheer them on.

Between tours, the dogs get a well deserved rest and a warm soup filled with tasty treats. This was also when it was important to check in on all of the dogs on your teams and give them some love. On very cold days, shorter haired dogs would get jackets, and those with sensitive feet would have booties put on right before the tour went out. Any other down time was spent snuggling, petting, and brushing the dogs.

At the end of the day, after four tours, we would drive all of the teams back in to the chutes to park and take the dogs off of the lines. They would be attached directly to the drop line again where we could remove their harnesses and give them a final bowl of soup before returning for dinner at the kennel. We would them take apart the sleds and wrap up the lines, then begin loading the dogs back into the truck after their stomachs had some time to settle after eating. We became so familiar with the dogs that we could have one guide wait at the trailer and one at the drop line, and then release dogs to run to them and be lifted into the boxes. There were also dogs who thought it was a fun game to run circles around us instead of going to the trailer, so we had to choose wisely.

Marilyn lounging after tours

Once we returned back to the kennel in the evening, the work was still not over. The first thing we would do is change out our wet socks/boots and uniform to dry kennel clothes. Then our first priority was getting the dogs out of the trailers and back to their homes where their food and fresh water was waiting. We always took two dogs at a time, and tried to choose two that live in a similar area in the kennel. A piece of gear that we all used was a climbing quick draw that we attached to our belt loops. This made it easier for us to clip one dog to us while we used both hands to lift the next dog down. After that we completed nightly clean ups, meds, and then some dogs would get jackets or blanket put in their houses if they needed them. Finally after everyone was fed and cozy in their dog houses, our day was over.

Ducati snuggled up with her blanket

One night a week I would sleep at the kennel, as each staff member took turns spending the night in to make sure everything was okay with the dogs and the yard. Kennel nights had their perks, you could bring dogs in with you for sleepovers (I would often have 3-4 pups sleeping beside me), but it also meant that I would wake up whenever the kennel started barking or howling, or when the logs in the wood stove had burned down. It was a great feeling to snuggle up beside a fire with a cabin full of happy dogs.

Dragon enjoying the fire

The next morning I would be up early filling thermoses with hot water and ready to start the process all over again. I was often so exhausted from my week of work that I didn’t even think about doing anything on my weekends, it was a full time commitment for a season and I would even dream about dogs all night, but I loved my experience working as a sled dog tour guide and every challenge I faced along the way.

I am now lucky to have a little piece of the kennel close to my heart since adopting my retired sled dog Piper from the company.

Happy working!

Driving an Ice Explorer on a Glacier

One of my proudest moments was the day I got my class 2 drivers license, it was also one of the most nerve wracking days of my life. I had been hired by a tour company in Jasper to be a driver/guide for their excursions on the Athabasca Glacier, so failing was not an option.

Earlier in the day, four other newly hired staff members and I stood in our hotel room in Edmonton, taking turns walking around an odd stack of furniture, pretending to do our bus pre-trips. We had already written our air brake exams, and now was time for the driving test. Although we would be driving coach busses and Ice Explorers at work, our road tests were done in school busses.

We went for our tests one at a time, and I anxiously waited for each person to walk back with a smile on their face to announce that they had passed. I was up last, and to be honest I couldn’t even tell you how it went because I was so nervous that I hardly remember. All I know is that I passed, and we drove back out to the mountains that night, proud as punch and ready to learn how to drive the big busses.

A perfect day at work with the Athabasca Glacier in the background

Before you are allowed to drive an Ice Explorer, you have to be extremely comfortable with the coach busses.We went through a fair bit of training on just driving, and then added a talking tour on top of it after to entertain guests as we shuttled them from attraction to attraction.

The tour part was my favourite, and I loved spitting out facts about the wildlife and the landscape to anyone who would listen. And the coach busses were quite fun to drive, especially when guests were shocked that their bus driver was a short blonde woman in her early twenties. But I was ready to move on to the Ice Explorers. I spent a week training one on one with a few of the managers, and had to do one final tour while driving and talking before I could start taking groups out.

Ice Explorer on the Athabasca Glacier , I was the last tour driver on the glacier that day and my guests had the ice to themselves.

Driving an Ice Explorer is quite different from driving a coach bus. There are only 24 of them in existence, each weighing in at about 55,000lbs, and able to carry 56 passengers. They are HUGE, and it was a climb to get into the driver seat. Although they are built specifically for travel on ice, we had to be confident and cautious drivers, while giving a full tour and telling jokes at the same time.

Looking up at my explorer during my morning pre-trip inspection

Drivers are equipped with radios, and constantly communication among each other and with dispatch to make sure things are running smoothly. All of the staff lives together at the Icefield, so your coworkers are also your roommates, and everyone looks out for each other.

Ice Explorer driver controls

My Ice Explorer slipped on the ice road one day as I was bringing a full bus back to the transfer bays. My driving style can certainly be described as ‘slow and steady’, but even if you are going slow, you can still slip up on the ice road after it has been warming up in the sun all day. There are always oncoming Ice Explorers sharing the same road, and especially as the summer warms up and the ice road thaws out, you wouldn’t want to get hung up in one of the deep ditches or piles of ice.

I started to feel the back end of my bus sway out and I immediately shifted into neutral as I continued to slide. Our driver trainers were great at explaining to us what to do in these situations, but it is always nerve wracking when itโ€™s actually happening to you. I was still mid tour, explaining what makes glacial ice look so blue when I saw my coworker approaching up the hill in another Ice Explorer. I knew at that point that I was still not stopping and she was moving quickly up the roads towards me. Fortunately she looked up and saw me sliding, then stopped her bus even before I could ask her to slow down over the radio. Another coworker, who was behind me, saw what was going on and called over the radio with some words of encouragement, which helped to ease my nerves a little as my machine continued to slowly slide down the road. I took a deep breath and controlled the slide until I felt the tires finally gaining a little traction.

With a sigh of relief, we were fine. I quickly resumed my tour and make it back safe and sound with my guests. Good training and guidance meant I was prepared for the situation, but as a driver your passenger safety is a top priority and there is nothing quite as nerve wracking. I radioed my manager and and the road was graded so that no one else would slip in the same spot.

View from the front seat of an Ice Explorer looking down the lateral moraine

One of the things about living and working in the mountains is that you never know what weather you will be driving in. It could snow any month of the year, even through the summer, and especially as we neared the fall we had plenty of snow days. And although the fleets of busses and Ice Explorers look the same, they all have their different quirks. I still smile when I think about unlocking my bus for the day one morning and reading the comments from the previous days driver, “wasp nest somewhere in bus, live wasps may blow out when you turn the air on”.

A glacier rainbow with an Ice Explorer at the end

Working as a professional driver and tour guide has helped me build on so many personal skills. My driving improved of course by trading in a little car for a big bus for a few months, and I developed my public speaking and presentation skills by building and presenting my own tours to guests. I appreciated that the company gave us talking points we were expected to touch on, but we were free to build our own tour in whatever order and with whichever stories we preferred.

I also took great delight in working a job that is stereotypically male-dominated. Nearly every day I would get comments like, ‘are you sure you even know how to drive this bus?’, or ‘wait, YOU are driving?’. On the flip side, I also received overwhelming support from plenty of guests who were happy to see so many young female bus drivers.

I am so grateful for my experience working as a driver/guide and being able to live in such an amazing part of the world.

Until next time, happy exploring!

My Top 3 Full Day Hikes in Alberta

There is no better feeling than standing at the top of a mountain, cracking a summit beer, and looking down at the landscape around you.

The thing about hiking is that once you catch that first amazing view that makes you fall in love, you can’t stop. The search is always on for the next adventure, the coolest trail, and the hiker’s high after a long day of trekking.

Alberta is home to many breathtaking hikes and adventures, here are my favorites.

Tent Ridge Horseshoe (Hard,10 km)

I set out with a group of friends one morning and made the 40 or so minute drive up the Spray Lakes road from Canmore to find Tent Ridge. The first section of the hike is in the forest, so be sure to make some noise and carry bear spray. Once we hiked in closer to the ridge, we began scrambling up the left side and moved clockwise (as suggested by AllTrails, this was the best route).

Tent Ridge

We then followed the ridge around, amazed by the incredible views as we stood above the clouds. We stopped for two breaks as it was pretty exhausting moving along, but became less tiring for the second half as the ridge flattens out.

Tent Ridge

This hike is absolutely worth the drive out of Canmore. Be aware and check the trail conditions before you go, because there is often quite a bit of snow in spring and early summer, so you can pack accordingly.

Wilcox Pass (Moderate, 9.3 km)

Wilcox Pass is a all about the views without the strenuous trek up a mountain. It is located on the Icefield Parkway very close to the Athabasca Glacier and the Icefield Discovery Centre. You’ll find the most difficult parts of this trail are at the beginning and end as you gain and lose most of your elevation, but it flattens out nicely in between.

I recommend going as a group with two vehicles if possible. Leave a vehicle at Tangle Falls and drive over to the Wilcox Campground to begin, or you could try to hitchhike your way to the campground (not uncommon practice on the Icefield Parkway but certainly not the safest).

Wilcox Pass and Bighorn Sheep

This is a great trail to bring your dog along with you, but make sure you keep them on leash as you are likely to see bighorn sheep and maybe even some mountain goats.

Wilcox Pass, a quick cool down nearing Tangle Falls

I enjoyed admiring the glaciers, and trying to identify all of the different types of fungi we passed along the way. Pack a delicious lunch and enjoy the day!

Cirque Peak via. Helen Lake Trail (Hard, 16.1 km)

Cirque Peak is an out and back trail that also begins on the Icefield Parkway, however it is closer to Lake Louise and begins on the Helen Lake Trail. The hard work pays off as the views at the top are among the best I’ve ever seen.

You will likely see plenty of marmots. Much to my delight, they ‘yelled’ at us most of the way. The adventure is moderately difficult until you reach Helen Lake and begin to move up past the tree line. As you move up the mountain, take plenty of breaks and continue on, the summit is worth it.

Expect to do a little scree skiing on the way down and be sure you have a windbreaker, and of course a beer for the summit, if you plan on hanging out up there for a while.

Every bit of that trail amazed me. It was such an incredible experience and I am eager to get back out there and hike again as soon as we are able to travel.

Some Quick Day Hiking Tips

** It’s a good idea to check AllTrails or other hiking apps for trail conditions. Especially in the Rockies, you could be hiking through snow even in the middle of summer. It’s also important to make sure there aren’t any trail closures or restrictions due to maintenance or wildlife.

**Pack layers, you may be warm when you start but things will cool off fast when you stop for a break half way up a mountain

**Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back

Happy hiking!

4 Hiking Mistakes We All Make

Making mistakes is all a part of the adventure. It’s how we learn, improve, and end up with funny stories to tell our friends. While trial and error is a big part of adventuring, maybe this list can save your feet a few blisters.

1. Improper Foot Care

After my first overnight hike I swore that I was going to burn my boots if I ever made it back to the parked vehicle. I tried to save some money and bought an inexpensive pair online, but I ended up shelling out three times as much for a good solid pair of boots that I love.

Foot care is one of the most important things to get the hang of if you want to truly enjoy your adventures. It is not worth it to ‘tough it out’ with uncomfortable shoes and blisters. Here are some ways to keep your feet feeling great.

  • Try on many different styles and brands of hiking footwear before you decide on a pair, make sure that you don’t feel discomfort or pressure that could cause blisters
  • Stop as soon as you feel rubbing or discomfort and put second skin or tape over the area
  • For multi-day trips, make sure you have a few pairs of socks and let them dry out completely between wears
  • Take your boots off when you stop for longer breaks
  • Tape your feet beforehand if you know you have blister prone spots
January 4, 2020 Pike Lake

2. Over-Packing

Everyone wants to be prepared for anything in the outdoors. When packing I always find myself throwing in plenty of last minute additions, and while some of them may be useful, they are also adding weight. Thru-hikers often do ‘shakedowns’ along their journey to cut out unnecessary weight, and while you may not feel like ditching your deodorant just yet, there may be other things that you can leave at home.

If you are going on an overnight trip, you maybe don’t need as many ‘just in case’ items. If you check the weather beforehand, you my be able to leave some layers behind (and use that saved space for candy bars). I have noticed that I tend to over pack first aid supplies. The problem with these giants kits of bandages and supplies is that I don’t know how to use most of it, which isn’t helpful on the trail. I saved myself a fair bit of weight by making a custom first aid kit filled with stuff that I know.

It is good to be prepared, but think critically about what you really need, you may save your back some stress. Try making notes of which items you used often and which were left untouched after each trip.

Pretty full pack here. ๐Ÿ˜›

3. Not Doing Enough Research

I once led myself and two friends the wrong way up a mountain because it seemed like the right way to me. I could have saved myself a few hours of time, and some less than enthused friends if I had simply looked up the hike online beforehand and read that the best way to access the peak was on the other side. Fortunately, most websites or apps (like AllTrails) will tell you the best route to take, and you can usually even download the trail maps to use out of cell service range.

Comparing this experience to my week on the West Coast Trail, which I had meticulously planned down to the kilometer, I know for sure that good research can make your trip. With a full trail plan, I was way more confident with decision making and time management. I could tell my hiking partners what to expect down to each kilometre.

Save yourself the stress and look at reviews or guides online from past hikers, there is often important information like washed out bridges and trail closures.

July 22, 2019

4. Forgetting That You’re Supposed to Have Fun

Your feet are sore, pack weighing down on your shoulders, trekking through wind and rain, you hope that your stove will light and the water you filtered from the lake is safe. You stop and wonder why you even put yourself in to this situation to begin with.

A negative mind set is one of the first obstacles you may have to overcome, and also one of the hardest. It isn’t easy to go from a warm, comfortable home to a small tent and rehydrated meals, or even to leave the safety of your couch to trek up a mountainside in a day. It is, however, important to try your very best to stay in a positive headspace. Here are a few ways I keep positive…

  • Remember that you are doing this for fun, it is okay to turn around, to take a break, or do whatever you need to make it a positive experience.
  • Mentally prepare yourself for the worst (i.e. what if it rains the whole time?), if the worst happens then you’ll be ready, if not, yay!
  • Stop and enjoy. Take lots of pictures, stop and write in a journal, sit and listen to music, this time is for you.
  • Bring good company, positivity is contagious.
  • Celebrate your accomplishments. Pack a beer for the summit, bring delicious snacks, go out for a nice dinner. Congratulations, you’ve earned it!

When we are doing something difficult or new, my friend Lindsay always reminds us, “Your body is made to do hard things.” You may be tired and sore, but wow will you ever be happy when you climb that mountain. Thanks hiking buddy, I love that.

Stutfield Glacier