top of page

2022 Great Divide Trail Canada


20.8.

Tina and I fly to Denver on August 20, pack our equipment onto the truck at my place, the Red Rock Ranch, and load up the horses to drive to the Canadian border in two days. 1618 km. On the 23rd we meet up with Brent Wray from BC in Waterton at the Alpine Stables. Here the horses rest while we sort out our equipment and load everything onto Brent's Goosneck trailer. From there we drive another 1000 km to Grand Cache to Curtis Hallock's place at the Indian and Adventure Trails, where the horses take another day to relax. Brent will ride his Morgan, Charley (age 12), while Tina will ride Ahi, the Criollo, and I will ride my lead horse, Rodeo. The plan is to ride Great Divide Trail from Grand Cache all the way down to Waterton, a distance of about 900 km. Brent has done a great job securing campsites and permits for the various parks, mapping out a route through the various parks and making contacts and accommodations along the route. For greater efficiency, we are traveling extra light with no packhorse and have pared down our gear to the bare essentials. We ride with Garmin GPS 64 and have two Garmin Inreach with us to communicate with the family at home and our driver Peter Greubel, who is traveling with truck and trailer.


25.8.

After a rest day and exploring the Sulphur Gates ford, Melanie Curtis drives us to the trailhead that leads into the Willmore Wilderness. Brent, Tina and I saddle our horses and ride into the Kvas Plain to get to the Great Divide Trail, which is about a three-day ride north to south to the west. We're riding on a wide trail when Rodeo suddenly stops and I can see a black bear staring at us from the road. It disappears into the bush and Rodeo moves on. We meet a couple of outfitters camping out here by the river. We follow the Sheep Creek Trail to Ptarmigan Lake and find a campsite along the trail where we decide to spend the night. We covered about 20 km, passed two camps and spent the night in muddy water.


26.8.

The horses seem to have got on well and we are glad to have Brent with us, who turns out to be a very likeable guy who fits in well with our small group. We get up at 6am and I make coffee and oatmeal for our breakfast. This will be our staple food for the next 30 days, just like the Cliff Bar, which we fortify around 11am, and for lunch Italian salami and smoked gouda with nan bread as well as nuts and dried fruit. We fill our bottles with water from the many streams we come across and have no problem not filtering it.

In my front pockets I have all my first aid items, electronics for the Garmin, farrier's tools and repair kit, silver tape and bile ointment, mosquito and bear spray, plus an extra rope and gloves, a rabbit skin and a water bag. In my side pockets I have all my food and equipment as well as my personal items such as clothing, sleeping mat and down bags. In my roll are my rain gear, my military poncho, a second set of boots and spare duplos. (https://www.duplo-usa.com/). Tina carries the fence set and lunch and Brent carries the tarp and food for his horse.


We are still following the Jackpine River to Ptarmigan Lake and the trail is very muddy and deep. We have to cross the river several times and it is not always clear where the trail continues on the other side. The water is very muddy, you can't see how deep it is, and we all went swimming once with our horses. Tina, riding Ahi, who is only 140 cm tall, decided to strip off and swim across to find out how deep it is. After another 25 km we decide to camp at a ranger station and set up the fence on the other side of the creek where there is good grass. Rodeo and Charley fight with each other and Charley bumps into the fence, tears it down and runs off. The other two follow but just end up on our side of the creek grazing on fresh but very short green grass. We decide to move the fence to where the horses are and fence them in. We cook freeze-dried food over the fire in our mountain house and sleep under the roof of the ranger station.


28.8.

we follow the hiking trail to Ptarmigan Lake and try to find the path that leads along the Jackpine River at the junction to the lake. But there is no path to be found on either side of the river. This leaves us no choice but to follow the river until we reach the GD Trail at the bottom of the valley. It is difficult terrain, we try to stay on the contour line, but there are many fallen trees, rocks and swamps to cross. Often the trees are so dense that there is no way through and we have to go around the forest. We ride and lead our horses, which have to climb and jump over fallen trees as we struggle to find a way through the jungle. We cover about 1 to 1.5 km per hour and the branches of the trees scratch our bags and clothes. The horses are doing well, especially Ahi, the smallest, and he often finds his own way around higher obstacles that are easier for the two larger horses to negotiate. After about 5 hours, we lead the horses back to the river, because if we want to camp, we need to find food for the horses and water. We find a meadow in a bend of the Jackpine, which is a dried up swamp and a kind of plain, and directly above it is a hill with old trees, which provides us with wood for dinner.


29.8.

The trail takes us to the headwaters of the Jackpine River and we climb up to Jackpine Pass and in the early afternoon we reach Blueberry Lake, where I started and finished the Rocky Mountain Explorer Trail in 2014. Through wide meadows we reach Bess Pass and in Jasper National Park we follow the Smoky River. We reach Moose Pass and as we can't find the turnoff, we decide to follow the Moos Lake Trail to the road, where we meet Peter again.


30.8.

We get up early to tackle the Bess Pass and climb 500 meters in altitude over 3 km. A sign directly behind the pass indicated that we had now entered Jasper National Park. We then descended 500 m over 5 km to spend the day searching for a route in the intertwined channels of Chown Creek and the upper reaches of the Smoky River. Nothing wild or strange happened today, just a sunny day, riding good horses for 25 km in spectacular wilderness and enjoying the incredible scenery.


31.8.

Up before first light. Quick coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, camp packed, horses saddled and shortly after dawn we are on our way. When the morning sun finally appeared over the mountains and spread its soothing warmth across the river valley, we had already covered several kilometers.

Ahi has lost 4 horseshoes in the last few days and now we are out. There is nothing left, we have to reshape one of the remaining rear shoes and nail it on at the front, because that is where it is most sensitive. While I hold the foot up, Peter nails the fitting back on at the front and we hope that it will last until the end of this stage. Today was a long day on the trail, more than 12 hours including breaks. We rode 37.1 km up and over Moose Pass, where we left Jasper National Park and entered Mount Robson Provincial Park, descended into the Moose River valley and camped for the night. Tomorrow would be an exciting day as our planned route took us past the Colonel and into the Miette River valley. According to reports, the scenery was spectacular and the trail very difficult, with lots of swamps and cliffs.


1.9.

I was already awake when Peter's familiar "Tina. Brent. Time to get up" broke the morning silence. I was excited and anxious. In all my route research, the section we would start with today proved to be extremely challenging throughout. So challenging, in fact, that at one point the plan was to skip it and take the Moose River route. Until I spoke to a man who had grown up in Jasper and had ridden and backpacked Willmore and Jasper in the backcountry. He said, "Yes, it can be difficult to get there, but the scenery is spectacular and definitely worth the effort." Ok, let's do it then!


We set off early and rode down the valley. It wasn't long before I spotted the mountain called "The Colonel" and we started to pay attention to where our trail would stay to the left. Then we took a sharp left, leading us east, over Colonel Pass and into the valley beyond. If we missed the first road on the left, the trail would lead us into the Moose River valley. Finally, Peter stops. As always, he was watching the GPS closely. "That's wrong! We've missed the path." He dismounted and walked back to look for it. It was nowhere to be found. However, the GPS showed us the exact area where the path was supposed to branch off. Strange. On the other hand, maybe not. There have been times when the path shown on the GPS didn't exactly match the trail on the ground. Perhaps this was another one of those moments. We carried on for a while and the deviation from where we should have been increased. We had definitely missed the turn-off.


What to do? Do we go back and find the turnoff to Colonel Pass or continue on the Moose River route? Colonel Pass was our plan A, but it was also the longer and more difficult route, requiring two full days of strenuous work. If we continued along the Moose River route, there were no mountain passes and we could make it to the highway TODAY. In the end, it was an easy decision. The horses were tired, plus Ahi was sore and only had two horseshoes left. We would take the shorter, easier route and use the day saved traveling to give the horses a break.


Although we didn't have much information about the Moose River route, it was much more frequented than Colonel Pass, so we shouldn't have a problem with it. There's no cell reception out here, but we had GPS satellite communication via my Garmin InReach. We sent a message to Peter G, the driver of our support vehicle, informing him of the change in plans and the revised meeting point at the Moose River trailhead. There was only one real point of confusion on our revised route. We thought we had followed the Moose River down into the valley. Then the trail suddenly turned uphill and away from the river. It just seemed wrong. We took a lunch break on the riverbank while Peter continued to investigate the route on the GPS. Although there was no clear path on the GPS, it seemed that once we got over the hill, we could follow Resplendant Creek, which would eventually join the Moose River and down the valley.


Hmmmm... What to do? March along the Moose River because that direction seemed more correct, or follow the nicely cleared path over to Resplendant Creek and trust that that was the main route? We opted for the clear path and it turned out that we were right. 6 hours later we met Peter G. at the trailhead of the Moose River Trail. Big hugs all around. We had made it! Stage 1 wasn't quite as planned, but it was completed with a distance of 220 km in eight days and nobody was injured. Success!


We hadn't booked accommodation in Jasper because we didn't know exactly when we would finish. While I was driving, Peter sat in the back googling bed & bale style accommodation and making phone calls. He found a place that sounded promising, but when he told the lady we were about an hour away, she said, "No, I'm going to bed," and that was that. Erm... fine then. Weird. Then he called a place called Entrance Ranch, which is between Jasper and Hinton. They had a little cabin we could stay in, plus space, feed and water for the horses, and they'd be happy to have us. Come on out! We found the place, unloaded the horses and fed them, then unhooked the trailer and drove to Hinton for dinner. Boston Pizza was perfect for good food and cold beer; no one complained about our 8-day-horse-in-the-bush flavor. My burger and beer were very tasty and a nice change from our dehydrated backpacker meals. The other interesting thing I noticed was the sensory overload: people, conversations, music, TV, lights, signs - it was a little overwhelming compared to life on the wilderness trail.


Back to our little cabin at Entrance Ranch for much needed showers and a change of clothes, then off to sleep in a proper bed!

Tomorrow may have been a rest day for the ponies, but it was going to be a busy day for us. As I drifted off to sleep, I remembered one of my first conversations with Peter where he said, "The road is life." There's certainly a heap of wisdom in those four little words: plans are fine, but don't get stuck on them. Sometimes it's best to just go with the flow. Today was a great example of that. Peter needs to write a book.

2.9.

Day 9: Rest day Strange. The first night in ten days that I slept inside in a real bed was the worst night's sleep I've had. Certainly not because the bed was uncomfortable or anything negative about the Little Bear cabin. Rather, I think I was just getting used to the cool night air and constant fresh breezes. A busy day in Hinton, running errands and stocking up on food for the next leg of our journey. Rocky, the owner of Entrance Ranch, accompanied us as our tour guide and helped us tick off our stops as efficiently as possible while sharing stories about the history of the area. Back to the ranch to do laundry and check on the horses. They are enjoying their day off, but Ahi's knee is swollen and sore; the little guy seems skeptical about the next leg of our journey. BBQ steak dinner and great evening with Rocky telling stories about his days as an outfitter and his unique experience and integration with the local indigenous people, their customs, culture and medicine. Fascinating! We could have stayed in the Little Bear hut again, as the temporary guest for the night didn't show up, but we had already cleaned and cleared out. Instead, we spread out our sleeping mats and sleeping bags in a covered area next to a workshop to sleep in the cool night air and gentle breeze.


Tomorrow we would start stage 2: Jasper to Saskatchewan Crossing.

Here's an excellent documentary on Alberta's spectacular Willmore Wilderness. The whole thing is great; Rocky talks about hiking with horses at 19:57.


3.9.

Of all the legs of our adventure, this one was the hardest to plan. Our original hope was to ride as much as possible and limit the commute in the truck and trailer, a true long distance ride. Unfortunately, there were places where horses were not allowed. The Skyline Trail from Jasper to Maligne Lake was one of those areas. This trail is the most popular trail in Jasper National Park. When camping registrations open in the spring, I've heard from several sources that there are usually between 18,000 and 25,000 outdoor enthusiasts trying to book campsites for the upcoming year. Yikes! I guess JNP is trying to avoid any confrontations or problems between hikers and horses. Ok, no problem, we'll just take the shuttle to Maligne Lake and ride from there over Maligne Pass, through Poboktan and down the South Boundary Trail. It turned out that was a no-no too. JNP had closed Maligne Pass and all other access routes to Maligne Lake and Maligne Pass to horses. Absolutely, no exceptions.


Finally, after several calls to JNP, in a moment of frustration, I asked, "Look, you've done a great job telling me everything we CANNOT do, what CAN we do?" The answer: South Boundary Trail. We could leave JNP, turn south into Whitehorse Wildland Park and start from the Cardinal Divide Staging Area. From there, we could drive over Cardinal Pass (also called Rocky Pass) into Jasper National Park and onto the South Boundary Trail. Great! We will do that.


So our plan was to leave the South Boundary Trail early and continue south out of Jasper and down through the Blackstone/Wapiabi Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ). Of our entire route, this section was by far the most difficult area to get information on the trail. While routes were shown on the online PDF maps of Alberta, no GPS tracks were available via Garmin or other GPS apps. We had to approximate it and enter our route into the GPS by hand. Furthermore, the only information we could get about the trail condition was not good: "Not cleared in years, lots of beaver dams, I don't know anyone who's been through there, and really bad swamp" were repeated buzzwords.

Yikes! Are you still with me?

We saddle up and set off. We got up early again and loaded Rodeo and Charlie into the caravan to drive to the starting point. Ahi's leg was still swollen and sore so he was unable to continue. Tina stayed behind to coordinate a vet appointment, medication and treatment program so he could rejoin us later in our journey. She and Peter G hung out at Entrance Ranch and did the Jasper tourist tour while Peter and I rode this leg of the trip. Unfortunate. I felt bad for Tina, but if there was one leg I could miss, it was this one since it was the shortest.

After the ride, we saddled up and said goodbye at the trailer; Peter and I were on the road by 10:30. Short, boring descent along the Forest Service road, then turn onto a trail and continue riding on a reasonably flat, decent trail before a quick 200 meter climb up Cardinal Pass. It was easy to see what it also called Rocky Pass. At the top we saw a lone mother sheep and her baby. The first wildlife we saw on the way. After surprisingly not seeing any on the last leg, this was a good start. We descended into the valley of the Medicine Tent River and down to an altitude of about 1700m, then followed the river and climbed steadily uphill for the next 14km to the top of the beautiful Cairn Pass (2248m summit). From there we descended 250m to our camp at Cairn Pass Horse Camp. A long day and 33 kilometers on the trail full of great weather and fantastic views.

Tomorrow we planned to set off early, cover a lot of kilometers, leave Jasper National Park and set up camp to set the stage for the Blackstone/Wapiabi Park challenge.


4.9.

Up before dawn, packed up and on the trail in just under an hour. The weather was great and there was no threat of rain, so we slept under the stars. Not having to set up the tarp definitely saved us time. I wore my headlamp to see the trail better in the early morning light. We worked our way through some dense areas of bushes. Early morning, low light, grizzly country and feeding time. I have to admit I was nervous as I yelled "YO BEAR!" regularly. I told Peter it was because of my allergies. I'm allergic to bears chewing on me. He seemed to understand.

We worked our way steadily for about 14 km through the bushes and down the Cairn River to the campsite on the Cairn River. The next 9 km to the Southesk crossing would have been pretty easy if it hadn't been an old burn site. Parts were cleared and many parts were not. We had to go around a lot of trees and saw some as well and the tight trees and new growth really slowed us down. Each dead spot was like its own unique puzzle of how to get through: left, right, over, under or saw. Peter hosted a master class on solving deadfall puzzles. "I think if we do it right, cut this one, these two and this one, we'll get through." Sure enough, it worked. My pack saw had a good workout today!

Eventually we reached the Southesk junction where we turned off the South Boundary Trail and rode further south into the uncharted Blackstone/Wapiabi PLUZ (Public Land Use Zone). Good trail and reasonably well signposted; there was even a sign saying "Dowling Ford" where we would cross the Brazeau. But when we got there, the river was flowing very high, wide and fast. There was no way for us to cross at that particular point. We spent quite a while looking upstream and downstream for a suitable place to cross, without success. The river was flowing at 10 meters per second. Far too deep and too fast, the horses would arrive 5 km further downstream. If at all. Now I knew why there was so little information about the Blackstone/Wapiabi crossing of the mighty Brazeau! Funny, that was the only thing no one mentioned.


Okay, now what! We could turn back the way we came and go back out that way, which we both really didn't like, or we could continue on the South Boundary Trail and ride out over Nigel Pass. Two problems with this option. First, we still had to cross the Brazeau River at some point, and the old, long-standing horse bridge upstream had been destroyed by spring flooding earlier in the year. The second problem was that we didn't have a Jasper National Park camping or grazing permit.


It didn't take long for us to settle on the "it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission" strategy; we went with the "southern border" option. We notified Peter G and Tina via Garmin InReach and informed them of the change of plans and the updated meeting point. Then we walked down the South Boundary Trail a bit more before setting up a bush camp and sleeping under the stars again.Today was a long day: 36.5 km covered and more than 12 hours on the trail, including lunch and grazing breaks, solving deadfall puzzles, route finding and exploring possible river crossings. Tomorrow should be better.

Meanwhile, back in Jasper, Tina and Peter G had a front row seat to a Canadian forest fire experience. A fire east of Jasper, caused by a lightning strike the day before, grew exponentially as strong winds fanned the flames.


5.9.

Slept under the stars again. Surprise rain in the middle of the night, but we quickly threw the ponchos we were lying on over our sleeping bags and went back to sleep. No problem.

Up at first light and on the trail within an hour to spend the day riding down the Brazeau River valley and the southern boundary of Jasper National Park. We made good time as much of the trail was in a wide, cleared corridor through the trees. Not a lot of views, but good trail and easy to follow. We arrived at Brazeau Meadows Horse Camp at 4pm. Beautiful camp and lots of pasture in the meadow for Rodeo and Charlie. Definitely the best campsite of the trip so far.

Only 8.5 hours on the road, but compared to the last couple of hours it felt like a short day. 36 km covered. Update from Tina re: Ahi. Vet check with prescribed medication and a few more rest days.


6.9.

Brrr... I woke up to the coldest morning yet and a light frost. First frost of the trip. The sky was clear, but I put on my rain gear for the extra warmth. B We were in no rush that morning, so the horses had a little more time to graze in the morning on the lush grass of Brazeau Meadows. We had a day and a half to cover 30 km. Peter G and Tina wanted to meet us tomorrow afternoon at the Nigel Pass trail on Highway 93. We started out on a fantastic trail and soon arrived at the Brazeau Ranger Station, a beautiful cabin with great views in a beautiful meadow. From there we crossed the Brazeau River. This time there were no problems as it was now smaller and more branched. From there we had fantastic trail as we worked our way up the Brazeau River valley to Nigel Pass. The total distance from camp to the top of Nigel Pass was 23 km, with 200 meters of elevation gain in the first 21 km and another 200 in the last 2 km. The highest altitude at the pass was 2238 meters.

Nigel Pass was incredible. As we rode up the valley, it just seemed to end at this massive, almost vertical mountain face, like a dead end. However, as we rode on, the path curves slightly and leads rockily up and over the left shoulder. If the view doesn't take your breath away, the fierce wind definitely will.

We met a young couple near the top of the pass who were NoBo (northbound) and hiking on the GDT from Waterton towards Kakwa. They were having a great time and thought it would be great to do it on horseback too. On the south side of the pass we met more people; a lady from Jasper was out with her daughter to do a day hike into the spectacular White Goat Wilderness (no horses allowed). We met them down by the beautiful creek. After we left her, we met a man from France who had flown to Quebec and then headed west across Canada, traveling slowly, adventuring and exploring. When I asked him how he enjoyed the trip, he replied: "FANTASTIC! What a beautiful country!" It brought back memories of what Tina had said somewhere along Moose Pass on the first leg of our journey: "Brent, you live in such beautiful country!" When you grow up and live here, it can be easy to take everything for granted. A great reminder for me to get out and enjoy it while I can.

Parks Canada doesn't allow wild camping and there was no official camp between Nigel Pass and Trail Heas. So we snuck off the trail a bit, found a secluded spot with decent grass and set up our bush camp. Covered 25 km today; in the morning we rode the last 6 km to the starting point and waited for Peter G. and Tina.


7.9.

No rush this morning, but we broke camp and packed up early anyway and rode the last 5 km to the Nigel Pass ranger station where we let the horses graze and killed some time waiting for Tina and Peter G..

One thing that really made Peter and I laugh along the way was the abundance of trail markers now that we were getting into more frequented areas. In all the areas we had ridden through so far, Jasper Natioanal Park was by far the worst for lack of trail markers, especially on river routes and crossings. The trail simply ended at the river and on the other side there was neither a marker nor any other indication of how to proceed. We wasted so much time trying to find the route in these areas. As we were now approaching civilization, the trails were almost ridiculously marked. At one creek crossing with a very clear path, there were six markers on a line of trees along the trail; all visible before you even crossed. Silly. In our eyes, there were many more places where these markers would have been much more useful and appreciated.

Anyway, I digress. After spending a few hours at the ranger station, we made the final stretch to rest in the roadside parking lot at the trailhead. When they arrived, they were coming from the north. Apparently they had discussed the restrictions for Highway 93 with Rocky and he said, "Nah, it'll be fine. There are all kinds of RVs on that road that are much bigger than you."

So they did; and they were; and it saved a lot of distance and time. It was great to have everyone back together, including Ahi, who they had brought in the trailer. We loaded up Charlie and Rodeo and headed back to Jasper.

Remember that fire I mentioned a couple days ago? Well, it had spread and knocked out power in the town of Jasper. Since Labor Day Monday, pretty much everything was closed. Everything that remained open was powered by generators. We found a restaurant with generator power, cold beer and a limited menu and enjoyed a great lunch.

Tina and Peter G were busy while Peter and I were out and about. They had made some great contacts, including Gunner Ireland of Astoria Outfitting, and arranged through him for lodging for the horses at Pyramid Lake Stables and a loaner horse from his barn. We drove to Pyramid Lake Stables to board the horses and then met up with Gunner. Then it was back to the stables to have dinner with Gunner and some of his staff. Finally, we laid out our sleeping mats and sleeping bags in the huge pavilion and fell asleep to the ever-present hum of a giant generator.

As it was mainly a rest day, we were very busy! Ahi stayed at Pyramid Lake Stables where the staff looked after him and administered his medication. If all went to plan, he would be ready for stage 4.

Stage 2 completed: 136.5 km over 4 days. Tomorrow morning we would pick up our rental horse and head back down Highway 93 to Saskatchewan Crossing, cross the Bighorn Dam and begin the third leg of our adventure: Saskatchewan Crossing to Banff.


8.9.

Up early. Restless night; for me anyway. Too much good food and drink last night; add to that the constant hum of the generator and well, this boy wasn't as fresh and ready for our big day as he had hoped. I think I like the simplicity of life on the trail. We pack up and load Rodeo and Charlie into the trailer. Gunner meets us at 7:00 and we head to his place to pick up Dixon. Ahi will stay here to rest, finish his prescription and spend time with his new friends.

We stop to refuel the Adventure Rig at the local Petro-Canada, and on the other side of our diesel pump is Whaly, a super-cool, customized Mercedes AF 1120: the ultimate expedition vehicle. It belonged to a young Swiss couple who were traveling America and blogging about their adventures. Somewhere along the way, our driver, Peter G, had met them earlier on their trip. He greets them, introduces everyone and a great Swiss German conversation breaks out at the gas pumps. I missed most of it, as I don't speak Swiss German, but the feeling and camaraderie was palpable: adventurers meeting along the way and enthusiastically sharing each other's unique journey. We wished each other a good journey and went our separate ways.

We had to stop at a stop sign when I noticed this lady on the sidewalk waving enthusiastically at us, trying to get our attention. What do I know, it's the woman Peter and I met two days earlier at Nigel Pass when she was taking her daughter on a day hike into the White Goat Wilderness. She had recognized Peter in the passenger seat and wanted to wish us safe travels for the rest of our adventure.

We head back south, past the Nigel Pass trail, and then turn east via Saskatchewan Crossing. We stop for lunch at the David Thompson Resort & Restaurant. It's their last day of business before the end of the season. After the long Labor Day weekend, there's not much in the way of tourist traffic in this part of the country. With full bellies, we continued past Abraham Lake to Bighorn Dam. Crescent Falls, on the north side of the highway, is where Peter and I would have come out on the second leg of our trip if we had been able to cross the Brazeau. We turn south, cross the Bighorn Dam, saddle the horses, say goodbye to Peter G and hit the road. This area was an ATV paradise with a maze of wide, cleared trails. With trail maps posted, signposts and our GPS, we set out on the 11 km trail to the singletrack horse trail that would take us through the Kiska/Willson Public Land Use Area (PLUZ) into the Upper Clearwater/RAM PLUZ and then into Banff National. We set up camp for the night.

The rental horse, Dixon, is doing very well. He is an experienced backcountry horse, runs well and doesn't give the other horses any trouble. Nevertheless, Rodeo and Charlie seem to want a piece of him and let him know in no uncertain terms who is who in this small herd. While we set up the mobile electric fence, we decide to create a separate pen for him so that he doesn't get beaten up by the others. Unfortunately, the first thing he does is check the electric fence. ZAP! Right on the nose. The fence works well. He runs through the fence into Rodeo's and Charlie's area. They are not very hospitable and send him through the other fence.

After the initial chaos, everything calmed down and the horses started to graze. Peter and I start to rebuild the electric fence enclosure while Tina keeps an eye on the horses. Suddenly Tina runs towards Peter and me. "Dixon's leaving!" she shouts in horror.

Apparently, after being bitten by Rodeo, Charlie and the electric fence, Dixon decided he'd had enough of this new herd and headed home. Tina says she watched it happen. He stopped grazing, lifted his head, seemed to pause and think, then started walking slowly and then trotted down the trail, back to the trailhead. She immediately got the lay of the land and tried to catch him, but it all happened so fast she just couldn't catch up.

I grabbed Charlie, jumped on bareback and ran after Dixon, thinking he would slow down or stop to graze. He was wearing a bell, so I would eventually hear it, find him, catch him and bring him back. Great plan! But he didn't stop; and he didn't slow down and I couldn't keep up the bareback trot. Getting Charlie fit for this trip had resulted in a much more bony wither; and let's just say Charlie's back wasn't the big comfy couch it used to be when I rode him bareback all winter.

I trotted as much as I could, then dismounted and ran off, leading Charlie. When I got tired, I either walked or jumped back on and trotted on. Dixon left very distinct hoofprints, which we followed over the myriad of paths back to the starting point. He must have trotted all the way because we neither heard his bell nor saw him.

By the time we had covered the 11 km back to the starting point, it was dark, the temperature had dropped and it was starting to rain. Then I heard a bell! And saw a flashing red light. There was a guy standing there holding Dixon. It took me a minute or three to realize the guy was Peter G; I hadn't recognized him in the dark and rain. Peter had sent him a message on the Garmin InReach, letting him know what was going on and asking him to return to the trailhead to intercept our runaway pony. He, Tina and Rodeo were on their way.

We hung out in the shelter of some trees and waited for Peter and Tina while the rain got heavier. Eventually Peter G suggested we head back to the truck and trailer where it was drier. In this weather, it was impossible for us to return to our camp tonight. About 45 minutes later, we see a light coming down the trail. It's Peter's flashlight. They are soaked and cold. We get all the horses into the trailer with food and set off in search of any spare sleeping bags, clothes and horse blankets we can find. Peter, Tina and Peter G pack up as best they can in the small living quarters of the caravan, while I settle down in the truck. Disaster averted. We hadn't lost our rental horse, but it was a cold, wet, miserable and sleepless night.

9.9.

The morning was crisp and clear, with a fresh blanket of snow on the mountains around us. The spectacular beauty of the morning helped to forget yesterday's mishap and our cold, miserable, sleepless night. We fed the horses and then enjoyed a cup of Peter G's extra strong, brewed coffee and hot porridge. The group of ATV enthusiasts camped next to us had just gotten up, so we visited with them for a bit while the horses finished their breakfast.

Around 9:00 Peter and I headed back to our campsite with the horses. Tina stayed behind. She wanted to ride with the ATV crew and meet us at camp. Our sleepless trail navigation resulted in us choosing the wrong ATV trail for 3 km and having to turn around to get on the right trail, which added another 6 km to our 11 km return to camp. In total, we covered 28 unnecessary kilometers between last night and this morning. So much for Rodeo and Charlie's rest day at Pyramid Lake Stables. If they wanted to beat up Dixon last night, they must really want a piece of his roan ass now!

We arrived at camp shortly after noon. Hooray! Everything was just as it had been left the night before. Tina arrived with the ATVer; we packed up our camp and set off. We enjoyed a clear, easy to follow path through the forest and then arrived at a huge mountain meadow that seemed to stretch on forever. On the opposite side we discovered a base camp for hunters, where we let the horses graze while we enjoyed a hot cup of tea and dinner. We then walked back a little way to a beautiful hill overlooking the meadow and set up camp.

Again, we set up separate quarters for Dixon, but this time he wore the bell, hobbles, halter and lead rope, as well as the Tractive tracking collar, just in case. With a little prayer, we crawled into our sleeping bags for a much-needed good night's rest.


10.9.

morning dawned cold, clear and crisp, and the three of us were incredibly grateful for a restful sleep and three horses grazing contentedly where we had left them the night before. Simple things, but life on the trail, places great emphasis on finding joy and gratitude in simple things. Simple things that are often taken for granted: the sunny spot on a cold day, the shade on a hot day, the peace and quiet after a hard day, the smell and the first sip of the first coffee in the morning. Mmm... Breathe it in. Taste it. Feel it. Enjoy it. Gratitude.

We saddled and packed up the horses, then headed back to the hunter's camp, where we'd spotted a well-traveled trail heading in the right direction. Great, because the area between Bighorn Dam and Onion Lake was one of our problem areas: Was there a trail there. We were very grateful for the trail and its quality so far and hoped it would continue. The trail climbed steadily up the mountain in switchbacks to a small down trodden area in a group of trees. From there, the switchbacks stopped and the path went almost straight up the mountain. Whoever built this path needs to relax a bit and add a few switchbacks! We had descended a long time ago and were leading the horses. This was officially the longest, straightest and steepest trail I've ever ridden a horse up!

Finally, the vertical trail ended when we reached a plateau. This not only ended the climb, but also the trail. It must be here somewhere. We let the horses rest and graze while we looked for the trail. Nothing. Zero. Nothing. So we headed back down. This was officially the longest, straightest, steepest trail I've ever walked down with a horse! What we think happened is this. The hunters rode up the switchback trail on horseback and then tied them up in the clump of trees, hence the trampled area. From there they went straight up the mountain on foot, then spread out and hunted. None of us are hunters, but that's our best guess.

We walk almost all the way back to the hunter's camp, looking for a trail that leads in the direction we know we need to go. Nothing. So far we've covered about 5 km and made no progress at all. We know which direction we need to go. We know the North Ram Trail is somewhere over there. We can't find a connecting trail anywhere. The GPS tells us that as the crow flies it's just over 2 km to the North Ram Trail. We decide to walk through the bush.

It wasn't bad at first, relatively flat and not too dense. Definitely better than the bushwhack we did on days 3 and 4 in the Willmore. Then a scary moment. The bush became denser, there were more fallen trees and the spaces became narrower. At one point it was particularly narrow and there were dead trees, and the only way through was between some dead trees. Peter went through first, but as Tina went through, the right saddlebag bounced against the tree. It didn't seem like it hit him particularly hard, but apparently it was hard enough to knock the tree over.

I rode right behind her and saw the tree start to fall. "Tina! Watch out!" But everything happened so fast that she didn't have time to react. The tree toppled over, hit her on the head, bounced off and fell to the ground on her right. Somehow she stayed in the saddle. Miraculously, she was not injured. She was sore and stunned for a moment, shook herself, got back in the saddle and we continued on. One. Tough. Lady.

We struggled on through the bush until the terrain changed and dropped steeply into the North Ram drainage. The best descent path we could find was a narrow, steep, boulder-filled spring runoff. So down we went with the horses. The scree slid under the horses' hooves, but they had no problem with it. We got into the ravine and climbed down it. It was just after 1:00 a.m. when we reached the bottom of the North Ram River. We had been traveling for six hours and made less than 2 miles of actual progress. Time for a lunch and grazing break. After lunch, rested and refreshed, we set off on foot across the river and found the North Ram Trail. From here the trail is fairly straightforward and easy to Onion Lake. From there we followed a great ATV trail until we came to a beautiful meadow on the side of the trail and decided to call it a day.

24.5 km covered, more if you include the distance walked to look for trails. Minus our little adventure up the mountain and back, that's about 19 km of actual progress. A tough day on the trail. Tomorrow should be better.


11.9.

Peter's voice broke the stillness of the night and my deep sleep: "Brent, Tina - the horses are out!" I was immediately wide awake. Oh no. Not again! Tina's strategy of wrapping the head torch around my wrist while I slept proved invaluable as I searched for my boots and tied them up. Peter and Tina are up and coming towards the horse faster than me. Gosh, I'm slow! They've been in this situation before. You know how important speed is! Like an idiot, I put my headlamp down and can't find it in the dark. So much for Tina's great strategy. Without a light, I set off to catch horses. Fortunately, the horses weren't on the run. They were just outside the fence and were easy to catch. We broke them back into their electric fence enclosure, checked that the fence wires were OK and the juice was on, and then went back to sleep. Then it happened again! I'm faster, but still slow compared to Peter and Tina. At least I don't lose my head torch, so that's not garbage. Once again, luck smiles on us; the horses don't leave, can easily be caught and brought back to their enclosure for the night. Furious! We crawl back into our sleeping bags and try to grab some more sleep.

Up shortly after first light and out on the trail before the sun peeks over the mountains. Great trail and breathtaking views. We enter Banff National Park around 3pm and ride on, hoping to reach Camp Malloch Flats. Unfortunately, we have trail problems again and can't find the camp. Around 6:00 a.m. we throw in the towel and set up a bush camp. We're not far away; we'll find out in the morning. We've covered a lot of kilometers today; the most of the trip so far and a personal high water mark: 44 km.

12.9.

Up early to see if we can find the trail and camp Malloch Creek Flats. If we can find the camp, we should be able to find the trail, as it is supposedly big enough for the trail to go straight through it. Peter sets off on foot to look for a shortcut to the trail while Tina and I set up camp. Nothing. It's all very strange because it's supposed to be a great horse camp and a good trail.

From the directions, we know where we're going and where the trail should be, so we decide to bushwack. We know we'll cross the trail at some point, so we set off. It takes a little longer than we thought, but it wasn't too bad and eventually we found the trail From then on it was just a beautiful day and a great trail full of spectacular lakes, meadows, mountains and views. It's too far to the next camp in Fish Lakes. As we leave Clearwater Pass, we descend into the lower reaches of the Siffleur River valley and set up bush camp for the night. A good day despite the hustle and bustle, 8 hours on the road and 30 km covered.


13.9.

Decision time. Our original plan was to continue down the Pipestone, then ride southeast at the Lake Louise trail junction and on to Banff. It would be 110 km from our camp and require crossing three mountain passes to Pipestone. Three long, hard days. The other option was to leave early and stay south and continue down the Pipestone Valley to Lake Louise. It would be mostly downhill from our camp and we'd be out in a day and a half. We could give the horses an extra rest day in Banff and then get back on the trail for Stage 4: Banff to Coleman.

My goodness, I really wanted to ride this section all the way to Banff. Pulsatilla Pass is in this section and is the cover of Tania Millen's book "Pack Em Up, Ride Em Out". However, the three of us agreed that the welfare of the horses would always be the top priority in our decision making. Firstly, thanks to Dixon, they had taken on an unplanned extra day for the ride to the starting point and back. Secondly, the planned route to Banff required crossing three mountain passes as opposed to none if we left early for Lake Louise. Finally, Stage 4: Banff to Coleman was the longest leg of the trip, involving several mountain passes and some of the most challenging riding yet. Two friends had advised me to be wary of this part.

In the end, the decision was clear and unanimous. We would set off early and give the horses an extra day's rest in Banff. We would just have to come back and do this route again on a future trip. We sent Peter G, captain of the mother ship, a message via Garmin InReach to inform him of the change in plans and the updated meeting point.

Other than that, there was once again nothing but great trails and breathtaking views. After a little over 30 km, we camped at a spot near the Pipestone River and fenced off a spot with plenty of belly-high grass for the horses. Tomorrow would be an easy half day to the starting point of the Pipestone Trail near Lake Louise.


15.9.

I slept poorly again; I really missed the cool night air and the breeze. It seems that warm, motionless indoor air just doesn't make for a good night's sleep anymore. The first night is always the hardest; I hope I can sleep better tonight. Apart from that, I don't mind the hostel experience at all. It's easy on the travel budget and makes a great little base camp. There's not much going on today. Showers, laundry and grocery shopping for the next stage are our top priorities, while the horses enjoy their rest day in Banff. We stroll through the tourist center of Main Street in Canmore, do some window shopping and find a German schnitzel house for dinner. Peter and Tina order mainly Oktoberfest-sized bratwurst and pretzels, and a favorite German beer. To finish, we serve strudel and ice cream. They are impressed; the food is authentic and fantastic! Peter G. takes Dixon back to Jasper and returns Ahi, who is rested, healed and ready to join us for Stage 4: Banff to Coleman.


16.9.

I'm up early and looking forward to starting the fourth stage from Banff to Coleman today. We take over a corner of our hostel lounge area to enjoy a quick breakfast of bagels with jam and cream cheese and strong coffee. Then we hop in the Adventure Rig, drive to Banff to pick up the ponies, and then make our way to the Brewster Creek trailhead. In the morning we are on our way.

We work our way up the valley for two hours on a wide, easy trail to Sundance Lodge. This section of the trail resembles a backcountry super highway as it is regularly used by Banff Trail Riders, an exclusive provider of trail rides in Banff National Park with its own backcountry lodges.

The further we climb, the steeper the gradient becomes. The trail becomes rockier and narrower, but is still well defined and clear. We arrive at Halfway Lodge shortly before 4 p.m. and decide to call it a day. The lodge is closed for the season, but the small kitchen annex on one side is accessible, so we prepare dinner there while the horses graze outside. After dinner, we set up the electric fence in a meadow on the other side of the stream below the lodge. Tonight the ponies get a lot of grass! Finally, Peter and Tina lay out their sleeping bags on the floor of the kitchen annex. I lay mine out on the covered veranda of an adjoining log cabin.

With full bellies and beds made, we relax, drink tea and listen to Peter tell stories of past adventures. He's a great storyteller and has been doing these epic long rides to places all over the world every year since 2004, so he has plenty of stories. We laugh, enjoy the stories and have a great time. Life is good!

I don't remember Tina going, but I certainly remember her coming back. "The horses have gone." She says matter-of-factly. "We have horses to catch!"

Like a sprinter coming out of the starting blocks, Peter is on the move. Time is of the essence. They don't have much of a head start and will probably go back the way they came, so he's close on their heels. I stop, grab Charlie's halter and lead rope and follow him. Tina stays in camp in case they haven't gone back down the trail after all and have returned.

Charlie and Ahi are wearing bells. So when we start hearing bells, we're sure we're on the right path. I walk down the path until I'm tired. I haven't caught up with Peter or heard bells. In the fading light, I take it in turns to run and walk down the stony path for at least an hour. No Peter. No bells. It's getting dark and I have to make a decision. Do I continue along the path in the hope of catching up with Peter and the horses, or do I go back to camp and inform our driver Peter G. and let him know what's going on?

What is the best way to help Peter? If I follow him and eventually catch him, the two of us will have to spend the whole night on the mountain with the horses, without warm clothes or shelter. If I send Peter G a message and he gets back to the trailhead, he can intercept horses if they make it all the way back, and at least the two Peters will have shelter in the caravan. I decide to return to camp and send Peter G a message via InReach.

As darkness falls, I turn back to the path and head back to Halfway Lodge. It's uphill, dark and there's not much walking left in me; The walk back up the trail seems to take forever. It's getting dark, really dark; the roots and stones of the path are like a series of endless landmines, always ready to bring me down. In my haste to catch up with Peter and the horses, I don't stop to grab my headlamp. I pull out my cell phone and use the flashlight app from time to time to light the way. I hope the battery lasts...

Eventually I reach the Halfway Lodge. The horses haven't come back. Tina has gone to bed. There's no point in staying up. I wake Tina, give her the update and send Peter G a message via InReach. I hope he gets the message in time.

As I have no choice but to wait and hope, I take my sleeping bag into the kitchen annexe with Tina. We crawl into our sleeping bags and sleep. Fingers crossed.

00:30, the screen door to the shed bangs in the wind and wakes us up. It's raining cats and dogs. No Peter. 2:30 a.m., the screen door opens. It's Peter. "Open some tea. I'm wet, cold and need to warm up. I've got the horses." Tina and I get active. Tina turns on the JetBoil to make hot tea for Peter while I track down dry clothes and move his sleeping bag so he can crawl in and start warming up. He is borderline hypothermic. He's wearing all the dry clothes and insulating layers we can find, wrapped up in his sleeping bag and drinking hot tea to warm up and tell the story. Shortly after walking down the path, he heard the bells of the horses and continued in pursuit. It wasn't long before he caught up with them. But they kept going, always staying just ahead of him. It was impossible to overtake them on the narrow path with bushes, rocks, precipices and cliffs on either side. Eventually he managed to catch my horse Charlie, but Rodeo and Ahi remained just out of his reach.

He stopped only long enough to take off his safety vest and leave it on the trail with a note for me telling me not to follow him. Go back to the camp and tell Peter G to take the truck and trailer to the trailhead. I didn't see his vest or the note, but good to know my instincts were right and I had made the right decision. He led Charlie and followed Rodeo and Ahi all the way back to Sundance Lodge where he was able to catch up with them. I still don't know how he was able to lead them all back. Rodeo and Ahi were wearing halters, but Charlie was not. Peter was so fast after them that I don't remember seeing him reach for a lead rope. Somehow he brought them back. All the way, about 14 km, on a muddy, stony path, in the rain, in the dark, in cowboy boots. Disaster averted, but 28 unnecessary kilometers covered. So much for our attempt to give the horses a rest day. One of my friends often says: "No good deed goes unpunished."


17.9.

The morning dawned like a slightly twisted version of Disney's Seven Dwarfs. We were all sleepy, dazed, cold and drenched; the weather was sunny and frosty, but we were all happy because as unpleasant and unfortunate as the events of last night were, Peter had caught the horses. Peter often says, "The road is life" and it's so true. Sometimes unexpected, crappy things happen. It may suck and no one is asking you to like it, but you just have to deal with it as best you can with the resources you have at that moment. The most important thing is to get back in the saddle and keep going. So that's what we did. By 9:00am we were saddled up and on our way, ready for the Allenby Pass. Over the next 6.6 km we climbed steadily almost 500 m to the summit elevation of 2422 m and over the spectacular Allenby Pass. Like Pipestone, it's another place I'd marked for a high grizzly population; we saw plenty of signs, but no bears.

There are more breathtaking views as we head down the south side of Allenby Pass and into the valley. Above the mountain range to the west of us lies the province of British Columbia and the fabulous Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. We hope to see Mount Assiniboine, also known as the Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies. I've been there but have never seen it from this side. Sean said that if the day was reasonably clear, we should have a good view of it from Bryant Creek. We can see it, but its Matterhorn-like peak is shrouded in cloud. Peter's leather boots and socks are still wet and cold from last night's adventure. He's wearing my spare trousers and lots of dry spare clothes that we manage to put together and which fit reasonably well. He has spare boots and clothes in the caravan, so we search the GPS for the best place to meet Peter G and the mothership. The Mount Shark starting point seems to be the best option. For us, it's a 6km detour off our route, but a long drive up from Canmore via the bumpy Smith-Dorrien Spray Lakes Trail for Peter G and the Adventure Rig. We contact Peter G via Garmin InReach messages and arrange a meeting. A flexible, reliable and highly skilled support vehicle driver is worth his weight in gold. High praise for Peter G; I couldn't imagine having done this trip without him.

We reach the Mount Shark starting point shortly after 4 p.m. and wait for Peter G. We let the horses graze on a good patch of grass. They are tired and hungry, so it probably wasn't necessary, but we hobble them anyway. After last night, we're not taking any more risks. Today we rode 32 km.

Peter G arrives a few hours later and, like the rock star support vehicle driver that he is, has steaks and beer for us, plus a change of Peter's clothes and grain for the horses. As camping is not permitted at the trailheads, we set up camp a little further down the trail. Tina prepares the steaks to perfection on the small campfire and we feast. A park ranger passes by our camp. We exchange pleasantries and she doesn't say a word to reprimand us for being there. With full bellies and horses corralled on a large patch of grass, we crawl into our sleeping bags for some much needed sleep.


18.9.

A great night's sleep; we're up at the crack of dawn and quickly on our way. I am amazed at how much this area has been "improved". I hiked here 25 years ago to fish some of the small mountain lakes. The parking lot was very small, the trail was not much more than a singletrack. Today it is a parking lot and a very wide, graded main trail with many branches off the cross-country ski trail. A hike into a good fishing lake always ensures that the crowds disperse, but I bet the fishing isn't nearly as good as it used to be. Yes, there are definitely plenty of "I remember back then..." stories to amaze the grandchildren with. In the meantime, the adventure and story database needs to keep expanding because one day, TODAY, the old days will be back. We return to the Great Divide Trail and ride 15 km up the Spray River valley. It's wide and covered with abundant mountain grasses and willows. The trail is great and the riding is easy. It's a bit uphill, but barely noticeable.

Then it's up and over Palliser Pass (elevation 2087 m), where we leave Banff National Park and cross the border from Alberta into British Columbia and Height of the Rockies Provincial Park. We ride past Palliser Lake and descend 550 m into the valley, where we call it a day and set up camp, grateful for the good trail. Today we rode 31 km.


19.9.

Tina, Brent... it's time to get up." Peter's familiar, gentle wake-up call in the morning broke the silence. No need, I was already awake. Today we would be entering an area that two people had warned me about. Both Tania and Eric had warned me about the steep, narrow Joffre Creek valley with several rock slides. Before this year, it had been almost a decade since you last came through here on horseback. My friends Eric and Guy, both experienced backcountry packers, had come through earlier this year, in August, and had spent a lot of time clearing trails through old burn areas and rockfalls. I was cautiously optimistic that we would benefit from them having been there before. Once we got past that and crossed Sylvan Pass, we entered another area where Eric had warned me, "Be prepared to have your ass handed to you." For those of you unfamiliar with the colloquialism: According to the online Urban Dictionary, it means "to be utterly, and absolutely beaten, defeated, and crushed..." Oh my God!

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, a nice tour , working our way up the Palliser River. We passed a hunting lodge and a camp. From the fresh tracks, it looked like someone had been there at the weekend. We rode on in the sunshine, rain and hail squalls before turning into the Joffre Creek valley.

The trail was definitely narrower, but nowhere near as bad as I had feared. We encountered rockfalls, which I had been warned about. Eric had warned me that maybe we should tie up the horses first and explore the area. But they had done such a good job of filling in the holes on the three rock falls that our Rockstar Mountain Trail ponies had little trouble. Again, it wasn't as bad as I had feared.

After crossing the rockfalls, we worked our way further up into the Alps, across a spectacular meadow and up to the summit of Sylvan Pass. At 2561m, it was the highest pass of our entire trip by more than 100m. From our low point at the Palliser River (1346m) to the top of the pass, it was the biggest one-day elevation gain of the entire trip (1215m); more than double all previous one-day climbs except day 5, the ascent from Jackpine to Mount Bess (737m), and still almost double. Exhausted and elated, I said to Peter and Tine, "This is without question the hardest trail I've done in my entire life!" Sylvan Pass was spectacular!

Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face." We had climbed the hardest trail of my life, all the way to the top of Sylvan Pass, and then the old rock fall hit us square in the face at the Middle Fork of the White River. Steep, difficult terrain through an old creek, it was like navigating an epic game of Miccado. To top it off, there were grizzly droppings everywhere.

We were warned that water from the pass could be a problem. We found a spot where there was good grazing and a small water hole before the creek went underground and set up camp. We were right on a well-traveled game trail with lots of the aforementioned grizzly kills, so for the first time ever we put up an extra electric fence around our camp. In one of the most spectacular settings of the entire trip, we ate an exhausted dinner and crawled into bed. Today we covered the toughest 28 km I have ever ridden.


20.9.

Morning came with clear skies and a healthy layer of frost. At 1930m, this was the highest elevation we had camped at during the entire trip. Sub-zero temperatures aside, we were especially thankful that we couldn't add overnight grizzly adventures to the story. As morning broke in spectacular fashion, we broke camp, saddled the horses and continued our very slow travels, down the old creek, along this headwaters of the middle fork of the White River. According to the GPS, we were never more than 50 meters off the trail, but never really seemed to be on it. Instead, we were continually solving a never-ending nightmare of navigation puzzles with nowhere to go. For more than two hours we struggled through this mess of fallen trees, then we spotted a sawn-off tree trunk... and another and another! The path! Cleared! I knew Eric and Guy had come through here in August with pack horses and a chainsaw and had spent a lot of time and gas clearing the trail. The trail was much easier to follow from here. I don't know if they were the ones who actually cut down all those trees, but we gave them sincere credit for every one of them. There may have even been a somewhat working version of a campfire song about a nasty trail and a couple guys with a chainsaw. Only the path knows for sure...

Anyway, the trail got better, lots of logs were felled, every one of them counted, and we finally made it out of the old forest. We kept working our way down the middle fork of the White River until we reached the Height of the Rockies Provincial Park boundary and a logging road. Ridiculously easy going now! We even did a few trotting sections. At the Maiyuk Recreation Area, we turned hard east onto the Connor Lakes Trail. For the first 5 km or so it's easy going on the road, then it started to go uphill. My horse Charlie was showing signs of fatigue, so I dismounted and started walking. Peter and Tina kept stopping to wait for us and make sure everything was okay. "Yes, yes, we're fine. He's just tired. I'll go with him. We'll be fine. Just keep going. So they did.

This path seemed to be a never-ending series of uphill stretches. Every time we came to a new uphill section, Charlie would hesitate; I would convince him to keep going and we would keep going. He had never done that before in his life. We had so many trails and adventures together and I often said that I had never seen him to his core. He had so much depth, courage and heart. And then he stopped. Not another step. He was finished.

They say you can run a horse until it drops dead, but not a mule. I guess Charlie has some of that self-preservation instinct of a mule in him. I didn't want to push him any further. When he says he's done, I believe him. He was ready.

During my months of preparation getting him ready for this trip, he had become a lean, mean trail eating machine. He could climb anything, run all day and barely break a sweat. He was in the best shape of his life. Unfortunately, he didn't have much left in the way of fat reserves. Rodeo and Ahi had it, Charlie didn't. That was my mistake and we paid the price for it today. In hindsight, it would have been better for him to be a little less fit and have a little more fat reserves. Learning can really suck sometimes. What now? Charlie won't go on, but if I stay out here, Peter and Tina will worry. I decide to spend the night with Charlie on the trail and in the morning I'll continue. But first I have to let Peter and Tina know what's going on. I tie Charlie to a tree and continue up the trail to Connor Lakes. Man, I was cursing this trail! The climb just never seemed to end. When it finally did, the descent to the lake was just as bad. I know it wasn't as bad as it seemed, but given the circumstances, I must have been a little exhausted. From where I tied Charlie up to the Connor Lakes hut was just under 3km. Felt longer, much longer.

Peter and Tina had unsaddled the horses and prepared everything. There were also two moose hunters there. I told them about Charlie and that I would stay with him on the trail so he could rest and we would cover the rest of the distance in the morning. Peter and Tina gave me food for dinner and an extra bottle of water; the elk hunters gave me a bag of grain for Charlie that they had brought for their own horses.

In the fading light and with my arm full of goodies, I made my way back to Charlie. I wasn't too worried about spending the night out on the trail; I had my ground sheet, pad and sleeping bag in my saddlebags. I also had food and water and wasn't worried about rain. What worried me, however, was the amount of grizzly droppings on the trail. I would definitely have my bear spray handy.

I made it back to Charlie. When he saw me coming up the trail, he nodded amiably. We stood there together for about half an hour while I hand fed him grain. As I walked to Connor Lakes and back, he seemed to perk up between the grain and the rest. Hmmm ... I wonder. Let's try this again. Maybe, just maybe, I won't have to sleep with the grizzlies on the trail tonight after all.

I untied him and motioned for him to follow me. He refused. Shit! Come on, buddy, try it! Let's go. Please! And he did. One step. Then another. Suddenly we were walking up the path. After a while, I stopped and gave him a handful of grain. Thanks buddy. In fading light and eventually darkness, we walked the last 3 km, stopping after each difficult section to show our appreciation with a handful of grain. Eventually we reached Connor Lakes' cabin where I unsaddled him, fed him some more grain and put him in the electric fence enclosure to graze with Rodeo and Ahi.

The cabin was dark; everyone had gone to bed but wasn't asleep yet. Needless to say, they were thrilled that we would make it back and I wouldn't be sleeping on the trail. I spread out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag and crawled in. Being emotionally and physically exhausted, sleep didn't come easily. My stupid legs just wouldn't stop walking. Today it was 34 km, plus an extra 6 km for me


21.9.

When I finally fell asleep, I slept great, but the restless legs combined with a swirling emotional cocktail of relief, worry and guilt about Charlie really made it a challenge. The constant scurrying of the mice probably didn't help either. Luckily I don't have a mouse phobia; but if anyone did, I wouldn't recommend an overnight stay at Connor Lakes cottage.

The morning was clear and cold. Peter and Tina had a great visit with our roommates last night that I had missed. We talked about past adventures, horses and mountain trails. It was so great to see some accomplished young women out there enjoying the wilderness.

It seems to me that there are fewer guys venturing into the backcountry on horseback. A lot of my buddies love to get out, but some prefer "glamping"; others prefer motorized transportation; The "horse thing" really seems to be the problem. On the other hand, I know a lot of 30- to 40-something, badass women who are ready to throw a saddle on a horse and go adventuring; pack a lunch, try to keep up and don't make plans for later. Come to think of it, all the people we met on this horseback trip were women: the packers (guides and clients) heading to Resplendant in Mount Robson; the Banff Park rangers, Jenika and the crew from Alpine Stables in Waterton, and now these two in Connor Lakes.

Anyway, I digress. We saddled up, said our goodbyes and hit the trail, along the western edge of the larger of the two lakes, then east, downhill about 400 yards, on an improving trail past the Forsyth Creek Recreation Area to the Elk Valley Forest Service Road. Here we met our driver Peter G and the mother ship.

We dismounted, loaded the horses and made our way to Elkford, where we found a pizzeria for lunch and discussed our next steps. The Elk Valley had always been an important retreat for us when needed. It was decision time.

If we pressed on, our first day would involve crossing Fording Pass to the eastern slope of the Rockies, an 840m climb from the valley floor to the summit elevation at 2340m. From there we would fluctuate between 1850m and 2250m for about 60km, with plenty of ups and downs. It wouldn't be easy even if the path was good.

We were lucky enough to have great weather for most of the trip and especially the last few days. That was about to change as two days of nothing but rain were on the cards. At altitude, there was a good chance of snow at the end of September.

Finally, the horses. Everyone was tired, including Rodeo. Charlie was exhausted and emaciated and Ahi was in pain and had to take medication.

We had a good run. We were out for 28 days over 720 km on some of the most spectacular trails in the Canadian Rockies. No one was injured or killed. It just didn't make sense to risk everything, strive for MORE and head up a mountain pass with sore, tired horses and a bad weather forecast. We unanimously agreed to end our Great Divide Trail adventure.

After pizza, we made our way back to the Elk Valley FSR and set up camp in a clearing next to the Elk River. In the morning we drove back to Waterton and spent the last days of our time together there.


22.9.

Once again we got up early, packed our things and made our way to Waterton, where we stopped in Coleman to meet Eric for breakfast in a small café. He was an important contact for me and a valuable source of knowledge, advice and trail information. It was great to be able to meet Peter, Tina and Peter in person and be the first to hear stories about the trail.

We continued on to Waterton and the Alpine Stables where we stabled the horses. Then we found a great little motel for us at the Bear Mountain Motel and stayed there for two nights while we waited out the rain and took care of things like showers and laundry.

On Saturday morning we made our way to Alpine Stables, saddled up the horses and went for a 4 hour ride together. Our guide Savannah led the group into an area not open to the public. Only Alpine had permission to take people there. There were elk all over the other side of this huge meadow, and the constant bellowing of the bulls was impressive. We didn't approach the herd and therefore didn't get close enough to take photos.

From there we walked further up the ridge, then tied up the horses and climbed a little further up for lunch. We had thought the ride would only take two hours, so we hadn't brought lunch. Instead, we just looked around. Tina and I climbed to the top of this rocky peak to see what was on the other side. There was a saddle of sorts and then we continued uphill. There was a grizzly eating on the other side of the saddle. While everyone else ate lunch, we watched the grizzly eat his. It really was a great thrill!

Then we went back to the horses, mounted up and rode back to Alpine Stables. It was great watching Savannah, a young girl in high school and a great guide as she navigated the trail, engaging everyone in conversation, telling great stories and pointing out features and points of interest. She had either been trained very well by the folks at Alpine or just had a natural aptitude for the job. Maybe both. We can't say enough great things about Alpine Stables. First class, friendly, helpful, service; every person, every interaction, every time.

When we arrived at our motel, we were sitting outside the door with Peter G., with all our gear. We were kicked out! We arrived mid-week and there were all kinds of vacancies and booking was super easy. We had intended to stay a few more days but had forgotten it was the weekend and a beautiful, sunny weather forecast. They were fully booked, so we were pushed to the sidelines and poor Peter G just had to struggle to pack up all our stuff and get out. Oops!

We made our way to the local campground, got a spot there, set up our tarp like we would have anywhere out in the bush, and voila, accommodations were sorted. The next day we headed back to Alpine; this time for a nice, relaxing trail ride. There were no mountain passes to climb, no bogs to cross or old dead ends to explore. By the time we got back to the campsite, Peter G, the gregarious guy that he is, had met some interesting people, including a German who now lives in Coleman, and a young German couple who had shipped their van here from Germany and now: we're traveling the America's blog. We all met up at our campsite for a beer and enjoyed the afternoon listening to everyone's stories. Very interesting people!

Other than that, we did the usual touristy things over the weekend, checking out various stores, the spectacular Prince of Wales Hotel, the buffalo paddock, and eating at a different local restaurant each night. We could tell that Waterton would be on break for the season. Restaurant menus were limited as they were running out of various items due to running out of stock. I never really thought about it, but it makes sense as Waterton is not a particularly popular winter destination.

Monday morning we loaded up, said our goodbyes and headed home. This incredible opportunity and adventure, which I had been preparing for and eagerly anticipating for months, was now going down in the history books.

Peter and Tina, I consider myself the most incredible person in all of Canada to have accompanied you on your GDT adventure. Thank you!

5 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page