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Backpacker Magazine – May 2001

Canada's Great Divide Trail

For 30 years, some wide-eyed dreamers have been chiseling a 745-mile route through the Canadian Rockies. The result is a labor of love set to become one of North America's most magnificent long trails.

by: Steve Howe


It was "the original shoestring trip," says White, who's now a conservation biologist at Alberta's Banff National Park. "We got to hike all over and get paid for it-kind of. There were three groups of two. We had three old cars we wrestled down muddy back roads, then we'd spend days hiking around, surveying the terrain." The downside was the food budget, which was only $500 for the summer. "We ate a lot of hideous stuff, like textured vegetable protein," team member Jenny Feick remembers. "And we put a lot of miles on those boots, surveying more than 2,000 square miles on both sides of the Rocky Mountain Divide, from Banff to the Montana border." The students plotted and surveyed every feature, natural and cultural, along the proposed route.

Immediately following what Feick calls "that magnificent summer" of 1974, she and fellow "Gang of Six" members Dave Higgins and Mary Jane Cox formed the nonprofit Great Divide Trail Association (GDTA). For the next 11 years, the GDTA organized volunteer trail crews that established and marked nearly 100 miles of track spanning the 245-mile stretch between Banff and Waterton Lakes National Park on the Montana border.

"It was easy to get government approval on the Alberta side, but impossible in British Columbia," says James Prescott, an active GDTA volunteer since the late '70s. "Basically, they'd say, Just because you run a trail down it, we won't guarantee that 2 years from now it won't be clearcut.'" In 1986, the trail stalled close to the British Columbia border.

Meanwhile, Parks Canada officials gradually warmed to the idea of the GDT, in part due to a new permit system that controlled backcountry users' numbers. As a result, the current hiking route utilizes preexisting paths and rugged cross-country routes in the national and provincial parks of Mt. Robson, Jasper, Yoho, Banff, Mt. Assiniboine, and Peter Lougheed, before heading southward through Height of the Rockies and Elk Lakes Provincial Parks. Farther south, in the Forest Reserves of the Highwood, Crow's Nest Pass, and Castle regions, the route remains a patchwork of power line cuts, two-track roads, and cross-country bushwhacks.

"The Great Divide Trail isn't dead," says Prescott, "but it's been on life support for a long time."

So what are the chances that this route will someday become a well-established path like its Lower 48 cousin, the Continental Divide Trail? The fickle winds of politics may be combining with a citizen groundswell to offer renewed hope. Organizers point to a more enlightened environmental attitude in British Columbia's provincial government, which could allow for a protected trail corridor southward. The GDTA, as well, is waking from a long dormancy.

A new guidebook, Hiking Canada's Great Divide Trail, may further hasten the resurrection. "After doing the trail, Julia and I decided it would be a waste to simply can' all that information," says author Dustin Lynx, who thru-hiked the GDT with his wife in 1996. "So I put it together into a guidebook." One interesting twist to Lynx's well-organized, thorough guide is that it highlights a scouted route that extends some 170 miles north beyond the GDT's traditional end in Mt. Robson Provincial Park. The extra miles would carry hikers through the Willmore Wilderness to Kakwa Provincial Park, beyond which there's another 125-mile stretch that leads to Monkman Provincial Park. "From what I've seen, the area around Monkman would make for difficult route finding, with deep gorges as major obstacles, but I think it'll make fabulous hiking," says Lynx.

Those committed to the GDT say that the key to completing the project will be a strong constituency of hikers who are willing to step forward and tell land management officials to finish this trail. "We've always had a dedicated core of people who'll do the trail work," says Higgins. "What we need now are organizers, people willing to work with government and motivate local grassroots support for the southern sections of the trail." Here's how you can help:

  • Contact the Great Divide Trail Association at www.greatdividetrail.ca (as of April 2001, this site was not yet live). The group organizes trail crews beginning in mid-June. No phone calls, please.
  • If you're a student who is considering a career in land management, recreation, environmentalism, or even politics, inquire about a GDTA internship or thesis topic that will help the GDTA expand its southward efforts.
  • If you're an energetic retiree, volunteer for administrative duties.

If there's a moral behind the story of the GDT, it's that trails, particularly grand ones, aren't created with the stroke of a pen, nor even the swing of a thousand Pulaskis. They're living entities that need nurturing. They're the realization of many accumulated voices and visions. And certainly, the Great Divide Trail is one grand vision that shouldn't be allowed to die.




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