Sunday, June 3, 2007

Continental Divide Trail--White Goat Wilderness

The last leg of the Great Divide Trail would take me into the unique and remote area known as the White Goat Wilderness. My entrance would be a long slow day walking along and through Owen Creek. It took nine hours of my day to climb six miles. The trail was nonexistent. The boulder strewn creek bed was nature’s idea of a compound angle, the steep drop creating steep sides. Several times, becoming frustrated with my progress, I would climb the creek bank and have another try at hiking the forest edge. Each time I would be turned back by thick forest tangle. I was now entering the land of unnamed passes. I reached the first one by early evening and my route opened up as I began to hike above timberline. To my right was Michele Lake, a glacial fed beauty framed by an immense background of blue sky and dirt-brown mountain terrain. I lingered to capture the lake in perfect evening light on film then continued to climb to the highest pass on the Great Divide Trail.
At the top darkness was beginning to get serious about shutting the day down. According to my guidebook I should study the valley below and locate my route to the next unnamed pass before dropping in. It looked simple enough. It was beginning to rain and as I hiked into this verdant valley I thought to myself, "I can’t believe this all belongs to only me. It seemed as though I could see for a hundred miles in every direction and every eyeful was filled with beautiful mountains. Waterfall Creek cut the valley in two and ample moisture gave it a lush look of green, splashed with a rainbow array of wildflowers. The evening light added shadow. Sun rays bursting through broken cloud cover, lighting the field below me, gave the setting a spiritual glow.
I often think about space in time. It takes a leap of faith and much effort to place yourself into special moments during your life. This valley between two unnamed passes would be one of my moments.
I was completely wrong about my enormous real estate holdings. I spent a very peaceful night in the valley before I met the actual owner. Morning broke in a drizzle. As usual I was warm and dry in my down bag and didn’t want to get up and deal with the cold and wet. I can never just lay there and relax. Partly because I know I have miles to cover and partly because I am excited about discovering what is over the next pass. Making plenty of noise I broke camp, retrieved my food hanging in a nearby tree, packed my damp gear into my pack and, covered in my poncho, headed across Waterfall Creek.
Studying the valley from my eagle’s perch the night before, I could see that the bench I needed to reach began to climb directly across the creek from where I had spent the night. Midstream, up to my knees in "wake-me-up" water, I noticed a movement just ahead. Looking up I was a little shocked to see a very large, wet and muddy grizzly working the field on the opposite shore. He had a huge patch of thick grass completely rototilled and he didn’t look like he was anywhere near done.
They say not to make eye contact and I like to follow good advice when it comes to grizzly encounters. I immediately started backing water and slowly making my way back to shore. At that point I continued to walk backwards in the direction of a ridge behind my campsite. I kept looking at the bear to see if he was going to look at me. He never did. He never even acknowledged my presence. He was as intent on his excavating as I was on my evacuating.
After slipping quietly over the ridge and out of sight, I hiked quickly downstream about a half mile before making another attempt at crossing Waterfall Creek. I was confident that my friend was still upstream digging but now I had a new problem. To reach the bench that would take me out of the valley would mean a very steep climb through dew damp vegetation and rock outcropping. It would mean an hour or so of exhaustive climbing but I wouldn’t have to negotiate land issues with an 800 pound earth mover.
By noon I had entered the White Goat Wilderness. Immediately I was confused. I was standing in the middle of the Cline River when two Indians on horseback pulled up along the shore. I could tell by the look on their face that they thought I was nuts. I scampered out of the river and asked them the best route to reach Cataract Creek. They explained it in two broken sentences, kicked their mounts and splashed across the river. I kind of wanted a second opinion but decided instead to follow the trail they were taking. Had I continued on that trail I most likely would have joined the trail I was looking for but I am too impatient for that. I pulled out my GPS, crossed over and up a new tributary and headed straight north. Within an hour I connected with the trail that would follow Cataract Creek for the rest of the day. I still had the fresh vision of the morning’s encounter in my mind. All along Cataract Creek there were fresh diggings to remind me.
I spent the night at the base of Cataract Pass on a small rock bench overlooking the creek. It rained hard all night and the wind blew cold. My Akto tent had its first good workout. The nylon sang all night but everything held together. Not one leak and it stood the wind like a portable bomb shelter.
The climb in the morning showed no sign of trail. I would not see trail again for several hours. From atop the pass I could see several hours of hiking into the valley below along the Brazeau River. It would be a steep descent across shale slopes. I was so cold I took shelter in a rock crevice and decided to boil water for coffee. Knowing I would be above timberline, I carried a small plastic baggie filled with wood chips I had collected the day before along the creek. I had just enough to fire up my Zip Ztove. Just as I was about to add the boiling water to my cup of instant coffee, I poured it into my wet boots instead. It was wonderful. I started hiking soon after and my feet stayed warm the rest of the morning.
By late afternoon I found four hikers in the first campground inside Jasper National Park. Again, my Zip Ztove made the introductions. Most backpackers are gear-heads. They are always looking to see what others are carrying. During dinner they told me where they had seen a black wolf that morning near Jonas Pass. I told them I planned to spend the night at Jonas Cutoff Campground and they said I would never make it. I hear that a lot. It was only thirteen miles and according to my map mostly valley trail with the exception of Jonas Pass.
It turned out to be a big, wide, beautiful valley full of wildlife. I stopped for a rest break near a herd of elk and spotted two wolves near the fringes of the herd, very close to where the other hikers told me to look. It was the first time on the trip that I wished I had my monocular. The pair was constantly moving away from me and the elk. It was my first wolf sighting in the wild. I have heard their haunting howls on Isle Royale in the middle of Lake Superior. Surprisingly, seeing them was not as exciting to me as hearing them at night, knowing they are close but always elusive.
By the time I reached Cutoff Campground it was dark. There were more backpackers in camp than I had seen on the entire trip. Everyone had retired to their tents. I quietly set my tent up in the only vacant space. The tent to one side of me was snoring and the tent to the other side was passing gas. I didn’t think I would have any bear problems this night.
I was gone at first light and never saw a soul. The trail was a mud bog and full of wolf tracks. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought the wolves must run the trail all night. There were miles of prints. Hiking around a bend in the trail a wolf came charging straight at me—waging his tail—and he had a backpack on!
I soon discovered the tracks I had been following belonged to the malamute of the trail crew building a new bridge across the Poboktan Creek. They were staying at a nearby warden cabin and hiking the several miles to work each morning. The dog carried lunch.
My first three days in Jasper were continuous rain. Between river crossings and wet trail vegetation my feet stayed constantly wet. I keep much of my gear dry by packing it in plastic garbage bags, but after 72 hours of precipitation things become wet from the inside out—gear gets heavier, down loses its loft and extra socks won’t dry out. On the third night I built a smoldering fire along the Maligne River and smoked my socks as dry as possible.
I needed a little sunshine. I know the sun shines every day at 76,000 feet, but I needed some a little closer to earth. My wish was granted when I reached Maligne Lake. I hiked into a tourist mecca. It was a picture perfect area and swarming with shutterbugs. It was also the beginning of the end for this trek to Jasper, Alberta. I was now hooking up with the Skyline Trail—a premier North American pathway. Well used and well defined, I was one day away from reaching Jasper. I found a secluded, sunny meadow and spread my gear out to dry in the warm sun. I wanted to sleep dry my last night on the trail.
My blistered feet were still giving me problems but the hike from Waterton had whipped me into shape, and climbing out of the Maligne Lake area was effortless. This is a calendar pathway that slows hikers by inspiration more than elevation.
My last big challenge was a place called, "The Notch." After summiting I hiked a crest trail along Amber Mountain during the late evening in a gathering storm. Again, the sun was melting holes in the storm clouds and giving me a laser light show across the granite sentinels that surrounded me in all directions. It was dark hiking into Tekarra Campground. It would be my last and I was only two days off my hiking permit schedule. Not bad for a trek across almost six hundred miles of unfamiliar and very rugged wilderness.
I arrived in Jasper by noon the following day and immediately found and enjoyed a strawberry milkshake as I waited for the reunion with my family. I was already dreaming of someday continuing the next leg of the journey along the Divide which leaves Jasper and snakes its way to the Yukon border.
An excerpt from "Crossing the Divide, A Family Adventure Along the Continental Divide