After a rough 5-day stretch, Alison and I sat in a cafeteria-style diner as busses brought hoards of tourists through one of the few convenience stores along the Icefields Parkway. We must have looked like a side-show to them; with our large backpacks parked next to us on the booth, we were in rough shape- bruises from unrelenting branches left sore spots on Alison’s legs and me nursing an old trail running wound on my knee that the whiplash of stabbing branches reopened.
I felt like I understood the word “hard” now. Hard is no longer a too-long or highly-exerting day. When I think of “hard”, I think of branches slapping my face on a day I see nothing but pine trees way too close compromising any feeling of personal space. I know it as tired, aching muscles climbing over or under hundreds of fallen trees on a trail that doesn’t exist. I know it as the realization that although my body is strong, it is not unbreakable by the amount scrapes, burns, and bites that have accumulated on my body.
We were unamused with the bustling tourists and the $16 dollar meal of chips and salsa when we saw a guy with a big Canada Post resupply box walk by us. A GDT HIKER! This is a rarity since the 30+ day trail isn’t frequented enough to come across other hikers. We waved eagerly and he walked over to us. He watched me eat a hundred chips and I watched him think and ponder, paying so much attention to our experience and stories (what happens when you’ve been alone on a trail for 30 days).
He told us of his escapades that included 1,000 mile trails including the PCT and ACT. He confessed that this trail is hard and even compared the PCT to taking an escalator after what he has seen so far on this trail.
I believe him- like the bewitched staircases in Harry Potter or the GPS that insists you drive off the cliff, the trail left us wondering what practical joke would come next; what twist or bump in the road the twisted people watching over us would come up with next..like the Hunger Games.
In The Hunger Games, every move you make is watched by the Gamemaker and the environment is altered to make it more entertaining for television viewers. Hiking the GDT felt like the trail was constantly being rerouted to make it more interesting. If the path was very obvious, it was time to pull out the GPS to read some trail notes. Most notes were along the lines of: “take the faint pathway that leaves the properly groomed trail” or “follow the GAME TRAIL that heads West for 10 km”. When following the GPS perfectly, you are expected to walk through a flooded bog, propel down cliffs, and traverse rivers. I got to find out how challenging a river traverse could be. Sometimes rivers split so following the wrong river is really easy to do. Other times, I find myself holding on to steep canyon walls that hug the river as I watch white water bubble over my boots and carry my water bottle away…in the rain. The best (and most accurate) trail note on a river traverse was: “it’s your choice: go right or left of the creek or in the creek. Any way your feet will get wet”. They were right.
We were on our 900th backtracking experience where we mistook a visible path for the (non-existent) GDT. In order to get back, we had to bushwhack down the side of a mountain also in the rain. As if the willow branches turned into banana peels, every step I took left me sliding and falling through wet branches. I felt like an oompa loompa lifting legs that turned to elephant feet over trees to purposely tip and fall over to the other side. I was relieved to get back to the creek and find a campsite, wondering what one could dream up next.
Also in The Hunger Games, you can expect to receive gifts from sponsors or immediate relief when you cross over to another zone in the game, leaving one unfortunate event for an inevitable other one. On the trail, we were gifted A BRIDGE. The trail notes had been haunting us for days; there was a river crossing that people feared for their life. The bridge had been taken out by poor weather and never put back. The notes were full of strategies on what part of the river and what time of day was the safest. I hardly believe this as I write it, but after three days of bushwacking, flooded trails, and no views, we saw a man coming towards us holding an umbrella on a sunny day with two kids under 10 years old. We immediately came to the conclusion that we were all doing the GDT otherwise we wouldn’t be on this section of trail. The man was bursting at the seams to tell us that he had built a bridge in order to get his two kids and wife across the river. We couldn’t have been luckier. We were about an hour away from imminent doom and he gave us the gift of survival.
We also experienced crossing an imaginary line where thundering skies and heavy rain ends and a land of sunlight pouring on our faces and birds chirping began. The only explanation is that we we had escaped the zone where weather was ending tribute lives and luckily crossed the invisible border for a second of relief. We were well rewarded since that night was the first night in a while that we had a real campsite with a toilet, tables, and food storage bins. We were living the dream.
After all we had been through, as we sat in the front two seats of a shuttle on our way to the last 3 days of the trail, we could not stop laughing. Maybe we were in denial that we were still not done yet or we were relieved at the decision to skip a 30 km section of unmaintained trail since we know what that means now, but our laughter was uncontrollable at 8 am for the entire one hour ride to the trailhead. Random times from the trip would come to us and we’d fight to get the words out, cracking each other up on what was still a very recent experience. We resolved that if they made a movie about our trip, it would be a comedy rather than a serious drama or spiritual journey. We admitted that that was okay with us and counted our blessings that the trail hasn’t completely destroyed our spirits.
So, did we compete in a (comedic) televised battle to the death called The Hunger Games? I think so.
Disclaimer: The GDT is currently an idea of a trail by the Great Divide Trail Association. Their website states that “the GDT is not officially signed and the route is actually made up of several separate trail systems joined together by ATV tracks, roads, and wilderness routes. The GDT varies from being a well-developed, blazed trail to an unmarked, cross-country wilderness route where navigation skills are required.” It’s Southern Terminus is in Waterton National Park and the most accepted point for the Northern Terminus is Mt Robson, although Kakwa Provincial Park is a further option, making the trail 1,130 km in total which generally takes eight weeks. The GDT I completed is a 500 km section that the GDTA describes as Section C to E.