REUNITED WITH RIBBONS–BACK INTO THE REAL WORLD ON CANADA'S GREAT DIVIDE TRAIL
Words & Photos from Eloise Robbins
If any trail could heal my soul, it would be this one. Wild and remote, the Great Divide Trail follows the squiggly line on the border between British Columbia and Alberta for over a thousand kilometers. It showcases some of the best scenery in the Canadian Rockies, maybe in the entire world. It traverses high limestone peaks, glacier-filled valleys, and meadows filled with wildflowers. It passes ribbons of waterfalls that tumble thousands of feet, clear alpine lakes thick with trout, and lonely cirques still ringed with snow. Every day is stunning; every day is challenging. It is the perfect route for a wayward thru hiker to rediscover their love of the trail.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that thru hiking is my entire life. I’ve walked over 9,000 miles in the last five years. I met my husband on a hike, and we spent our first date walking the Pacific Crest Trail together. Many of my best friends are fellow thru hikers. I even write about hiking for money sometimes. Sure, I have other interests, but most of them are very closely linked: canoeing, bikepacking, rock climbing, and running. My entire identity is wrapped up in being outdoors.
I moved to Ontario in 2019 to be with my husband. It might be the worst place in Canada for a thru hiker to live. It’s completely flat. We have to drive for over an hour just to get out of the city. The closest “hill” is across the border in Quebec and only a few hundred meters high. This wasn’t supposed to be a problem. Ontario itself might be flat, but the Adirondacks are just a few hours away in the US. I figured I’d go complete the 46 Adirondack high peaks. We would find ourselves there every weekend, right?
Unless you’ve been in the woods without cell service for the last two years (which would have been a perfect way to pass the pandemic), you can probably guess what happened. Borders closed. The world shut down. I still haven’t been to the Adirondacks. I haven’t ticked off a single peak. I spent over a year without even seeing a mountain: possibly the longest period in my life. Ontario endured lockdown after lockdown. At the height of the third wave, we weren’t even allowed to go camping.
I spent repeated lockdowns in a daze. My fitness melted away. And with my fitness went my identity. Who was I when I wasn’t thru hiking? I’d spent so long convincing myself I was brave, strong, and independent. Now I spent my time hiding in my apartment, isolated from friends and separated from my beloved mountains.
This summer, the world started to open back up. I wasn’t sure of my place in it anymore. I hadn’t thru hiked in almost two years. Would I have forgotten everything? My body had changed from a mean, lean thru-hiking machine to a lump more at home on the couch. Could I even still physically get up a hill? There was only one way to find out. We drove to Calgary, then caught a ride from local friends to Waterton. The plan was simple: 1,100km, 47 days, and some of the most challenging trail in the world.
The Great Divide Trail had been on my bucket list for a while. I’d hiked the Continental Divide Trail in 2017, and when I’d finished at Waterton National Park on the US/Canada border, I’d noticed the trail winding north, continuing up the backbone of the Rockies. I’d researched obsessively, booked permits, and dehydrated food for resupply boxes. Now, I just had to hike.
Prospective thru hikers are often told not to worry about fitness. You can just get into shape on the trail, they’re advised. Maybe that’s true on a gentler trail. But as I huffed and puffed my way up the first 3,000-foot climb, I realized I was in for a world of hurt. My heart beat so hard, I wondered if it would jump right out of my chest. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the world for my aching lungs. By the time we reached camp, my feet throbbed, and my legs ached. Would I even be able to get up and hike tomorrow?
I managed to drag myself out of my sleeping bag and limp down the trail. The trail was mercifully flat for a few miles, then climbed steeply to a scree-covered ridge, high above treeline. I could only manage two steps before pausing to catch my breath. Step, step, breathe. Step, step, breathe. Rest steps are normally reserved for high-altitude mountaineers, where the air is too thin to catch your breath. But it was all I could do to drag myself up towards the ridge. I planted my trekking poles in the loose scree, trying to keep myself from sliding back down the mountain.
Finally, somehow, I reached the summit. A long ridge lay before me, barren as a moonscape. We opened our packs, taking out sausage, cheese, and tortillas for lunch. My husband pointed out two brown specks far below us on the scree field: grizzly bears, digging for insects. I was exhausted, but my chest felt light for the first time in months.
Over the next few weeks, I struggled, and I thrived. I climbed fearsome La Coulotte ridge, the bogeyman of the GDT. I ran out of water and melted snow. I saw no one apart from my husband on a nine-day section. I walked alongside the famous Rockwall in Banff National Park, a towering rampart of limestone above blue glacial lakes. My body changed. Fat turned to hard muscle, my waist shrinking while my thighs and calves grew bigger and stronger. But the biggest change was inside my head and my heart.
I’d felt lost for the past year. I didn’t find myself, like some sort of hiking cliche. But I rediscovered a part of my personality, which had been dormant throughout the pandemic. Sometimes I need to feel small among big mountains to remember who I am. That’s hard to do in big cities or farmer’s fields. We need the mountains to test ourselves and to feel that freedom that only comes in the wild.
I’ve been back for a month now. Readjusting to society is never easy. Everything is too loud, and people talk too much without saying anything important. The choice available in a grocery store is overwhelming when you’ve lived out of a food bag for weeks at a time. But I’m workinghard to keep the spirit of adventure I had on the trail. I run a few times a week and ride my bike as far as I can. I disappear into the quiet woods and lakes a few hours away. Most importantly, I’m already planning next year’s adventures: long hikes and bike rides across entire states and countries. Adventuring is part of who I am, and I don’t want to lose that again.
Eloise Robbins is a Triple Crowner who completed the Continental Divide Trail in 2017. She also enjoys canoeing, bikepacking, and getting outdoors all winter long. You can read more of her writing at https://funsizehikes.com.
One correction for anyone who might be searching for the Rockwall Trail. It is in Kootenay National Park not Banff.
Fortunately we did not experience quite the draconian lock down measures in BC as in Ontario. Or maybe it was because I live just far enough from Vancouver that I was able to at least get out to hike our local mountains on a regular basis. But my penchant for travelling to the high mountains of the world was shut down. I am doing my best to explore more of the spectacular mountains of Canada and the US.
As a fellow in my 7th decade the lost two years were in ways more ‘costly’ than those of you in your 20s, 30s, etc. The end of our trail is much closer! Live every day to the fullest!2