Canadian Continental - The Great Divide Trail

Mount Shark to Lake Magog
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Dense northern alpine forests, abundant wildlife and well-marked trails beckon avid hikers to this route along Canada's Great Divide. Chris Townsend, long-distance hiker and journalist, describes the beautiful trek through the wild backcountry of three National Parks and a provincial park as magnificent, but well within the capabilities of any competent backpacker.The Rocky Mountains stretch northwards from the border with the USA for 850 miles (1,360 km) through Canada to terminate in northern British Columbia. There is far more untouched wilderness in these mountains than anywhere else in North America outside of the Yukon and Alaska. The southern half of the Canadian Rockies are the best known, with much of the area protected in national and provincial parks and wilderness areas; the mountain park belt. Here, the watershed of North America, known in Canada as the Great Divide, threads its way along the crest of the highest peaks, the Main Ranges.

Plans have been made to create a Great Divide Trail from the border with the USA all the way to Mount Robson, the highest summit in the range, but no such trail yet exists and it may never do so. Trails can be linked in some areas, however, to make such a route and suggestions for a route in the mountain parks are outlined in Patton and Robinson's Canadian Rockies Trail Guide. It is the part of this route that follows most closely the Divide itself that is described here.

The Canadian Rockies are alpine in nature and heavily glaciated, but the sedimentary rock from which they are carved gives them a distinctive appearance, unique to the range. This is a northern wilderness with dense conifer forests and wildlife, including grizzly and black bears, gray wolf, wolverine, lynx, moose, elk and beaver. In summer, the meadows are rich with wildflowers, but the season only lasts about six weeks with autumn starting in late August, earlier above timberline. Although short, the summer is warm and reasonably dry, July being the best month.

The walk passes through three national parks, Banff, Kootenay and Yoho, plus Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park and is all on good, sign-posted trails. Although there are many steep climbs and the route passes through rugged mountain terrain, these trails plus the provision of backcountry campgrounds with bear poles for hanging food from at regular intervals, bridged creeks and rivers and plenty of escape routes, make this a walk that should be well within the capabilities of any competent backpacker. Well-maintained trails with signposts at all junctions make route-finding easy. I never used my compass and found my maps most useful for identifying distant peaks and gaining an overall view of the area, rather than for navigation.

There are no supply points on the route, although meals can be purchased at the ski resort of Sunshine Village 35 miles (56 km) into the route and afternoon tea at Lake O'Hara Lodge after 97 miles (155.2 km). From Sunshine Village the gondola can be taken down to a road where buses can be caught to the town of Lake Louise. Sunshine Village will also hold food parcels for you if you take them up there as I did once on a spring ski tour. Backcountry permits are needed for the national parks. They can be obtained for the whole walk at the National Park Visitor Centre in Banff townsite before you start, along with any recent bear warnings and trail alterations. If you intend using the very popular campground at Lake O'Hara, this should be booked in advance with the date when you'll be there, as it's full most nights during the summer. There is a charge for staying at the Naiset Cabins and the Lake Magog Campground in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, so take some cash with you if you intend to use either of these. There are many possible side trips and excursions along the route but as described it shouldn't take much more than a week.

The Mount Shark Trailhead where the route begins, lies at the end of the large Spray Lakes Reservoir 24 miles (38.4 km) from the town of Canmore. From the parking lot a wide trail leads for nearly four miles (6.4 km) past Watridge Lake to the rather grandly named Trail Centre where there is a noticeboard and trail sign. When I was last here, this first section was a muddy quagmire, but there was much trail work going on, so by now it's hopefully a good path.. From the Trail Centre the route takes the Bryant Creek Trail, passing the Bryant Creek Shelter after four miles (6.4 km). This is open to walkers, but quite likely to be well populated. Half a mile further on is the Bryant Creek Warden Cabin and a campground plus a trail junction. If the weather is bad I would suggest staying on the Bryant Creek Trail from here and crossing 7,100 foot (2,130m) Assiniboine Pass as this is the easiest, shortest and most sheltered way into Lake Magog and Mount Assiniboine.

However, a much more scenic, if more strenuous route is that by Marvel Lake and Wonder Pass. From the junction, the route contours high above the dark forest-shrouded lake before climbing steeply for 1,250 feet (375m) to 7,850-foot (2,355m) Wonder Pass. Throughout, there are superb views of the peaks and glaciers at the head of the take and then from the pass a fantastic view north all the way to the mountains around Sunshine Meadows where we are headed. A gentle descent leads down past Gog Lake to Lake Magog at the foot of Mount Assiniboine. There are cabins in the woods by the lake, which are rented out by the Forest Service (there is a warden here) on a first-come, first-served basis, and private accommodation, bookable in advance, at Assiniboine Lodge. Across the lake is a campground.

Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is 385 sq. km in size and surrounds the mountain it is named after, an 11,870-foot (3,561 m) towering snow and rock pyramid known as"the Matterhorn of the Rockies" and in my view, one of the most impressive individual peaks in the range. It was on seeing pictures of this peak that I was first drawn to the Canadian Rockies and I have visited it twice, once in spring on skis from Sunshine Village, and once in summer on the route detailed here. The park is a wilderness one, not reachable by road, although there are regular helicopter flights from Canmore that land near the lodge, flights I'd been grateful for on the ski tour as rotten spring snow made skiing out via Assiniboine Pass almost impossible.

On that visit I'd stayed with two others in one of the Naiset Cabins, the warmth of a wood-burning stove much to be preferred to the damp confines of the tent. During our first night here we'd been woken during the night by a shatteringly loud, abrasive sound reminiscent of a chainsaw outside the cabin. "Porcupine," muttered Jari and rushed outside with a broom. The noise stopped. Within minutes it began again. "Someone else's turn," said Jari. Reluctantly, I plodded out half-naked into the freezing night.

The snow on the sloping roof of the cabin reached down to the ground, leaving a narrow tunnel between it and the walls. In this tunnel, a large porcupine was busy trying to eat the cabin. I tried to poke it with the broom, but couldn't reach it. I was loath to crawl into the tunnel. Those spines looked large. Instead I climbed, barefoot, on to the roof of the cabin and tried to poke the broom through the snow from above. I was partially successful,. but twice fell and slid off the roof in a cloud of snow and curses. The porcupine remained where it was.

Finally, I lay down in the mouth of the tunnel and lobbed snowballs at the beast. It didn't like this and edged towards the far end. I slung a few more snowballs. The porcupine made a dash for the nearest trees. Wanting to discourage it from even thinking of coming back. I pursued it, yelling loudly and waving the broom while staggering wildly across the knee-deep snow. The animal climbed a tree very quickly and, cold, scratched, bruised and exhausted, I returned to the cabin to find the other two convulsed with laughter. "That sounded hilarious," they said. I crept back into the warm depths of my sleeping bag.

Now that was an extreme occurrence, but porcupines and other animals can be a nuisance, as I was reminded at the Lake Magog campground on my second visit by the ground squirrels that tried to steal my trail mix. As well as hanging your food to keep it safe from bears in the Canadian Rockies, I would suggest keeping everything else, especially your boots which porcupines will gnaw for the salt from your sweaty feet, in the tent.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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