Sometimes things don’t quite work out as we plan. This summer was one of those times.
On June 27th my family and I made the three hour drive from Calgary to Waterton Lakes National Park to drop me off. With a hug and a kiss goodbye, I threw my pack over my shoulders, pulled on my hiking boots and took my first steps on the Great Divide Trail. It was a beautiful morning for a hike, and being a Saturday in June, even with social distancing the park was crowded. As COVID ebbed and flowed through the spring, it wasn’t really until May that things looked like I’d actually be able to start on my hike.
From the Waterton townsite, the Boundary Bay trail climbs along the lakeshore up to a lookout. At this junction many day hikers either head back, or split off up towards the very scenic Bertha Falls and Bertha Lake. For me though, it was back down to the lakeshore and a quick lunch at the Bertha Bay campground. The rest of the day was mainly up and down over the spurs of Mount Richards as the trail hugs Upper Waterton Lake on its way to the US Canadian border.
There were a few other campers at Boundary Bay, but not very many. I grabbed a spot, pitched my tent and took the requisite photos of the border monument. As I headed to bed, I could hear thunder in the distance that grew steadily louder as the night progressed. One strike must have been particularly close as there was little delay between the flash of the lightning and the crash of the thunder. By morning, the storm had cleared out, but it remained cloudy, and after a quick breakfast, it was back the way I came.
As I approached the townsite, the clouds that had lingered all morning decided to open up in a downpour. I was fortunate that I had booked a room for the night. My original plans had been to head up to Carthew Lake for the night, however with repairs happening on the Akamina Parkway, Parks Canada had decided to close the Carthew-Alderson trail past the campground. Instead I decided to stay the night in town and head up the Red Rock Parkway the following day and hike into the Snowshoe campground. I would miss the Tamarack Trail, but it would leave something for a future adventure. While there, I bumped into a fellow GDT thru-hiker who was about to hit the trail the following day and offered to drop me off at the Red Rock trailhead to avoid several miles of road walk.
That night it poured, really poured, and it kept on going as I woke up and checked out of my room. At the trailhead, I ducked into the outhouse to put on my pack cover and batten down the hatches for a day of hiking in the rain. I had made it no more than 100 yards down the trail when I was flagged down by a Park Ranger. It turns out that the upper valley had received several inches of rain over night, and parts of the trail had flooded. They had made the decision to close the trail and were in the process of evacuating backcountry campers. The ranger was generous enough to offer me a ride back to town. While I waited, I walked down to the Red Rock canyon to watch the raging torrent. It was amazing to hear the crashing of boulders ricocheting down the canyon under the force of the water. Overhearing the ranger’s radio, they talked about how conditions were continuing to deteriorate. Water was now overtopping the parkway itself, and there was concern that they might lose the road. Heading back to town, the Ranger mentioned that the trail could be closed for up to a week and with that I decided to pause and re-plan my next steps. As the downpour continued throughout the day, I gave my family a call and asked them to pick me up the next day as it didn’t look like I would be going anywhere soon.
Section B NOBO
As it turned out, the trail re-opened the day after I was picked up. The parkway had escaped damage and trail bridges had held. I decided to spend a few days optimizing my pack some more, and catch up on my itinerary in Coleman, the start of section B. A few days later, my family again dropped me off in Southern Alberta. As I went to put on my pack and my boots, I realized that rather than packing both of my hiking boots, I had accidentally grabbed my left boot AND my sons left boot. Not having two left feet, I frustratingly, stowed my pack and we headed home. It was then I realized that perhaps this just wasn’t in the cards for me.
Section B SOBO
Not wanting to put my family through yet another multi hour drive, I had them drop me off at the northern end of section B and decided to make my way South. This is where things indeed started to go South. As I made my way down the trail over the next week, I realized that my body wasn’t just performing the way I had expected. I was tired, constantly thirsty, having to pee every half hour, and overall, feeling crappy. Rather than 12 mile days, I was making half that. The scenery was beautiful as I headed down the Elk Valley, and I bumped into several thru and section hikers headed the opposite direction. At Aldridge Creek I met a couple guys who were section hiking towards Field. They recognized me from some of my posts here and on the GDT Facebook group. I shared some of my food and they thanked me for being such a “Generous Dude”. I realized the next day, that this would make an excellent trail name, so here I am Kelly “Generous Dude” McDonald.
The next day, the trail took me up towards Fording Creek Pass and the Great Divide. After getting lost twice (this section of the trail is less maintained), I sat down for a rest and decided that this would be an excellent place to stay the night. It took me two nights to make it over the pass, and I was welcomed back to Alberta with a hailstorm. The pass itself was beautiful, confirming that the alpine is one of my favorite places. With my health continuing to trouble me, I decided it was time to find out what was going on. I hiked out to the road on the Alberta side and was picked up by my family.
Getting Back on Track
With the pandemic going on, I was fortunate to get an appointment with my doctor and he sent me off for some blood tests. With my symptoms, being overweight, and having a family history, it seemed pretty clear what direction this was leading towards, hyperglycemia. A week later, I had my formal diagnosis, it was Type 2 Diabetes and my blood sugar had been sky-high. By getting on medication and making changes to my diet I was able to get things back under control, and I’m happy to say that since then, I’ve been able to lose some weight (still more to go) and keep my blood sugar in check.
With my summer plans for thee GDT in disarray, I decided to not let the whole summer go to waste. It took me a few weeks for things to get back to normal and by August I was back to my normal 12 mile days. I managed to get up to Floe Lake with my kids for a night (which was spectacular, and I’ll definitely be back.) I also finished my “Kananaskis Country Backcountry Bingo”, now having slept in every backcountry campground in Kananaskis. My next post will be an overview of these sites.
All in all, while the summer didn’t quite turn out as I expected, I did get to spend 20-nights sleeping in a tent and it did renew my realize just how important getting outside is to me, and since the summer I’ve made a commitment to get out hiking at least once a week (a commitment I’ve since stuck with). As well, while I thought I had my gear dialed in pretty well, I spent a fair bit of time further refining it, and even managed to get out for a night of cowboy camping with nothing but my day pack. When I hit the GDT next summer to complete sections A and B, it will be with a much lighter pack.