So, decision time came and went and I decided to cancel this hike. The question of thru-hiking in 2020 has been debated so intensely that it’s garnered the long-distance community more attention than we’ve received since Wild (see the New York Times, Washington Post and this amusingly titled LAist article), so I feel no need to rehash all those points here. Suffice it to say that Saskatchewan is still asking residents not to travel out of province, and I want to respect that. I also have serious concerns about the logistics of hiking the GDT right now, namely how I would self-isolate for two weeks in one of its ultra-expensive trail towns if I did develop symptoms.
‘Bane, what are you doing in your spare time if you’re not planning for one of the hikes that you’ve already planned for and had to cancel?’ I’m glad you asked! I’ve veered in the strange and exciting new direction of packrafting, and can say that I’ve never felt more irritated trying to choose a piece of gear than when looking for a PFD. I’ve also been playing an old video game and taking pictures of scenes that remind me of the pandemic, and you can see them below!
Your apartment after weeks of lockdown:
Hoarding some more:
The battle for PPE:
Hitchhiking in the back of a truck since the driver doesn’t want your COVID-19 ass in the cabin:
The GDT uses a patchwork of shorter trails, some of which are well-maintained and popular and some of which are the complete opposite. In most of the parks, camping requires permits that may be of two varieties: 1) random camping permits for less popular trails/areas without maintained campgrounds; 2) campsite bookings for popular, high-traffic trails with maintained backcountry campgrounds (e.g. Skyline) or trails that limit campers to minimize the disturbance to wildlife (e.g. Maligne Pass).
Though I love random camping, I’m a big supporter of the permit system. Limiting campers and herding them into designated campsites, especially campsites with toilets, is the best way to minimize impact on the environment (especially delicate alpine environments) and wildlife. When I’ve walked through heavily used areas that allowed random and unlimited camping, they often featured catholes everywhere, ragged vegetation and absurdly located tents destroying the feeling of wilderness. If you hate permits, if you must be free to roam and camp wherever you like, there are many, many long trails other than the GDT for you, or perhaps you can identify alternate routes to skip areas requiring campsite reservations, or rush through them in one day. If I meet you on the GDT and you’re not making a good faith effort to obey camping regulations, I will not be friendly to you. I may report you to Parks Canada in an attempt to get you fined, taking pictures of you as you shout obscenities and try to shield your face. Yes, I am that person, whatchoo gonna do about it?
The good news is that the permit system is not some crazy, insurmountable obstacle to hiking the GDT. Most of the campgrounds open for reservations in January, and despite getting my permits for them almost two full months later in March, I was able to make it work with some flexibility. That was also my experience when I lived in the Rockies and spent some of my three-day weekends (thanks, awesome bosses) on the popular backcountry trails in Jasper and Banff. I obtained most of my permits last-minute, but always managed to get a stray campsite from a cancellation. I never got more than one along a trail, mind you, but the popular trails are well-maintained, which enables quick hiking.
Therefore, there’s certainly hope of obtaining last-minute permits and modifying your itinerary if you get slowed down. Logic tells us that giving yourself a reasonable itinerary that will absorb short delays is wise, and unless you’re trying to set a FKT, why would you complain about an extra zero here and there? I recommend checking out the sample itineraries put together by Dan Durston to aid hikers with their trip planning.
‘I hiked x miles per day on the PCT so I should be able to hike x km on the GDT’ may not serve you well as a tactic; hiking on a well-maintained trail requires vastly different amounts of time and energy than bushwhacking and route-finding, as I learned on the northern Heysen! Dan’s itineraries give a rough idea of where the trail may take more time than the distance would suggest, as well as providing information about how to obtain permits for each area.
More detailed information can be found in the recently updated (2018) guidebook by Dustin Lynx. It’s excellent and glossy and I feel sad at the thought of chopping it up to put into my resupply boxes. I’m also sad whenever I see the word ‘Greyhound’ in its transportation descriptions. At some point I’ll need to investigate how to actually get to Waterton.
Due to COVID-19 – my apologies to anyone hoping that I wouldn’t mention that word again until 2.5 months from now, that’s my intention as much as possible – permit bookings for the parks are now closed and will remain closed until at least May. I still have some permits to obtain, so I’ll be waiting for that email stating that reservations have re-opened, or I suppose the alternate grim email stating that the parks will be closed all summer and my reservations have been cancelled. Maybe Parks can use this opportunity to rebuild the bridge over the Athabasca on the Fortress Lake Trail? Just needed to squeeze that in somewhere~
How things change in just a few weeks! On the day that I cancelled my Grand Enchantment Trail hike, there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sasky, none in New Mexico, and I believe eight in Arizona. Those three places still have a (comparatively) low number of cases, but numbers are ballooning elsewhere, millions of Americans have been ordered to stay in their homes, and Canada has closed its borders to all non-essential travel. I’ve gone from feeling bitter about the cancellation to feeling grateful that I didn’t fly to the U.S. and start my hike only to be forced to return home anyway.
It’s tough timing for thru-hikers. Along with the GET, northbound hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail, Arizona Trail, Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail are begun in the spring, and many hikers had already started or were just about to start walking when the pandemic began escalating in the United States. ‘So what, it’s just a vacation that you have/had to cancel,’ you say? Thru-hiking, or any long-distance hiking spanning multiple months, is comparable to moving to a new city. You give up your job, you sell your house or end your lease, and you put your faith in the arrangements you made beforehand for new accommodations and work. But then you get to the new city, and uh oh – there’s nothing for you there after all, and you return to the old city but you have no job or home there either, and everyone else is losing their jobs and looking for work at the same time you are.
It seems like everyone is on edge nowadays. Not sitting in their closets and rocking back and forth on a big pile of toilet paper, but their emotional baseline is higher and they’re more easily agitated. That’s understandable considering that there are no good options for us now – we can steer the boat into one iceberg or a different iceberg in the other direction. I have no idea whether I’ll be able to hike the GDT this summer, but I’m going to maintain hope. That’s what we need to get us through these times.
Let me suggest a scenario. A seemingly normal human being opens his bathroom cupboard and methodically counts the eight rolls of toilet paper inside. He frowns. He drives to the supermarket. He fights another shopper for a cart. He rushes to the toilet paper aisle, bowling over several children on the way, and claws the last three packages of toilet paper into his cart, howling triumphantly when he successfully purchases 90 rolls. If this is you, GO SIT DOWN YOU’RE PART OF THE PROBLEM.
This is a strange time to be a thru-hiker (or any human being living in this world). The chance of actually contracting COVID-19 (I’ve added a hyperlink for future readers not seeing this word in the news every day) in North America is still low, but backpackers are feeling its impacts because suddenly everyone wants what we want. Hand sanitizer. Unappetizing dehydrated meals. Equally unappetizing rice to which more appetizing ingredients can be added. It’s like there’s a band and at one point you were the only fan and could always get tickets to their concerts, then some other fans came along and also bought tickets – fine, we’ll allow that – but then some other fans came along and started buying 200 tickets each due to irrational fears that they would lose 199 of those tickets, and then scalpers began buying huge chunks of tickets to resell at higher prices on eBay. Where does all this leave us? In a tragic state of irritated minds and unsanitary hands.
I won’t delve into the hoarding of toilet paper and bottled water, which fills me with equal portions of laughter and contempt. It’s the hand sanitizer that’s the problem, since washing your hands properly as a solo hiker without contaminating your water bottle is virtually impossible. I’m a germaphobe to start with, so my thoughts when I circulated around the stores in my city and failed to find any hand sanitizer for my Grand Enchantment Trail hike – there are zero cases of COVID-19 in this city or province, just in case you’re wondering – were grim. Luckily for me, my family came through. My mother found me 90 ml (3 oz) of Purell, which is extinct in the wild, and my sister’s partner found me an entire 950 ml (32 oz) bottle of foam sanitizer! The latter is tricky compared to gel since it needs to be used in a specific bottle to foam, otherwise it’s like pouring water over your hands, but I was able to order some 60 ml (2 oz) foamer bottles to repackage it in. The only problem is that a 60 ml foamer bottle is bigger than I thought it would be when looking at my empty 60 ml Purell bottle, so it doesn’t fit in a pants pocket well. It will live in my backpack hipbelt.
Now that I’m not hiking until July, my hand sanitizer situation is in flux. Maybe Amazon and eBay will crack down on reselling and individuals with 500 bottles will pause and reflect and think to themselves, ‘Do I really need 500 bottles of hand sanitizer and 8372 rolls of toilet paper?’, and in that case, I could purchase travel-friendly gel sanitizer.
A final word to the hoarders: if you’re going to stock up on pasta sides, please buy the ones with cheese. I don’t like those.
As a hiker I drift between extremes. Too much easy hiking provokes a mental backlash; too much difficult hiking provokes a different kind of mental backlash; they must be measured so that by the time I return to one or the other I’ve forgotten whatever boredom or frustration I was feeling before. After two years of LASHing the Pacific Crest Trail, about which I have no criticisms other than its mental ease in conditions not including dangerous snow or torrential fords, I find myself needing to drift in the opposite direction to get my blood hot and pumping again.
Up until a few days ago I was planning to spend this spring hiking the Grand Enchantment Trail, a route connecting Phoenix and Albuquerque. Often I think of the Heysen Trail as a route since there was so little actual trail, but the GET is a proper unmarked route that also has a generous amount of trail – according to the GET website, 56% of its length is trail. The rest consists of 4WD dirt roads (20%), 2WD dirt roads (11%), cross-country walking (11%) and paved roads (2%). Sounding fun yet? Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian government issued a global ‘avoid non-essential travel’ advisory on Friday… one day before my flight to Phoenix.
I was of course wildly upset, but it is what it is. After trying to cancel my flights and travel insurance et cetera with varying degrees of success, I began researching Canadian hikes in search of a viable alternative. Canada has a lot of wilderness but not a lot of long hikes in the wilderness, so options were limited. I decided on the GDT starting in July (and possibly a warm-up for the GDT, but more on that later) because it’s a nice length, challenging, covers a gorgeous section of Canada, and has been on my bucket list for some time. Like the GET, the GDT uses a mix of established trail, roads and cross-country walking, and only a few areas have GDT signage.
The GDT is a gnarly trail and I would be lying if I said I had no concerns about it, particularly the fords. I trust my judgement though, and my amygdala which is the opposite of Alex Honnold’s, so… pretty sure I won’t die. I’ll try to update this journal often enough to avoid the ‘are you dead?’ emails.