Owning a retail operation on Reid Street in downtown Quesnel has been tough this summer, so the owners of Rocky Peak Adventure Gear decided to take advantage of the slow season by embarking upon a 45-day hike along the Great Divide Trail.
“It seemed an ideal opportunity for the both of us to get away at the same time and do a big adventure, which we hadn’t really done since we’ve had the business,” says John Courtney.
The 1,100 kilometre walk would take John and his wife, Brenda Beatty, from the southern edge of Alberta along the B.C./ Alberta border through a bevvy of national and provincial parks.
Apart from the Skyline Trail through Jasper, which Brenda hiked last summer with friends, the entire hike was new territory for them, so planning was of vital importance.
The right gear needed to be picked out, so they would feel safe and sheltered while not overburdened; food had to be thought about for each stretch of the trip, refueling stations needed to be accounted for, and they had to have a realistic idea of how long each stretch would take, so they could ensure they were never feeling rushed on or in between the most grueling sections.
“We didn’t plan too many kilometres in a day, so we had our timing correct and manageable and that was a big thing,” says Brenda. “We met another hiker who didn’t plan enough to have a buffer and he ran out of time and wasn’t able to finish the trail.
“So we came out really well. We still had time for some rest days and some easier days.”
John says the pair were warned that biting off more than you can chew on the trail is risky, so the longest section they conquered in one day was the 37-kilometre stretch on Skyline.
“People who are used to hiking 40 to 50 kilometres per day on some of the long trails like the Pacific Crest Trail aren’t going to be able to do anywhere near those number of kilometres per day on this. It’s much more rugged and a lot of the time there isn’t really a trail at all.”
It was the rugged aspect of the trail which both attracted and frustrated the couple. In addition to co-managing Rocky Peak, John is a trail builder and works with BC Parks on trail maintenance at Dragon Mountain.
“I couldn’t help but be critical at the state of the product,” he says, admitting it took most of the trip for him to finally come to the conclusion that it wasn’t his job to fix the trail, he was only there to hike it.
Brenda, who completed the Pacific Crest Trail along the west coast of the United States in sections over the course of three years from 2009 to 2011, was able to find the will and determination to push through and in the process really impressed her husband.
“I knew that she is extremely capable and super tough, I had the utmost respect for her as a wilderness traveller, but I had no idea how strong she is,” John says.
“Despite all the trips and all the different types of back country activities we’ve done together over the last many years, I was surprised by how tough through hiking is.
“I’ve always thought that I am a very fit athlete who is comfortable in the back country and a very capable hiker, but I’ve found out how much harder it is doing what Brenda’s being doing for years.”
Long stretches of the trip passed by where the couple didn’t see another human, which made the times they did come across fellow hikers a real treat.
Brenda says at the Saskatchewan River Crossing in Banff they met up with a British couple who buoyed their spirits.
“They were like a mirror image of John and I,” she says, “They had an amazing sense of humour and great stories.
“John and Joe were able to complain to each other instead of their female hiking partners for a little while, which was really cathartic.”
The trials on the trail were front and centre for John for the majority of the six-week hike.
He says he was constantly starving, dealing with an “insane” number of bugs and the condition of the trail resulted in his body taking many a tumble, sprain and bruise.
Near the end of week five he came to a breaking point.
“I promised I was quitting,” he says.
“As we were hiking towards the backside of Mount Robson to pick up our final eight day resupply of food, we’d had a couple days of rain and the terrain was really poor and really slippery.
“I’d been falling and falling and slipping and falling and jamming my knee.
“So I’m on the ground screaming in pain and finally I just cracked and had a bit of a meltdown.”
John says he had zero intention of continuing on the trail, telling himself and all of the surrounding wilderness that he was finished.
He admits he was broken.
That night, John couldn’t sleep. He ranted and raved and said nasty things.
But by the time morning came around, he got up from the ground and says he finally felt at peace.
“On the trail it has always been about bashing and battling the brush and fighting the blow down and I’d just been battling all the way through it,” he says.
A realization finally washed over him that he did not need to fight any more and could just be, so he and Brenda decided to continue on.
“I hiked with an inner peace that day which I hadn’t had up to that point in the trip,” he says.
“It was a day I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
The home stretch was a favourite for both hikers.
“From Mount Robson north to the end of the trail at Kakwa [Provincial Park] through the wilderness, the views were stunning,” Brenda says.
“Wild remote mountains all around and just walking through the meadows….”
“It had a really vast, expansive feel to it, kind of like being up in the Yukon,” he says.
“It felt like we were less pegged down in the tress and more out in the open, so you could take in the mountains and the views.”
Since being back, John had been feverishly eating all the scrumptious things his body and mind had been screaming for all trip.
“I’ve made lasagna, corn chowder, fresh-baked bread, baked cookies, peanut butter balls… I’ve just been cooking and eating continuously, which has been really nice after six weeks of semi-starvation and a single burner stove.”
He doesn’t regret having taken on the tortuous endeavour, but jokingly hints at trying an all-inclusive resort for the couple’s next trip.
Brenda, who is an avid through hiker, was happy to get the opportunity to traverse the longest trail in her backyard, although she thinks it will be a much better hike in years to come.
“I would say the trail is maybe not in its infancy, but definitely its puberty. There is trail but it’s connected by long sections of road or ATV road or route finding and bush wacking, so not many people have done it yet.
“I feel in 20 or 30 years, it’ll be an amazing trail. It’ll be totally different and a less raw experience than we had this summer.”