We’ve done it! 5 months and 4 days after leaving the Mexican border and having hiked about 2700 miles, we finally reached the Canadian border yesterday morning.
As with any long hike, finishing the Continental Divide Trail brought with it a real mixture of emotions – relief, happiness, sadness that it’s over, sadness at saying goodbye to the wonderful people we’ve met on the trail as we all go our separate ways, a feeling of accomplishment, a slight feeling of disbelief that we’ve actually done it … But yesterday I pushed that lot to the back of my mind, as all I really wanted to do was get back into East Glacier for a hot coffee and a hot shower. The weather has not been kind to us these last few days, and it felt very much like winter was coming and it was time we were finished.
When we left East Glacier on Thursday, it was a perfect autumn day, with blue sky and sunshine. But as we entered Glacier National Park and climbed up onto a rocky ridge, the sky clouded over and darkened, and rain and hail were thrown at us by a chilly wind. It cleared up a bit as we began a steep descent to Two Medicine Lake and the campground, but while we were in the national park office getting our camping permits there was a huge downpour. In between showers we managed to get our tent up, cook dinner and snatch a few photos of the fresh snow on the surrounding mountains, but it was a cold and damp evening and it was a great relief to get into our nice warm sleeping bags.
The next day we had 25 miles and two mountain passes to do before our next campsite – in Glacier National Park camping is only allowed at designated campsites, which must be booked in advance. So our alarm was set for 6am, and we were on our way at first light, just before 7am. A few shafts of intense sunlight as the sun rose gave us hope that the clouds would break up and clear, but it was not to be.
As we made our way into a huge bowl-shaped corrie with a lake at the bottom and towering walls on all sides, we wondered where on earth the trail was taking us. Then we started a long and gentle zigzag up the side of the corrie, following rocky ledges up to Pitarmachan Pass. At the top there was fresh snow on the ground and bitingly cold winds threatening to knock us off balance – not a place to hang around!
So after a quick descent and a march down the valley, we had another steep ascent, this time up Triple Divide Pass. This is named after nearby Triple Divide Peak, where rain falling on different sides of the mountain flows west into the Pacific,east into the Atlantic or north to Hudson Bay. Again, the cold blustery wind ensured we didn’t stop for long to admire the dramatic scenery.
As we dropped down to Red Eagle Lake, the sun briefly emerged from the cloud to cheer us up as we hiked through an old burn area, where the wind whistled around the bare white trunks. Sadly our campsite was located in the burn area, with no shelter from the wind. So after a quick dinner, we retreated to our tent, leaving Pegasus (a small but tough thru-hiker originally from Burma) cooking her dinner in the designated food prep area.
Fifteen minutes later, as we were reading in our tent, we heard some high-pitched shouting, from which we could only make out two words: “Ripple” (Neil’s trail name) and “bear”. We hastily pulled on our jackets, shoes and headtorches, and got out of the tent to find Pegasus hurrying towards us clutching her food bag. She had been about to hang her food from the campsite’s food pole, out of reach of bears, when she heard a huffing sound, and saw two eyes glinting back at her in the darkness. Not wanting to lose her food to a bear, she had run with it instead.
But now if the bear followed its nose, it would head straight for the three of us – and with grizzlies as well as black bears around the place, that was the last thing we wanted! The only solution was to head back to the food hanging pole where Pegasus had seen the bear, and get her food strung up out of reach as quickly as possible. So that’s what we did, with lots of clapping and shouting “Hey bear!”, “B***er off bear!”, and “You’re not welcome bear!”
Peering into the darkness, we couldn’t see anything out there. But when we spotted the headtorches of two hikers coming along the lakeshore, we went to warn them about the bear – too late as it turned out, as they’d already seen a huge grizzly go crashing past them, heading away from the campsite.
After all that drama it took a while to get off to sleep. But sleep we did, and our food bags were still hanging from the food pole the next morning, which was a relief!
We only had 14 miles to do the next day, but it felt like such a long day … It was easy walking, mostly along St Mary’s Lake, but in the pouring rain and with low cloud obscuring the mountain tops, it was pretty tedious. When we arrived at our campsite, an angler with an enormous rucksack had a fire going in the firepit, trying to dry out his camping gear. We don’t normally bother lighting fires, but we kept this one going after he left, and were glad of it! When Seamtape arrived, he did a great job of finding more firewood, and when Pegasus arrived she joined us around the fire too. It was good to sit round the fire, talking and eating, until another rain shower sent us all scurrying off to our tents.
And so to Sunday, our last full day on the trail. It got off to a rubbish start, when I bit into a cold hard Snickers bar and broke the crown on my front tooth clean in half. Polite words cannot describe how pissed off I was!
With another 25 mile, two mountain pass day ahead, it would have been nice to get some decent weather. But as we plodded up Piegan Pass, the clouds closed in and it began to hail. My gloves weren’t warm enough to cope with the cold wind, so I paused to put my hiking poles away so I could warm up my hands – and so narrowly missed seeing a mother bear and cub on the path, which Seamtape (who was just in front) got a lovely little film of! Not my lucky day!
But on the bright side, by the time we got down to Josephine Lake, the sun was making sporadic appearances, and we had a nice easy tourist path to follow.
Our final mountain pass of the CDT came soon after, and it was an unusual one. A long ascent into a corrie led to a series of steep switchbacks, and then to a large steel door – the entrance to Ptarmigan Tunnel. It’s only about 80 yards long, and was driven through the ridge near the top to avoid some very steep crags. Popping out on the other side, the trail was built around the sheer cliffs by blasting the bedrock and building up the trail, to give a spectacular section of trail which we really enjoyed.
Then it was down to Elizabeth Lake, for our last night on trail. This left just nine miles to go to the Canadian border. We had hoped to finish at Waterton Lake, the official endpoint of the CDT, but this was closed following a wildfire. So we headed for Chief Mountain, a little-used border crossing in the middle of nowhere. The sky was grey, the trail was muddy, the terrain was unexciting, but as we climbed up towards the road and the border crossing, the sun came out, and the clouds lifted off the mountains to show a fresh covering of snow on the tops.
Coming out of the forest into a large car park, we headed down the road to the border monument, on the Canadian side of the border. A few photos, a wistful look northwards into Canada, then we turned around and headed back to the car park. A chilly lift back to East Glacier in the back of FiveStar’s parents’ truck, and that’s it, we’re done.
Well not quite. We still have a 55 mile section to hike down in New Mexico, to achieve our goal of “continuous footprints” from Mexico to Canada. So we have an epic journey by train and Greyhound bus ahead of us, but we’re looking forward to some nice sunny New Mexico hiking!