The Pacific Crest Trail Association provides thru hikers with a single, free permit that allows camping almost anywhere along the 2660 mile route. The Continental Divide Trail has no analogous arrangement, although camping permits are only needed in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.
My father, in his infinite greatness, drove me 2000 miles from Ohio to Glacier, after first driving to and from Vermont for my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah.
Planning to start in Glacier and head south from the Canadian border to Mexico, I arrived at the St. Mary backcountry office. At 6:50am, 10 minutes before opening, there was already a line of backpackers hoping to get camping permits, 50% of which are kept for walk-ins. I was number 19.
“We want to do a part of the CDT,” a group of four guys in front of me told the ranger.
“Sure, we can get you the last one from Chief Mountain Pass on the low route,” she replied. Fantasizing about throwing them all into a volcano for getting the last permits and messing up my plans, I tried not to scream as they told the ranger they had plenty of snow and ice experience….from Michigan. There aren’t any f@#king high elevation passes in Michigan, let alone mountains!
“Uh, I’m not sure I should give you guys this permit,” she replied slowly. I don’t know how the rest of this trainwreck unfolded because the other ranger at the desk motioned for me to come forward.
Most of the people in front of me (which was everyone, since I was last) asked the rangers to make them an itinerary, which is difficult when they provide no further input. I sympathize with the rangers, since I too would be hesitant to give a backcountry permit to people of unknown abilities who obviously have no interest in planning ahead. They were banished to the corner to look at the map with campsite availabilities and then come back.
The backcountry rangers in American national parks are usually phenomenal, and after a few minutes of chatting about trail conditions I had permits to do a slightly nontraditional route starting from Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Starting from Waterton is much more scenic albeit not typically accessible for a couple more weeks. Yay for unseasonably hot weather and snowmelt!
After a weekend in Vermont at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah, my father in his infinite greatness drove me 2000 miles to Glacier. With the permits taken care of we spent the rest of the day hiking and driving along the Going to the Sun Road, the park’s main thoroughfare. Then the next day, July 1st, we crossed the border into the Great White North.
That happened to be Canada Day, and doubly special for being the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Hopefully an auspicious start!
We picked up a couple hitchhikers along the way to Canada, dropping them off at the Chief Mountain Border Crossing on the American side. One of the pair happened to be Anish, who as the holder of the unsupported speed record for the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails is something of a celebrity in the long distance hiking world.
Crossing into Canada was quick and easy, and after a short drive we entered Waterton Lakes National Park. Canadian national parks are free in 2017 in celebration of the country’s 150th anniversary.
“OH GOD THERE’S A BEAR!” I heard while waiting for a large group in front of me to enter the trailhead. They hurried back and decided to go watch the Canada Day parade instead.
My dad spotted two hikers coming down the trail less than a minute later. They hadn’t seen anything, so we figured I’d (probably) be fine.
The American border is about 4.5 miles from the Lake Bertha trailhead in Canada, and I couldn’t have asked for better weather. Clear skies, warm temps, and a well graded trail made for smooth sailing.
Passing lots of families enjoying the perfect day alongside Waterton Lake, my prior nervousness was morphing into excitement. I was a little concerned about some of the higher passes in Glacier, for which I had an ice axe and microspikes (basically lightweight crampons).
It’s only been two years since I started my last trans-America hike, but this feels different in some ways. As the trail turns to shit and gets overgrown by ferns I don’t wonder if I can do this, and I’m not overwhelmed by the enormity of what I’m about to do. I’ve done it before, and I will do it again. I know there will be times when I’m so lonely/hungry/hot/swarmed by mosquitoes/hobbled by blisters/etc. that I’ll get frustrated and overwhelmed. But that’s part of the experience, and it’s worth the discomfort to spend five months exploring America’s vast wilderness and small towns.
I just enjoyed the moment, and reveled in being outside and disconnected from the rest of the world.
By pure coincidence, I shared the backcountry campground with one of my favorite hikers I met on the PCT. Sass and I corresponded pre-hike, but I had no idea she was hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail to the Pacific (like the CDT, the PNT starts in Glacier). We spent hours chatting, and she introduced me to a couple other PNT hikers she’d met while doing the CDT last summer. Mermaid was 60, and her hiking buddy Beacon was probably around that if not older. Both have many, many thousands of miles of backpacking experience, and I think the latter has done the CDT four times. I love chatting with older hikers.