We left Vancouver Airport for Prince George after the obligatory eggs Benedict and cup of tea and found that we had been pleasantly upgraded for the short flight. Upon arrival at Prince George we preceded to re-pack our bags as we had brought some hand luggage. This included me removing multiple tablets from their original packaging and placing them into small cellophane bags; looking super seedy and something I don't recommend doing in an airport lobby. However, after an hour we were in a taxi on our way to Tabor lake to catch our float plan bound for Kakwa. I hadn't really appreciated the poor visibility on our larger plane earlier that day but as we ascended over the mountains in our small Cessna, it became abundantly clear that the wildfire smoke was a lot worse than expected. At times visibility was only 300m and the pilot explained that we ran the real risk of not getting enough oxygen to the engine due to the soot percentage. However despite lacking any sort of view, we made it in one piece to Kakwa to be greeted by two wardens who do upkeep on the cabins during the summer months. Unfortunately the pilot who had kindly brought us bear spray as we couldn't carry it on the flight had also bought the wrong fuel for our stove which meant cold meals for the next two weeks. We went for a short walk to find the start of the trail and I found an eagle feather and trees which were covered in black strands like hair. I was pretty convinced this was bear fur after all the hype we had heard about bears in the wilderness until we saw that it hung off even the highest branches and we later confirmed it as a type of lichen. We settled into the cabin and in the evening the wardens asked us round for tea and to share knowledge about the trail. They warned us that this is the toughest segment of the trail so we went to bed early in preparation for the start of our journey.
Day 1: 9.3km
Woke to heavy rain but smoke still lingering. Flat start and easy going underfoot but heavy packs slowed us down. Followed the path into a meadow where we got carried away with the abundance of wild flowers and lost the trail. Made a bad decision to try to bushwhack our way in the right direction. This was made worse by the onset of heavy rain. We made it to a river which we followed until it opened out into Broardview lake - an amazing camp surrounded by beautiful meadows. We had some dinner and had a lovely evening aware that we had started the most incredible adventure.
Day 2: 21.2km
First section was nice walking and in retrospect we should have walked faster while the path was good. Climb started in a wooded area and then we descended to make our first river crossing- fast flowing but knee deep so a good first experience for me to learn the technique. After this we saw our first bear tracks so we were trying to keep making noise for the rest of the day (something I found surprisingly hard to do!) After this we hit head height brush on the river bed which we had to persevere though for a good few hours before a steep climb to surprise pass. The top of the pass was extremely hostile and we quickly made our descent after which the sun made an appearance for an hour or so. After we had descended we hit meadow but the path was clear and we picked up our pace enabling us to just make camp in the light. However it then took us an hour to hang our food from bears due to unsuitable trees. Tired but glad to have achieved the distance in difficult conditions.
Day 3: 7.5km
Felt fresh and so made good pace uphill however missed a fork in the path meaning we walked an extra couple of kilometres. Made camp by 1330 and set up a washing line to dry things out. Off to sleep early for a 0500 get up for a big day 4.
Day 4: 24km
Immediate river crossing of mid-calf slow moving water and then pressing through thick wet undergrowth so within half an hour we were pretty wet. Path started to climb through the forest and eventually onto Mount Featherstonehough. After lunch the path became sporadic but with some weaving managed to keep locating it. Came down the scree side of Mt Featherstonehough for the very steep climb of Mt Morkill 2200m. This was the best view of the trip so far as we were above the tree line and there were pockets of snow beneath us with several mountains laid out ahead. After our descent a succession of bogs meant we continually lost the path and the GPS coordinates were also inaccurate. However we spotted a horse enclosure in the distance and headed for that to set up camp at Morkill Pass. I was feeling surprisingly good but Stan had a sore shoulder due to his rucksack having broken.
Day 5: 30km with 1000m net ascent
We knew this was going to be a big day of ascent so set off early. Feeling quite strong, we set off uphill into forest. However after an hour we lost the trail and ended up bushwhacking uphill. We did find the trail for a further 40 minutes of the morning, which allowed us to make some quick progress and were even in t-shirts by lunchtime. We refilled with water at a small ravine where we lost the path across a bog. We decided to press on with our own route up Big Shale 2405m- and made so with impressive timing. However I succumbed to false summit syndrome- twice, and some 400m off the top I had my first cry of the trip. I honestly felt like I had used all my energy to make it to the top the first time only to be told there was further and still even further to go. I found it difficult to motivate myself and it is moments like this that I don't know how people hike solo. Stan was solely responsible for improving my mood and making sure I got to the top even though I'm sure he was suffering too. If nothing else the view from the top was worth it with what seemed like the whole Rockies laid out for us to see.
We also saw marmots at the top alerting their friends across the valley of our intrusion. We walked along the ridge half hoping to bump into the path but it never materialised. This led to us making our own route down the other side with some very sketchy scrambling and rock climbing and us having to circumnavigate an enormous sheer rock face. It's times like these that you are thankful for the OS map system we have back home because all we have to go on here is contours. The forest then became very dense and with no path this meant bashing our way through it one meter at a time. 1.4km took us around 4 hours to give you some idea of our slow progress and it inevitably got dark. Head torches on, we persevered until finally reaching camp at 2200. I had fallen over multiple times and with 100m before camp, Stan turned his ankle which highlighted just how dangerous walking at night can be. Honestly one of the hardest days of my life and it took all I had to keep going.
Day 6- 10km
Up late after our ordeal the day before to face another immediate river crossing for a wet start to the day. With Stan still having trouble with his ankle I led and we started the uphill climb for 3km. The path was overgrown and with heavy rain this made for very wet walking. Once we reached the ridge line the rain stopped and we had a pleasant walk along before staring our descent. I saw a rock which looked like a lump of Red Leicester cheese and then half an hour later one which looked ridiculously like a bread roll and I seriously questioned my sanity. We lost the path soon after and ended up following an animal path which led us to a burnt out section of forest in the wrong direction. It was a very cold day and I was wet through. We naively had decided to put lots of layers on to try to stay warm and these were now ALL wet. When we realised I had led us in the wrong direction I had another moment of upset. I honestly felt so miserable and couldn't get my head to a place where I could figure out why I would put myself in this position. We turned around and trekked though more burnt out forest with numerous trees down to climb over. I felt like all my energy had been sapped. Then came a thigh high river crossing, which to be honest, we took in our stride as we were so wet anyway.
We decided to set a bearing and just walk straight as trying to find the path was taking to much time and precious energy. This meant uphill bushwhacking until we met a river, which we decided to try to make our way along through the undergrowth on the banks. After a couple of kilometres we found a path which weaved to and from the bank and we followed this for the most part as it was easier than forcing our own route. We arrived at our bearing location only to realise we had overshot by 600m but due to it getting dark we decided to look for camp along the river edge. Ourselves and all our soaking kit finally bundled into our tent. What a pleasure to lie down and be warm! Day six was meant to be a rest day of only 10km but turned into a bushwhacking horror story.
Day 7- unplanned rest day
We decided that instead of walk in dripping wet gear and get a chill, to have a well earned day off after some extremely tough days. Tough days not just physically but mentally that have really tested our resolve.
I managed to dry some gear in between rain storms so that we are better prepared for day 8.
All in all quite a testing week for us both. We are half way though the toughest section of the entire walk which is definitely something to be very proud of. Here are three things we learnt this week:
1. Don't wear all your clothes in the rain in an attempt to get warm, it doesn't work
2. I could not manage this walk alone - aside from general wilderness know-how, having someone to share the difficult times with has proved invaluable
3. The sun doesn't shine in Kakwa provincial park.