Healy Pass GDT

Backpackers following the proposed Great Divide Trail route over Banff’s Healy Pass, September 1970.

An article in the March 24th Calgary Herald brought back long-ago memories of efforts to establish The Great Divide Trail from Waterton to Mount Robson and beyond. Entitled “Official Status sought for 1,200-km Great Divide hiking trail”, it detailed efforts by the recently reestablished Great Divide Trail Association and its chairman David Hockey to put that dream back on the map.

GDT guideThe Great Divide Trail was an idea proposed by various individuals and groups in the 1960s. After studying route possibilities, Jim Thorsell published a brochure-style guide in 1970 “Provisional Trail Guide and Map for the Proposed Great Divide Trail.” The guide presented his ideal route from Palliser Pass at the southern end of Banff Park to Mount Robson utilizing existing national and provincial park trails. With his permission, we published an edited version of the guide in the first and four subsequent editions of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.

Long-distance trekkers as well as weekend backpackers were immediately drawn to the route, and Parks Canada gave initial approval to the project. But despite its objective of establishing the trail by 1975, the agency soon waffled and abandoned the idea. In 1976, the Great Divide Trail Association was formed and work undertaken to establish the trail between Waterton and the southern end of Banff Park, but the Alberta government eventually withdrew its support for the project.

There’s been a lot of politics involved in stifling the Great Divide Trail. As someone who lived through it all and watched support wax and wane, it’s hard to be confident that Mr. Hockey and the GDT Association will find a solution.

Parks Canada initially withdrew its support in the mid-1970s because it forecast numbers of backpackers that would have been very difficult to manage. But the figures were totally out of whack. One GDT supporter examined Parks Canada’s projected usage and waggishly suggested that a traffic light would have to be installed where the trail crossed the Trans Canada Highway at Field, BC. “A backpacker would be crossing the highway every minute throughout the summer.”

A similar situation arose with the Alberta government during their negotiations with the GDT Association. Some rather lame roadblocks were imposed on the trail builders, but the general sense was that Alberta didn’t want anything running across Crown Lands that might compromise resource exploration and development or private enterprise.

Judging from comments by Mr. Hockey, the Alberta government is still dragging its feet and blocking trail establishment. “We would need to make sure all stakeholders’ needs are considered before putting an actual policy in place,” says Minister of Tourism, Parks and Recreation Bill Anderson.

And Parks Canada has just decommissioned a 42-km section of the GDT route over Jasper Park’s Maligne Pass, ostensibly to reduce impact on wildlife. No other trail exists in Jasper Park or on the British Columbia side of the Divide to replace that vital missing link.

In the Herald article, Mr. Hockey admits that he and his association have their work cut out for them. “This is going to take us 15 years at the rate we’re going. I’d like to get this done before I die.”

I wish him luck.

For a good historical overview of the GDT, check out the Wikipedia article The Great Divide Trail.

Photo by Brian Patton