This is What It’s Like Riding Canada’s Great Divide Trail on Horseback

This Alberta woman discovered firsthand why Canada's Great Divide Trail is renowned as one of the most spectacular long-distance trails on Earth.

Great Divide Trail by horsebackPhoto: Doreen Chalmers

A 10-Day Ride Along Canada’s Great Divide Trail

When my parents retired from their homestead after farming it for umpteen years, they moved to southern British Columbia where the warm weather was a deciding factor. Long before this transpired, my siblings and I had skedaddled off to greener pastures in various places on this planet. The bright city lights lured me away where, over time, I was transformed from a country bumpkin into a city slicker.

After completing a stint overseas, my sister Lena and her husband Neil took over the family homestead. Neil was a funny type of character, loud, brazen and decidedly opinionated! But beneath all his bluster beat a heart of gold.

The Invitation

One day out of the blue, came a phone call inviting me to join a trail ride Neil had planned to cross the Great Divide Trail, via Willmore Wilderness Park in the Canadian Rockies. With some trepidation I accepted, even though I hadn’t been on a horse since I was knee high to a grasshopper.

It was a long drive to meet up with the group, but no sooner had I arrived than Neil gave me a leg up onto the saddle of a handsome-looking gelding named Autumn Leaf. There were 12 riders plus four pack horses, and wouldn’t you know it, I was the only greenhorn in the bunch.

I soon learned to give Autumn Leaf his head and just hang on for dear life as we leapfrogged through muskeg and forged a mighty turbulent river with dangerous undercurrents. I was terrified—how we made it I’ll never know, because I had my eyes squeezed shut the entire crossing. We emptied the water from our boots, wrung out our socks, had a snack and carried on.

Somewhere along the trail, one pack horse had a mind to rid herself of the loaded panniers (baskets) she was carrying. She treated us to a display of saddle bronc bucking, rodeo-style. Soon, our fearless leader Neil took control of the situation, calming the animal and saving our grub panniers from total destruction. Thanks to him we were able to eat for a few more days.

It wasn’t all ride, ride, ride. We had our days of rest and relaxation, sometimes for an entire day and once even for two consecutive days. Our camping spots were always by a creek that boasted the most beautiful meadows. The horses were in their glory.

After a hearty meal by the campfire, we’d pile the wood on to make a roaring blaze, ideal for the parties that followed. And party we did, with a splash or two (or three) of “white lightning” in our tin cups. All of our aches and pains miraculously disappeared as we proceeded to have a gay old time. The laughing, singing, dancing and guitar pickin’ lasted well into the night.

Close Encounter!

There was wildlife galore: moose, deer, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and several different bear species, including grizzlies. They paid us no never mind, except for the occasional glance in our direction. They weren’t spooked in the least and just went about their business. They were totally captivating to watch. There was one hair-raising encounter, though. A huge grizzly bear had been stalking us on this one particular day. He didn’t come too close, but we caught glimpses of him through the tall timber and we all knew he was there, including the horses. Eventually, the brute ventured a bit too close for comfort, so our trail boss unholstered his rifle and fired a warning shot into the ground directly in front of the grizzly’s nose. That was enough to put him on the run and he hightailed it into the bush.

We all had a tough time keeping our terrified horses from throwing us and making a beeline for home. That night, Neil handed his rifle to his righthand man, John, telling him to scout out the bush around the campsite during the night, just in case the bear came back. In the morning, John gave back the rifle to Neil, who slipped the clip out for safety’s sake and discovered the clip was empty! Apparently there had been only one shell in the gun and that one was spent on the warning shot, so poor John had been protecting our camp all night with an empty rifle!

The trail ride lasted ten days. I can’t begin to tell you how absolutely stunning the scenery was at every point along the way. My memories are more vivid than any of the numerous photos I took. To this day, the smell of coffee percolating and bacon sizzling in the pan makes my taste buds tingle with delight.

Forty years have passed since that ride, and sadly so have some of the riders. The good Lord willing, we shall all meet again at Heaven’s gate and embark on the greatest trail ride of all.

Fascinating Facts about the Great Divide Trail

  • Canada’s Great Divide Trail traverses the continental divide between Alberta and British Columbia, wandering through the vast wilderness of the Canadian Rocky Mountains for more than 1,100 kilometres. (Don’t miss this awe-inspiring Canadian Rockies photography.)
  • It’s renowned as one of the most spectacular and challenging long-distance trails on the planet.
  • There is no official signage, and it’s not always even an actual trail, sometimes just a wilderness route, inspiring modern-day adventurers to walk the same paths of the original explorers to the area.

[Source: The Great Divide Trail Association website]

Next, read the incredible story of how this 71-year-old woman and her son went on the kayaking adventure of a lifetime.

Originally Published in Our Canada