Wild author Cheryl Strayed—portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the 2014 movie of the same name—famously found herself covered with frogs, strapping sandals to her feet with duct tape, and having sex on a beach while trekking on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995.
The following year, Brad Vaillancourt thru-hiked the PCT—which spans 4,265 kilometres in California, Oregon, and Washington from the Mexican to the Canadian border—in five months.
“I think it just instilled that passion for the wild: for going out there and experiencing it firsthand,” Vaillancourt told the Georgia Straight by phone from his Vancouver office. “I definitely now balance my urban life with taking significant time to go out and do adventures in the wilderness. Putting yourself in that raw, basic form of human existence really is rewarding, and it’s something I think everyone should experience.”
These days, Vaillancourt serves as the president of the Great Divide Trail Association. That’s the nonprofit behind a 1,200-kilometre trail in the making (the Great Divide Trail, or GDT) in the Rocky Mountains along the British Columbia–Alberta border.
Vaillancourt is one of a handful of B.C. outdoor adventurers who—inspired by their experiences on the PCT—are spearheading volunteer efforts to build long-distance trails that take weeks or months to hike from end to end. He believes that the success of the film adaptation of Wild has magnified people’s interest in trails like the PCT and the GDT.
National Hiking Trail
Patrick Harrison, a University of the Fraser Valley biology instructor, also saw the movie. (There weren’t enough hiking scenes, he remarked.) The Surrey resident section-hiked the Washington portion of the PCT during four summers in the 1980s.
“I loved it,” Harrison told the Straight by phone from UFV’s Abbotsford campus. “It was a wonderful event. You get up in the morning, put your pack on, and just hike along and enjoy the world. It’s a very different experience than our day-to-day rush that we normally have in life.”
As the president of Hike Canada and Hike B.C., Harrison coordinates work on the National Hiking Trail. The NHT, linking existing single-track and heritage footpaths, will stretch 10,000 kilometres, from Port Alberni, B.C., to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and take about a year to thru-hike.
Although the first marker went up on Parliament Hill in Ottawa back in 1987, Harrison estimates the cross-country trail is still only 30 to 50 percent complete. The slow progress of the NHT—a project revitalized in recent years—has been overshadowed by the success of the multi-use Trans Canada Trail, a network of routes devoted to cross-country skiing, cycling, horseback riding, paddling, snowmobiling, and walking.
“Theirs tends to be a wider, more community-based trail,” Harrison said of the TCT. “They rely heavily on going through communities, which is not a bad plan. You’re going to get monetary support that way. We’ve always viewed ours as a hiking trail.”
In B.C., the proposed route of the NHT heads up Vancouver Island from Port Alberni to Comox, where hikers would hop a ferry to Powell River on the mainland. Next, the route merges with the Sunshine Coast and Suncoaster trails on the way to the Langdale–Horseshoe Bay ferry crossing. From West Vancouver, plans call for the NHT to follow the Howe Sound Crest Trail in Cypress Provincial Park and the Sea to Sky Trail from Squamish to D’Arcy, head northwest across the Chilcotin region, enter Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, turn east on the Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail, and end up in Jasper National Park in Alberta.
As well, a spur of the NHT would connect the cross-country route with the PCT where it ends, at E.C. Manning Provincial Park. From the North Shore, this branch would traverse Vancouver, Richmond, Delta, Surrey, White Rock, and Langley and incorporate the remnants of the Centennial Trail between the Fraser Valley and Manning Park.
Harrison said he’s waiting on the City of Vancouver to approve the designation of forest trails in Stanley Park and a portion of the seawall along False Creek as part of the NHT. Metro Vancouver has already sanctioned the use of the Dyke Trail in Boundary Bay Regional Park and the Baden-Powell, Capilano Pacific, and Shinglebolt trails in Capilano River Regional Park. On February 19, Metro’s regional parks committee endorsed NHT designation for trails in Campbell Valley and Aldergrove regional parks.
Vancouver Island Spine Trail
Near Port Alberni, the National Hiking Trail will share the Alberni Valley Log Train Trail with another long-distance route in the works. The Vancouver Island Spine Trail will run 700 kilometres from Victoria to Cape Scott, taking a month or more to thru-hike.
In 2007, Gil Parker, founder and president of the Vancouver Island Spine Trail Association, was hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail west of Mount Shasta in California when he came up with the idea. (Over six summers, Parker section-hiked most of the PCT.) He formed VISTA the following year.
Parker told the Straight the VI Spine is about 40 percent complete and could be finished as soon as 2019. VISTA hopes to blaze 200 more kilometres of trail over the next two summers on the northern part of the Island. This involves connecting existing trails and logging roads.
Between Victoria and Lake Cowichan, the VI Spine will share a route with the Trans Canada Trail. It will follow the Cowichan Valley Trail over the historic Kinsol Trestle, then take an old rail corridor to Port Alberni. North of the Log Train Trail, the VI Spine will go over the Beaufort Range and cross the Forbidden Plateau in Strathcona Provincial Park. At the northern tip of the Island, it will join the North Coast Trail in Cape Scott Provincial Park.
“This is not going to be a manicured trail to start with,” Parker said by phone from his Victoria office. “It will eventually improve. But it’ll be a challenge, because it’s going to be more of a line cut through the trees and marked.”
Parker asserted that private land owned by logging companies—west of Cowichan Lake and south of the Strathcona Dam—is the biggest obstacle facing VISTA. He added that First Nations must also be consulted, and he’s hoping they will become trail partners.
Joking that his PCT experiences were “a little less exciting” than those depicted in Wild, Parker noted that long-distance hikers must arrange to pick up food along the route and focus on tasks like finding water. But, unlike mountaineering in the Himalayas, “almost anyone” can take on this challenge, according to him.
“You’re only in touch with civilization, I guess you’d call it, every few days,” Parker said. “You’re totally self-sufficient. You’re carrying everything you need, and you don’t have to think about connections to the Internet. You don’t have to think about your work, if you’re still working. I find that you are really able to connect with what you feel is worthwhile in life.”
Great Divide Trail
Like the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail is one of 11 congressionally designated national scenic trails in the United States. The CDT extends 5,000 kilometres—across five states—between the Mexican and Canadian borders.
Just over the Canadian border from where the CDT ends in Montana, the Great Divide Trail starts its journey from Waterton Lakes National Park to Kakwa Provincial Park, crossing the B.C.–Alberta border 30 times. The Great Divide Trail Association, formed in 1975 to build the GDT, fell dormant in the late 1980s but was revived in 2013.
The GDTA’s Vaillancourt estimates three-quarters of the GDT is now in place, though it’s not signed as such in national and provincial parks, whose trails compose 60 percent of the route. He hopes to see 90 percent of the trail complete in five years.
“B.C. and Alberta are resource-extraction-based provinces, and Crown land is used for mining and logging and oil,” Vaillancourt said. “When your trail passes through areas like that, if it doesn’t have permanent protected status, you risk losing sections of trail year to year. We’re getting close, though.”
The GDT passes through Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper national parks. Vaillancourt said a thru-hike takes about two months, currently involves off-trail walking and following gravel roads and all-terrain-vehicle tracks (backcountry-navigation skills are a must), and is usually done south-to-north due to snow levels.
One of the GDTA’s goals is to gain formal recognition and protection of the GDT corridor. According to Vaillancourt, the provincial governments are “quite supportive” of the project. Although the federal government was an early backer of the GDT in the 1970s, he said present-day Parks Canada officials “haven’t expressed a lot of interest yet”.
“People won’t care for what they haven’t experienced, and this trail—our trail—allows people to go out there and experience it,” Vaillancourt said. “We want people to protect it. That means we need to get them out there caring about it. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Sunshine Coast Trail
On the phone from his Powell River home, Eagle Walz remarked that he’s been too busy working on the Sunshine Coast Trail for the past two decades to hike the PCT. The 180-kilometre SCT traverses the Upper Sunshine Coast from Sarah Point in Malaspina Provincial Park to Saltery Bay on Jervis Inlet.
Walz, founder and president of the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society, told the Straight the SCT—which now bears National Hiking Trail markers—was completed around 2000. Since then, volunteers have added many signs, benches, picnic tables, and campsites to the SCT and improved its surface. In May, Walz hopes to see construction start on a new hut between Walt Hill and Mount Troubridge, adding to the dozen huts already found along the trail.
According to Walz, who authored a guidebook on the SCT, the trail takes 12 to 14 days to thru-hike, and about 100 people do this every year. He recommends starting at the remote north end, which can be reached by water taxi from Lund. Along the way, SCT hikers visit old-growth forests and bask in vistas of the Coast Mountains and Salish Sea.
“Taken in part, it’s easy,” Walz said. “But doing the whole thing is a real challenge, and they will find out things about themselves that they may not have known before. It’s a beautiful experience.”