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Section A - Day 2: Thunder in the foothills

Updated: Jul 5, 2019

26.5 Km Hiked.

Territory: Blackfoot/Niitsitapi, Ktunaxa

I awake before my alarm to the sound of thunder in the distance. I'm warm and dry in my fluffy new sleeping bag, and the rain feels gentle on the tent. I pack up quickly and hurry back along the lakeside trail to town where my mom has hiked up the trail to meet me. We go for a proper greasy breakfast. I'm still feeling so nervous, I can hardly choke it down. It still doesn't feel like I've begun, and the longer I'm in town the worse it feels.

I spend way too long re-sorting my gear, taking out extra food I know I won't eat, and (with great futility, given the weather report) drying out my tent.

After nearly 3 hours of faffing, we make our way to the trailhead, and after a quick goodbye, I take what feels like my real first steps on the GDT. My mom is just vibrating with excitement, and it feels good to be sent off in love.

I make my way up through the rolling foothills of the Rockies. Wildflowers are everywhere, and ground squirrels squeak incessantly at me. The weather continues to look ominous, though the rain is holding off for now. After many kilometers skirting the mountains, the trail turns steeply up through burned aspen forest, taking me, at last. Into the mountains.

I'm walking through a narrow green valley, when the thunder begins. At first it is a far off rumble, almost a comforting and soft sound. But, as I will learn in the coming week, the weather here changes very quickly. In moments, the lightning is visible, and the thunder becomes a deeper, and more sinister sound, like giant-sized canvass being torn in a great strip across the sky. The wind picks up. It is as dark as dusk.

I keep walking, and begin counting the time from lightning flash to thunder-roll. 6 seconds.

The rain begins, suddenly, and violently. I struggle into my raingear as icy rain freezes my fumbling hands. The rain turns to hail the size of tictacs, smacking my face. I walk on, and continue to count: It holds at 6 seconds.

Ahead of me rises a steep ridge, with long switchbacks heading up. I weigh my options: There is nowhere to seek shelter in this valley to wait out the storm. All the trees are white burnt skeletons, wind whistling between what's left of their skinny branches. I know the lightning is not coming closer, and despite the deeply ominous feeling this dark and wind and thundering produces, I know that afternoon thunderstorms are normal here. Nevertheless, the sound awakens a small furry creature inside of me, I want to scurry into a hole and hide. There are no holes, and standing still would be freezing. So, up the switchbacks I go, rain smearing my glasses, promising myself I'll scurry down if the lightning comes any closer.

Up and up the switchbacks I go, past corpses of burned trees, carved into strange shapes by fire and wind. And as I climb, little by little, the rain lessens, and the wind eases off. I reach the crest of the ridge just as the sun peeks out from behind a cloud, and the small furry animal within me, likewise, pokes its nose out and sniffs the air.

In moments I'm boiling in my raingear, brilliant sun turning the damp air to steam. I'm bounding down the other side of the ridge, watching the storm, one dark streaming mass drift out across the prairies, to rain itself out on farms, and pickup trucks, and arrow-straight dirt roads.

On the other side of the ridge, the landscape is not regenerating. Between the skeletons of trees is only sparse greeness, trying to hold onto a deeply eroding slope. The rocks and silt skitter down the slope and into my shoes, and I wonder what this means for the rivers downhill.

At the end of the day, the trail shoots me back out at the foothills, and I find the edge of the forest fire, where burnt out trees give way to healthy green ones. After walking into dusk, I finally find myself a good-enough place to pitch my tent next to a large gravel pile, cook up some nettles and ramen, and fall asleep to the sound of whistling wind.

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