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How the hell does a thru-hiker get a backcountry permit to start the CDT?

On the Canadian border
On the Canadian border

I hopped on the 11am shuttle from East Glacier to Waterton, Alberta not really sure if Waterton would really be the start of our hike. We didn’t know conditions of the Highline Trail (starts at Waterton) or Chief Mountain (starts on the border), but hadn’t been able to get to a ranger station to talk to someone who knew.

The shuttle ride to Alberta cost 100 bucks, which seemed hefty, especially for two hikers who didn’t even have their backcountry permits yet. It was the best we could do, though. We tried to get our permits the day before, but apparently, the East Glacier backcountry office is actually in Two Medicine–10 miles away in the park. We couldn’t hitch there in time the day before, so decided to take our chances and see if we could get our permit in Waterton.

The weather turned brutal and we didn’t arrive in Waterton until 3 pm. Our driver was a great commentator–she also works the Red Bus Tours, so we almost got a free guided bus tour of the park. At Waterton, a Canadian-French accented ranger called the Apgar ranger station (apparently, all the backcountry permits have to be phoned into Apgar) where the ranger told me very nicely and not pushingly, that the Highline Trail was going to be brutal. Many CDT thru-hikers had started the Highline Trail only to give up on it. Some thru-hikers had been caught with “avalanches in front of them and behind them.” We had been pretty set on the Highline Trail, but decided Chief Mountain might be a better start place.

Our shuttle driver agreed to drive us back through Chief Mtn where we’d come through before. The problem was that the closest campsites to Chief Mountain were full for that night. We had to stay in Waterton that night and take the next shuttle back to the States. As soon as we learned this, the rain became brutal and the wind insane. My “impossible to turn inside-out” umbrella turned inside-out. The rain, though, stopped surprisingly quickly and the sun came out. We would be one day behind on our hike.

Getting to the trail is half the challenge

West Glacier, MT

Here on the CDT, getting to the trailhead is half the hassle of a thru-hike! In West Glacier, we got the lowdown from some locals: an area in the woods down by the river near the railroad tracks where we could set up a tent and not be disturbed. It was right across the river from Glacier National Park, and thoughts of grizzlys and bear spray-lessness crossed our mind. A mauled tent sure would be a hell of a way to start the CDT.

The night before, we learned that the free shuttle from West Glacier to East Glacier wasn’t operating yet. We learned that the easy route through the Going to the Sun Road wasn’t open, so hitching through the park to East Glacier wouldn’t be possible. There were two ways to East Glacier, and neither was going to be easy. The Amtrak runs from West Glacier to East Glacier, but locals kept telling us different times that it would leave. There’s no ticket seller at the station, so I called Amtrak, and it ended up being 32 bucks a pop to East Glacier, which wasn’t really ideal. When we woke up by the river unscathed, we crossed the railroad tracks and stood by the road, hoping to hitch the 60 miles to East Glacier around the park. No one was picking us up, and I finally decided that putting forth the money was the only way to get there. Yet, I soon discovered I didn’t have cell reception—so couldn’t call Amtrak for the ticket even if I wanted to. A girl from Essex picked us up, and said she was only going half the way, but it was better than nothing. She ended up liking us so much, she took us the extra 30 miles to East Glacier, pointing out the Step Waterfalls and Mountain Goat Salt Lick ravine along the way. We entered Glacier feeling like things were going to be easy, logistics would cease to be tricky, and everything was going our way!

Can a potty trowel be carry on luggage?

West Glacier

For those of you wondering whether ULA Potty Trowels can go on flights as carry-on, the answer is maybe. I spent the night in the Newark, NJ airport, which surprisingly lacks the all-the-time activity you’d expect from an airport that close to NYC. All the check-in counters were closed. Yes, Newark sleeps at night–except for an incessant fire-alarm that went off every 5 minutes between the hours of 2 am and 4 am which made it impossible to sleep on the bumpy chairs! It looked like the only other person sleeping in the airport was a homeless person. I later discovered that “homeless” person was on my same flight to Kalispell—and in fact, was another CDT hiker, Dogwood!

Tired, and with no desire to pay $25 for check-in bags, we were first in line for security (it opens at 4:30 am). Strapped to the back of my pack, I put my pack and trowel on the conveyor belt, willing to take the risk.

I quickly went through the gate, trying to look confident, and to my surprise, the trowel went through the x-ray machine all right. I was free to go to the gate, potty trowel in hand! Yet, when I turned around, the TSA lady discovered my Potty Trowel peaking out from behind my pack.

“Is that one of those rock climbing things?” she asked, horrified that I would bring a sharp weapon onto the plane. “No, it’s a potty trowel! You’re not supposed to use it for that.” It took about 5 TSA guys 15 minutes and multiple trips through the X-ray machine to determine whether indeed it could go through. Finally, a man came up to me and said, “This can’t go on,” and I was escorted back to the entrance–completely unable to touch my ice axe, even to pack it into a backpack so I could check it in.

Frustrated, I spent ten minutes trying to get the potty trowel in my backpack, but it was too long. I imagined the sharp handle piercing my backpack during the flights. Visions of starting the trail with a gaping hole in my pack, items falling out and water and snow creeping in, crossed my mind. I ended up wrapping it in a garbage bag and shipping it off, signing away my right to sue Delta if it was destroyed at all.

Thus began our flight to Kalispell and the 40 hours of sleeplessness that got me to West Glacier, MT.