Traversing the Crown

Trio of runners will travel from Missoula to Banff along the Crown of the Continent's rugged backbone

By Tristan Scott
The Crown of the Continent Ecosystem. Courtesy of Braided River Publishing.

A diverse and abundant suite of wildlife ranges throughout the 18 million-acre Crown of the Continent ecosystem, loping along connected ridgelines, foraging in dense wilderness corridors and navigating a rugged, pristine landscape scored minimally by human development.

Researchers and conservation advocates understand the significance of connectivity as it relates to wildlife habitat and the health of an ecosystem, and the stakeholders who call it home are attuned to the balance inherent to living in a human-wildlife interface.

In a similar spirit, an unlikely trio of bipedal mammals is preparing to set out on a journey to experience and record the sprawling landscape firsthand, through a more tangible human lens in hopes of magnifying the importance of protecting the vulnerable lands.

This month, three endurance mountain runners will commence a minimally supported 600-mile traverse of the Crown of the Continent region, beginning in Missoula and finishing in Banff, Alberta, roughly three weeks later.

The runners, The North Face-sponsored athletes Mike Wolfe and Mike Foote, of Missoula, and critically acclaimed photographer Steven Gnam, originally of Whitefish, will lace up their running shoes and follow a remote, rugged course along the spine of the Crown, documenting their epic adventure along the way to bring awareness to one of the largest contiguous ecosystems in the country, highlighting the importance of wilderness and local culture and the looming threats of industry and climate change.

The team will link together the Rattlesnake, Mission, Swan and Flathead mountain ranges, crossing through a patchwork of protected areas including the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

“More than just a running trip, we would like to use the trip to raise awareness of the Crown of the Continent, the wildlife corridors that exist in the area, and show how the communities on either side of the border are connected,” Gnam said.

The Crown is where the Rocky Mountains run high and unbroken between the Blackfoot River drainage and Elk Lakes Provincial Park in British Columbia, the crest of which is the Continental Divide. The headwaters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Hudson Bay begin in the Crown, which encompasses Glacier Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and creates one of two intact ecosystems remaining in the lower-48 in which grizzlies, elk, moose, wolverines, and wolves thrive.

To that end, Gnam, Wolfe and Foote intend to track along high mountain ridgelines whenever possible, and steer clear of trails and roads whenever the unforgiving terrain allows. They’ll pack light, carrying just enough water, food and layers to complete their day, while a one-man support crew will meet them at points along the way to replenish supplies, transport shelter and assist with logistics.

Gnam conceived of the idea for the trip during a run with Foote in Missoula while promoting his book, “Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies,” which captures the wild, ephemeral beauty of the Crown through photography while attaching conservation and economic value to the region through a series of essays.

Having gone to college at the University of Montana in Missoula, Gnam was intrigued by the proximity to the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area, and often thought about connecting a long backpacking trip from the college town to Glacier National Park, trekking along the enchained peaks and ridges and experiencing the wilderness corridors more intimately.

Gnam, who had asthma as a child and didn’t begin running in earnest until college, told Foote about his proposed route, which he now envisioned covering with minimal gear in a more purist mountain-running style.

“We were talking about how you could conceivably do a really rad route with hardly any contact with human settlements from here to the border, and Mike was like, ‘why stop at the border?’” Gnam recalled.

While working on the Crown book, Gnam said he tried to depict the landscape as a single, interconnected piece, framing its breadth and complexity in a way that people could wholly absorb.

“I spent five years on the book and I feel like I did a good job portraying it as a connected landscape, but there were still disjointed portions in my own experiences,” he said. “I’ll spend a week immersed in the mountains, but then return to civilization. I think I’ve always wondered what it would be like to flow through the entire Crown in a single journey.”

“It will be more like moving how animals move. Wolverines don’t carry backpacks, they just go,” Gnam said.

Follow the journey on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter by searching #CrownTraverse.

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