Wednesday, February 27, 2019

So, Are You a Real Hiker? Are You an Authentic Pilgrim?

Are you a Real Hiker?  Some version of these questions has been raised before, during, or after every longer hike we've done.   Sometimes it takes the form of jokes told strolling down the trail, or as a friendly, philosophical discussion around a campfire or the dinner table in an albergue.   Other times it morphs into a heated debate.   If you've found the courage to attempt anything life-changing or different, chances are you've encountered at least one detractor along the way.  Sometimes criticism comes from people who simply cannot imagine the value of questioning routine or stepping outside their comfort zone.  Other times it comes from those who seem threatened by the accomplishments of others, as if their own experiences are somehow diminished if they are shared.  Sometimes haters just hate.

Recently we published a blog entry on hiking for a cause during our trek across Canada, the result of which has been an extraordinarily large number of emails, facebook postings, and messages stating that we are being disingenuous and that it is ‘heartbreaking’ because hiking  for a cause takes away all of the ‘true essentials’ of being a ‘real hiker’. Which naturally led us to ask the question – what is a real hiker anyways?

Since we're hoping to inspire people to embark on new adventures of their own, I think it is worth sharing some of our favorite jabs and  arbitrary standards sent to us detailing what 'a real hiker' or 'a real trail' is.

You're not a real hiker because ....

Sonya Camino de SantiagoThat trail is too easy, it doesn't go through wilderness, and you sleep inside every or some night.

You didn't carry everything you need on your back.

Your hike didn't require you to wear hiking boots.

You're hiking for a cause, not for yourself or the experience.

You’re trekking with a camera and not living in the moment.

You’re section hiking rather than thru hiking.

You're blogging or vlogging your hike, so you're missing the 'real' experience.

If you’re trekking for personal or social reasons rather than to enjoy wilderness.

Are you not here for religious or spiritual reasons and so you are a touristimo not a Pelegrino.

You're hike doesn't count because ....
East Coast Trail
You took a break partway through the trail.

You didn't walk every square inch of the trail (even if part of it was closed)

Your trail is not long enough.

You're skipping the hardest part.

You’re not trekking during the hard weather.

Your trail goes into a town.

Your trail follows a roadway for a period.

Your trail lets you hike on sidewalks.

Your trail follows a cut pathway rather than bushwhacking

If anyone can do it, it is not a real trail and your hike does not count.

Spoiler alert:  This post does not provide a definitive answer the questions 'Are you a real hiker?'  or an ‘authentic pilgrim?’  In my opinion, only you can answer that question.  If you don't meet the criteria of an official thru-hike, then don't claim you're an official thru-hiker for that trail.  If you're not an official thru-hiker, it doesn't mean you're not a real hiker.  Any criteria you use to define a 'real hiker' are subjective, and nobody's opinion matters except your own.  What follows is my opinion, so feel free to stop reading.

Still there? Then read on and enjoy.

My Response

We all walk our own path.  We're all looking for something along the way, even if we don't know what it is.   If you set out on a hike to find your answer, or even your question, and you do your personal best, then in my opinion you are a real hiker.   Whether you have the most expensive pack on, trek in a city, down a sidewalk, and go 2km, 200 km, or 2000km.  For some people, it might be important to walk every inch of trail.  For others, surviving the wilderness might provide what is needed.  Perhaps the necessary challenge is to overcome fear, loneliness, or hardship.  Alternatively, it could be to develop a deep relationship with other people.  Maybe the lesson is to let go of control, to gain independence, or to find inner peace.  There are as many ways to find these answers as there are people.  If you test your own limits, challenge yourself, and make an honest effort to find what you're looking for, in my books you're a real hiker.  People have different abilities and different expectations, and I would venture to suggest that many of the critiques placed on them are the results of others demands and judgments - and to me that is not what trekking is about.  If you get out there and do what you need to do, achieve what you set out to achieve then you are a hiker – at that point everything else is just critiques from arm chair warriors and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you 'cheat', at the end of the day, you will know, and only you will lose.  If you're a real hiker, you will know it.  At the end of the day – or the hike – the voyage isn’t about a certificate, credential, patch on the bag, or the selfie at the end of the trail – it is about seeing yourself and the world from a different perspective.  As Dana Meise, the trailblazer of The Trans Canada Trail / Great Trail recently commented ‘it is not the number of kilometers you hike but the quality of the steps taken.’  No one can take away the friendships, memories, experiences or wisdom you gain on the trail.

The Challenge

It can be very difficult not to judge others, especially when we think they are 'cheating.'  One of the hardest things for me was reaching Sarria, Spain after walking 700 km along the Camino de Santiago.  At this point the Camino becomes flooded with 'new' pilgrims, because it is 100 km from Santiago de Compostela, and this represents the minimum distance that must be walked to receive a Compostela certificate.  Many of the 'new' pilgrims had their luggage transported and had bus support if they got tired.  At first, it seemed to me they were missing the point.  It took an effort for me to realize that I don't know those people, and I have no right to judge them or their experiences.  Maybe that 100 km represented a challenge to their comfort zones, physical abilities, time-frames, or financial circumstances.  They were out there, giving it a try, doing it for their own reasons, pushing their own limitations, and finding what they needed to find.  In retrospect I am ashamed of how I felt towards many pilgrims joining the trail in Sarria.  My reactions, at the time, show that I still had (and perhaps still have) further to walk to understand the trail and the world from other people's situations and perspectives.

Since my hike alone the Camino Frances, I've read and watched the documentary 'I'll Push You', which tells the story of Justin Skeesuk and Patrick Gray.  Justin Skeesuk didn't walk a single step of the Camino, and yet his 800 km journey along it is one of the most inspiring, humbling, and profound stories I've ever witnessed.   If you find yourself judging others, ask yourself why their achievements are so important to you.  If you find yourself being judged, look at your own experiences, and don't let anyone else try to dismiss or diminish them.

Sometimes criticism is well founded and should be considered.  Other times haters just hate. Our next post will describe how these comments have changed our approach and preparations for our upcoming hike.

As as you head out on the AT, the PCT, the CDT, or any of the wonderful trails around the world this season remember we are pulling for you and want you to succeed!

See you on the trail...

Monday, February 25, 2019

Bird Studies Canada Article!!!

Today we were delighted to have an exciting article from Bird Studies Canada regarding our coming hike across Canada from coast to coast to coast posted!! 
For those who are unfamiliar, Bird Studies Canada's mission is to conserve wild birds of Canada through sound science, on-the-ground actions, innovative partnerships, public engagement, and science-based advocacy.  BSC, is a national charity built on the contributions of thousands of supporters and Citizen Scientists. Using data from their volunteer monitoring programs, targeted research, and Citizen Science contributions from people throughout the world, their scientists identify significant population changes and direct conservation planning.

A huge thank you to the staff at BSC for all of your support!

Check out the article below:

Dr. Sonya Richmond, a geographic information system analyst with Bird Studies Canada, has a passion for conservation. This passion has led her to sell her house and put her career on hold to spend three years walking The Great Trail (formerly the Trans Canada Trail) with her hiking partner, Sean Morton.

Sonya and Sean plan to survive on just $10-20 per day and will carry all supplies on their backs. Only a small group of people have ever completed the 24,000 km of Canada’s beautiful but arduous terrain, and they will be the first to do it in the name of bird conservation. They plan to take their first steps in Cape Spear, NL in June 2019. From there they will walk west to Victoria, BC, and then venture north from Fort Saskatchewan, AB to Tuktoyaktuk, NT. Bird Studies Canada is proud to be a part of this important project. Over the kilometres and throughout the years, we’ll be lending support and sharing Sonya and Sean’s adventures with our Bird Studies Canada community.

As they hike, Sonya and Sean hope to nurture connections with nature among families and youth, encourage new birders, and share opportunities for getting involved in Citizen Science. They would like to learn as much as they can from the people they meet – about birds, and what birds mean to people living in the communities they visit. We hope you can follow along on their journey!

“As they travel across Canada, Sonya and Sean will be experiencing 132 of Canada’s designated Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas,” says Steven Price, President of Bird Studies Canada. “They will meet with people across the country, hearing how they are helping nature and exchanging information and conservation tips as they go. Bird Studies Canada is pleased to help their efforts to increase the understanding and appreciation of birds and we applaud their inspiring approach to influencing change.”

According to the State of Canada’s Bird Report, 15% of bird species that regularly occur in Canada are declining. Population decreases in aerial insectivores are among the most widespread, but species in every region and habitat type need our help. As they hike, Sonya and Sean will be encouraging individuals to become part of the solution by taking simple steps to help birds in their own neighborhoods.

Of particular note will be Sonya and Sean’s observations of boreal species. More than 300 bird species rely on the boreal region as their ‘nursery’ for breeding and raising their young. These birds bring the boreal to the south each year through their migration. They are a key indicator of environmental health. Climate change and industrial development are just two of the factors that affect them.

“There is a tremendous opportunity, and responsibility, for conservation efforts that will protect the more than 3 billion birds and other wildlife that rely on the boreal forest,” notes Sonya Richmond. “As Sean and I travel The Great Trail, this will be one of the ideas we want to explore. We are anxious to see for ourselves the conservation work that is being done and what else is needed.”  ‘Come Walk With Us’ is more than a name for their adventure. Sonya and Sean invite everyone to join them in person for a few kilometres along the Trail, online through social media and blog posts, and through donations to bird conservation efforts. They will be accepting speaking engagements and opportunities to lead school workshops across the country.

Stay tuned for more updates!

To learn more about the hike or sponsorship opportunities:
Twitter:  @TransCanadaWalk
Instagram:  @ComeWalkWithUsOnTheGreatTrail

To make a donation to bird conservation and learn more about Bird Studies Canada:
Twitter: @birdstudiescan
Instagram: @birdstudiescan

#Birdstudiescanada #Hike4Birds #TheGreatTrail #Borealbirds #Comewalkwithus #Citizensciences

Friday, February 22, 2019

What Hiking for a Cause Changes in your Preparations

Some free spirits embark on thru-hikes with very little preparation and somehow miraculously make it to the end in perfect health and happiness. For the rest of us, the months before departing on a longer hike can disappear in a blur of activities and preparations. These can include:

1. Choosing a trail and deciding when and where to start
2. Pouring over maps and trying to guesstimate a working itinerary
3. Deciding whether to create re-supply boxes or not
4. If supply boxes are a go, figuring out the associated logistics and assembling said boxes
5. Saving up enough money to ward off starvation during the hike
6. Putting your life on hold so there is something to return to, should you survive
7. The obsession known as choosing and obtaining gear. Combining with No. 5 can be a challenge.
8. At least pretending to do some physical training in all that free time you have left over
9. Everything else, such as working 1-2 jobs (see 5. and 7.), family commitments, walking the dog, etc.

If you're hiking for a cause, there are a few more things you might find yourself doing. In our experience, these additional preparations have been extremely time consuming, but also hugely rewarding. Here is a look at some of things that hiking for a cause adds to your preparations and a sense of what we've up to in the past 12 months:

Almost exactly one year before we planned to set off on the trail, we pitched our idea of hiking to connect families and youth to nature through birding to Bird Studies Canada. We hoped the collaboration would maximize the positive impact of our efforts for people, birds, and the environment. Trying to convince the head of an organization that we had something worthwhile to offer was a terrifying prospect. Thankfully we were successful, and since then we've learned a heck of a lot. There have been many presentations, discussions, and consultations, but the support, encouragement, and help have been overwhelming. Originally, we thought a year would be ample time to develop this collaboration, but as our departure date races towards us, we find ourselves left with a daunting amount of work still to do. The reality being that once you begin to collaborate and have sponsors there is always something more you should do as well as something more you can do.

Building Relationships
Since beginning our hike preparations we've met and spoken with many amazing people and organizations. Most of these contacts have been the result of our passion for finding ways to inspire youth to get outside and connect with nature. Science by the Seat of Your Pants, the Explorer's Club, and the Important Bird and Biodiversity Area network are a few of the groups we've been fortunate enough to interact with. This part has probably been the most fun, and the way it has expanded our perspective has been truly amazing. Reaching out and connecting with new groups and individuals has required a sustained effort, which will continue as we hike. However – to be honest – it has also lead to a lot more conversations, more advice, and more emails to be sent. In other words, while we are getting a ton of great assistance here too time is invested.

Hike Promotion
When hiking for a cause, obviously it is important to let people know what you are doing and why. To do this we had to have a recognizable (and simple) logo, design an online store, start a blog, made the 'Come Walk With Us' website, created a presence for our hike on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and promoted it through local, national, and international media. Generating appropriate and interesting content on a regular basis has been a challenge, but luckily an enjoyable one so far. With most of our posts, blogs, and podcasts being written at midnight after both daily jobs are completed, and after an evening of packing the house, planning the hike, or mailing resupply boxes.

Grants and Sponsors
Applying for grants and sponsorships does not have to be part of hiking for a cause. For us, it is a necessary part of undertaking a three year hike. Our savings give us a budget of $20/day for food, shelter, and supplies. Since we are hiking to give something back, there are a few grants we can apply for. We have also been applying for in-kind sponsorships from gear, clothing, and food companies. Although we have much of the gear we need to start, we're told we could go through 3-4 tents and up to 27 pairs of shoes each before we complete the trail! Thriving on rejection is a good quality to posses when engaging in this process. However, we have been incredibly fortunate to have a few great successes – here is looking at you Clifbar Canada!

To sum up, there is a lot of additional work involved in hiking for a cause. We can't remember the last time we went to bed before midnight....or even 2 in the morning. We've been doing so much computer-based work we're beginning to worry our legs might atrophy. Is it worth it? For us, yes it is. If you're thinking of doing something similar, my one piece of advice would be this: pick a cause you're passionate about. You will end up living and breathing it, so make sure you enjoy it. This is especially important because not all the responses to your hard work will be positive. Some people will even proclaim you're not a real hiker if you do it for a cause. My next blog entry will be my response to that accusation, and a few of my other favourites.

See you on the trail...

Wednesday, February 20, 2019


A huge Thank You to The Great Trail for sharing our story on Facebook!  Thank you also to everyone who has shown such great support in following us as we have prepared throughout the past year and to those who have taken a few moments to post, tweet, and message their encouragement!

Only a short time is left before we are on the trail!  Exciting!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Nature, the outdoors, and becoming a Citizen Scientist

One of the most amazing things about being out in nature, whether it is enjoying the weather, hiking through a stand of trees in the boreal forest, or watching birds are the possibilities open to each and every one of us to become Citizen Scientists!  In the amount of time it takes to update your Facebook page or post a tweet you can make a meaning contribution to scientific research, ensure the preservation of local birding habitats, and the protection of regional and national natural resources!

Getting involved in the Citizen Sciences fosters a deeper connection in nature which follows your own interests!  So if you think lizards are cool, there is an app for that, if you think trees are awesome (and they are) there are online resources to help you ID them, and if you think birds are top notch then there are apps and projects for them too! In addition getting involved in the Citizen Sciences can help you identify many of those plants and animals along the trail that you were always curious about but never knew the names of!   The Citizen Sciences allow people from all backgrounds, abilities, ages, and circumstances to be involved.  If you love birds, flowers, or insects but don't know what most of them are called, that's okay!  With the iNaturalist App you can upload your photos and have an expert ID them for you.  There are also many free field guide Apps to help you learn about the nature you see.  One example is Merlin which helps beginners learn to ID birds.  If you're into birds, you can also join people from around the world who've entered millions of bird records through eBird. It's free, it's easy, and it doesn't weigh an ounce! Such apps allow you to upload on the go or to record your sightings from your armchair while watching your bird feeder! And best of all, the Citizen Sciences don’t require a huge investment in time or money, just a few moments spent after your adventure to input what you see! 

Now this isn’t all just for the Sciences!  Taking the time to observe outdoors, amid activities such as bird watching benefits us as well!  Time in nature improves our mental and physical health, gives us a moment to reconnect to ourselves, improves our powers of observation, improves our memory, and makes us more attentive.   When we are outdoors, it inspires our innate curiosity, encourages us to explore, to observe, and to discover.  For children, time spent outdoors, exploring nature, and reporting their observations helps to focus their digital usage and screen time!

As we trek along The Great Trail starting in June 2019 we hope to encourage children across the country to get involved in the Sciences by reporting what they see outdoors and discovering that not only can they make an important contribution to exploration and discovery but that there is an abundance of wonder in the wild spaces of our nation!  See you on the trail….

Friday, February 15, 2019

How Birding Helps your Career

We previously posted a few quick notes on how Birding can help students of all ages ranging from Elementary and High School, through to College and University.  In his wonderful book Letters to a Young Scientist EO Wilson suggests that because our society is developing along Scientific and Technological lines that for the foreseeable future there will be a demand for education and jobs in the sciences and innovation.  This means an interest in the sciences, in mathematics, in computing and in technology all provide you with the passion to excel and have a career in the world today! This also means that a simple interest in the outdoors, in nature, and in birding can one day provide you with the passion and skills to develop your career.  (I say this as someone who would never have guessed that a love of seeing birds on the feeder or playing in the forest could lead me to being a professional researcher and ornithologist at Bird Studies Canada!)

More than just serving as a basis for a profession the Sciences are essential for important discoveries.  Despite the popular belief that “all is known” or that “everything is online” the fact is that there are new discoveries being made all the time.  Perhaps we don’t hear about them because it might seem that finding a new microbe or new species of butterfly does not seem important, or perhaps biology just doesn’t seem dramatic compared to say a superhero movie but small discoveries often lead to the most astounding findings and changes in our society.  Looked at another way this means that no contribution to the sciences and to human knowledge is too small or insignificant.  All exploration and science has a purpose and each of us as a place in contributing to it!  Besides there is still tons even about this planet that we don’t know, and there is lots left to explore and discover – especially here in Canada.  There is, after all, always a need for curiosity, for risk taking, and to explore. For all of these reasons and more the Sciences are among the most exciting fields to be passionate about, have as a hobby, or to develop a career in.

Even if you don’t necessarily want a career in the formal sciences, just an interest nature can transform your time outdoors, lead to worthwhile volunteer experiences, strengthen connections to people with similar interests, can provide you with work experience, and develop your skills beyond those learned only from books and classrooms.  In other words, even if you do not end up working in the sciences the experiences you can gain from your interest in them often lead to indirect benefits!  Such unrelated interests and indirect benefits are particularly important in today’s world.  Dissimilar interests are what spur curiosity and leaps of faith that transform our society.  More than that, with the rate of progress in our word, it means that both traditional disciplines and jobs are constantly change meaning that what we might see today as a collection of unrelated experiences will translate tomorrow into providing new insights into emerging fields of study or investments.  No experience in nature is without value.

Time spent exploring the outdoors provides each of us with realistic understanding of the real world.  In addition, time in nature often serves to reveal and develop each person’s passions, which once identified can lead each of us in our own true directions.  In other words, an interest in birding, time spent watching varying species, filling our feeders, or reporting our sightings all benefit you and your career – whether directly or indirectly!  Isn’t it amazing, as the famous ornithologist Noah Strycker might suggest, what these “Things with Feathers” can do for us, who they can lead us to meet, or what direction they can send our lives and careers?  Get out and enjoy the birds in your neighbourhood today!

See you on the trail....