Trans Canada Trail - Question and Answer Session

Trans Canada Trail - Question and Answer

Over the course of the past 23 days we have been messaged, emailed, or texted a number of questions about our preparations, about our hike.  So while we have some time here at the half way point here in Newfoundland we thought that we would try to answer some of your inquiries.

(1)    Why are you hiking?

As we hike the Great Trail, we are hoping to raise awareness of the importance of protecting migratory birds and bird habitats such as the Boreal Forest, as well as protecting areas of Scientific and Environmental Importance.  In our talks and meetings with people we try to emphasize the range of opportunities available for becoming active participants in the vibrant outdoor recreation, conservation, and Citizen Science communities across Canada.  Our primary focus while hiking is on connecting families and youth to nature through birding, promoting healthy active lifestyles, and inspiring a passion to become lifelong explorers, outdoor enthusiasts, and sustainable stewards of the nation’s resources.  A major goal of our walk is get youth active and involved in experiential education opportunities in their own backyards and communities.  Research has shown that engagement with nature helps develop healthy, independent, confident and creative individuals who have the self-awareness, communication and critical thinking skills, as well as the creativity necessary to make meaningful contributions to their communities. We believe that birding can be a key means to connecting youth to nature and a way to focus their online activities.  In addition we want to remind Canadian youth that with hard work and determination inspiring achievements, wondrous discoveries and amazing innovations are possible – one step at a time.  We are a big and great nation capable of so much and we hope to remind the people of our country of its diversity, natural wonders and potential.

(2)    What is the biggest challenge you have out there on The Great Trail?

There are a number of challenges out here including, staying clean, dealing within the weather which is unpredictable and varies daily between Cold winds, Harsh heat, Wind which burns, and staying dry after days of endless rain storms.   In addition we have found now that the insects, which began, can be tough each day even with bug jackets and hoods on with insect spray.
(3)    How much do your backpacks weight?
With food mine ranges between 40 and 50 lbs and Sean’s ranges from 50 to 60 lbs.  As is usual with long distance hikers, weight comes down to Shelter, packs, and food.  In our case after our 3 lb tent, it is the 15-20 lbs of food that weigh the most in our packs at any given time.

(4)    What type of tent do you use?  Do you know there are lighter tents out there?

At the moment we are using the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 which has turned out to be a good choice – at 3 lbs.  On the East Coast Trail we used the MSR Hubba Mutha and loved it, but it weighed slightly more than the Copper Spur and so the change was due.  Yes we are aware there are lighter tents, but some of them we have not had a chance to try before heading out and so did not want to gamble on products unknown to ourselves.

(5)    How do you stay clean out there?
We usually fill bucket with water from a river or lake and hand wash each night or as often as possible.  Our clothes we wash in our bucket by hand, and hang on a line to air dry – which from time to time means that you get the pleasure of putting on wet clothes the next morning. Afterwards we go 100 to 200 metres away from water and pour it out.

(6)    How do you get water?  How do you clean water?
In Newfoundland we are fortunate each day as we generally trek past streams and rivers, and so filling a bucket with water is relatively easy.  We purify our water with a Sawyer Squeeze filtration system which has been working out ok for us so far.  When in doubt we add purification tablets as well.   On the Bruce Trail and East Coast Trail we used a MSR filter which was also great but which was heavier and took up more space in the backpack.

(7)    What do you eat each day?
What we eat changes from day to day, and any chance we get to have some variety we take it.  Our breakfasts involve instant oatmeal, rehydrated fruit, and a cup of coffee. Throughout the day we have a number of trail bars each, as well as a sandwich for lunch. Generally however each evening the meal consists of rice or pasta and beans with some cheese.  If we are lucky we might have some buns or bread with us.  After dinner we generally have a tea or coffee while working throughout the evening. If we are fortunate we have a chocolate bar or split a trail bar between us for an evening snack.  This might sound like we are eating a lot, however the estimate from my fitbit is that we are burning between 3200 and 3800 calories per day, which is hard to replenish while living on a limited budget and simple lightweight supplies. I can only assure you that after 450 km on The Great Trail and 800 km of training in the past two months we have both begun to lose weight quickly.

(8)    How do you stay warm at night?
A great question. Each night once the tent is set up we both change into dry evening clothes – which helps raise our body temperatures and refreshes our spirits.  As the night cools down we put on a fleece sweater or our rain jackets and later just get into our winter sleeping bags which can warm us as long as the temperature does not go below -20 c.  So far we have been lucky.  This year, the nights have not been too cold, for us it is the damp that we find hard to keep at bay.

(9)    Do you know the others hiking the The Great Trail?

Yes and no.  We have chatted via email with Dana Meise, the first person to hike to all three points of the trail – from east to west to the north!  We have also exchanged emails and messages with Mel Vogel and Dianne Whelan.  Each of these people are great, supportive, and have been kind enough to offer encouragement and advice,  however we have never met them in person.

(10)How did you decide when to start your hike?
This is a tough one.  When do notions become ideas and when do ideas turn into decisions.  I think the notion of travelling more in Canada began a few years ago, and that concept really took shape 12-15 months ago when The Great Trail was announced as being joined from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic. At the same time we had begun to look for challenges closer to home than some of the trails which we had hiked in Europe and the United States.

(11)How do you plan for all of this?
Well it has taken us a year of planning, reading guide books, and Google walking the entire country to create notes and resupply points along the way to feel confident enough to walk out the door. Most of this process was done once by us and again by my father who did a much better job.   In addition to this however, we have been steadily walking increasingly large distances about every 6-8 months throughout the past 3 years to get physically and mentally ready for the trek across Canada.  Beyond all of that it has taken 12-15 months to sort out our affairs, sell or donate our possessions, sell my house, and put the rest in storage.  Simply put it has taken us much longer than we anticipated to get ready, but it has been worth it.

(12)How did you decide which part of the country to start your hike?

Great question, this was not easy.  We began by assessing all of the distances across the entire country between cities, and supplies.  We then checked the historical trends for weather to see when the most favourable conditions were on each coast to possibly begin hiking.  We then assessed where we hoped to be after the first year and what that meant for beginning in the second year.  For example, if we began in March or April in British Columbia we would likely get to Northern Ontario by winter time – a location and period which has a number of challenges   overcome.  Equally it would mean beginning later the second year while we waited for Northern Ontario to warm up.  By comparison if we began in the Atlantic we would be starting later in June but we would likely finish our first year somewhere between Ottawa and Brantford Ontario.  This would likely give us more time in the first year without snow and the harsh colder temperatures as well as allow us to start earlier in the second year while benefiting from Southwestern Ontario’s warmer springs.  In many ways all of these decisions are an estimate as to how far we think we will get, what type of weather we prefer to trek in, and where we hope to restart in the second and third year of the hike.   We also, admittedly, liked the notion of travelling from east to west.

(13)Are you afraid of bears or wolves or snakes out there?
Well you have to be aware and be careful, you need to be smart, and you need to be prepared.  However, generally if see things like a bear or moose, they are running away rather than confronting you.   Years of working in Forestry and in Research stations in places such as the Kawarthas or Ontario’s beautiful Algonquin Park help with being prepared and aware.  Honestly however, most of the bears I have seen in my life have been more afraid of us me than I have been of them.  Always remember, you are more likely to be in a car crash or airplane accident than get attacked by a bear.

(14)How do people react to you on the trail or in towns?
Generally everyone is very friendly, and many are curious and so just come up and talk with us.  Some people’s curiosity does take different shapes.  On one hand, in local coffee shops some people just stare at us.  While on the other hand, when we are hiking some people slow their cars down and will drive a foot or so behind us for blocks just looking (which is a little unnerving).  Mostly however, people stop, look, and chat.  It is exciting to know that people are still drawn to people who are out in nature, and that everyone (deep down) is curious.  Those who do talk with us, are often very excited by the notion of hiking across their province or the country and either begin to tell us about their amazing adventures outdoors, talk about people they know hiking somewhere in the world, or set to figuring out all the challenges involved.  When you get to talking to people it is amazing how much you have in common or how straight forward and good natured their advice is.

(15)How much does all of this cost?

This is another great question, and the honest answer is that we won’t know for 3 years when we are done.  What I can tell you is that I sold my house to pay for the trek, that our initial gear (tent, sleeping bags, backpacks, etc) required a modest investment at the outset, and that we have a budget of $20.00 per day for supplies and food for ourselves for 3 years of travel.  So far, as we figure things out, taking 2 days longer than anticipated to get to our currently location, replacing equipment and taking refuge one night after being soaked, as well as having been hit with higher costs in some cottage towns (For example, 6 dollars / Nature Valley bar in one town convenience store) has put us slightly above our projected budget.  We hope that we will be able to save somewhere down the line as we get better. 

(16)How many days of food do you carry on you?

This varies day by day.  In so many ways food is dead weight when you carry it, and so you try to aim for the minimum as best as you can.  If you are trekking between 2 large urban centres and can get away with covering the distance between them in 3 days, then we carry 4 days or maybe 5 days of food to be prepared.  So the simple answer is that we carry enough, plus 2 days extra to get between resupply points.  The key is always to be prepared for any eventuality. For the 146 km stretch over the Topsails section of the province we will be carrying 7-9 days worth of meals for both of us.  

(17)What is your favourite time of day on the trail?
For me it is the morning, when dawn chorus is going on, when the temperatures are cooler and often there is fog making everything magical looking.  Sean on the other hand delights in seeing the world differently through his camera lens, and so can equally love a great sunrise, as much as a dark forest, reflections in lakes, or wildlife.

 (18)What is the trail like?
Well the trail varies from section to section and from city to city...which is part of what makes The Great Trail so amazing, it is diverse and reveals each region’s nuances as you hike them.  The East Coast Trail in Newfoundland is a rugged sea side pathway which involves a great deal of trekking uphill, some rope descents, and hiking along boardwalks.  While the Grand Concourse Trail in St. John’s is a well and cared for urban pathway ideally suited for day walkers, joggers, and cyclists.  By comparison T’Railway Trail which crosses most of Newfoundland is a relatively straight rail trail of raised  crushed gravel which remains generally flat throughout its course.  At times, this is not as easy as it sounds – as in some of the sections this gravel is much sharper than in others.  For example along the Grand Concourse in St. John’s and in many of the cities the trail is made of very fine gravel and is wonderful to walk on, while there are other sections in between towns where the trail is used more by ATV and Snowmobile clubs – who have different needs in trails – which means that it can be rougher going for hikers – but so far it has been smooth sailing for us!

(19)Do you ever night hike?

Cool question and a neat idea!  So far we have not trekked through the night, though we thought of it when there was a full moon recently.  Perhaps in the summer with the heat of the daytime we will trek throughout the night.  However, at the moment we want to see the country and we are still getting used to the trail, so we are sticking to the daylight hours for our hike.

(20)How do you resupply out there?

Good question, resupplying is obviously essential and one of the most important parts of our hike.  To begin, we spent a year with maps, guide books, and Google maps, assessing and Google walking locations to know where supplies are available.  We have lists of what is available in each town site near to The Great Trail, and of course we are fortunate to have resupply and treat boxes sent by my parents.

(21)How far do you hike each day with pack?
Currently we are varying between 20 and 35 km a day and averaging 24-26 km a day.   Much of our progress is largely dependent upon the weather, trail conditions, and how we feel from day to day.

(22)Do you always carry a backpack on you? Or do you have a support team in a van?
With our internet output and photography everyone assumes we have a crew or support vehicle.  However the reality is that it is just the two of us trekking throughout the day time and spending until about midnight each evening sorting images, writing content, and waiting for it to upload.  Given the wifi availability the uploading part doesn’t always happen, but by day’s end the content is ready and does eventually find its way online.

(23)How does your family feel about this?  Are they going to join you out there?
Well to be honest, it took some time (about 10 months) for my family to come around to the idea of me giving up everything, to walk the second largest country in the world to advocate getting youth outdoors.  It was a challenge convincing them that the effort and sacrifices are worth it.  However, as a former teacher my mother saw the benefits and soon accepted the trek.  To be honest, without their help, daily advice, and resupply boxes, I’m not sure this hike would be successful or possible.  I don’t think either of my parents have a great desire to lug a backpack across the country at the moment, but that does not mean they aren’t incredibly supportive and enthusiastic when they see each day’s images.

(24)Have you ever been sick or seriously injured while backpacking?
We have been very fortunate during our treks over the years. We looked back and found that it is largely Sean who has the luck of getting ill or injured on our treks.  On the Bruce Trail he got ill from misfiltering the water, on the Camino de Santiago in Spain he suffered from food poisoning for a few days at the outset, on the GR65 in France he collapsed from heat stroke in Mossiac, on the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland, he slipped on the edge of the coastline and hurt his knee, and in Portugal his feet suffered from hiking 700 km on tiles and ash vault for 30 days leaving him barely able to walk for a week afterwards.  However, in each of these cases all went well, we found the help we needed, fixed the situation and finished the trail.  Injuries do happen from time to time when you go outside, but neither of us has ever been seriously injured, we have found that most local people are quick and kind enough to help out if they see someone in distress. 

(25)What is your typical day like?
This is a tough one to answer as each day varies depending on our goals, the weather conditions, the wildlife in the region at any given time, and how we feel.  However, often we are both awake with the sun around 4 or 5 am, but do not leave our sleeping bags until 6 am.  I tend to get up, and start the water boiling while Sean repacks our gear and takes down the tent.  One of us then gathers water and purifies it before setting off down the trail.  At this point we tend to hike for 10-15 km, or a few hours, before taking a break and enjoying a snack or Clif Bar.  Then we hike for another couple of hours until around 1 or 2pm when we stop again and either have another snack or if we are lucky have a small peanut butter sandwich and refresh our water supply for the afternoon.  Then depending on how we feel, and where we have a sense a good camp site might be we either hike onward for a short bit or set up camp.  Once camp is established we change out of our hiking clothes, hand wash ourselves and perhaps our clothes, and hang up anything that is wet. At this point one of us gathers and refreshes our water, while the other begins to prepare dinner.  After we have cooked and eaten our meal, we clean everything, hang our food and supplies and go into the camp to begin working on sorting our day’s photographs and writing our digital postings such as the blog, instagram, and facebook.  This usually lasts us until between 10 pm and midnight.  If we are up to it we chat some, then read and try to get some sleep as the next day is soon to begin.

That is the long version, the short version, as Sean likes to say is that we sleep, cook, hike, cook, clean, write, repeat....

(26)How many miles / km have you gone on The Great Trail?

At present we are sitting just west of Grand Falls-Windsor about 15 km beyond the half way marker on the Newfoundland section of The Great Trail which means we have trekked about 450 km in total across Newfoundland this year in addition to the 300 + km of the East Coast Trail (which is also part of The Great Trail) that we completed in 2018.

(27)Do you ever get lost?
Absolutely, the markers on The Great Trail are few and far between, so it can at times become easy to get off course – at the intersection of logging roads, when ATV routes cross through or in cities.  So, yes, from time to time we do get lost, the trail markings out here are not like the Appalachian Trail, or Bruce Trail or the blazes or yellow arrows along the GR trails or Caminos in Europe.  Generally we follow what appears to be a rail route – if the path looks like a rail bed, then 9 times out of 10 it is our route, but from time to time we have to pop out The Great Trail app on the phone or get the paper map out and figure things out by hand to make sure we are still on course.  Our worst mistake cost us 20 km in extra hiking and an extra day – but in the end it all worked out.  Always remember that a challenging moment on the trail today is a good natured story in a week.

(28)Does having others like Dana Meise, Sarah Jackson, Dianne Whelan and Mel Vogel out there and having done some of this trail help?

Absolutely!  Many of these people have provided great online posts which have given us advice and a sense of what to expect and prepare for.  The fact that we are not the first, like Dana or Sarah who undertook this trail before many of its sections where connected or developed, and the fact that we are hiking together and are not walking alone are both huge ways in which our hike is easier than their undertakings.  Given some of the challenges and uncertainties that we have already faced on the trail in the first 23 days I am constantly amazed at the strength and determination of all of these people for having done the trail on their own!

See you on the trail!

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