Wednesday, May 20, 2020

En Route back to The Great Trail - London to Ottawa

Every time I travel, at the moment I go to close the door before setting out, I feel torn.  Doorways are places of transition, areas in which we have to make a choice - in or our, stay or go.  Today I was pulled between the anxiety of change and the desperate desire to get back outdoors.  It is an odd thing, especially as I have always believed that routine can be a trap, but I know it can also be of great comfort.  You come to welcome knowing where you are sleeping, being able to plan what you are having for breakfast and dinner.  You can go out with friends and colleagues, and you can simply rest and relax when you don’t want to do much of anything.  The certainty that we wrap ourselves in through our routines is like a wonderful blanket, and knowing that all of a sudden it will be gone again for months to come can be unnerving.  As I said, it is an odd thing.  You generally don’t miss your routine and its trappings when you are out hiking and exploring (unless of course the weather is particularly crummy). I certainly didn’t miss the trappings of being indoors and having the regular household bills while hiking last year.  But all of it is something that you can become so quickly used to once you are back in it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to get back onto The Great Trail – the landscapes, the cultures, the people and their generosity, and of course the birds , but I also have to admit that for the last couple of weeks I have also somewhat dreaded setting back out.  Ultimately, in the tug of war between the comfort and certainty of our rediscovered routines and my inherent wanderlust, it was our curiosity to see the country again, and our desire to have new experiences and to see what amazing parts of Canada we have yet to explore as we trek westward that pulled us back onto The Great Trail.  When I think about it this evening, there really was never a contest – Motel bills vs the wonders of Canada and The Great Trail – the answer was a foregone conclusion.  I just had to get past those jitters in the doorway.   It is in that first step that the biggest leap is taken when you set out.   

As we walked across London to the train station this morning, it was with a very different feeling than we had one year ago, when we first began our #hikebirds in Cape Spear, Newfoundland. Last year we left with all the energy gained from uprooting our previous lives, doing an invigorating training hike across Portugal, and beginning a brand new adventure. Today we head out into an uncertain world rocked by a global pandemic, which is only just beginning to look for ways to start recovering. We begin after six weeks of self isolating, quarantine, social distancing, and constant uncertainty. It feels good to finally take decisive action, but also somewhat tenuous.

It was a warm sunny day, and quite a few people were out walking, jogging, and biking along London's many trails. A few days ago street-front stores opened back up again, as did garden centers, and a few coffee shops (for take-out only). The streets were filled with traffic again, and the town felt busy and alive.


As we trekked through London with our packs on – with the now unfamiliar weight on our backs, and so much uncertainty facing us in the weeks to come – so much clicked back into place so quickly.  The curious looks from people walking and driving by, not knowing what came next as we again moved forward, and the sight of the Via Rail train sitting in the station as we arrived into downtown.  I’m not sure if it is simply a romantic streak in us or if trains are in the DNA of Canadians, or perhaps it is the familiarity which venturing across Canada puts into you when you see the reassuring sight of a train station.  But, for us, the sight of a train station – whether new or old, abandoned or modernized – is a mightily reassuring thing.  If you take the time to notice, you can see that each station is, in its own way, unique.   Even amid the similarities of design from the Atlantic to the Pacific, each station reflects the region it sits in.  It was a train station that we passed Mile 0 of our trek in St. John’s and it was at a Via Rail station in Riviere du Loup that we concluded our trek in 2019.  It’s fitting, and feels proper that we venture back to restart hiking in our second year on board a train.


The VIA Rail station itself was mostly empty, and after answering a series of questions designed to establish whether we were experiencing any symptoms of Covid 19, the handful of passengers were allowed to board the train. We were instructed to choose any seats, as long as they were socially distanced from other passengers. As always the staff were kind, friendly, and good natured, and they even handed out complimentary snack boxes to make up for the lack of beverage service en route.


Once on the train, both the cities of the region and the wonders of Ontario rushed past us – but even with the lulling pace of the train, there was so much to take in.  The endless farmer’s fields readied for the season, the expanses of forests whose trees were filling in with the new leaves of spring time, and the long concession roads which wove off onto the horizon.  We watch as kettles of hawks and Turkey Vultures spin over the fields, as Vs of Geese fly over head, and are stunned by the sheer number of deer which can be seen.   Any doubts that lingered as we set out this morning were gone – the landscapes of diversity of Canada were rushing past calling out to us! 


The one thought that keeps hitting us as we travel the rails is that this route from Southwestern Ontario to Ottawa which we will traverse in 5 or 6 hours today will take us about a month to hike back along. 

While the world seems alive with spring flowers the cities are surreal.  Toronto, the provincial capital of Ontario and Canada’s largest city is eerily silent in the heart of its downtown.   The Lakeshore Trail looked nearly deserted, despite the warm, sunny weather. In the glass condo towers along the lake no one seemed to be out on their balconies, and very few people were out on the streets below. Union Station which is normally swarming with people and trains seems more like a vacated cathedral than transit hub. With that said, for Sean, the opportunity to photograph the beautifully restore Union Station nearly empty was something he could not pass up.   


It is both fascinating and subtly unnerving to walk through Union and see so few people.  Platforms that months ago would have been challenging to navigate now sit empty.  Ours was the only train in the vast series of tracks at Union Station.  It was amazing to see how a city of 6 million people is able to collectively change their behaviour to keep each other safe.


With a quick change of trains in Toronto we were back on our way heading both northward and easterly, bound for Ottawa, the nation’s Capital.  As we venture from station to station and spend time waiting for our connecting trains It is amazing to watch how quickly our society has transformed and consciously adapted to the new realities of Covid19.  Even in long lines, people stand further part.  Most now wear face-masks and watch one another warily – clearly wanting to resume being sociable but also noticeably flinching when someone in the room cleared their throat or sneezed.  The ‘new norm’ is one full of distancing and tensions.  Yet even amid this the staff at Via Rail are – as always – amazing! They project order and calm with reassuring tones and kindness.   None of this is new for the staff of Via Rail – Sean and I were continually amazed by them over the years and decades of travelling across Canada on The Canadian and the Ocean routes in the Via network.  However, the patience and reassurance with which they do their jobs is all the more evident in the current situation which we all find ourselves.

As our route continued north-east throughout the day, and we broke free of the suburban stretches surrounding Toronto we were again treated to the treasures of Ontario’s natural landscapes.  Along the way we were given a preview of some of the landscapes we will be walking through. The leaves were just beginning to bud, and the crops haven't yet sprouted in the newly plowed fields. Mostly the stretch of Eastern Ontario was a gently rolling agricultural landscape, although it looks very wet and marshy in places. Amid the Egrets and piles of turtles which we could see in the ponds around Trenton Junction, and the beautiful countryside of the Frontenac region, we also enjoyed the sites of the communities we passed through.  Simple things that make these regions so welcoming on so many levels – both to those who live here and those who are passing through.   Families on porches enjoying a BBQ, friends and neighbours enjoying a beer while chatting over the fence line, and couples kayaking along the waterways. Towns whose grocery stores, gas stations, coffee shops, and local churches were all within sight of the train line – the short you knew might not be large but that the residents had everything anyone could ever hope for.  These are the sorts of places we love to come to on our trek, but which at the moment were only able to glimpse as the train pulled through. 


By the early evening our train arrived in Ottawa and we walked along the Rideau River following the Poet's Path.  Throughout the stretch of trail lots of small flies were hatching on the water, and the sounds of birdsong filled the air.  As we made our way downtown we were somewhat relieved to see that Ottawa is beginning to open up as well.


En route, we were stopped by a young gentleman named Jeff for a socially distanced chat. He was curious about our backpacks and wanted to know about our hike.   When he learned we are trekking across Canada to encourage youth to re-connect to nature through birding he was very supportive. He observed that of all the people running, jogging, and walking along the trail and enjoying the park, most were adults. He remembered a time when being sent to your room was a punishment kids hated, and spending time outside all day with friends was the norm. It was reassuring to discover that even though people are still afraid, uncertain, and frustrated with the changes the pandemic has brought, thoughtfulness, kindness, and support are still out here.  It was enjoyable talks which we haven’t experienced since leaving The Great Trail in Quebec last year.  It was a welcome moment signaling to us that the second year of our hike had at long last begun in spirit if not on the trail itself.  

Afterward we continued our brief walk toward our night's lodgings near ByWard Market.  Along the way we were fortunate to have the opportunity to see (though not visit) Laurier House, a National Historic Site. 


It was a beautiful day to begin our second season on the Great Trail. We are excited to see what this year will bring.








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