Monday, May 18, 2020

You have to hike the trail you are given….

When we set out to trek the Camino De Santiago in 2016 we planned almost every inch of our trip.  It was naively designed around the inspiring movie ‘The Way’ with Martin Sheen and with the help of John Brierley’s indispensable guide books.  Ultimately, it took about 48 hours for us to realize the differences between theory and reality.  Very quickly everything was different than we expected and piece by piece our planned trip transformed into a meaningful pilgrimage.  We realized then that you never trek the way you intend, but instead you have to walk the trail you are given….

This past few months has had a similar feel to us.  When we left the Great Trail in Riviere Du Loup in 2019 we were certain that in a few months we would be back, and pick up from the exact spot that we had left from.  When we got back to Ontario our hopes revolved around these plans with the intention of being back in Quebec in May 2020.  When my job came unexpectedly to an end in April and travel was increasingly, but understandably limited by the concerning number of Covid-19 cases around the world, we thought that we would take the opportunity to warm up in Southwestern Ontario and hike The Great Trial from Hamilton to Windsor.  For those who are unaware, this region is an amazing area for exploring and birding as it includes Hamilton Harbour and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Long Point, Walpole Island, Rondeau Provincial Park, Point Pelee National Park, and the Ojibway Prairie.  Plans were made, presentations were set up, food supply boxes were sent, and we were on the bus to Hamilton.  However, by the time we arrived the news had begun to shift indicating that local outbreaks in rural communities was once again changing the realities of the moment.  That night in Hamilton we received emails from officials in Windsor-Essex and Norfolk Counties informing us that they had heard about our hike, that we were unwelcome, and that we would likely be charged (if not arrested) if we attempted to trek into their areas.  By the next morning Norfolk County had closed its trails – which included a beautiful and necessary section of The Great Trail.  

And so our plans to hike through Southern Ontario for a month collapsed.  Frustrated by this turn of events, we were also very much aware of the severity of the current situation and the need for everyone to self isolate, maintain social distancing, and do what was best for the good of all.

Afterwards we returned to London, arranged lodgings and assumed that we could wait and simply return to Quebec in May.  However within a couple of weeks the situation had shifted again leading the province of Quebec to sealed its borders to inter-provincial traffic and non-essential travel.  In addition areas such as the Charlevoix Region (our next section of the Great Trail) was locked down prohibiting any visitors and highly discouraging any hikers visiting. 

                                                                                CTV Image

Since then we have – like everyone else – read the daily news reports, listened to the regular political announcements at every level, and adjusted our lives to the continually shifting advice and limitations of the moment.  There have been days in which restrictions seem to be on the edge of lifting, there have been announcements seeming to reverse restrictions, and wonderful news about the decrease in the number of infections and deaths.  Despite these moments of light, invariably, the next day would lead to new speeches and new restrictions on our movements and travel owing to the shifting data of the day.  Despite everyone’s best efforts, it seemed at times almost impossible to know what was allowed and what wasn’t, and what was open and what wasn’t.  Or more importantly whether it was even responsible for us to continue back onto The Great Trail and push forward, isolated from everyone. 

Now to be clear, all of these restrictions were and continue to be necessary, and they require us all to make sacrifices for the common good.

Of course the situation has been challenging, since early May the scientific information, political goals, and news reports have repeatedly shifted in their advice, and reopening deadlines.  This has made any long term planning or preparations very difficult.  The reality is however, that attempts to make arrangements to return to Quebec and travel through the province have led us to see that it is not responsible to return to that region at the moment.  Montreal is still (as of May 15th, 2020 ) the Canadian epicenter of the Covid19 outbreak, rural communities throughout the province do not have enough resources for their own population, and most private campgrounds, national parks, and green spaces are closed.

                                                                       Global TV Image

As such we have to, regretfully and temporarily, continue our #hike4birds this year in Ottawa and not Riviere du Loup. Border closures, the intensity of the Covid19 outbreak in Montreal, and pressure on rural communities as well as limitations inter-provincial travel means it would simply be irresponsible of us to travel back to Riviere du Loup this year.  With that said, have no worries; we have every intention of going back to Quebec and trekking from Riviere du Loup through to the Ontario border and that nation’s capital.  However we also only have so much time to hike in and so our goal this year is to trek west from Ottawa and see how far we are able to get. 

We will still be posting our regular blog, as well as updating Instagram and Facebook.  This means that we still intend to highlight the landscapes, history, culture, wildlife and of course the birds of the areas we are in.  So we will still be writing, taking far too many pictures, and promoting diversity in outdoors activities and youth engagement with nature through Citizen Science and Birding.  However, there will be some changes. 

Owing to the realities of Covid19 we will likely be giving fewer presentations and certainly none in person.  Of course, we still hope to touch base with local naturalist, hiking and birding groups and we will strive to make ourselves available to these organizations in the future.  In fact throughout April and May 2020 during the lock down we have already given more than 25 virtual presentations via Zoom and Webinair talking to over 1000 households.  Our outreach to the media and education sites will also continue of course.  In June there are features in The Globe and Mail and Ontario Nature’s Magazine due to come out on our trek and message.  We have also begun to collaborate with The Great Trail who is now providing great regular bird content online and we have started working with CanGeo creating educational information for youth.  While we will continue to offer virtual presentations as we trek we expect that there will be fewer obligations.  As such, we think that we will be able to travel farther this year. In some ways this is a good thing for us – 6 weeks isolating in a motel has been very expensive (equal to more than this year's anticipated budget).  Add to this the loss of most of our sponsors owing to the financial implications of Covid19 and the loss of our primarily collaborator who has deciding to shift the focus of their outreach and messaging this year means that we have to be much thriftier en route.  We do however wish to gratefully acknowledge the continued support of the James L. Baillie Memorial Fund for Bird Research and Preservation!

Our decision to set out from Ottawa rather than wait a year to return to the trail has not taken lightly.  For us to temporarily pass over a section feels wrong and breaks the flow of the hike from east to west.  For the past two weeks we have deliberated and hoped for a change in the situation which would allow us to return to the Great Trail.  In the past few days the circumstances seem to be improving and provincial restrictions in Ontario are being lifted.   It is at this point that we feel it is possible to responsibly continue our hike.  We have waited until the province of Ontario has declared it was essentially open.  We have waited for local trails to reopen.  We have waited until provincial parks were reopened for day use.  We have waited for the reopening of businesses.  We have waited until motels were accessible again, and we we have waited until after the long weekend has passed to resume our trek.  In addition to all of this we have spent 4 weeks in self isolation, we will be staying more distanced from other people on the trail, we will be wearing masks as we hike, and have also decided to rely more on resupply packages as we trek in an effort to limit our impact on regions. With all of that said, it is time to being hiking again. 

The moment we are living in presents challenges, but life has always been challenge.  However even amid these challenges, and amid the need to all do our part, things continue on – the changing of the seasons, migration of birds, and the movement of nature remind us of this.  The disruptions throughout our world from Covid19 and the necessary measures which have been taken to help us all protect one another have created a wonderful opportunity. With less distractions and more time, so many people have had the opportunity to reconnect to nature and their local trails. Individuals who previously felt they had no connection in the outdoors and nature have had their interest piqued by the arrival of spring in their own backyards and communities and the songs of migrating birds.  This means that during this year, perhaps more than any other, there is a vast opportunity to transform people’s renewed interest in the outdoors into a lifelong connection to nature. We hope that our trek – highlighting the natural beauty of Canada, the diversity of its peoples and cultures, as well as amazing wonders which can be found on its trails, in its landscapes and in viewing its wildlife – serves as a means for people to stay connected for the coming few years.  Canada is an amazing nation, which is Naturally Connected.

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