Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 : Taking the Path you are given, One Step at a Time

At the end of each year many of us reflect, on what has happened, what we have lost, what we have gained.  We smile at the wonderful memories, and we cry over the pains that we have endured.  On some occasions, perhaps when remembering the breakdown of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, or a decision gone wrong we struggle.  Above all however we strive to make sense of what has gone on and to put things in order with the hope of starting anew with the turning of the coming year. 

In reflecting on the past year it is easiest to say that we collectively endured.  2020 was challenging in different ways for all of us.  Yet how we responded, as individuals and as communities, was a reflection of our society, and who we are.  It also left us with the question – where do we go from here?

In the past year, we have watched as wildfires, natural disasters, and environmental crisis continued at record levels.  Many have begun the important process of relearning our collective histories and understandings of our communities as the weight of coming to terms racism in our society for people of colour and Indigenous peoples across North America (yes including Canada) was brought front and centre with the events surrounding George Floyd in the United States and the Wet’suwet’en protests in Canada.  And of course we have all, wittingly or not, been caught up in the political divisions and rhetoric of this year's Presidential elections.

Yet undoubtedly, and unsurprisingly, the defining events of the year were shaped by the unexpected, invisible and seemingly random nature of Covid-19.  Within months, the virus led to a transformation of our society and our way of life - shifting how, and whether, we work, how we go to school, and how we remain a society when struggling with lock-downs, social distancing, and isolation.  The consequences being that many, if not most, of our fellow citizens are dealing with the realities of losing jobs, their homes, their life savings, confronting hunger, and the loss of security amid this outbreak.  At the same time our innumerable essential workers are exhausted and worn out, and for so many more they are simply tired of the uncertainty.  We now see that even our ‘civilized’ and ‘modern’ world – despite its advances – is very fragile.  This year has shown us that it still takes only a small disruption for the aqueducts to once again stop running and for the bonds of society to fray.    

It is no wonder that by now we are all anxious, nervous, and tired.  If the music I listen to and shows I stream are any indication, I think we have all begun to become nostalgic for the past and the sense of stability we seem to have lost in the last year.  

Recognizing all of this is unnerving, and makes each one of us feel entirely powerless.  It  understandably fills us with fear, despair and anxiety.  In response, many cast about for someone to blame.  We begin to see only the worst in people, taking to online forums to highlight the contradictions of others, to point out their perceived failings, to rant against the world and our institutions.  We are quicker to re-post conspiracy theories and downplay scientific fact, and we watch as post after post from self proclaimed experts full up our news-feeds.  

In response, it seems that people begin to take stands on issues that have little actual bearing in our world, for the simple reason that it makes us feel that we have a position on the major topic of the day.  In a period of such uncertainty being able to stand up and – regardless of our actual understanding of issues, the contradictions of our attitudes, or the consequences of our comments – and take a firm position makes people feel that they are in control – of at least one thing. 

As a result, if we have come to see anything in this past year, it is that while the online world is wonderful for staying connected it is also a terrifying mechanism for sowing dissent, venting vitriol, and increasing anxiety.  Taken in regularly the shear mass of online material can lead us see the world through only dark lenses, viewing people - our neighbours, our brothers, our sisters, our parents and our leaders – as entirely flawed, incompetent and self serving individuals. 

To be honest, I understand this perspective of people – after all they can be both surprising and disappointing.   In the past year, I too have been disheartened.  Early in the pandemic I was punched by a senior citizen buying toilet paper in a store, we spent an expensive month been threatened with legal action by an organization for participating in a Black Lives Matter fundraiser, we found (and removed) dozens of racist posters in one of Canada’s largest and most beautiful cities, in one town we were harassed, physically searched, and questioned by the police for ‘being homeless and owning a camera’, and at one point we were attacked by anti-maskers for being ‘sheeple’ (a term I had to look up) when we tried to be socially responsible.   And amid all of this we have continued to receive our daily doses of online vitriol, persecution from old flames, critique from former colleagues, and the usual commentary from ‘anonymous’ individuals in social media.  There is no denying, that once you have seen this side of people it is hard to get your optimism back.

Ultimately however, in response to all of this all you can do is decide whether to join those screaming and ranting or to try to change the tenor of the world one step at a time. And so, despite the events of 2020, I also know that I have seen and experienced so much more beauty in Canada than this year or these moments can take away from. I have come to see that the vast majority of Canadians are in fact at their best in a crisis.  I have come to know, from experience, that our nation is naturally beautiful, that its people are kind and generous, and that because of our diversity we in fact are Stronger Together.   

We have also come to see that positive change comes from unexpected places.  While 2020 was a year in which we were all dramatically forced out of our comfort zones it was also a period in which so many grew tired of their screens, cell phones, Zoom calls, and social media - and in the process rediscovered nature, local trails, parks, forests, and of course birds.  As a society we came to see, in the midst of a social distancing and isolation  bubbles that digital landscapes are no replacement for natural landscapes.  As the year progressed amid lock-downs people returned in huge numbers to nature, began to explore their communities, and took up new hobbies.  Those who couldn’t leave their houses took to bird feeder watching as a way to stay connected to nature while being responsible and safe.    These days the news is full of stories of people enjoying that there is less traffic, less air pollution, and more time to slow down and reassess what is really important.  Online searches show that inquiries about sewing, cooking, and birding have increased exponentially throughout the last year.  In the six months we were on The Great Trail this year we received thousands of emails asking for advice on how to get youth back outdoors.  In the month before the holidays we were emailed and messaged over 400 times with questions about which bird guides or binoculars we would recommend.  While at the same time we had over 550 inquiries about which trails and parks in Canada were the best to visit in 2021!

What this shows is that in the wake of these challenges many people have found new outlets for creativity, renewed old hobbies, and are making new plans for the future.  What this also means is that despite the uncertainty of the moment we each know that we can still each shape and change the world around us with our actions.  So as we turn toward a New Year our goal must not simply be to return to ‘normal’, but instead it should be to set a new course.  We need to address injustices were they exist, to improve our support for social issues in our own communities, to make sure our society and nature are inclusive as well as accessible to everyone, and to maintain our connection to those things that we have come to hold dear during this period.  (And of course to keep filling our bird feeders!)

What we need now is to move into the future towards a ‘new normal’. The fact that so many people have renewed interests, new goals, and new hope means that we can take this opportunity to shape what comes next.  It means that we can Build Back Better.  

Tonight we reach January 2021, not clear of the challenges of the past year, but certainly with renewed hope.  With hope comes possibility, and with possibility comes the unwritten opportunities of the future.  Tonight is the one night in which nothing is decided, nothing is set in stone, the entire year ahead of us is a blank slate waiting for us to fill it with wonder.  The question being - what will we do with the lessons and experiences of 2020 and which direction will we strike out towards in the coming days and months which lay ahead of us?

As the clock strikes midnight and the calendar turns to a New Year we venture forward, hopefully more empathetic of others, thankful for those essential workers who strive tirelessly to keep our world on track, mindful of those who we have lost and the challenges we have overcome, and grateful for all the blessings that we enjoy.    Tomorrow our collective adventure continues again, but tonight we can celebrate knowing that we made it through 2020 and that means that together we can make it through anything!

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!



Tuesday, December 22, 2020

INN24 Article : Magic is real, and it’s found on the Great Trail


The other day an amazing article was written by the talented Vicki Lee of INN24 !  We are so extremely grateful for the opportunity to share our story and some of our tales from the trail!  Vicki Lee's article and talent make our trek and adventure appear more polished than it actually is, but her focus on the amazing acts of Trail Magic that we have received and sources of support rightfully places our success on those wonderful individuals en route that have aided us!  Thank you so much!  

The original article with pictures can be found at the link attached to the title.

Magic is Real and it's Found on the Great Trail

“It heard me rustle and above leaves
Soon did its flight pursue,
Still waking summer's melodies
And singing as it flew.”

John Clare, “The Cuckoo”

27,000 kms.

That’s the distance of the longest recreational trail in the world. 27,000 km is the length of Highway 401 placed end to end 33 times. It is the length of the Great Wall of China and then another 6 km.

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27,000 km is what Sonya Richmond and Sean Morton will have hiked, kayaked, and explored in four years on the Great Trail of Canada.

In 2019, the couple resigned from their jobs and sold their house to embark on the Great Trail, a cross-Canada path that spans all 13 provinces and territories. Both nature and birding advocates, Richmond and Morton of Come Walk With Us undertook the challenge to discover firsthand the beauty of their homeland and to promote the conservation of birds and their habitats, part of their Hike4Birds initiative.



Adventuring through the Great White North on foot

Come Walk With Us is both the name of their hike and an invitation for others to join them to explore the natural environment beyond their front doors.

“We were looking for a balance between the digital and natural world,” Richmond told us in an INNterview. She was getting disaffected with her desk job, tired of being confined indoors and staring at a computer screen all day.

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Formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail, the Great Trail was completed in 2017 to coincide with Canada’s 150th anniversary. Having several medium-length hikes under their belts — including 800 km along the Camino Frances in 2016 and 2017 — Richardson and Morton were encouraged to venture on their longest pilgrimage yet.

“We thought, ‘Let’s go for it!’” said Richmond.

“‘Let’s explore our own country, and along the way, we’ll try and share as much of the beauty and natural diversity we see.’”

A typical itinerary for the Come Walk With Us duo is as follows: the two wake up at dawn (“Or when the birds wake us up,” said Richmond) and get on the trail by 7:30 AM, hiking for nine to ten hours until the late afternoon, carrying about 50 lbs of provisions (replenished at supply points along the way). Richmond and Morton then scope for a safe, private location — ideally with a source of water — to set up camp, make dinner, and launder clothes.

The rest of the night is devoted to social outreach: for hours, the couple blogs about their reflections about the trail and update their social media accounts with photographic highlights of the hike that day. According to Richmond, this process takes them well into midnight, at which they retire. They do it all over again the next morning.

Richmond and Morton aren’t always on the hiking trail though.

“We do occasionally take a day off,” Richmond said. “About once a week, we go into a motel or organized campground to recharge our devices.”

Birds of a feather walk together

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The natural landmarks, the local flora and fauna, that the couple encounters are extensively documented on Come Walk With Us’ social media channels. Richmond said she has always loved animals, but during her undergraduate studies, she fell in love with ornithology, a love that would propel her to study birds for her master’s and PhD. She would eventually work for a non-profit organization for the conservation of birds.

According to Richmond, birds are an excellent port of entry into nature exploration, especially for the younger generation, whom she said is drifting further and further apart from the natural environment. 

“You can use your phone for citizen science: it’s a way to bridge the digital world with the natural one.”

To the young and old alike, she suggests downloading nature exploration apps like iNaturalist to engage in “treasure hunts” outdoors, sharing observations and images with like-minded nature lovers.

“It makes a difference to conservation, which is another way to have a meaningful connection with nature, but it’s also fun, like a game.”

There is a phenomenon known in the birding community called “the unicorn effect,” coined by American birder Chris Cooper. This effect is felt when one encounters for the first time a bird they have known only through field guides, but suddenly takes on the mystique and surrealism of a mythical creature.

It is something Richmond and Morton have both experienced regularly on the trail.

“It’s always super exciting to find something new,” she said, recalling the time she and her partner encountered a great horned owl in Nova Scotia. “It was completely unexpected because we rarely see owls. Seeing a great horned owl for the first time in real life was amazing.”

Trail magic: chanced upon, not conjured

Even though Richmond and Morton are always prepared and efficient, they still enlist the occasional help of strangers on their excursions, assistance that usually emerges at the most opportune moment, according to Richmond.

“We wouldn’t’ve been able to do this without the random kindness of strangers,” she said. “Everywhere we hike, the kindness of the local people has been amazing.”

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On the hiking trail, this kind of accidental fortune has a name: trail magic. The Trek defines trail magic as “an unexpected occurrence that lifts a hiker’s spirits and inspires awe or gratitude.”

“Trail magic may be as simple as being offered a candy bar by a passing hiker or spotting an elusive species of wildlife.”

For the Come Walk With Us couple, a significant incident of trail magic happened to them in Magnetawan, Ontario, where strangers hosted Richmond and Morton in a vacant cottage on their property. It was a serendipitous spell of trail magic.

“It had rained for three days prior, and everything we had was soaked,” she said. “Being able to have this private area where there was a baking sun, and we could dry everything was one of the best things we could have had.”

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Despite the pandemic, there has been no dearth of trail magic along the Great Trail, according to the Come Walk With Us duo.

“Even within the context of challenging and uncertain circumstances, people were fantastic this year,” Richmond said. “They reached out to us, they offered us water and food and housing, completely physically distanced.”

The pandemic had only compounded the usual hurdles encountered on the hiking trail: there were times that supply points were shut due to reduced hours, there were times that locations that appeared on the map turned out to be permanently closed upon arrival. Richmond and Morton had set out to complete both Ontario and Qu├ębec this year, but only managed to hike through Ontario’s trails. Yet through all the peaks and troughs of their 27,000 km quest, human compassion keeps them going.

“There are challenges to this hike, but we have also seen the best of what people have to offer on the trail.”

To the eager novice hoping to start their first foray into hiking, Richmond suggests starting small: going on short hikes, then graduating up to weekend-long hikes, and so on. What’s important, according to her, is getting outside and fostering a curiosity for nature.

“The planet and the birds need our help,” she said. “In order for us to do that, we have to know what’s out there, and we have to love it. People aren’t going to protect what they don’t understand or love.”

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Richmond was speaking to us from London, Ontario, where she will remain working full-time until winter thaws — ideally, in March, she told us — and the Trail is hospitable to hikers again.

In the meantime, Richmond and Morton will celebrate the holidays with their loved ones in the west coast via Zoom. After all, the vagaries of the pandemic are matched only by the vagaries of the great outdoors.

“You can never predict what’s going to happen on the Trail. It’s always something different.”


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

For those new to Come Walk With Us


Recently and in the past year while trekking across the massive province of Ontario and into the beautiful wilds of Eastern Manitoba we have been fortunate to meet and chat with so many new people! In addition we have attracted a huge amount of attention to our message of getting youth connected to nature through Citizen Science and Nature.

From this link you can feel free to start at the beginning or navigate to a specific region whether your interests involve the trails of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, or Eastern Manitoba . For the remaining provinces you have to wait and follow along in 2021 and 2022!
For any interested in more of our travels and previous treks to enjoy and read over the holidays the links are also below:


Enjoy and thank you all for your support, advice, and encouragement thus far! April 2021 and a return to the Great Trail is soon to come!