For the past couple of months since leaving the trail we have admittedly been lax in posting regular blogs. While that is largely a reflection of the fact that our day to day lives off The Great Trail are rather mundane, it was also the result of the fact that we have spent much of our time giving presentations to nature groups, hiking clubs and schools as well as striving to publish a number of articles on our trek. Unfortunately despite our efforts we have met with a slew of rejections for sponsorship, publications on birding Canada, our hike, and the various trail sections that we have covered. While a number of reasons have been given, the simple fact is that time is moving on and so we have decided to refocus our efforts back into planning 2021, giving presentations, editing pictures (hopefully for a photobook), and publishing the regular blog.
The following entry - which is largely a review of the challenges of hiking during Covid - also serves as a way of introducing the first year of our #hike4birds to the slew of wonderful individuals who have only recently begun to follow along! Thank you all so much for your encouragement and support throughout 2019 and 2020! The best is yet to come!
Just one of dozens of similar messages sent to Come Walk With Us by March 2020
As many of you know, two years ago I quit my job, sold my house and donated most of my possessions to pay for and begin a 4 year, 24,000 km hike across Canada on the Great Trail. Not the sort of thing that impresses your parents after almost a decade at university earning your PhD. Professionals in my field derided me, my colleagues thought I was insane, my friends thought I was joking, and my mother threatened to break my legs to prevent me from going. In the end however, I knew it was something I knew I just had to do.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Great Trail, also popularly known as the Trans Canada Trail, at 24,000 km long it is the world’s longest recreational pathway and stretches across Canada connecting the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic regions. Given its enormous length, which is equal to trekking 2/3 of the way around the world, it is no surprise that fewer people have completed the entire route on foot than have gone to the moon. Walking its full length is equivalent to hiking the Appalachian Trail 7 times in a row or walking the Camino de Santiago 30 times.
Why are we doing this?
When people hear the huge distances involved in undertaking the Trans Canada Trail, the amount of time it will take and the requirements involved, their main question is : So, why did we choose to undertake this journey? Well, our main reason was that we felt like the digital world was taking over our lives and those of our family members. We were spending our days working in front of computers, our nights watching Netflix, and in between constantly checking Facebook, Instagram, and e-mail. At the same time, a younger family member was skipping more than 40 days of high school each semester, stealing, and lying just to play video games.
In response we began to research and learn more about the influence of screens on youth, its impact upon people’s development, and its role in stunting of our innate interest in exploration. What we discovered, is that studies have fairly consistently shown that the effects of video gaming and social media on the brain are stronger and more addictive than many mainstream drugs. More than this, research indicated that even though most people are now constantly connected to WIFI, they are becoming increasing disconnected from each other, the natural world, and everything that is actually important in our own lives. Our access to information might be increasing but our general happiness with ourselves and the world was declining. As such, we realized it was time to begin recharging ourselves and not just our devices, and we wanted to do something different which would inspire youth to reconnect to nature, promote diversity in and accessibility to outdoors activities, as well as showcase the natural beauty of the nation through exploration.
Setting out on The Great Trail
To prepare for our hike across Canada, as well as learn about ourselves and our gear we undertook a series of short treks. And so between 2016 and 2019, step by step, we hiked across Ontario on the 900 km Bruce Trail, ventured across Spain on the famous 800 km long Camino de Santiago or Camino Frances, trekked across France on the 780 km Via Podiensis / GR 65, ventured along the coast of the Avalon peninsula in Newfoundland on the 236 km East Coast Trail and soon after hiked the length of Portugal on the 680 km Camino Portuguese.
After all of these life changing adventures we thought we were ready, were fully confident in our abilities, and certain that nothing could throw us off our stride. Trails, like life, however are full of unexpected challenges – most of which we never anticipate.
Ready for the Great Trail, on June 1st, 2019 we set out from Cape Spear Newfoundland, the most easterly point in Canada and in our first six months covered just over 3300 km crossing Newfoundland, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and into the province of Quebec. By mid November we reached Riviere du Loop on the shore of the St. Lawrence River where still clothed in summer gear winter led us to suspend our trek until spring time.
Over the course of our first year on the trail we were among
the first to see the sunrise
in North America, we scaled cliffs on rope ladders, walked along coastal
footpaths, saw icebergs and puffins, spent evenings on the sides of crystal clear
lakes, went days in remote wilderness without meeting anyone else, saw caribou,
moose, and black bears as well as over 200 species of birds. We visited epic National Parks, explored
provincial reserves, sat in ancient cathedrals, learned about Acadian culture,
forded ice cold rivers, wandered tidal flats and even wadded into the Atlantic
Ocean in sections where the Great Trail was washed out.
As the kilometres passed by we walked on the ocean floor with goats, slept in a haunted jail cell, were actors in local plays, trekked through blinding snow blizzards, fought against strong Atlantic winds, sheltered from tropical storms, and survived a hurricane. We hiked on days in which it was -20C and which it was +45C. Along the way we experienced overwhelming generosity, random acts of kindness, countless words of encouragement and trail magic.
Plans for 2020 Collapse
After several months off the trail, our plan for the second year of our #hike4birds in 2020 was to continue from our point of departure in Quebec, venture through Ontario and perhaps get as far as Winnipeg, the provincial capital of Manitoba. This would mean that in addition to the five provinces that we had walked across in 2019 we would be more than half way across Canada by the end of 2020. Plans were set, gear was packed, and we were due to set out by early spring in mid March.
Then Covid hit. Our public awareness of it, as well as our understanding and seriousness of the outbreak of course took time. In Canada rumours of a contagious virus in February, soon turned into a public health crisis by March and provincial lockdowns by April 2020. The result being, as John Lennon so wisely observed is that ‘life is what happens when you are busy making plans’. Given the circumstance, it did not take long for our well designed and fixed timeline to soon come into question. Two weeks after our intended departure date, it wasn’t just our trek that was in question but everything. People across the nation and the globe quickly faced more pertinent questions about finding essential supplies, being able to work, and ensuring they could pay their bills. Education went online; jobs that weren’t lost were undertaken remote from home, sports events were cancelled, and cottage country remained empty. Leaders in ever field across Canada recommended the same things, stay indoors, stay socially distanced, and be responsible. By month’s end, our 4 year expedition across Canada seemed quaint and inappropriate.
As days and weeks under lockdown went by, the regulations shifted and everything changed again. After such long stretches of isolation inside and as the warming spring and summer temperatures began to arrive people were scrambling to return to the outdoors. As a result, while governments at every level still promoted social distancing, they also advocated that people nonetheless needed to stay physically active and remain engaged with the natural world. Provincial authorities often left it up to local municipalities and local hiking clubs to decide what the rule for their region would be. What resulted from coast to coast was a confusing patchwork of shifting rules and regulations which varied from region to region. Hiking in local green spaces in places like London Ontario was allowed, but Conservation Areas in different municipalities across the province were closed, while at the same time in Nova Scotia and Halifax people where being charged by the police for going for walks in their municipal parks. Similarly while National Parks, National Historic Sites, and Provincial Parks were closed in some regions, in others they were accessible in limited ways. Simply put, in the spring of 2020 confusion and misunderstandings reigned.
The uncertainty and contradictions of the moment led to divisions between families, communities, and businesses about what should be open and closed. Outdoor groups and hiking clubs alike debated about balancing the need to keep nature accessible while also protecting individuals from one another. For hikers and campers questions regarding whether it was illegal, unethical, or simply socially inappropriate to trek began to fade as regional numbers dipped, stores re-opened, and municipalities across the country relaxed regulations. Public sentiment also began to shift. The matter moved from questioning whether by hiking we put strangers at risk, and transformed into wondering whether our fellow citizens would benefit and appreciate the chance to vicariously trek with us through our pictures and blog. As things continued to improve we also felt that our message was increasingly timely – perhaps now was the ideal time to get people interested in nature, re-establish their connection with the outdoors, and learn about birds!
Also important was a decision made by the Great Trail itself. Early on we had decided to be as responsible as possible and not to venture in defiance of either national or provincial laws or in opposition to the rules set out by The Great Trail organization. As such, the largest factor in our decision to return to our adventure was the decision by the Great Trail to remain open with the caveat urging users to remain socially distanced, monitor the shifting conditions of the virus, and to follow public health advice. This meant that unlike the experiences of so many across the United States, where national pathways such as the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) issued strict guidelines advising against thru-hikes in 2020, recommending that people delay their venture, and closing sections of their trail systems – Canada’s Great Trail remained hesitantly open for use.
Hopeful, and with the pathways open we made the decision in the final week of May 2020 to set out. Unsurprisingly, the challenges of trekking during a global pandemic would leave an indelible mark on the second year of our expedition.
We were more than two months late in returning to the trail owing to the ongoing situation and were eager to return yet we had one major decision to still make. As noted, in 2019 we suspended our trek when winter set in on the shores of the St. Lawrence River just 120 km into the province of Quebec. Yet, while much of Canada was in the process of relaxing its Covid regulations Quebec had remained at a level of heightened alert. Travel between provinces and especially from Ontario to Quebec was limited to essential services and workers only. As hikers we clearly did not deserve nor expect an exemption. Even, inquiries to friends and followers in the province warned us that, given the current situation, we would not be well received if we entered Quebec in the early spring. By comparison in Ontario, our home province, while travel was not recommended, it was also not illegal. And so, despite online images of cycling pathways and hiking paths full of local users, and with respect for provincial regulations in mind we made one of the toughest choices on this trek yet. We set aside 1200 km of the Great Trail in Quebec and settled on continuing our hike from Ottawa, Ontario, the nation’s capital. This would leave us with a temporary gap in the trail that we would have to return to later but it also meant that we could hike this year. Our goal was to be responsible, remain as isolated from others as possible, and to proceed legally westward. With this in mind, with masks on, distancing from the few other people that we did see on the pathway, and filled with self doubt, we set out.
In our first year between Newfoundland and Quebec the notion of keeping at least 2 meters away from anyone would have been easily achieved, given how remote so much of the Trans Canada Trail is in much of the Atlantic region. Indeed, few of the major sections of the Great Trail on the East coast could be termed populous or busy. Similarly, even our initial assessments of Quebec suggested that the majority of the rail trails and cycling pathways we would follow across the province were generally isolated. By contrast, the irony of our eventual route across Ontario was that amid a year focused on avoiding contact with others the venture across our home province was set to include some of the most populous urban stretches in our 4 year hike.
The route from Ottawa through to the suburbs of Kingston, across the Kawarthas, through the Greater Toronto Area, into downtown Toronto, through Hamilton and Brantford, north to Kitchener-Waterloo and onward to Barrie-Orillia would result in us spending more than 1/2 of our trail time in cities. To put this in perspective Ontario accounts for almost 40% of the nation’s population with the vast majority of those individuals living in these southern communities. Hiking, camping, and distancing therefore proved the greatest challenge in 2020 with a population of almost 6 million people equalling almost a quarter of the nation’s population near the trail.
Hike the trail you are given
With Covid traditional long distance hiking concerns about the weight of backpacks, daily distances, and water supplies quickly took a backseat to questions regarding whether we could resupply, ensuring that we did not take necessary food from rural communities, figuring out whether we could camp, and making sure that we had both our masks as well as enough hand sanitizer on us. We took great care to limit resupply stops, had an increasing number of prepared mailed care packages to arrange, and observed social distancing, masking and quarantine where advised.
While it was not the trek we had envisioned the circumstances of the moment made the lesson of the year clear - you don’t hike the hike you plan, you hike the hike you are given.
In the end, in 2020 amid Covid, we were able to backpack just over 3000 km, crossing Ontario and Eastern Manitoba in 140 days over the course of 5 months. Along the way we ventured along historic rail trails, down beloved long distance pathways, on city sidewalks, back-country roads, and even on the shoulder of the roaring Trans Canada Highway. The Great Trail led us through remote country farmlands, to quiet Mennonite communities, across huge urban centers, into provincial parks, past scientific research stations, to peaceful lakes surrounded by exclusive cottages, and to long abandoned ghost towns. When the trail was washed out, we waded waist deep into cold lakes and leech filled waters and braved the unrelenting swarms of mosquitoes and black flies in two provinces.
We crawled under fallen trees, balanced across huge beaver dams, spent weeks at a time trekking in driving rain, and fighting against the wind as we entered the prairies. Our way traced canals, waterways, pilgrimage routes, the coasts of the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay, crossed the Canadian Shield, and eventually returned us to the beauty of the boreal forest. En route we struggled over the unrelenting yet awe-inspiring rugged coastlines of Northern Lake Superior, visited indigenous petroglyphs, walked around an ancient Giant, and into a meteor crater.
We reflected on race in Canada on the sites of old Residential schools, and when confronted with unexpected racial hostility. We had the opportunity to learn about Metis culture and hospitality, and discovered that one region’s definition of a trail was by no means the same as those in other areas in the country.
Above all however we enjoyed
wildlife such as bears, moose, porcupines, turtles, and over 150 species of
birds all the while being regularly welcomed into unused cottages, lodges, and
offered distanced picnics to help keep our energy and spirits up.
By mid October on a particularly windy and wet day, we arrived in Winnipeg Manitoba, where rising Covid numbers and eminent winter weather on the horizon signalled an end to our second year on the trail.
Challenges of trekking amid Covid
Despite the amazing time on the trail the year presented unique challenges. Soon after setting out, old supporters and tentative new sponsors began to back out. The economics of the pandemic shifted, organizations began to rebrand themselves, and the financial commitments as well as the corporate dynamic for funding transformed over night. As a result, after an unexpected and harsh phone call on one rainy afternoon in Eastern Ontario we were left without the financial backing and much of the social media support that we had expected for the year.
We also quickly discovered that the fear of food shortages and fuel scarcity had driven many in communities across the nation to quickly buy camping stoves, propane canisters, dehydrated camping meals, and other essentials which thru-hikers rely on. As a result, despite the weight involved, we turned to regular foods, often resorting to carrying days of canned supplies with us as we trekked.
The next major obstacle came in finding places to camp while travelling. In 2019 we had wild camped where it was legal and feasible to do so. Most of the time however, we stayed in family campgrounds, provincial and national parks, and of course the periodic motel. In 2020, we had intended to continue in this manner but with the circumstances varying from region to region many localities had all ready called off the camping season. Those campgrounds that did stay open had limited themselves to seasonal and RV residents and frequently refused to allow over night users. This left us with a huge challenge, namely finding places to stay over the course of 5 months on the trail. Thankfully we were fortunate to have lots of public support. Soon people offered their backyards, rooms in closed B&Bs, empty cottages on the trail, and unused second homes for us to stay in. Between these amazing offers, a few nights wild camping, and far too many evenings in motels we patched the trek together. As we had been in our first year, we again were overwhelmingly helped and supported by kind individuals, many of whom were strangers, as we crossed the country.
In addition to all of these challenges, Covid and the tensions it brought seemed to exacerbate the underlying fears in many of our communities and at times overwhelm the social norms which we cling to. In one town, while eating a sandwich we were spat on by a woman who insisted Covid was spread by the homeless. In another city, we encountered huge numbers of racist posters hung along the pathway which we spent the morning removing. Later At one point we were accosted by anti-maskers who were mocking and confronting people who strove to be socially responsible. In each instance we were stunned and have come to see how each of these actions reveal how the anxieties, tensions, and uncertainty of the year brought underlying biases, which many in our communities face regularly, to the forefront.
Yet despite these challenges, the pandemic also gave rise to a number of opportunities. With social distancing in effect, most nature organizations, hiking groups and outdoors clubs halted the majority of their in-person presentations and social gatherings. Similarly classrooms shifted to online and distance learning and teachers began to quickly search for educational content. In each of these instances it provided us the opportunity to continue and expand our outreach leading us to connect with new audiences, and continue to give presentations about the Great Trail, nature, and birding in Canada via Zoom.
Thankfully trekking during a global pandemic is unusual, presenting those who attempt it both unique challenges as well as interesting opportunities. On any thru-hike it is rare to get the adventure you plan, with Covid in 2020 our trek was transformed in unexpected ways, yet in overcoming each obstacle we learned more about ourselves, the people in our communities, and our country than we would ever had the opportunity to otherwise.
Trekking for 6 months during a pandemic we have learned a few things along the way. We have learned that plans can shift from moment to moment and that you have to be flexible and be able to let go. We have come to see that each situation presents its own possibilities and opportunities, but that you have to be open to recognizing them when they appear. In meeting with amazing individuals we have come to see that we all have to begin to share what we have (talents, skills, food) with those around us - together is the only way that we all get through the challenging times. We have also come to see that positive change comes from unexpected places.
Now that 2021 is here we intend to continue along on Canada’s Great Trail venturing from the heart of the nation in the prairies to the pacific coast in British Columbia (hopefully hopefully hopefully). As 2020 taught us, we don’t know what comes next but we do know that whatever arises it will be wonderful adventure!
Hopefully, in 2021 you will continue to Come Walk With Us!