Wednesday, March 31, 2021

A Trail is more than a line on the map...it's not that simple...

People have a great misconception of us. 

When they see us, or pictures of us, they are surprised (and often a little disappointed) that we are not Olympian athletes and we don’t really look like explorers.  While hiking we don’t stride confidently and move unhindered across the landscape and wildlife doesn’t perch majestically wherever we go. 

 

Instead, for better or worse, they realize that we are just two ordinary people on an extraordinary trek. 

So we thought we would share a story that hopefully reflects our constant ability to overestimate ourselves, critique others, and learn through experience.  We hope you enjoy, have a good laugh (at us), and discover – as we did – that often you have to put yourself in someone else’s place to see the world from their perspective. 



A Trail, in Theory…

“Theories look great on paper until reality scribbles all over the page.”

Richelle E. Goodrich

In early 2019 after a year of planning to begin our trek across Canada on the 24,000 km Great Trail we sat down to figure out what our pace would be, and draft a plan as to where we could get to day by day, week by week, month by month. 


At this point in our lives we were fresh off our successful treks across Ontario on the Bruce Trail, Spain on the Camino Frances, France on the GR 65, and Portugal on the Caminho Portuguese.  So it is easy to say after 3200 km of hiking that we were feeling confident, likely more than a little arrogant, and pretty sure of ourselves.

Given the lack of up to date guide books in 2018 on the Great Trail much of our planning was based on the achievements and pace of Sarah Jackson (https://sarahrosewalks.wordpress.com/– the first woman to hike the 11,520 km of the East-West corridor of the Great Trail.  Her amazing achievement was undertaken in 475 days.   Mathematically (yes I am a science and math geek) this breaks down to approximately 25 km per day of hiking.  While this is a decent pace it is hardly a great deal of trekking per day - especially when you consider that we average about 5 kilometers per hour on the trail. Put another way - at our usual pace, we could cover the minimum required 25 km per day after just 5 hours of hiking!  

Theoretically that would be easy!  We could likely go much further and day by day pick up the pace.  What would we do with all the extra time?  How many days would it take us if we hiked for 8 hours a day? 


Our initial estimates had us trek from Caps Spear Newfoundland to Victoria British Columbia in 2 years or approximately 500 days (with a lot of extra days built in just to be sure) with another year given to venture north to Tuktoyaktuk Northwest Territories.  If our guess was right then we would cross the country in a mere 3 years even if we took the winters off!  It was that easy….on paper.    


There was just one problem…. that the numbers didn’t add up and we couldn’t figure out why.

Realities on the Ground 

You see, while we had only trekked about 300 km of the Great Trail along the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland, at the time there were at least three other people well into their hikes across Canada, and in every case they were taking much longer than they had anticipated.   Making matters worse, we just couldn’t figure out what they were doing and how their treks had gone so wrong!

Dana Meise (@the.great.hike , 2008-2018), the first person to walk across Canada on the Trans Canada Trail to all three of its trail heads (Cape Spear, Victoria, and Tuktoyaktuk) would ultimately take 10 years to complete his epic pioneering hike of the country. 

Similarly the talented Dianne Whelan (2015 – present), who originally framed her adventure as 500 Days in the Wild (https://500daysinthewild.com/)  was by this point 4 years into her trek.  Yet she should have been done already given that her pace peddling and paddling across sections of the country is quicker than hiking!

Even the intrepid Mel Vogel and Malo (https://www.betweensunsets.com/ , 2017-present), who originally estimated it would take her “12 seasons or 3 years” to complete the trek from East to West to North was, in 2019 well behind her estimated pace.  And she was trekking almost every day and every month year round! 

Each of these inspiring explorers left us with the same questions : What is out there that is slowing everyone down?  What the heck were they doing wrong?

The fact is, none of them were doing anything wrong.  It was us who had forgotten the simple reality that it is easy to reduce any adventure to a mere calculation, or believe that a trail can be understood simply in terms of a set number of kilometers. No hike is so easy, and no trek is so simple.

To believe that any route can be seen simply as a series of lines on a map ignores the inevitable hiccups, unknown challenges, and unexpected moments that can occur along the way during any venture.


We would be reminded of these self evident truths almost right away. On our first day on the Great Trail we trekked a grand total of 5 km, directly into an unexpected snow storm in the middle of June.  Exactly 8 hours after starting our great hike we were 25 km behind schedule, soaked through, and digging out a spot to set up our tent on what should have been a glorious summer day.  


Today, in 2021, now 3 years into our own trek (and about 2 years behind) we have continued to slow down in accord with the circumstances of the route and inevitable delays as a result of bird sightings (yes we are birding as we go), exhaustion, weather, geographic realities, Covid, and the unexpected. 

 

So what the heck have we done wrong?


While we are the first to admit to making lots of mistakes, the reality is that while preparing for our trek we had failed to remember the key behind any plan : that practical experience is more important than theory.   

“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice.  In practice there is.”

Yogi Berra

See the world from another perspective!

When I told my grandmother this story about the difference between our plans and the realities of the trail she laughed.  Not a mocking laugh, but the laugh of experience.  She is a retired professor of Industrial Design from Auburn University and in teaching her students she used to insist upon the simple premise: ‘See the world from another perspective’ under the belief that bad design and lack of functionality follow from a lack of personal experience and understanding.   

One of her projects was to design accessible buildings and shops and parks.  Often her students would design wonderful ideas, draft inspiring plans, and build great models – all without ever experiencing the challenges that others might face.  Direct as ever, she insisted that her students spend a day, a week, or a month in a wheelchair, or with a walker, or with crutches, to see what navigating a world from another perspective was like.  To really know about something they had to experience it, not just theorize about it.  In doing this they began to see the obstacles that they had never considered, because they had never had to deal with them personally.


It was a lesson we would have done well to have remembered in designing our plans for trekking across Canada on The Great Trail.  The others like Dana Meise, Dianne Whelan, and Mel Vogel weren’t doing anything wrong, they had the insight and experience from living the pathway and therefore understood it much better than we did sitting at a desk with a computer.    

Accessibility to the Outdoors and Nature

As we have been trekking across Canada many of the questions we have received are about which trail sections are good for weekend hikes, long distance treks, and cycling adventures.  In addition, we are also often asked about which trails are accessible or are located near to accessible parking lots and facilities.   


With regards to accessibility, sometimes the answer is obvious.  For example, unfortunately, owing to a number of factors many beautiful places like the East Coast Trail, Fundy Footpath, and Casque Isles trails are not yet reasonably accessible to venture through for those with disabilities and mobility challenges.  However, even beyond those obvious places we feel don’t lend themselves to being accessible, we aren’t always sure about others either.  Just because I feel that a pathway, park, birding location, or pathway is accessible, it still might have barriers that I don’t notice, because I lack the lived perspective and experience.


Yet knowing what pathways can easily be gotten to, at what points they can be accessed, and how far one can venture into nature on them, are very important questions for many people.  One that we became very much more aware of in this past year after exchanging our large backpacks for a hiking cart. 

Regions and trails that would previously been relatively easy for us to access all of a sudden often became much more challenging to navigate through.  Our cart, a well designed and very mobile device, required us to see the world from a new perspective with each new day and each new section of trail. 

“….unfortunately, there is a perception that outdoor activities are something only to be enjoyed by a select few in special locations and at certain times.  We have been taught to think that nature is supposed to look a certain way, and that to be outdoors we have to look a certain way, or be a certain type of person. But this simply isn’t true. 

Nature is not in one special place, and is not for one special person, nature is wherever someone is trying to find it...and it is for everyone.”

Lived Experiences and Fresh Perspectives

Obstacles so many never consider, including muddy parking lots, curbs around parking lots, deep gravel pathways, stone walls and the like, are all barriers to the trails and natural areas in our communities and across our county.  In an attempt to begin gaining a larger awareness of these types of barriers to our pathways, the Great Trail has partnered up with AccessNow (https://accessnow.com/) who is striving to improve accessibility to Canada’s pathways.   


Their goal is to begin to map the nation’s trails to identify barriers to nature, and then to utilize this information towards making the outdoors more accessible for everyone. The project is using the AccessNow platform and technology to highlight lived experiences and provide people with a navigational resource to discover trail accessibility. Using the free AccessNow App (available at the Apple App Store and Google Play store), users will be able to pin-point the accessibility status of locations across the country and on the Great Trail, so that trail builders and communities can also start looking at how to turn all the red pins, the not accessible places, to green pins, making them accessible for all. 



The ultimate goal of this amazing initiative is to allow Canadians to be able to discover barrier-free routes as well as identify areas where barriers still exist so they can be addressed in order to increase accessibility to the outdoors and nature. 

While the current focus is on 13 specific sections of the Great Trail, the potential for all people to contribute to this project from coast to coast to coast will serve to help improve accessibility to trails and to nature in communities across Canada.  


I am particularly excited by this initiative as the founder and CEO of AccessNow is a fellow Toronto Waldorf School Alumni – the inspiring and talented Maayan Ziv!

Exploring Canada from a New Perspective

Change and understanding are only possible by seeing the world from another perspective and through lived experiences. As we have relearned over the past 2 years since setting out on our hike - there is a huge difference between theory and reality.  This year as we head back out we will be using the AccessNow app to try to add in what we can about what areas we think might be accessible, and highlighting those areas of the trail that potentially pose challenges.  With almost 7000 km of the Great Trail traversed we are still learning and striving to see the world differently … hopefully we can convince others out there to take up the same challenge to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy and access Canada’s amazing natural spaces and trails from coast to coast to coast. 

See you on the trail…


** several of the images in this post are from the social media of the hikers referenced, AccessNow and The Great Trail websites **

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Gear for a 24,000 km trek : What worked ? What failed? What have we changed?

Given the range of gear choices we all face in undertaking a long distance trek, we thought we would share what we have in our backpacks, what has changed and what has worked so far.  

The issue of equipment on long distance treks often quickly ransforms into discussions regarding the need to negotiate between need, priorities, costs, weight, durability, and the ability to resupply. Each of these are matters and concerns which are not easy to balance against one another.

Certainly our desire to hike and encourage others required us to be able to get online, post online, remain in communication with groups and schools regularly and to be able to take and post images daily – all which significantly altered what we carry as well as how much weight we need to trek with. 

The reality is that there are a lot of great companies which develop and produce wonderful and durable backpacking gear. Over the years, our own experiences and preferences for materials and companies which have never let us down have pushed us towards certain products over others. This doesn’t mean that what our choices have been are the only options– they instead reflect what we prefer and NOT what must be used. 

What does all of this mean?  Well our gear is light, but not the lightest.  This also means that it was costly but not the most expensive.  Our kit also includes extras such as a 3 person tent for comfort and space (with an estimated 900-1000 days in a tent with someone else a little space is needed), and there are backups and first aid kits for peace of mind.  In addition to which there are two seasons of gear (that are switched out as needed) to accommodate the changing demands of the weather and the time of year.

Choosing your Gear

As we emphasized in our previous blog on gear : If there is one message people should take away from any comments that we make or gear that we have chosen it is to  find what you like, what works for you, and what you are comfortable withIt doesn’t have to be the lightest, the newest, the most expensive, or the trendiest – if it works for you then that is your gear.  You will never need as much as you think and certainly won’t ever use as much as the outfitters are willing to sell you.  The best piece of advice that we can give you is to : do your research, ask questions and try some of the gear out.  Use your kit regionally and on weekend camping trips first to figure out how everything works, what you like, and whether you want to change things long before you are out on the trail.  

Know how to set up your tent before getting to your site, know how to filter and purify water before setting out, and know how to start a fire and run your stove before setting out.  We have seen far too many people hike out onto trails with new backpacks that they don't know how to adjust or show up in parks at 11 pm with a new tent still in its box and struggle throughout the evening to try to set up their gear for the first time. 

What has changed in our gear?

So what has changed for us from the East Coast Trail in 2018 to our first year on the Great Trail in 2019 when we trekked from Newfoundland to Quebec, to our second year on the TGT when we hiked from Ottawa Ontario to Winnipeg Manitoba to our third year in 2021?  Well to be honest, not as much as you might think.  Though our kit has shifted in accord with the demands of each region, its weather and seasonal conditions, and the challenges we encounter have have largely stuck with what we know and like. 

East Coast Trail, 2018 

Having trekked the Bruce Trail with the MSR Hubba Hubba 3 person we sought to cut down our base weight and considered a number of other tents from companies such as Zpacks and Nemo.  However, when we went to buy and try them neither was in stock.  As a result we eventually shifted to the MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2 person so as to have only 2 lbs of tent on us.  While the NX2 proved to be a durable, easy to handle and lightweight lodging, we also found it to be too cramped to provide a comfortable home for the two of us and our gear for 3-4 years. After 16 days in this tent together it was clear that another 1000 days was not going to happen as more space was needed.   

The Great Trail, 2019 (Newfoundland to Quebec)

While in general we found our gear set up to be great on the ECT we ultimately changed tents again.  In early 2019 before setting out onto the trail in Cape Spear we shifted back to a 3 person tent with the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL3 tent – which was as roomy as the 3 person MSR tent but had a lower base weight.

We also upgraded some of our electronics gear and purchased as long term battery pack to keep our cameras and devices recharged given the need to stay 2-3 weeks in the wilderness without outlets.

We also did not take our well liked collapsible Sea to Summit bowls and pack towels with us.  Instead we began to eat out of the top and bottom of the cooking pot and utilize the day’s trekking clothes as our towels before washing them as well.  Another last minute change was to change our MSR Mini Works pump water filter to a Sawyer Squeeze in order to carry a more compact filtration system in our backpacks.   

The Great Trail, 2020 (Ontario to Manitoba)

In our second year, potentially beginning in Quebec but ultimately leading us through Ontario and Manitoba, we shifted what we carried to reflect the demands of the trail.  With less of a focus on wilderness trekking and more time spent on urban pathways and rail trails we took weight off our backs and purchased a Radical Designs Walking Trailer – Wheelie V.  

This trailer is amazing when the terrain suited it and led us to find unique solutions, or mail it forward, when the landscape was not as amenable.

The Great Trail, 2021 (Prairies and West Coast?)

Largest gear change in the coming year has been towards reducing the weight in our backpacks as much as possible.  As a result, the most significant addition to our gear has been the addition of a second Radical Designs Walking Trailer, for the Prairies and the Arctic.  This amazing trailer enabled us to carry more food and more water in 2021 and will do that in the coming years on the trail.   This is especially important as we head into the Prairies and North were the distances between food resupply and water refill points becomes greater and greater.  

With most of the ground water in the prairies being agricultural and (as we discovered last year) with most households already buying water we cannot reasonably rely on locating and filtering our own on regular basis nor upon asking families to help us refill our bottles at their expense.  The only solution to this reality is for us to carry more food, more water, and more weight (7-10 days worth) – which at a certain point becomes both impractical and impossible.  Realistically neither of us is able to effectively carry 10-20 liters of water in addition to the weight of our gear.  As a result for the prairies and the Arctic the Radical Designs trailers are now the core of our gear transportation.

We have also had to buy a second battery pack for the longer stretches on the Prairies and Arctic that we will cross without the ability to recharge.  

In addition to these changes we are also now carrying an RCGS Expedition flag as we are now an official Expedition for the Royal Canadian Geographic Society!

The Great Trail Gear List (for 2 people over 24,000 km)

      -         Gregory - Whitney 95 backpack

      -         Osprey – Xena 95 backpack

      -         2 x Sea to Summit backpack Covers – Ultra-Sil

-         2 x Ben’s Invisanet Bug Nets

-         1 x bear spray canister

-         2 x Gossamer Gear UV Sun Umbrellas

      -         Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL3 (tent, footprint, and fly)

-         Aquaquest Tarp (10x10 SQ)

-         2 x Klymit Insulated Static V sleeping Pad

-         2 x Winter sleeping bags - Marmot - Never Summer 650 Down

-         2 x Spring sleeping bags - Thermarest Parsec 20F / -6C 800 Downfill

-         2 x SIGG water bottles – 1 l

-         2 x Nalgene water bottles – 1.5 l

-         2 x TOAKS Titanium cups

-         2 x Sawyer Squeeze water filters

-         2 x aluminum cups

-         MSR Coffee filter

-         G4Free Cooking Pot (only use 1 litre pot and lid)

-         2 x aluminum spoons

-         MSR Whisper Lite stove or Bushbox XL stove (as regions and conditions dictate)

-         Komperdell trekking polls

-         2 x Gossamer Gear Handsfree Umbrella

-         8 x OR Compression Dry Sacks

-         2 x Zpacks stuff sacks for food bags

-         2 x Osprey stuffable day backpacks

 Clothes (Sonya)

-         OR Helios Sun Hat

-         Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hoody Winter Jacket

-         North Face Hyvent Rain Jacket and Pants

-         2 x Icebreaker Merino Wool Shirts – Short Sleeve

-         2 x Icebreaker Merino Wool Shirts – Long Sleeve

-         MEC Fleece Sweeter

-         2 x Columbia Convertible Hiking Pants

-         1 x Columbia Hiking Skort

-         2 x ExOfficio Bra

-         2 x ExoOfficio Underwear

-         2 x Paradox Merino Wool Leggings

-         3 x Darn Tough Hiker Socks light cushion

-         Keen Sandals

-         Keen Hiking Boots -  Kloven Mid

-         Bathing suit

-         Winter mittens (winter)

-         OR Sun Gloves (spring / summer)

-         Merino Wool Winter Cap

-         Osprey overnight bag – toothbrush, medicine, etc.

 Clothes (Sean)

-         Black Victorinox baseball cap    

-         North Face Dryvent Rain Jacket and Pants

-         Patagonia packable down jacket

-         MEC Fleece Sweater

-         Merino Wool hiking buff

-         2 x Icebreaker Merino Wool shirt – Short sleeve

-         1 x Icebreaker Merino Wool shirt – Long sleeve

-         3 x ExOfficio underwear

-         1 x Tesla leggings

-         3 x Icebreaker Merino Wool Socks

-         2 x Columba Silver Ridge Convertible Hiking Pants

-         Keen Sandals

-         Merrel Moab 2 Hiking Shoes

-         Osprey overnight bag – for tooth brush, medicine, etc.

 Electronics and Extras

-         Garmin InReach

-         2 x head lamps

-         Samsung Galaxy S8 cell phone

-         Nikon Camera gear

-         2 x BatPower ProE 2 Power Bank with 26800 mAh

 Walking Cart

-         2 x Radical Designs Walking Trailer – Wheelie V 

 ** please remember this reflects a full list for 3 years of trekking and by no means is all of this gear on us at all times **

Gear that has been tested, proved true, and updated

Overall how has all this gear held up to almost 7000 km of trekking?  The short answer is pretty well!

Well our Big Agnes tent has lasted but in the last year became distinctly less waterproof.  We initially bought a new fly for the tent to help give it some new coverage but this new piece of gear was ultimately less waterproof than our used old one.  Given the situation this fly was sent directly to Big Agnes and we never heard back from them.   We sought to buy another but our local MEC is out of stock this year, so we have treated and patched our old tent and fly with the hope of getting through the next season but realize that we will likely have to get a new 4 season tent before going to the Arctic next year. 

Our Kylmit sleeping pads did a great job lasting throughout the East Coast Trail, and from Newfoundland to Winnipeg Manitoba before they began to leak.  However, to our surprise, the Klymit company was kind enough to replace these free of cost and so we set out in Year 3 with new sleeping pads! (A huge thanks to Klymit!)

We have also both had to replace our shoes a number of times (about 3 times a year).  However in 2020 Keen Canada through The Great Trail have been very kind and provided me with new hiking boots for which I am very grateful!

I have also recently had to replace my Komperdell hiking polls that got sand in them during a river crossing and became impossible to adjust.  Regardless, I am really happy with how my original trekking polls held up and expect my new ones to do just as well.

Similarly we have gone through several Sea to Summit Backpack Rain covers, but given how often they are used, laid down in the gravel of the trail and sat on they have done well.  Regardless of having to replace them a few times we are happy with them. 

Likewise our clothes (hiking shirts, and convertible pants) have thinned out but been replaced with new versions of the same gear.  Icebreaker shirts have replaced Icebreaker shirts, just as Darn Tough Socks have replaced their kin.  The rest of our clothing from our North Face rain gear to our ExOfficio undergarments have held up and have so far never needed replacing. 

We have also had to replace our Sawyer Squeeze filters each year as they have either become jammed or stopped running between seasons. 

Finally, as those that follow us know, we have upgraded our electronics.  I have recently changed my phone to a Samsung Galaxy S8 in 2021 to be able to run the Great Trail app. Just as we have had to buy new cameras twice after having bad encounters with ATVS in Newfoundland and a wooden board launched off a truck in Northern Ontario.  



Final Advice

(1)    Don’t need the newest, lightest, or most expensive.  Don’t need to gain the approval of all of the ‘experts’ with your gear choices.

(2)    Don’t need as much as you think or as much as the outfitters are willing to sell you.

(3)    Get some gear, do some local hiking and camping, and see what you need each time.  Figure out what works and what doesn't for you, then repeat until you feel that you have everything covered. Definitely try and test gear BEFORE setting out on a long distance hike.

(4)    Hike your own Hike, and trek according to your interest and comfort.

(5)    Enjoy.