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.”
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.”
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.
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 **