In the past few months off the trail we've found a silver lining to the Covid 19 lockdowns by being asked to give dozens of Zoom presentations to Nature Groups, Hiking Clubs, Birding associations and School classrooms. Each of these meetings has been a wonderful experience, allowing us to socialize, learn about new parts of the country, and hear about other people’s experiences in the outdoors.
While we enjoy sharing our tales from The Great Trail and introducing people to Citizen Science our favorite time in each talk is the question session. It is always interesting to see what people’s focus is going to be. What gear do we carry? What is our favorite bird that we have seen? What boots do we wear hiking? What is the best section of trail? Where would we visit again? The range of interests and inquiries is always amazing.
For us, it is the younger children and students who frequently have the best questions as they are the most direct and honest in their inquiries. How do you go to the washroom on the trail? Do you ever get scared? Do you ever miss home? What do you do when it rains? Have you ever petted a moose or bear, are they soft? Such wonderful curiosity!
However, despite the different audiences we have presented to and the range of inquiries we have received there is one question that we are most frequently asked : What is the largest challenge you face on the trail?
For whatever reason, this one has stuck in our minds, and in reflecting on it we have both come up with a different answer.
Now many people might think that the biggest challenge for us is the long hours spent hiking, or the physical exhaustion. Or perhaps days spent combating unpleasant weather or unfortunate encounters with aggressive animals, or continuing on when either one of us gets ill or injured.
For me however, it has actually been struggling to constantly present our hike and the nation in a positive way.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that one region is crummy, or that the people from one place aren’t pleasant. It is simply a fact that sometimes each of us has a rough day. Walking through freezing rain and spending an evening trying to warm up is not particularly pleasant. Trekking through flooded trail sections amid leech filled marshes and spending hours removing dozens of those little fellows off one’s body is not my idea of a great time. Venturing along the Trans Canada Highway for hundreds of kilometers is an unnerving and terrifying experience that I would not recommend to anyone. And receiving regular emails from people telling us how we are doing things wrong, mocking us for missing something along the way, or demanding that we quit hiking doesn’t help.
And sometimes, for whatever reason, you just don’t feel up to being positive, or you struggle because you have seen or experienced something that has stuck with you and which doesn’t make you feel very positive. Or you are simply exhausted and you just don’t have the energy to write that evening, let alone be chipper.
We all have these days, but when you are writing a blog each night and trying to highlight the beauty of that section of trail it can be a real challenge to still be positive when that is not how you feel. There are many days in which I have researched and written for hours only to read it over, realize I am venting the challenges of the moment or my own frustrations rather than talking about what we saw. In most of these cases I finish drafting the post, take a breath, read it over, then delete and then rewrite it.
I don’t do this just because I want our trek to be a positive experience for those reading about it. I have desperately tried to stay positive primarily because I want to show how wonderful the outdoors is by showing that unlike what the news or online forums might suggest, the world is in fact both friendlier and safer than most realize. I also strive to be positive because I want the blog to be a welcoming place that encourages curiosity and exploration while showing people how they can foster change in their own communities. To this end, when we set out I felt that in trying to inspire people to connect with nature and become Citizen Scientists it was absolutely necessary to remain positive. I worried that to spend time focused on pollution, deforestation, and environmental ruin along the route would only mirror the message that is far too often sent out by many environmental organizations which (in my mind) quickly become a series of ‘doomsday predictions’ amid funding requests. I know that when I receive the regular monthly messages from a variety of groups whose missions I support, that I often am left feeling overwhelmed and hopeless in the midst of the gigantic problems they present.
Because of this, I wanted to provide a different vision – one that certainly highlights the nation’s natural beauty, the diversity of its wildlife – but also one which provides a positive message that strives to empower people, inspiring them to make a difference in their own communities which has a constructive impact improving things from their backyards to the boreal. I know that there are big challenges in the world, but I also think that because of their size it is easy to get overwhelmed by them and often none of us know where to start when we want to fix things. So I wanted to show how a few simple changes, a few steps in nature, and a little bit of time contributing information can lead to a wider appreciation for the outdoors, include more people in exploration, and allow each of us to make a substantive contribution to improving things.
This is my goal in presenting the nation and each day on The Great Trail, because no matter how tough some days might feel, there is more natural wonder out there and more possibilities for getting outdoors and connected to nature than most people realize or have the opportunity to see.
My fear of having to present the trek and the nation only in a positive light was relieved following Hurricane Dorian during the first year of our hike. One evening I was particularly frustrated following a string events during which we lost a week of time on the trail and which ended up being financially expensive for us. Unfairly, in response I wrote a particularly harsh blog post about that day’s trek. The moment it was released I regretted being so upset and wondered what people would think. As the hours passed I found myself getting more and more worried that people would lose interest in the hike because of my comments, or that people would stop following because I had complained. As such, In the middle of the night, seeking to get rid of the evidence of my frustration, I climbed out of the tent, turned on my phone, logged into Blogger and went to erase the entry, only to find that people had already read it and begun to comment. While each message was thankfully kind and supportive it was one lady's response that struck me the most. In reply to my ranting she simply wrote “Oh thank goodness! You’ve finally had a bad day! I was beginning to worry that there was something wrong with you since you never seemed to get mad at anything!” Below hers was another message from a gentleman who wrote “When I was younger I used to hike all the time and so have enjoyed reading about your adventures. We all have bad days and you sharing yours with us reminds me of all the challenges I had along the trails I trekked. When they happen, share them, it makes them easier to manage (and reading about your hike it all more realistic!) Keep your head up and keep going!”
It was in that moment that I realized that while no one wanted to read endless negativity that it was ok to acknowledge the challenges and frustrations of being on the trail. I recognized that it was simply unrealistic to trek 24,000 km over 600-1200 days and never have a bad day. More importantly others recognized this too! It was ok to admit to not feeling 100% or to note the bumps in the road as we ventured on. I think these messages did a lot to help me realize that it was ok if I didn’t sound positive all the time.
In struggling with all this I have come to two realizations. The first was that although it is challenging to present everything in a positive way, it is also a healthy exercise. It pushed me to move beyond my academic instinct to critique and comment and to begin to find and see the beauty in the world. In not allowing myself to rant and vent and in striving to remain upbeat I found that I slowed down and in the process began to see the wonder and kindness in the world around me again. In forcing myself to see the good in our communities, the unsung efforts undertaken by good Samaritans in our nation, and the hard work done by volunteers that goes into maintaining our trails I saw how privileged each of us are to be right here, right now and to enjoy the possibilities available to us. Put another way, by having to ignore the frustrations of the moment I became less distracted by myself and more aware of the good in the world that we far too often either do not see or choose to ignore.
Second, I began to see that omitting the complexities of the nation and glossing over the challenges we encounter did a disservice to those who are learning about the country and who want to understand it. I came to accept that our blog needed to also be an honest portrayal of some of the larger issues we saw and experienced in this country. If we are going to understand things then we have to be willing to look at them.
I still try to inspire people and want to show them what is good and what is possible (and there is a lot). However, I have come to terms with the fact that there are some situations which are not great, that are challenging, and which can only be presented in their unvarnished complexity. As such when I write the blog now, I try to draw a line between seeing the world in a negative light because I have had a bad day and reflecting the country as we find it and as it is. I have come to terms with the fact that I am not hiking and blogging to simply make everyone feel happy about this country. I am trekking to explore and discover Canada, and there is a great deal of wonder and beauty out there, however there are also some very real problems, issues of concern, and matters that most of us (myself included) know very little about. These days in highlighting the history of a region, the troubles areas face, or things we have seen that go beyond making sense of us, I do my best to present them as they are. In writing about things I admit that I’m not an expert, I don’t have answers, and don’t pretend to present solutions to matters I don’t know about. However, I also don’t think that saying this is what I saw, this is what seems to be happening, and it is happening right here in Canada is something to be shied away from. None of us would learn that way.
Not every entry is going to be bliss and happiness, but then again not every day is either. Sometimes to grow we have to be willing to see the ugly and the negative head on and confront the challenges that are in our world.
See you on the trail!