Friday, April 30, 2021

No one ever said it would be easy.....

After a few weeks of challenging commentary, upsetting messages, and a large number of graphic and threatening emails.  Many of which included a lot of misunderstanding about our trek as well as where we have hiked and where we intend to hike in the future.  Most of which seem to have a very poor comprehension of why diversity and accessibility are important and how they impact upon everyone’s ability to connect with nature.  And all of which included a startlingly significant number of grammatical and spelling errors amid their rantings, ravings and demands that we quit our #hike4birds, apologize to all ‘Real Canadians’, and supplicate ourselves to them personally…..

Our answer is this : When it is responsible to do so, we are definitely, definitively, certainly, absolutely heading back out to continue trekking across Canada on The Great Trail. (I hope that is very clear)

As of this moment, we are done with trying to respond to all of the negative commentary, hyper critical blog responses, and nonsense emails that we have steadily received for the past 2 years (and especially in the past 21 days).  We began this trek to inspire people to reconnect to nature by enjoying their local trails and birding possibilities from their own backyards to the boreal and to foster a positive view of our amazing nation and its wild spaces. 

We know that we are not perfect, we are aware that we are not the best hikers, lightest trekkers, or top birders.  I am not a gourmet camping chef, we are not gear masters, professional photographers, life listers or in the best of physical shape (though I am confused why each of these critiques means that we must quit our hike immediately). We are, as always, simply two ordinary Canadians privileged enough to be able to share in an extraordinary adventure.   We are out here striving to connect people to nature and hoping to inspire those that come next and who will be the stewards of our environment and nation in the years to come.  That seemingly small goal is what we chosen and taken to be our essential undertaking in this life.

We are fortunate to have the opportunity to share our experiences, our stories, and photographs with everyone who wants to participate. 

Regardless of the emails we continue to receive we absolutely intend to continue on with our message of youth engagement to the outdoors through birding and citizen science while advocating inclusion, diversity, and accessibility to nature across Canada (simply because the outdoors are the heritage of EVERYONE).      

The digital world has enough frustration and negativity in it for us to try to address it and hope to fix it.  It is time we moved on and went back to our core ideals in sharing our nation – providing everyone who wants to see and experience Canada from the world’s longest trail that opportunity. 

Thank you to everyone who sent the mountains of kind messages of support in this past week and for sticking with us this far!  As always it is you who reminds us that Canadians coast to coast to coast are wonderful, carrying, kindhearted people.  As a national we help our neighbors, build up our communities, and lend a helping hand even to strangers who we do not know.  Our kindness and compassion are the ties that bind us and we must never lose sight of that simple reality.  

We are constantly aware of the fact that we could never have gotten so far across Canada without the generosity and kindness of so many people across the country.   In every way this is not our hike, but a trek which includes those amazing volunteers who have developed and those who maintain the trails of the nation, to those who have followed and supported us en route, to those who help us in each community that we pass through. It is your hike as much as it is ours. 

With that said, while we might be temporarily halted in our advance westward, we still have a long and amazing way to go, and we look forward to sharing every step with you when we get back to the trail.

Thank you!

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Sometimes circumstances decide for you.....

** Warning : Included in this blog entry are some very troubling messages recently sent to us and absolutely DO NOT reflect our views, ideals, or beliefs.  **

 ….and so it is….

Perhaps one of the hardest lessons in life to learn is that in a time when we preach freedom of choice, freedom of decision and that the world holds limitless possibilities for each of us - the reality nonetheless is that sometimes we don’t get to chose.  Sometimes circumstances decide for you, and no matter how much you might have worked for something, how much you have struggled, or how valiantly you strive onward there are no options. 

Even in the 21st century with all of our science, statistics and innovations….sometimes our fate is still in the hands of the gods, the stars are out of alignment, and events that are beyond the control of any single individual determine our course.

Sometimes you can seek to avoid the foreseeable by choosing the route over the other – but such options often only delay the inevitable.  I have frequently found that struggling against the predictable outcome is often a tough and unproductive path. 

There is no making sense of it, no figuring it out, and no logic behind it.  Sometimes, it just is…

To struggle against the tides of such moments and try to keep pushing on would be to ensure ruin.  The only realistic answer then is to chart a course through the storm – no matter how rough the seas or how fierce the winds – and to help one another get through it as best as we can.

This is why after our time in quarantine we decided not to take a single step on The Great Trail until the situation with Covid has been brought under control.   And yet for a few fanatical individuals, even this was not enough as since “merely contemplating going outdoors means that you deserve to be punished and die for that alone”.

Given the strains of thought, types of comments, and graphic details that were being posted with our last blog entry we have temporarily unpublished it – as its sole message, that we did not hike and that we were not presently hiking was missed by so many.

Those who follow our trek have now seen the types of daily emails and threats we have gotten and continue to receive since setting out on this amazing hike across Canada.   Unfortunately the comments left on our previous blog entries pale in comparison to the graphic messages, delusions, and detailed threats we have recently now received by email.  Sadly there is little that can be done to stop such comments as most are anonymous and laws lag far behind the modes of communication found in the digital world.  

Online Commentary and its Influence 

While the loss of this moment and time on the trail is heartbreaking it is, as always, the online commentary that worries me the most.  Not for myself, sadly I have now become used to the name calling, the harassment, the intimation that I should be attacked, the hope that we die on the trail, the references to people ‘hunting us down on the trail’, 'humbling us', and threats against us.  I worry because there are so many young people who are growing up watching this type of discourse and who now must think that these types of attacks and this type of commentary are normal – or worse virtuous.  That such messages that ‘hit and run’ with no thought to anything beyond making the author feel superior for a moment should be thought of as acceptable.  However, the critiques of the online world are not witty, well thought or Socratic – they are spiteful, frustrated and the rantings of the insecure.  Yet this is the tone we have chosen for youth to experience and learn from.  In that we should make no mistake as a society - what we reap we will sow.  

In the past 14 months, the tensions of Covid have revealed the faults in our society and the cracks in our public presumptions about our institutions and ourselves.  During this crisis we have all moved closer to that horrifying moment when we are one paycheck away from eviction, and one meal away from hunger.  If we are fortunate that this is not our personal experience then we certainly are related to or know someone who faces these challenges. That we can be so close to ruin is understandably terrifying for everyone.

Perhaps more challenging than these harsh realities is that we have all been handed the time to reflect on everything from who we are as individuals, to what  do as a society, to who we want to be once this situation passes.   Unfortunately rather than being a time of introspection, a time spent with family and a time of planning we have transformed the potential for reflection into a crisis of self identity…..and so we have begun to attack one another. We no longer wish to discuss the merits of a policy or undertakings of our society in a productive way.  We are terrified and want to reduce everyone around us to that same state that so many are in – one of insecurity, one of fear, and one of person against person.    We feel as though the world has turned against us and, sadly, we want everyone else to feel the same.   These days it seems no commentary online is beyond the pale anymore.

The comments regularly left and messages posted online now go beyond mere nay saying and critique.  Our society’s glee at posting the most vitriolic, sexist, racist, homophobic and backward thinking ideas are no longer merely the comments of self proclaimed experts and armchair warriors.   Instead, we have seemingly entered a realm where we have collectively begun to delight in the failings of others, as a society we seem certain that all that ails us is the fault of others, and because of this we set out to cast about to attack everyone blindly.  We do this regularly online, in front of the world, and for all – including the youth in our communities and across the nation – to watch and see. 

These days, given the hardships of the moment so many seem to have no problem looking around and saying ‘oh that person doesn’t look like me’, or ‘that person doesn’t believe in the same gods I believe in’, or ‘that person doesn’t dress the way I do’, or ‘that person makes different choices than I do’ and we use these simplistic and deeply imperfect observations to leap to the unreasonable conclusion that it is ‘them’ who are at fault for the circumstances of the moment.  ‘They’ are the ones to blame and they are the ones who should be punished.   The people who write these types of postings have no interest in resolving the challenges of our society or helping others, they merely want to blame so that they can distract from their own situation feel better about themselves – if only for a moment.  Despite all of our advances and achievements we are still all too willing to build the pyres in the town square and pile all of our misgivings and uncertainties onto others whom we can blame.  For no other reason than because we cannot understand the moment and we cannot comprehend how all that we worked so hard for has seemingly been lost.  So we criticize others, we blame others, and we mock others because we are scared. 

It seems that closer we get to absolute crisis as individuals and as a society the more polarized, radicalized and the more terrified we all seem to become.  Our rhetoric gets more volatile, our comments get more self righteous and so many become more judgmental.  Yet none of this addresses the actual problems at hand, it only reflects our own personal fears, speeds up the current social crisis and distracts from what is essential.    

While it might be vogue, exciting, and temporarily empowering to spend our days online searching out the faults of others, mocking the failings of those we don’t know, and drafting snarky commentary to every news announcement and blog posting.  The fact is that it does nothing to reassure any of us that we can get through this terrible moment intact and together.  In fact, I think it does the opposite.   After all, once the comments and judgment against others begin we inherently know that someone will do the same to us eventually  – and that we too will eventually be cornered and ridiculed.  And so we attack more and more and more, in the hope that we are the last one standing.  In this process we conflate rumor with knowledge, critique with wisdom, presumption and assumptions with moral authority, and group hysteria with rightful judgment.  We attack with everything, and as a result our society is left filled with only more hate and more rage making it a lonelier and scarier place to be – especially for our youth, those who dream, and those who strive to progress forward. 

At the moment, as a society, we are temporarily lost, because we have forgotten to stay connected to our communities and the world around us.  The world (not just because of Covid) has for many been slowly reduced to TV screens, computer screens, phone screens, and windows.  Because of this we have forgotten that we each need to stay connected in a meaningful way such that we know things for ourselves, we assess for ourselves, we explore for ourselves, and that we are each willing and able to empathize and view the world from the perspective of someone else before passing judgment.    Covid has exacerbated the belief that with the internet all is known so there is no need for discover and explore for ourselves.   We have forgotten that life is about how you connect and not about how many likes, responses, and reposts you get.  In the process we have forgotten all that we have in common.  We have forgotten that the things that unite us and make us a diverse and amazing nation far outnumber the things that divide us.  We are allowing rumour to direct us, our fears to rule us and in so doing we are deepening the crisis we all find ourselves in.   

Life and our goals in it have no guarantees, but endless vitriol adds nothing to the situation nor does it lighten the load of others in our communities.

It is in the trying and striving that we thrive

The venture which I have sold my house, donated my possessions, and set aside my career for has been abruptly, unexpectedly, and temporarily brought to a halt owning to the shifting regulations in our fight against Covid19.  

Striving to lead by example as an advocate that everyone needs to recreate responsibly I announced that for the foreseeable future we were suspending our expedition the Great Trail. While the vast number of followers voiced and messaged their immediate support for this decision (and for us) there was also no denying that many people took great delight in what they proclaimed to be an ‘epic failure’.  Nasty postings on our blog, graphic emails, and hasty demands were also immediately sent by individuals excited at the supposed ‘downfall of a liberal environmentalist’, a ‘hippy girl’, and ‘losers’.  

Others have made it clear that we have ‘no right to feel sad’ because we ‘deserved what we got’ because we ‘made the choice’.  We were informed that because we made the choice to trek that we ‘are a making a mockery of Real Canadians’, that we ‘owe real people who are actually struggling an apology’, that 'we need to get back to paying property taxes and supporting businesses not hiking and dreaming', and that we are to ‘walk door to door on our hands and knees begging and apologizing to Real Canadians everywhere for making the country look so bad with our comments,  your libtard complaints and horrible pictures.”  

One individual, who has emailed his hate almost 50 times now, has bluntly informed us that ‘this trek was UR dream, and it is a selfish dream that is a horrible influence on kids in this country and U have no right forcing it on others!!!!  Stop your hike and stop UR stupid posts!  It is UR dream and not anyone elses!!! So shut up & QUIT!’.  He has also disturbingly continually messaged that “it is people like you who stop Real Canadians from Making Canada Great Again.”  

In short, there have been a lot of disheartening and disillusioning comments.

Thankfully, one gracious and smart friend emailed reassuring us that we should not take these types of comments to heart because ‘Covid is making people go crazy’.  Their words of wisdom were a wonderful balm to receive and I do hope that things get better as the pandemic passes. 

Beyond everything however, one message above all else stunned me. That being an email telling us that one person had waited for us for two years to fail “so they could show their kids and other people why dreaming and trying was stupid and a waste of time”. 

In the midst of a cascade of emails and messages mocking and defaming us, it was the shear pathetic  bliss that anyone would not only wait for the misstep of another individual but do so simply so that they could tell their children to never try and to never dream that horrified me the most.  Who would ever seek to cripple their own kin by stifling any hopes or dreams that they may have before they can strive and try for themselves?

While I do not respond to such messages on principle I truly hope that one day the children of this lost person and others who have been told to never try find this blog – because trying does matterIn fact trying matters a great deal.

Trying means you are attempting something new, which is essential because we all learn from the experience.  Even failure advances us.   In striving and challenging ourselves we learn about ourselves and the world because of this we thrive as individuals and prosper as a society.  Dreaming of new adventures, taking new pathways, and trying for ourselves are perhaps some of the most essential parts of us as individuals and as a people. 

No matter how dark the present may seem never doubt that trying is essential, striving forward is essential and exploring is essential. 

If we critique every dreamer and crush everyone who tries….how do we learn anything?  How do we move forward? 

Exploration and Common Ground

I have hesitated to even acknowledge the hateful and violent messages that we have received but I worry what my own silence says to those who are young, daring, and who come next to the world of exploration. 

We have now been repeatedly told from countless fronts to quit our hike.  There are demands to erase our blog, delete all of our pictures, and to “tour the country apologizing to every Real Canadian, every homeless person, and every person who REALLY struggles in life for our flight of fancy which is only a mockery of the challenges Real & Great Canadians face. Only then, when people like you two are on your knees in front of Real Canadians apologizing for all your stupidity and fairy tales will Real Canadians be able to Make Canada Great Again.”  These types of inane rantings and all that they infer that worry me because, on so many levels the views they reflect are a dark cloud on the horizon of our world.

Yet I still believe we need to struggle forward, still believe that we need to hold onto our common ground, and still believe that time in nature is essential for everyone in order to remain grounded, knowledgeable and empathetic.  And because - regardless of what is said to us - I still intend to continue on when it is possible and responsible to do so. 

Right now it is very hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  A year that was set to be a crowning accomplishment in this trek has disintegrated without ever hiking and without ever taking a single step.    Yet, even now, after dozens of messages of hate and emails wishing violence upon us, I nonetheless think there is hope and a way forward.

Trying something new and not reaching the conclusions that you had hoped does not make you an ‘epic failure’ – it makes you a dreamer, an inspiring individual and an epic explorer.  Failure is a learning experience (even if it hurts in the moment).  If we shift to the point where we are only willing to do what is a guaranteed success then we are truly lost as a species.  Risk, change, attempts, and failure are all necessary to advancement and innovation as well as – I believe – essential to our own identities as a peoples. 

We used to champion those individuals who were willing to gamble everything on one pitch of the dice, who sought to do what others proclaimed impossible, and who set out to new frontiers but now we await their missteps and delight in their failings. 

It is undoubtedly harder to be a dreamer, explorer, and someone who goes against the stream in this day and age.  Yet we nonetheless need to keep on the paths that our hopes and ideals take us.  If only because, to find our way out of the darkest times we need to push forward, follow our dreams and make plans for what comes next regardless of what the critics say.

As always I am more concerned for those who come next, those who hope to try something new, and whose who have made great and improbable plans to explore our nation and the world.  I worry that they will see the challenges we have faced, note the setbacks, witness the critiques, and are terrified at the types of things people are willing to 'say' to us.  I worry that because of these things the next generation will come to the conclusion that what they want to do is not possible and that it is too hard – and that because of this will not try.   

Because of this I want to send out this message :  Yes there are obstacles to be overcome.  Yes there are always going to be those who will attack and defame one if you strive to do something different.  Despite it all however you can (and need to) keep going.  The world might fight and scream and push back, and it might seem impossible to go on.  But there are also a lot of amazing people and groups out there ready to help you forward when things are at their darkest.  When everything seems to collapse, when the whole world seems to turn on you, and when everyone screams stop – trust that you are not alone and can find a way forward.

Patience, time, and hope can overcome more than we give them credit for.  As we are often wonderfully reminded “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” and while “progress isn’t always a straight line or a smooth path” and that the road maybe hard and journey maybe long, we must nonetheless move forward – together.

While it is true that I have temporarily suspended this expedition given the circumstances of the moment and out of public necessity – but I’m still standing and I am going back onto the trail to explore this amazing nation.  Follow your dreams and push forward.  There is so much in this world that is amazing, beautiful and worthy of exploration.    

Friday, April 16, 2021

A Dream Deferred .....

** This Blog Post has been edited from its original publication in order to emphasize the single fact that we are NOT hiking during the 2021 Covid Pandemic Outbreak in Ontario and Canada.  This is the very point of this entry to note that we do not feel it is repsonsible for us to trek during this time.  In 2021 we have remained either isolated or in quarantine and have NOT gone on The Great Trail.  **

When we set out in 2019 our plan was to present a positive view of the nation, the outdoors, trails and Canada’s wild spaces. The past year has been tough and the critiques have gotten tougher and more draining.  In large part because of the commentary we have spent a great deal of the recent winter months trying to respond while still encouraging and remaining positive.  While you have all been patient with our new topics and supportive in your messages, I also know that the voice we presented was far less than positive. Despite our best efforts, I suspect that we had begun to lose our way…. 

We set out with the hope of returning to the Great Trail several weeks ago to go into quarantine.  We did so before the Covid numbers began to rise again.  At the time and to the location we set out to there were no interprovincial restrictions in place, no requirements to quarantine, stores and shops across the country were again open and in our goal province there waas only a curfew to strictly obey.  At the time every provincial government was encouraging people to get outdoors and stay active responsibly - which was our goal as well.  In other words when we set back out we violated no laws, obeyed all regulations and went beyond the expectations by quarantining.  

During this period, while we were in quarantine, the number of Covid infections again began to rise staring what is termed the ‘third wave’.  While in quarantine we watched as lockdowns began again and we hoped that things would improve as fewer people interacted.  Unfortunately, according to authorities they haven’t.  Though it is a hard thing to guess given that so much of the world around us both in Ontario and in Quebec is busily moving along and going about life as usual.   On the streets and trails life seems normal.   Construction is going on everywhere.  Grocery stores are packed with customers.  Parks are full of picnickers, pathways are filled with cyclists and walkers, while golf courses are lined up at each tee. It is only when you get near to a WIFI signal, see a TV or hear a news report that fear, crisis, and doom are reintroduced. 

In the past few months one of the hardest things that we have had to deal with has been the rise of ‘group thinking’ in the online world.  When we have not responded quick enough to a comment or world event we have been “listed” and “put on notice” by people to do as they do and say as they say.  When our posts on birds have not taken the form that some wish they have ensured that we are pushed out of birding groups and were no longer able to share about our trek.  And when our gear lists and food considerations were released we were met with criticism for being horrible hikers and bad influences on those new to the outdoors.  Apparently rather than being honest we were supposed to have acted like life coaches promoting the ideal rather than the real.  I however have always favored honesty.

Given the current circumstances of the pandemic certainly some public concern is understandable – we all need to respect social distancing, wear masks, and be extra safe.  However, the fact also is that much of the group thinking online has begun to transform into hysteria, rumor mongering, and little more than bullying.   All  of which is increasingly easy to fall into the trap of while sitting at home for 14 months with little more than our screens to entertain and inform us.  Given this situation it also seems that so many of us are losing touch with what the world is actually like.  Plans are made in accord with the demands of those on social media, ideas are critiqued and noted as true or false based on group thinking, moral proclamations are made in fits of mass hysteria, while neighbors call the authorities on one another over some imagined slight.  Even for things as simple as what we eat when we are on the trail have led to intense email discussions and demanding critiques recently.

These days it is increasingly hard to know what to do and how to do it because so much so much is presumed without fact and so much is judged on opinion.  

When we set out more than 2 weeks ago to enter quaratine, we did so because it was safe and responsible at the time, and because we wanted to see what the world was like for ourselves without the filter of the online world.  When we set out this year we did NOT break any laws, we did NOT violate interprovincial restrictions, we did NOT break quarantine, and we did NOT violate curfew.  Yet even this was not enough it seems, and so the online world, texts of critique, messages of hate, and emails set on derailing things began again in the extreme.  All of which makes it very hard to enjoy the moment and to present the trail and the country in a positive light. 

Tonight after two weeks of quaratine spent striving to navigate the challenges set in front of us and the self doubts woven into us the Ontario Provincial government made the decision for us.  As of April 19th the Ontario-Quebec as well as the Ontario-Manitoba boarders are being sealed and a mandated extension of the lockdown has been authorized.  In Quebec we have been told a further lockdown measures are set to also be imposed.   In other words, as of this announcement tonight, we have no choice but to return to our province of origin.   Our hopes for this year are done. 

To be very clear, in 2021 we have not walked a single step on The Great Trail during the Covid Pandemic. 

In moving forward this trek cannot just be about getting kilometers in and finishing provinces, it has to be about doing so responsibly as well as  enjoying the experience in order to share it in a positive light in order to make the nation appear as it is – naturally beautiful and a wonderful place to be.  At the moment we don't feel that either of these goals are possible.

One phrase has played out in my mind in the past few hours of coming to terms with everything – sometimes the writing is on the wall.  I have come to see that as much as I want to continue hiking and as much as we are running out of time to complete our trek, the reality is that sometimes what we want is just not possible. 

Sadly I cannot say I am surprised at this turn of events given that almost everything since leaving quarantine has indicated that our time on the trail this spring was simply not meant to be.

While sequestered away we had to address concerns raised by a Facebook user who erroneously believed that we were set to violate the Atlantic Bubble by starting the Great Trail this year in St. John’s.  The result was a tense conversation with the RCMP in Newfoundland.  Another follower called the OPP misinforming them that we were moving between regions during the Stay at Home order in Ontario.  While today, a hiker in another province has emailed threatening to call the police in both Quebec and Manitoba (our two possible goals) to ‘make sure we are arrested and imprisoned unless we stop our hike on the Great Trail’.  For what I am not sure, since we have not done anything illegal and we have yet to even try to hike.   But these are the responses and realities we now regularly deal with. 

We have also had challenges in simply figureing out where to start.  While in our quarantine in Quebec, our plans where to return to our point of departure in 2019.  However we soon encountered difficulty after difficulty in gaining permission to be allowed to navigate through the Charlevoix region.  It became clear that once we left quarantine, that rather than starting our hike where we had hoped that we would instead we stumbl right out of the block and would be forced to resume trekking out of Quebec City instead - once we left quarantine. 

Finally, the results of the non-stop issues and online attacks have taken their toll on both of us, but especially Sean.  He has already had a hard year physically and has not taken the stress of the situation or the emails well.  The fact is that while much of our time in nature is meant to be restorative for him but the responses to our adventures since 2019 are not.  As a result, the effects of the nonstop critiques have begun to show in the extreme on him.

As I said, sometimes the writing is on the wall.

Given the situation and in accord with Government of Ontario’s impending regulations we are accepting that it is no longer possible and no longer responsible for us to even attempt trekking out on the Great Trail at the moment.    We are therefore going directly from quaratine back to our home province having never set foot on the Great Trail in 2021.     

As such, we are going to take some time, refocus, and figure out what to do next.  

Thank you to everyone for your support and kindness over the past 3 years, we are sorry that we are not not be able to continue on at the moment but hope that with any luck we will be able to venture forward as soon as it is responsible to do so.

Where we go now...I have no idea. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Only if it is a “once in a lifetime experience”…..

Before setting out onto the Great Trail in 2019 we applied for sponsorship to every outdoors company and outfitter in Canada and we were promptly refused from everyone.  Some were kind and courteous, others thought the undertaking was absurd (who would hike for science and birds?!?), while a few commented that “there was little point in hiking across Canada because it had already been done.”  Their focus in supporting ventures was “to get that once in a lifetime outdoors moment, that was unique and that no one had yet to experience”.  Two responses bluntly stated that “If it has already been done by someone no one will be interested in it.”  “To be noteworthy it has to be rare and a unique experience.  If others have already hiked it then your venture is not unique. ”  

Unsurprisingly, we disagreed with these assessments that anything already undertaken is not worth revisiting or experiencing for ourselves.  Our view is that that every moment in nature is unique and that it is personal and worthwhile to each individual.  Just because someone else has seen an American Robin or visited the same tree does not make the experience any lesser for anyone else.  

Unfortunately, this sense of things has begun to pervade the world.  People are more likely to visit a place if it appears on a ‘must do’ or ‘top 10 list’ rather than exploring a region.   Travelers often stick to the proscribed itinerary, set out in accord with guide books,  and visit the ‘essential selfie spots’ for the ‘must see views’ rather than wandering and discovering for themselves.  Similarly, many birders ignore the supposed ‘common species’ in favor of rare sightings to build up life lists.  Publicly, exploration these days seems to more often take the form of a Google Search rather than an aimless amble in the forest.  

Now don’t get me wrong, it is an easy mindset to get into. Despite protestations of our individuality, we all seem geared towards doing what others do, collecting the same experiences, seeing the same things, and eating the same foods, all the while being driven by a ‘fear of missing out’.  Consciously or not, we all do it.   Just as many of us take and post pictures that get more likes, garner more comments, and get more reactions.  We are especially guilty of this when choosing which pictures get posted and which do not.   

I had never realized how influenced I was by this type of social thinking until trekking on the Camino Frances across Spain.  On this pilgrimage most people dutifully follow their Brierley guidebook, set their schedules by its itinerary, stop at the most recommended albergues, eat at the suggested caf├ęs, and stay strictly to the route that is marked with yellow arrows and shells.  Residences that are further down the list in the guidebook, are off the trail a bit, or restaurants that are a block or two away are often far emptier.  People were stunned when we wandered through towns at night (well off the Camino route) to explore and photograph.  Questions by other pilgrims followed us across the country : How do you know where you are going?  What are you looking for specifically?  What happens if you get lost?  What is over there to see?  What happens if you get over there and there is nothing to see?  Why would you go that way, nothing in the guide book mentions anything of interest that way. 

One night on the Camino we had dinner with a wonderful couple from New Mexico.  As the evening moved on the conversation wove and dodged from topic to topic, but at one point the wife of the duo turned the subject towards her field – art.  She was particularly bothered by what she had seen happening in the museums and galleries of Europe that she had visited before setting out en route to Santiago.  According to her, in each institution there were predictably hundreds of people lined up to see some of the world’s rarest and greatest works.  However ,she was soon stunned to discover - most were not there to actually look at them.  Instead, after hours of waiting, people would get to paintings such as the Mona Lisa only to quickly pull out their cell phones, turn their backs on the iconic work, and take a selfie.  She was horrified to realize that most people were venturing across the world to visit the likes of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, or to see the ancient sites of Rome, yet never took the opportunity to look at the displays, relics, or art.  What they wanted was a selfie with that ‘bucket list’ item, or a ‘rare work’, or those things that ‘were once in a life time to see’.  No one was looking, they were just mechanically collecting. 

She had begun to notice the same thing on the Camino. Where guidebooks listed a particular place or church as iconic or unique everyone would take pictures.  Where there were designated photo spots along the pilgrimage route – in areas that wooden frames had been set up and where individuals were encouraged to take pictures, people would be lined up to get the ‘must see vista’.

In contrast, there was us.  She was intrigued by us because she often saw one of us in the middle of a field taking pictures of interesting landscapes, or in town at night photographing beautiful buildings or city streets. She was interested not because someone carrying a heavy camera and binoculars was unusual (though it was), but because of the people who she saw watching us.  As she observed, most people who noticed one of us would either quickly take a picture in the same direction without knowing why, or have very confused looks on their faces, while many also began quickly consulting their guide books to figure out what they were missing out on.     

Recently while hiking a part of the Great Trail in Southwestern Ontario we were reminded of this mindset.  We were visiting a local park and soon found ourselves being watched by a small downy Great Horned Owl.  As we watched him and photographed him we began to attract a number of people asking what we saw.  At one point a young boy of around 10 or 12 years old, accompanied by a gaggle of his friends rode up on their bikes and inquired “is it rare? Because if it’s a rare, or a once in a lifetime thing, then I’ll look.  But if not, then I guess it’s not important and I’ll see it again another day.” 

Of course, as we all do when we are younger, we each believe that there is always more time and another opportunity to come back and see things again.  Yet I increasingly have a sense that many people now go through life assuming that common things will be seen and enjoyed in the regular course of events and that only the ‘ultra rares’ and ‘once in a life time moments’ are worth our dedicated attention.   How different are those people who collect Pokemon, from those who take selfies, from those who build life lists?  

This way of approaching the world leaves me with so many questions.  What makes something ‘a rare’, ‘unique moment’, ‘and something that we should not miss out on’?  Who decides these things?   How do these attitudes affect those who are just beginning to explore the world?  Would a woodpecker be made more magnificent or noteworthy if it was any more colorful? Would a warbler be more important if it had a sweeter song?  Or would our avian friends be more important if so many of them were not simply ‘Little Brown Birds’?    Doesn’t reducing things to subjective notions of ‘common’, ‘rare’ and ‘must do’ ignore the uniqueness of each moment?  Doesn’t it ignore the intrinsic beauty in each species?  And doesn’t it risk each of us missing out on our own chance to have a personal once in a life time experience?

This sense of the world and the approach to the outdoors that is promoted by guide books and emphasized by Google results has, I think, begun to become a barrier to experience, inquiry, and exploration.   If a trail or a forest isn’t included as a top recommended spot then it likely goes unnoticed.   If a region isn’t listed as a hot birding site it’s often rejected by many as a waste of time to visit.   The Google prioritization of the world also impacts upon how we conceive of nature, and time in nature as well.  So many people that we have talked with think of nature as only being found in places of ‘pristine wilderness’ such as Fundy, Algonquin, Whiteshell, or Jasper, or in exotic locations.  Yet nature can in fact be found (and explored) everywhere from our own backyards and community parks to urban trails in the most unexpected of places.  The reality is that if we let ourselves believe that nature can only be found in remote locations and ‘must see’ spaces, or believe that we have to be a certain person or look a certain way to participate in the outdoors, then we miss out on all of the possibilities regularly available to all of us, right here, right now.    

Regardless of where you are, how detailed the Wikipedia entry might seem, how many online reviews there are, or how well everyone might think that a region, site or species is known, there is still a lot more of the world to be explored and discovered.  So much of nature is just waiting for your curiosity and your questions.

In my opinion, regions are more than their top 10 hotspots, more than their best cuisines, and more than their iconic sites.  They are better understood in their own daily rhythms, sounds, and the unique feel of each area in the moment they are experienced.  The heavy smell of fresh bread coming out of a bakery in the morning.  The bliss of sitting in the shade of a tree on the hottest of summer days.  The feel of the ocean’s spray on your face as you sit on the coastline.   The sound of a paddle as it breaks the water as you move across a lake.  The call of a loon in the morning outside of your tent.  The smell of your clothes the day after sitting around a campfire.  The feel of sand between your toes on a beach.  The pleasant conversations had with strangers as you visit a new town.  All of these things (and so much more) are at the heart of exploration and experiences.  Each are unique to the moment and to you when you are in the middle of them.   The world is full of so much more than the ‘must see lists’ online and ‘top 10 things to do’ recommendations of Facebook groups.   

So many people these days seem caught between having a ‘fear of missing out’ and only wanting to have those ‘once in a lifetime moments’.  In the process of waiting to only see the world at the perfect moment and at the designated place the reality is that we are missing out on so many essential and unique moments.   

This year, as things get back to normal, we encourage everyone to take some time to step off the main trail every once in a while, to see the world through your own eyes, and to explore nature in your own way…and at long last actually have that once in a life time experience that is unique to you. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Returning to The Great Trail....some thoughts

And so we are back!  Time flies so quickly…especially when you are stuck indoors.

While I know I am fortunate to be able to work full time while not trekking, sitting at a desk writing and doing math for hours on end hurts my body (and crushes my spirit) in ways that only time in nature and hiking restores!

My back and my neck in particular ache after weeks and now months of sitting at the kitchen table or at a desk spending far too long sedentary hunched over a computer.  One of the realities of us as people is that we are tied to the natural world because we are physical creatures.   As such we are not built to spend long periods of time sedentary, sitting, and naval gazing without connecting with nature.  The endless time spent at desks and in offices (at home or away)behind windows and closed doors aren’t natural to me.  I am not sure they come naturally to most people.

Don’t get me wrong I know I am very fortunate, especially given the pandemic and my choices in life, to be able to continue working which enables us to keep funding our trek.  I am fortunate to be able to have an desk job that doesn’t risk my life or crush my body.  I am lucky to be able to venture through life letting my mind and my body inform one another at different times each year.  But all and all I would rather live in the moment.  I prefer to have my labour, as it does when I am hiking and camping, keep me aware of my surroundings and keep me focused on the immediate.  

Thinking, reflecting, are writing are wonderful, but I doubt that the world would be lesser if I (like others) was not regularly putting my opinions and experiences out into social media.  

I was asked a wonderful set of questions this past week – do you think that you are ruining other people’s drive to get outdoors and experience nature by putting so much out onto social media?  Do you think that people now won’t have the motivation to go outdoors because you are feeding it all to them?  Do you think your blog and pictures are taking people out of the moment because now they spend more time thinking about your trek and your adventures and daydreaming rather than being in the here and now outside?

All good questions - and to be honest I have struggled with finding an answer.  We are often reminded of the irony of posting on social media while advocating that people get outdoors.  However,  I can only hope that something good comes from this venture and  that through it people become inspired to explore and discover the world around them.  I hope that because of our positive experiences people seek to spend more time in the outdoors, and that our #hike4birds fosters mindfulness in families, homes, schools and communities across the nation.   Perhaps because of this trek some will go to a new park or trail that they didn’t previously know about.  Perhaps because of our posts some will notice and hear local birds again and take the time to hang up a feeder.  Perhaps because of this undertaking people will again see that the world and Canadians are inherently kind and supportive.  But honestly I don’t know what influence this entire endeavor has or will have…..  

I keep going, and keep writing, posting, and encouraging because for all of the faults of social media and electronic communication it nonetheless offers us a chance to connect. As a tool, the online world helps connect the individual to society reminding each of us that we are not alone – an important thing to remember after a year of isolation.  It connects the self to the wider world reminding us of our shared humanity, experiences, and responsibility to one another.  Through pictures it can help connect the individual to the natural world.  And of course social media connects us to others so that we can share with one another our differing perspectives on issues and matters that are important to all of us. After all it is only by staying connected and through communication that we hold onto our common ground.

That is the hope, but there are so many unknowns, ifs, perhaps and uncertainties…..

And so we continue to post and to share. 

I know that while I worked regularly in an office, at a desk, and in front of a screen everyday for a decade that I felt as though I had no purpose.  I was a nameless cog in a wider machine who undertook useful research and tasks, but who was ultimately a replaceable cog nonetheless.

When I set out back into nature I wanted to find meaning for myself, to live purposefully again and to do something with and for others.  My hope was to inspire a re-connection to nature in the nation’s youth and to inspire people to discovery and explore Canada once again.  

I have always felt that despite the odds – changes has always come from the actions of a few dedicated individuals, and that small actions can indeed make a difference.  So I continue to try to make a small difference in my own small way.   

Setting off each year is always a challenge - perhaps the only thing tougher than getting going is getting going a second and then a third time.  We are all creatures of habit and despite looking forward to hiking again, our habit for the last few months has been leisure and comfort.  (It is easy to love laundry and showers).  Indeed after all the time sitting, working and revising our photos we have both regained all the lost weight (plus some more) from the past year’s trek. As a result we both now look more like Winnie the Pooh than the sleek trekkers that most might imagine.  However, time in the outdoors will fix that too!

To knowingly once again embark for what could be six, or eight or ten months onto the trails of Canada amid rain, snow, sleet, dust storms and extreme heat while living in the same tent every day can seem at times like a daunting prospect.  And while we are assuredly more experienced with each passing year, the fact is that each region in Canada is so different that our past time on the trail seems to give us little advantage or insight into what is coming next.  We have to take it day by day.   The unknown is both scary and exciting with the uncertainties being offset by the possibilities!  

And so, as we begin to enter our old routines again, so too do the old challenges emerge.  Each year begins as a race against and preparing for our usual dance with the seasons. Leave too early and you get caught in the slush, snow and wet of early spring.  Leave too late and much of the year will be caught amid the blasting heat of the summer.  The usual doubts and questions begin to plague us. Can we still do this?  Will we stay healthy enough to get through the year?  What type of people will we meet?   Will we still see birds and wildlife?  Are we going to be able to take good enough pictures?  Can we still capture the landscapes and Canadian Experience? Is anyone actually following along? Are we changing anything, inspiring anyone, or just adding to the noise online?

As usual the answer to these questions is the same – we’ll see…

For now all we can do is continue on, one step at a time.