Tuesday, April 6, 2021

10 Unexpected Challenges on the Great Trial…er…Trail….

When you are hiking 24,000 km you are bound to have a few interesting experiences, unusual encounters, and unexpected challenges.  If we didn’t I would be profoundly disappointed.  

While we have visited many of the provinces we've hiked through before on camping trips, road trips, and while traveling across the nation on the beautiful VIA Rail, each of these regions are very different to walk through.  I am sure it sounds naïve, but traversing the country on foot is a very different experience, because you spend the majority of your time in the spaces between the places.   You are in the frame, must deal with the elements, and take each day as it comes – for the good and bad. 

Aside from the vast distances involved, people often wonder, what are some of the most unexpected challenges that we have faced on the Great Trail trekking from Cape Spear, Newfoundland to Winnipeg, Manitoba?

Upon reflection, I have to say that we have been very fortunate.  We have had no bad wildlife encounters.  We have not been overwhelmed by those areas and periods in which the skies are filled with mosquitoes and black flies, or where the grasses are filled with ticks (in Canada both are par for the course).  And we have not yet had (knock on wood) any major physical injuries.  

The reality is that we have been as fortunate on the trail, and we are privileged to trek across this amazing nation. However, here are a few of the unexpected challenges we've encountered so far: 

(1)    Google Maps doesn’t know everything and sometimes apps lie (and die).  While this might seem obvious and self evident, the fact is that the vast majority of us nonetheless rely on random apps to interact with the world, and we trust in Google Maps to navigate.  Yet, as we discovered exactly 75 km into our venture on The Great Trail, the locations of grocery stores, motels, and restaurants are not always accurate, and are often out of date.  Indeed, in a number of locations in Atlantic Canada many businesses were between 5 and 15 km away from their noted location. Adding to our technological frustrations was the instability of the Great Trail’s own app.  Without any up to date, comprehensive written guidebooks and given that many sections of the pathway are scantily signed, the Great Trail app is what we often rely on while trekking 24,000 km across the nation.  Yet the fact is that the Great Trail app doesn’t always work, isn’t always accurate, doesn’t always indicate what trails are open, accessible, or closed, and at the best of times it provides only limited information.  As another hiker wrote to us in 2018, “don’t trust too much in it, I have discovered that dreams are made on the Great Trail app and die there too”.  

(2)    The ‘reliability’ of weather predictions and the speed at which the conditions on the ground can change.  Just as with other online tools, we often seek to plan our days around the weather forecast.  Yet, it often seems as though the meteorologist of the 21st century is only slightly more accurate than my uncle’s trick knee for predicting the weather.  Once you are out there in the landscape traversing without possibly of refuge, you can either try to avoid bad weather (and lament when that storm never arrives), or you can deal with it as it comes.  Now to be clear, having to deal with unpleasant weather wasn’t unexpected.  Instead, the true challenge comes in dealing with how quickly conditions can change – especially on the Atlantic coast and in the Prairies.   On a number of occasions, within minutes clear blue skies rapidly devolved into nightmarish fronts, just as storms on the distance horizon arrived far sooner than we could have thought possible.  After a lifetime behind windows and in cars, we have very much forgotten the pace at which weather can change, and what effect it has upon one’s regular routine.   Once you are on the trail, you become more intimately connected to the daily weather since it affects so much of your trek.

(3)    People give great advice but refer to the world and distances in terms of driving NOT walking. We had our first of many encounters with incredibly kind and helpful people while hiking along Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail.  In one town in particular our trail guide and online maps suggested that there was a restaurant and variety store – yet we could only find the latter.  When we went into the shop to ask about the restaurant we were told that we had just gone past it, since it was “just a couple minutes away over the ridge”.  Thankful for the information, we stepped out and backtracked for 45 minutes down the road, and yet we still couldn’t find the restaurant.  We walked back and entered the variety store to ask again.  The advice given was the same.  When we noted that we had now walked this stretch twice, we were called “blind mainlanders” and left to our own devices.  Both employees insisted that the restaurant was just “over the ridge” which was something “they should know because they lived there”.  Frustrated, we decided it was time to accept that we could not find it and moved on.

      Fifteen days later, when taking a taxi from the end of the ECT back to St. John’s, we again passed through this town.  More than 5 minutes after seeing the variety store, travelling at 140 km / hour, we passed the restaurant.  It was distinctly not just over the ridge.  However, this conversation has played out, almost weekly, as we have crossed the country.  For most people distance and time are understood in relation to driving, and rarely reflect the actual distances travelled or obstacles along the route.  As such, the vast majority of information we are given is that everything is “just over the ridge”, “around the bend”, “a few minutes away” or only about “a kilometer away”.  Once again, people are wonderful and very generous with their advice; our problem is just that most of it is wisdom built through motorized transport.

(4)    Drinkable Water. When trekking across Europe the first thing you notice as a hiker is that almost every community has a fountain that people get water from.  The old men use them to water their plants.  The old ladies use them to launder the family clothes, and youth play in them.  Water is central to these communities, a fact understood millennia ago which resonates to the present. Given this, one would assume that in the 21st century the importance of having access to drinkable water would be a given in Canada – yet so many of our communities are in fact defined by the lack of safe water.  This is of course very challenging for hikers amid the heat, humidity, and drought of our summer days, when temperatures regularly hit 40-50 degrees Celsius.   When we arrived in PEI we were warned by a tourism official that we should not drink or attempt to purify ground water or water from lakes and ponds.  We were informed that for locals PEI was known as “poison island” and that most rural communities were very cautious with ground water, or bought bottled water.  We have received similar warnings in Manitoba about agricultural runoff and pesticides.  Similarly, we have now trekked through two aboriginal communities who did not have any running potable water, and whose trucks were full of containers ready to be refilled at the local store. For us, one of the most stunning realities of trekking across Canada and trying to locate clean water to drink was discovering how many communities have been buying bottled water for years.


(5)    People’s reactions.  When we set out we assumed the larger cities would provide us with stretches of easy hiking.  We have both been raised in larger cities, and thought of them as offering a chance to resupply, relax, have access to amenities, and be in a familiar setting.  Before stepping onto the Great Trail it was the smaller communities that were unknown to us, and that we were uncertain of.  We presumed that in rural communities we would be strangers who would be unwelcome.  We worried about backcountry encounters with angry woodsmen and drunken hunters.  However, while we have had a number of challenges with ATV drivers, the reality is that we have been far more welcomed in smaller communities than in Canada’s larger cities.


      We very quickly discovered that after a week or two of trekking, two hikers are not really a welcome sight in cities.  People make assumptions about you, police harass and search you, and hotels don’t like the look of you.  In some of this nation’s larger cities we have had our hotel reservations cancelled when we walk up, we have been refused service in restaurants, and been spit on by people walking by.  By comparison, every time we have walked into a small town, we have been warmly welcomed and received tons of help as well as advice from every quarter.  When we trek into such communities, we are usually welcome to sit down in a diner where people will chat and joke with us.  The fact that we are dirty is taken as par for the course.  The fact that we love being in their region is welcomed, and our willingness to listen and learn is appreciated.  After two years of hiking it is now the larger cities that unnerve us, knowing that several days of loud urban trekking and suspicious looks are in our future.   Give us the curiosity of a small town any day over the confrontations that have met us in the nation’s larger urban areas.  Along these lines, we have also found that in small towns lodgings are more practical, while in larger cities it seems that the more you pay for a motel or hotel the fewer services you actually get.  A truck stop motel in rural New Brunswick or Manitoba tends to include a restaurant and laundry rather than a posh bar and exclusive dry cleaning services – as a result they have my vote over a room in a big city any day. 

(6)    An actual Zero day.  We are often critiqued for stopping about 1 out of every 10 days of the Great Trail at a motel (if possible) to clean up, refresh and recharge our devices (and ourselves).  Often there is the presumption that we are luxuriating, and images of us laying in huge down blankets doing nothing are quickly conjured.  The reality is far different. 

      The fact is that to take the images we take, and to upload a regular blog, we need to recharge our battery packs and have a strong WIFI connection at regular intervals.  This also means that when we do step off the trail and into a room, we spend the vast majority of our time working.  In addition, our nights in motels often come at the end of a 25-35 km day of hiking.  We get into a room (often not as luxurious as one might think) around 6 or 7 pm, get into showers (take 5 minutes to enjoy warm water), and then one of us takes them to the nearest laundry while the other begins editing pictures and videos.  While all of this is going on, one person is writing.  Often during this period we are also washing our other gear, and hopefully about 2 hours later (around 9 pm) when all of this is done, we order in a pizza or get a sandwich before working until 5 or 6 am.  We then sleep until 9 am and work until check out at 11 am.

      When planning our trek we originally had visions of nights off away from doing anything.  However, we have found that to get an actual zero day requires us to stay in a motel for 2-3 nights in a row to get to the point where the editing and work is done and we can just rest.  As a result, we unexpectedly don’t actually have that many zero days, or days in which we do nothing on the trail. 

      In the first year on the trail it took a hurricane to let us have a day off the trail without work to do.  In truth, we don’t actually have that many days off from the trail in the winter either, when we are giving presentations, applying for grants and sponsorships, processing pictures, writing, and blogging, in addition to working full time jobs.

(7)    Keeping in touch.  When we set out, friends and family alike asked that we keep in touch.  One of my best friends collects postcards and stamps from around the world and so hinted (she was too kind to ask directly) that it would be nice if we could send postcards.  It has been about 2 years since I did that.  Similarly, my parents ask for us to regularly check in by calling them (since they are not fans of email, the internet, and social media).  Yet a call home can last hours, and so when we have the chance to sit down it becomes a real debate as to whether we have the energy and time to spare to call and listen and listen and listen.  

      Often we don’t, and so keeping in touch with friends and family has become one of those unexpected challenges while being out on Canada’s Great Trail.  In the last two years, friends have gotten married, had children, colleagues have passed away, and our families have confronted challenges that we know nothing about.  By trekking we have really struck out on our own path…and that can be very lonely.   We have stepped out of the normal course of events and flow of the world and the results are often isolating in both good and bad ways. 

(8)    Staying up to date. When we set out we decided that we wanted to blog and photograph the entire nation.  We have done it for the 800 km long Bruce Trail, the 300 km long East Coast Trail, and for over 2400 km of Caminos in France, Spain, and Portugal.  How much different could 24,000km on the Great Trail be?  Well, after 2 years of hiking across Canada we have come to see that hiking the country is only half of the undertaking.  

      In 330 days on the trail we have taken, sorted and edited almost 330,000 pictures, written approximately 500 blog entries averaging 1 entry for every 25 km of trail covered, aided in the publication of more than 60 articles, participated in TV interviews, and Podcasts, been featured in Ontario Nature and given more than 75 presentations, all while on the trail.  

      The fact is that, we never expected that it would take so much effort – usually required at a time when we have no energy to spare – to keep the online part of our hike updated and going.  Every breakfast near WIFI becomes work, every fortunate dinner in a restaurant becomes work time.  However, it is nonetheless something we believe is important, so with our third year set to begin, we are fully dedicated to continuing on and keeping everything up to date and running. 

 

(9)    The fears of others.  Perhaps one of the most overwhelming unexpected challenges that we have faced has been dealing with the fears of others.   The news is filled with scary stories, and not a day goes by when a well-meaning person doesn't email to warn us about the impending dangers.   “Travelling alone is bad.”  “Travelling with a guy is really bad.”  Posting about our experiences pinpoints us and that is bad “someone will hunt you and kill you!  So stop writing about your hike!”   “A hiker disappeared on the news yesterday somewhere in the world!  That could be you! Quit.”   There are storms, quit.  There are bears, quit.  There is only road, quit.  There are floods…..there are fires…..there are bad people. Quit, quit, quit.   “You need to be careful because wildlife is programmed to hunt people and kill them.  That is all nature knows, hunt and kill people!”  There is this, there is that, there is another thing – just quit.  

      There have been so many emails and messages detailing the challenges in our path in the past two years.  While we appreciate people's concern  for our safety, and recognize that there are risks associated with leaving the comparative safety of our homes, being constantly presented with a list of potential dangers that don't pose an immediate and specific threat to us can make it more challenging to stay focused on the positive aspects of experiencing nature and new things. 

Most people have meant well, and we do also get lots of messages that are helpful and inform us that “a road is under construction and so you may have to navigate around it” or “that part of the trail is not well maintained”.  These types of messages are extremely helpful, and represent advice about situations that we will actually confront.   Yet so many others have simply been a projection of the fears of others, and as we try to encourage people to expand their comfort zones and experience new things, we've been dismayed to discover how deeply felt many of those fears are. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating embarking on extreme sports or needlessly taking risks - in the words of Clint Eastwood I don’t believe “jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft is a natural act” but I do believe that we need to be open to new experiences and new challenges rather than hiding from them.  We just never expected that in setting out that the unknowns of the natural world would unnerve so many people.  

(10)Scheduling and expectations. Anyone who knows us, knows that we are not schedulers.  Our plans are generalized, and the details are filled in en route.  On a trek like this we consider this to be an advantage, because we believe that rigidly trying to stick to a schedule that covers four years would limit the joys of spontaneous discovery, and introduce a huge amount of stress.  

      Facing unknown terrain, weather, and experiences we can't possibly predict with any accuracy how fast we will hike, and the last thing we want to do is miss out on the experience of seeing our country because we are "late" and can't stop to enjoy it.  

      However, slowing down to live in the moment is something that is becoming increasingly rare in our fast-paced and efficiently planned world.  With so much information available online, it is becoming more common for people to find comfort in planning trips end-to-end, knowing precisely what they are doing each day, at every meal, and during every moment.  We can now find comfort in creating very detailed and customized itineraries for hiking, camping, and fishing trips, holidays, and cruises before we leave home. My mother is very much like that – she will spend 7 days sitting in a chair talking about what “one will do next Wednesday” and will not move or stop talking until that day is absolutely planned.  

      As we hike, many people have asked “when will you be in FILL IN TOWN NAME?  In our modern world it seems increasingly difficult for many people to believe that we honestly have no idea, especially when they are asking for our precise time of arrival in a place we couldn't possibly reach for several years.  We aren't hiding the information for safety reasons - we honestly don't know.  We acknowledge that this can be a problem for groups who are offering to host us for a nature talk, and who need to book a venue and advertise the event, but the truth is, over 27,000 km and 4 years, no schedule can hold.  

      Our initial plans broke on day 1, and have never really gotten back on track since then.  Two years into our hike we are 1 year behind schedule.  While we are able to estimate within 10-20 days when we will be in a specific town or region, the reality is that beyond that it is all guess work.  We do have a plan and follow it as a guide, but generally we let events unfold as they will.  Exploration isn’t a tour of the expected and known, it is actively striving to find that which is unknown.  




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