Friday, December 31, 2021

Lessons from 10,000 km (of 27,000 km) on the Trans Canada Trail

Are you looking to go from desk to quest?  Spending the winter and Covid months planning that venture across Canada? Perhaps looking to drive and explore cross country?  Or maybe you are in the process of dusting off those plans to be a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago? Perhaps you are setting out to trek the Appalachian Trail, PCT, Bruce Trail or East Coast Trail?  Or you are simply preparing to set the modern world aside and strike out on your own and explore the world?  If so this is for you!

After hiking 10,000 km across Canada on the Trans Canada Trail in the past few years as a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and as members on an RCGS Expedition we have learned a few things along the way about backpacking, exploring, getting out there and changing adventure dreams into reality.

Much of what we have learned is not meant to show you how we fulfilled our goals (especially since we still have 17,000 km more to go) but is advice to get you into the outdoors, enjoying the trail ways in your communities and experiencing the world’s natural the way YOU MOST DREAM OF!  There is no denying that these lessons are not earth shattering revelations, or unique to our own experience on a long distance trek.  Indeed most of what we have learned has in fact been a process of re-learning what is essential, and distilling common sense from practical experiences (and a lot of mistakes along the way).  

Before everything else we want to express our gratitude and thanks to organizations like the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Explorer’s Club, and Eh Canada Travel for being staunch advocates of diversity in the outdoors, accessibility to nature, and inclusion in travel and exploration – from our backyards to the boreal!  As well as for reiterating unreservedly that Nature is for everyone regardless of body shape, orientation, race, religion, beliefs, situation or background.  

For those interested in our #Hike4Birds, daily blogs detailing our walk or pictures please check out our:


(1)    Hike Your Own Hike and know ‘Why’ you are doing it

There are a lot of reasons to go out for a walk in nature and most people head outside everyday without having to justify it at all.  However if you are setting out for a long distance trek, journey or expedition you are going to want to really know why you are doing it. 

That doesn’t mean you have to do it for a cause but it does mean that you want to find the exact reasons that you have for heading out there. When you know them then you are going to want to hold onto those reasons, believe in them, and keep them close because they will get you through the days of self doubt, the painful miles on the trail, the obstacles en route, and help you stand up to the disappointments and the critiques along the way. 

Knowing why will also help you when you are told to give up, are given the opportunity to stop, and even when you begin to give yourself reasons to quit.  At one point you will likely begin to fantasize about comfort, showers, and a cozy bed.   At times like these you need to make sure that you remember your reason to keep going that will drive you onward.  Trek with purpose and YOUR REASONS AND MOTIVATION can take you from planning through to your goal!

(2)    It is all about Making the Decision

Any sports fan will tell you that games are won and lost in the mind of players well before the game begins.  Any large undertaking is like that.   The simple truth of long distance ventures – whether in a wheelchair, cycling, walking, hiking, running, paddling, etc is that they have less to do with physical than the mental.  We have seen hulking muscle-bound athletes quit a long distance hike, just as we have seen youth rock a Camino.  Did you know that a blind individual trekked the entire Appalachian Trail?  Did you know that people in wheelchairs have completed their pilgrimages to Santiago and Rome?  Did you know that an 11 year old has ventured on foot across America? This tells us that expeditions, treks, and ventures have less to do with the physical and logistical than they have to do with the mental!

Most explorers are not physical phenomenon, they are not Olympian or Paralympian athletes, and it isn’t a matter what their skin colour is, what their body shape is like, what their orientation is, who they worship, who they love, or what their age is!  Most explorers are explorers because they MADE THE CHOICE to go out there and do it!  Venturing (however you chose to) the length of a waterway or long distance trail, across a state, province, country or continent is not a mythic or epic undertaking they are the result of a choice.  These are not undertakings reserved for a select few, they are the result of realizing anything is possible if you make the choice.  Read Cheryl Stayed’s Wild for perhaps the best example of how much making a decision matters.

While being in shape and training are undoubtedly important, and there are barriers on every trek, the fact is that making the choice and making it your choice based on something you are passionate about is essential in going from desk to quest!   

(3)    Know yourself, and be comfortable with being on your own

This one is huge!  Before setting out you need to know yourself, know your strengths, be honest about your weaknesses, and be comfortable on being on your own. As an former teacher and librarian there is no denying that I prefer order and organization and an afternoon at a desk to sweating outdoors, trekking in the rain and being endlessly dirty.  I had to really come to terms with all this and acknowledge that over the course of 4-6 years and 27,000 km that I would spend most of the time being sweaty, muddy, uncomfortable and living without much order while at the same time trying to keep cameras and other sensitive gear running in a huge range of adverse conditions.  If I hadn’t done that I couldn’t have overcome myself to get out there.  

Perhaps even more than this, even if you are not solo trekking, you spend a lot of time with only your own thoughts.  So you need to be comfortable with yourself, your thoughts, and memories.  In our daily lives we all carry stuff inside with us that we are able to push aside and ignore.  On the trail, with so much less to do, and often after tough days, a lot of unexpected memories, pains, and anxieties can come to the surface.  Sorting yourself out and navigating these things is simultaneously the hardest and best part of trekking.

“…these mountains you are carrying you were only meant to cross…” 

This all requires you to be brutally honest with yourself before setting out.  Part of knowing yourself and being ‘comfortable in your own skin’ is knowing what you can and can’t do.  We have encountered a lot of obstacles in our trek so far, and just as often as we decide to go for it, there are times that we have realized that what is in front of us is not responsible, possible, or practical to take on. 

No trek or venture is going to be without challenges or discomfort, and much of it will make you push beyond the “pain free, stress free, effort free” attitude that is in much of society.  After all venturing out isn’t always pretty, you’ll be uncomfortable, you might get hurt, you will have moments when you are tired and scared, and you will be changed en route.  However for all of those things the adventure is worth it and if you push yourself you will be greatly rewarded.

(4)    Learn your Route, Know your Equipment, and Be Prepared

Before setting out make sure to take care of the basics first!  Let friends and family know what you are doing – they are going to be a great source of encouragement and support that will get you through the tough moments out there.  Also it is essential that people you trust know where you are going to be and are supposed to be.   Set up social media pages to share your trek and inversely you’ll also get messages of support and encouragement as you go (people are pretty amazing that way!).  Remember that no one can do huge ventures alone – you will come to rely on strangers, trail angels, and local residents – so why not start by relying of those you know, trust and love first?

The next part of being prepared is to know the trail, know the route, be aware of the amenities as much as possible, and know where to find, filter, buy, and get water.  In the end water, food, and information are the key to everything!  Beyond this, there will come a point – especially if like us you trek unsupported – that you will have almost no energy to spare for daily logistics and need to rely on your advance planning, notes and research to get through the day.  Knowing the details of your undertaking in advance is essential for your success, safety, and sanity! 

Research and know your equipment – be willing to pay for good equipment, but also remember that you don’t need everything the store is willing to sell you and you don’t need the ‘best equipment’. Your gear should be as light as possible, versatile and durable but it does not have to be expensive!  On the flip side of things make sure to get good gear because it does have to hold up – so don’t just look for the cheapest you can find either!  Everyone has a gear recommendation, but in the end USE WHAT WORKS FOR YOU!  Once you have your equipment then LEARN HOW TO USE IT AND FIX IT - all before you head out!   

We have met people who have just started their long distance treks and cross country hikes carrying tents still in the store box or who have never used their camp stove.  Similarly we have met cyclists who don’t know how to repair their tires, gears, and bikes on the trail. Each of these is a recipe for frustration and trouble!  Once you have got all of that in hand, the final piece of advice is to never be afraid to responsibly dispose of a piece of gear that you aren’t using, that isn’t working right or can be replaced with something better.  Don’t carry useless gear even if you have paid good money for it.

The lesson being, before heading out and like a well trained Scout or a Guide, BE PREPARED!

(5)    Be Prepared, but be willing to Listen, Learn and Adapt

In my previous life I taught American history at a University and spent my evenings watching documentaries on individuals such as Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld.  Though I have moved away from classrooms much of their advice has followed: “you don’t know everything no matter how well you plan”, “expect the unexpected”, and “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

When we set out on the Trans Canada Trail – the world’s longest recreational pathway - we read, researched and prepared.  Yet despite thousands of pages of notes, putting the route onto maps (both physical and digital), building itineraries, mapping out alternative routes and resources, and Google walking the country we didn’t actually know much about what it would be like “on the ground” and in the moment. The learning really begins once you are out there. 

For example, since beginning our 27,000 km trek we have found sections of the trail not completed, despite being mapped as finished. We have encountered sections that lead directly into the Atlantic Ocean, into the middle of flooded quarries, and into chest deep marshes!  We have been warned by landowners that the TCT is closed in their area, found electrical wires and snares set across the trail to stop hikers, had our gear searched and purposefully broken by police officers, and been hit by ATVs.  In addition unexpected conditions have led us to being rerouted more than 50 km around land disputes and road construction.  In the last three years on the trail we have also had to deal with freak snow storms, hail, hurricanes, tornado warnings, historic droughts, strong winds, prairie mud, and a global pandemic (to name a few obstacles).  

While each of these things was a challenge it is equally true that in each of these cases things ultimately worked out.  We either met someone local who helped us, or we had to figure out a new route on the go and we were able to keep going.  In the end, regardless of advance itineraries and plans, ultimately yo will eat when possible, sleep where you can, and keep on moving on. 

The message being, there will ALWAYS BE AN UNEXPECTED OBSTACLE and you can’t plan or prepare for everything, but you also shouldn’t be afraid to ADAPT your plans and shift your route!  This is a real challenge in the age of pre-planned holidays and fixed itineraries!  People are now often horrified at the notion of changing their plans – but getting out there means DEALING WITH THE UNEXPECTED and adapting.  For us we have found that while advance research is essential it is equally true that no amount of online planning is better than local knowledge and experience.  LISTEN to residents, heed their advice and shift your plans accordingly.  You’ll learn something new everyday and save yourself a ton of frustration by listening.   

(6)    Reconnect to the World, and the amazing people in it!

When my trekking partner sold her house in 2018 to fund hiking across Canada it was with the intention of getting others to look up from their phones and reconnecting to nature through Citizen Science and Birding.   When giving free talks to classrooms, nature groups, scout troops and business leaders as well as in our blog we talk a lot about the benefits of Disconnecting to Reconnect. 

In a world of Google maps, iPods, and social media disconnecting seems impossible.  The internet, mp3 players, and electronics mean that today anyone can trek across a province, state or country and never look up or stop listening to their favourite TV show or soundtrack.  The digital world is wonderful at isolating us in our own bubbles where everything is comfortable and where we only listen, watch and read what we choose.  Discomfort need not intrude upon our manufactured lives.   In the process however you stand to miss out on a great deal.  Venturing out is the chance to stumble across those areas you never knew existed, to explore them, and take those amazing memories with you!  It is the opportunity to experience life!

The lesson being, if you are headed outdoors then take the time to RECONNECT to Nature and those you will meet along the way.  The world will always have agendas and crisis as well as updates to distract you from what is essential.  Use your trek to pull away from the superficial and reconnect to what is essential – namely the outdoors, natural beauty, and the great diversity of people in our communities that you will meet!  More than learning how amazing the world is you’ll be surprised to discover that most people in the world want you to succeed and want to be part of an adventure too!  

*** For those adventurous at heart, especially youth and young adults, there are lots of organizations like the terrific Royal Canadian Geographical Society who have members with a wealth of experience, vast global connections and most importantly have amazing programs supporting diversity in the outdoors, mentorship and exploration.  For those who want are looking for a place to begin, get advice and support exploration check them out! ***

(7)    Stop focusing on Distance, Time, and other’s Expectations

One of the hardest parts of the modern world is the proliferation of clocks, calendars, and Google Estimates for distances and times.  We have built a world in which things are fit into time slots, scheduled months in advance, and in which we know exactly how many steps it takes between destinations.  We have fixed our lives into routines governed second by second amid reminders for meetings and obligations delivered in emails on our phones.  This is a framework that becomes a real challenge on long distance treks and expeditions because we are inclined to make plans to be in certain places or finish our venture on a specific day.  As a result we have not only determined what all of our experiences will be each day, and are living at the end of our trek before even setting out but we have built a framework that we will judge ourselves with.  

While planning is important,  unless you are striving to break a record then don’t make the entire focus of your trek about maintaining a set schedule, when you will be finished, about having to get to a certain place by a specific date, or judging your progress by the expectations of others.  

“…Out there's a land that time don't command…”
                                                Lord Huron “Ends of the Earth”

The fact is that the best laid plans often crumble the moment they meet the realities of the trail.  After all things happen in the world!  Amid a wonderful warm summer in June 2018 we set off along the beautiful East Coast Trail (the eastern most section of the Trans Canada Trail) only to walk straight into a freak snow storm and howling winds on the Atlantic coastline. As a result, instead of trekking 35 km as we had planned, we hiked 15 km before hunkering down and trying to warm up with our soaking wet gear.  By the end of our first day of a 27,000km trek we were ‘behind schedule.’  It was immediately clear that our plan to venture across the nation had a few glitches in it from day one at that point – not the least of which was the expectation that we would, at minimum, cover 35 km a day.  We spent the next two days worried about being “behind” only to have to come to terms with the fact that no schedule was going to hold up over the course of an estimated 700-1200 days on the trail.  

Adding to this challenge has been the judgment of online critics for being “epic failures” because we are “being behind schedule” often comparing a long distance trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic to the “clockwork efficiency” of their own cruise ship vacations, pre-packaged tours to Europe, and weekend camping trips. The lesson being : if you are going to get out there and reconnect then make sure to get away from schedules, agendas, and life as determined by a digital clock and online world. In the end, you will enjoy your trek more when you let go of hard and fixed deadlines and worry less about what others think of your expedition.  I’d personally have less grey hair and have slept better in the first two years if I had learned this lesson earlier.  

(8)    Seize the Moment, and take time to Enjoy

Carpe Diem!  Seize the day! Enjoy the moment!

It might sound like a just a quirky quote from high school but there is a great deal of value in coming to realize this message.  If you have chosen to get out there following your own dream then make sure you aren’t in such a rush that you miss out on the natural beauty that you will encounter everyday or miss the immense kindness and support which will be offered along the way!  While setting out on a venture or long distance trail is an adventure of a lifetime, never forget that each moment is itself a once in a lifetime experience.  So take the time each day to take in the natural beauty around you, the changes in scenery and seasons, the potential for terrific bird and wildlife sightings, and the amazing people you are able to meet with, chat with, stay with and who are encouraging you!

Once again get away from the pre-planned itineraries and advance schedules! Don’t worry about taking break off the trail to rest and recuperate (this is not lost time!) instead see it as being given the opportunity to explore a new region or have a great conversation with local residents!

Don’t get hung up on the challenges or tough moments, it’s a waste of energy and only means you are missing out on the wonders of the present. 

Don’t constantly focus on the destination – that distant goal will arrive sooner than you think!

The lesson being ENJOY THE MOMENT, have patience, and realize that one way or another ‘step by step’ you will get there.   As a result, you’ll also remember more about the unplanned and unexpected moments of beauty that you took the time for en route. Enjoy the journey, have experiences, explore the world, don’t take yourself so seriously and seize the moment!  Remember, you won’t get out of life alive so enjoy the journey as much as you can.

(9)    Be Courteous, be Kind, but also be Safe

Turn on the news or go online and you’ll get vivid and constant descriptions about the supposed dangers of the world.  Even in our daily lives we seem to only notice the one individual in the store or our neighborhood who will go out of their way to be grumpy and who continually complain.  In the process we tend to forget the fact that each community and town across the country has a ton more people who are struggling to be trail angels, acting as amazing volunteers and who are helping others to succeed!

I am not claiming that the world is a utopia.  En route we have had challenges including people who have demanded to search us, landowners who have threatened us, been harassed by Anti-Vaxxers, and had our gear purposefully broken by a city police officer.  Frustrating things do happen.  Yet while this all sounds bad it is worth noting that each of these situations are also the exception to how we have been treated for more than 365 days on the trail.  Canadians from coast to coast to coast have been more than amazing to us!  The truth is that we could not have gotten so far without huge amounts of unexpected and selfless support that we have received!

The message being, while people are far more helpful and kind that we often recognize, you also need to use COMMON SENSE and TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS to BE SAFE out there.  The second part of this lesson being, always, regardless of the circumstances or situation SPEAK LESS, LISTEN MORE, BE HUMBLE, BE KIND, AND BE COURTEOUS in all situations.  Whether you are being aided by a trail angel, given a place to stay by a helpful stranger, or watching authorities break your gear - being rude or irresponsible will only every make things worse. Trust that things will work out and that you will be able to continue on regardless of the moment.  In the end you will be amazed at the extent of kindness and the amount of support that is actually in our communities and the world.  Help will come your way from the most unexpected of places – be respectful enough to attract it and be humble enough to accept it.  

(10)    Plan for “What’s Next?”

The final piece of advice we would offer - after reminding you to stay in the moment – is to tell you to plan for what comes next once you have reached your goal, your destination, or that final trail-head.

Each time either of us have completed something huge we quickly go from celebrating the moment to being depressed.  This has happened when we finished Ontario’s amazing Bruce Trail (2016), concluded Newfoundland’s epic East Coast Trail (2018), crossed a provincial or national boundary, and perhaps hardest of all … after getting our compostella in Santiago after trekking the Camino Frances (2016), Via Podiensis (2017), Caminho Portuguese (2019), and Camino Fisterra (2019).  

Post-trek depression hits everyone differently, but the reality is that you have put so much effort into a single endeavour that when you are done you end up crashing emotionally and mentally.  The days very quickly transition from planning, to hiking and navigating to being back behind a desk at work or at home alone.  You feel simultaneously amazed, empty, hollow, and wishing you could get back out there.  The truth is that even for months after leaving your adventure you are still on the trail in your head.  Questions abound, you search for meaning, you reflect on memories, you review your journals, notes, maps, blogs, and go through pictures. You laugh, you smile, you spend time thinking of everyone you met along the way, you are amazed at all you have accomplished, and at times you cry uncontrollably.  

While there is no real answer to post-trekking depression - it mostly just takes time to get through - the best approach that we have taken is to have a plan for what comes next – writing a book, a photo exhibition, organizing another trek - then dive into it with everything you’ve got!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.