Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Decision Day : Quit or Continue?

Last weekend – marks the 3 year anniversary since I sold my house determining the course of our lives for the coming 3 ...er 4… or maybe 5 years.  While reflecting on the significance of the date we also concluded that it was finally time to decide whether to quit or continue. The debating and frustration were getting to be too much, in addition to which it is now spring time and therefore the time to either get back onto the trail or find another contract to continue working.

Since setting out from Cape Spear Newfoundland on July 1st, 2019 onto the Trans Canada Trail so much has happened.   In the past 3 years we have seen and experienced so much natural beauty, amazing wildlife and tremendous hospitality across the nation as we have walked the length and breadth of 8 stunning provinces. 

In 420 days on the trail have had so many unique experiences such as hiking through hurricane landfalls, tornado warnings, hail storms, snow blizzards, trail washouts, river crossings, ATV accidents, police ‘questioning’, historic droughts, forest fires and prairie mud, as well as navigating through vast sections of the TCT that exist more in theory and online maps than in reality.  In the process of trekking 10,000 km we have seen icebergs, whales and puffins, moose, bison, elk, and hundreds of species of birds while meeting and presenting to thousands of people in every province and territory in Canada.

Without a doubt it has been an amazing trek and experience – regardless of the obstacles.

This winter, as many of you know, has been one of deep challenge and profound doubts.   

Not having our trek known by the Trans Canada Trail after 3 years, thousands of postings and over 100 presentations about the national pathway was humbling. 

Similarly no longer being an official expedition for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society at the end of 2021 also led us to have doubts about the value of our undertaking and message.

And of course the fact that we been unable to garner any sponsorship, or interest in publishing our award winning images of Canada as seen from the Trans Canada Trail and have similarly been unable to beget backing for our developing academic story map for Canadian classrooms featuring the TCT, historic and cultural sites, ecozones and birds has all been hard.

As a result the past few months – while working full time – have felt to us as though we are running full steam with no result and no purpose.  

Adding to all of this, in the process we have continued to be critiqued for our slow pace (which has put us behind schedule), as well as being been critiqued for our fast pace (not letting us get to know the regions).  I have been criticized for not venturing off the national pathway to chase rare bird species, been informed that our sightings “are too common to be enjoyed”, told that “we should not be inviting new people into bird”, and was recently informed that I am “not to talk about birds anymore since [I] only hold a PDH in Forestry NOT birding” (not MY spelling error by the way, which says so much).  And so the social media aspect of our outreach continues to be hard to navigate and also keep the message positive.

In fact, given the comments and critiques we regularly receive it is fair to say that our sole source of encouragement and motivation has come from the hundreds of kind emails and supportive messages that we have received from those who have followed us throughout the years – thank you so very much.  Without them I am not sure we could have continued on into the whirlwind for so long.

Reservation Day

While a few gentle words, a encouraging emails might not sound like much the fact is that politeness and kindness do change the world.  As such, because of your support, we made the decision and reserved our tickets for 2022 thereby committing to another season on the Trans Canada Trail.

For us, Sunday was Reservation Day.

This said there is no denying that this year, Reservation Day, has a dual meaning.  In 2022, ‘Reservation Day’, was not only the day in which we decided to continue but it was also the day that we committing to overcoming our own personal reservations and doubts about venturing forward, about the value of our message and worthiness of our trek.  It is the day that we had to commit to overcoming our uncertainties and diminishing energy levels for completing this trek and sharing what Canada has to offer to those who walk, cycle, bird, and explore it.  Fittingly our decision to get back into nature was spurred on by yet another round of online commentary and emails pushing us to realize that we absolutely did not want to spend any more time in front of computers than Covid has already pushed us to.  

If the choice was between the call of the mountains and the 'bing' of incoming emails then it would be the former that we would follow.

Plans and Preparations

On Sunday we ordered our train tickets from Toronto to Montreal which will allow us to complete western Quebec in April 2022.  Here we will be venturing 250 km from Montreal along Le P’Tit Train du Nord to Mont-Laurier and then an additional 228 km along the various highways, roadways, and local pathways south back to Hull QC and Ottawa Ontario.

Following the completion of  Western Quebec and owing to the sheer number presentations as well as other outreach obligations we will then be taking about 40 days off the trail as the logistics of presenting from a tent in Northern Alberta are beyond us at the moment.  This time off the Trans Canada Trail will also give us the opportunity to venture along quiet pathways, visit an old friend, and give them a long awaited – and Covid delayed – hug.

Then in June, we will return to the Trans Canada Trail.  We will once again take the Via Rail train to the Saskatchewan-Alberta border where we we will resume our westward trek on July 1st.  Our plans suggest that it will take us 40-44 days to venture across Alberta, and then 60 days to trek from the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver where we hopefully will arrive in time for Thanksgiving on the Sunshine Coast.  Here we will take the opportunity to paddle the Salish Sea Marine Trail, which is a water route of the Trans Canada Trail, before taking 10 more days to hike Vancouver Island and arrive at Victoria in late October 2022. 

If all goes to plan upon arrival into Victoria we will bring our East-West trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans to a conclusion.  And sets the stage for 2023 (and possibly 2024) when we will hike north from Fort Saskatchewan Alberta to Tuktoyaktuk Northwest Territories.

Emerging Challenges

These plans are however not to suggest that all is wondrous and without challenges.  As we have long learned things are always easier looking on paper than in real life – especially on the Trans Canada Trail.

Owing to our timing this year we once again unable to get space or reservations in the Charlevoix region of Quebec meaning that 125 km section of trail is still inaccessible to us.  In addition to which the western portion of Quebec from Montreal to Ottawa is a dedicated snowmobile route until much later in the season and so we will have to walk beside the TCT, Route Verte, and HWY 1 through this region rather than on it.

Returning to the prairies in July also means that rather than venturing through Alberta and parts of British Columbia in the cool spring weather we are set to walk amid – what could again be – the extreme heat and humidity of the summer months. 

Adding to these minor bumps on the pathway we have also spent the last few weeks pouring over new trail guides learning about the TCT route as well as drafting alternate routes through Southern British Columbia.  According to a number of emailed reports and trail groups in southern BC there are vast stretches of the TCT which have been undermined by 2021’s devastating forest fires and floods. The result being, if these reports are true, that without plans we would have to reroute to the very busy and dangerous HWY 1 (Trans Canada Highway) for up to 500 km – something we really wish to avoid.

So there are – as always – challenges and the unknown on the horizon, but that is the nature of adventure.

Regardless, the plan is now set, the tickets have been purchase and so we are once again on our way and will walk across Alberta and British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean in 2022.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Striving to Find Balance : Challenges and Uncertainty

We have not published regular blogs in a while. For that we apologize.  

Don’t worry we are still here, and still dreaming of continuing.  We are still giving dozens of free presentations every month to youth groups, naturalist clubs, and hiking organizations across Canada about our time on the Trans Canada Trail. 

We both recognize that there is a lot to say about our amazing experiences in 2021 crossing Quebec, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan getting to Alberta.  We know that there are a ton of wildlife and birding experiences as well as moments from the Trans Canada Trail that we have yet to share.   However both of us have found it hard to find the right words lately to summarize our time throughout third year on the Trans Canada Trail during which we ventured from the shores of the St Lawrence Seaway across Manitoba’s vast open landscapes and to the rolling hills of western Saskatchewan and eastern Alberta. 

Things have been tough on everyone for a long while with so many tensions and matters to deal with across the world ranging from Global Pandemics, to protests, to war in Europe, to rising inflation.  These tensions have of course found voice in the online world with almost everyone, every institution and every undertaking being made political and becoming the focus of discord and vitriol.  

Unfortunately our small trek is no different, and perhaps in such a complex world our hike no longer matters.

It seems that every experience we share is subject to doubt and ridicule.  Each sighting or observation we make is a basis for error.  And each comment we make is the focus of judgment and critique.  And so we have gone silent, if only for our own peace of mind. 

The fact is that right now is a tough time to be positive and inspirational. 

"O Muse! Sing in me, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in the ways of contending, a wanderer, harried for years on end…”

Homer, The Odyssey

Heartbreak and Frustration

From our final day on the TCT in Montreal onward so much for us has been a challenge.  What we thought was a huge achievement – crossing the 10,000 km mark in our expedition at the Trans Canada Trail head office – instead quickly transformed in a moment of humility and heartbreak.   

After years of hard work and struggle it quickly became clear that no one even seemed to know we existed or that our efforts mattered.  Even though we had spent more than 3 years on the Trans Canada Trail, even though we are one of the TCT’s own Pathfinders and even though we were a Royal Canadian Geographical Society Expedition we were not known or acknowledged.  

While we have sought to find the positive in this moment the fact is that we were both pretty devastated. It was a moment that cast a shadow on everything.

Since Montreal we have heard back from nature groups, hiking clubs and people across Canada who have inquired to the TCT about us and who all seem to receive the same depressing response:

“Thank you so much for bringing this interesting individual to our attention! We had no idea that someone had invested so much time and effort into the Trans Canada Trail!  We have never heard about Sonya Richmond and we promise to spend some time looking into her and discovering about her cute trip!  Thank you for taking the time to reach out to us and tell us about how much you enjoy the Trans Canada Trail! Please consider donating to support the national trail system.  Take Care” 

As such we have struggled with the question of whether there is any point in continuing if no one even knows we are out here?  Are we even having an impact?  Have our efforts inspired anyone?  Is all of this worth it only to be either ignored or attacked?

Beyond this situation, Sean has worked hard throughout the past couple of years to get noticed by professional photographers and artists and see if we could publish some of our experiences and his amazing images.  We had hoped to spend the winter of 2021-2022 developing many of his pictures of the nation and its wildlife into something larger.  Instead we have been noted by photography forums as “cute amateurs” who lack art degrees.  We have had our applications for art residencies to share the nation turned down.  And almost every publishing house we have approached about producing a photography book of Canada: A View from the Trail has been rejected as not good enough or as not being produced by an established professional.  And so it now seems that even our photography has met with a dead-end.

Adding to these disappointments we have had a number of other challenges throughout the winter. 

In December 2021 our Paypal account was accessed by someone who quickly transferred the funds in our hiking account meaning that we lost the earnings from our calendar and card fundraising at the end of last year creating some very real financial challenges for us. 

Following this, in early 2022 both our email and social media accounts were also accessed and used to spread false stories about us as well to nature groups, hiking clubs and schools as well as asking various groups that we be taken out of contention for awards and sponsorship considerations.  

In addition to which, in recent weeks we have been contacted by an individual who has been contracted and who has been fully funded to “properly blog and professionally photograph” the Trans Canada Trail.   They in turn have asked us for advice on equipment, asked for copies of our pre-expedition notes and to borrow our copies of the dated TCT guide books to help them and even wanted our advice on how to photograph the nation.  Leaving us feeling that while we have struggled for support others have excelled were we were unable to.    

And so we are also left with the question as to whether we are even properly blogging or photographing the nation?

Perhaps toughest of all, we have again failed at getting any form of sponsorship.  The simple truths of our situation is that we are not the first to undertake and complete this hike on foot, we are not the fastest, that neither birding nor exploration in Canada are viewed as exciting (when both are extraordinarily fascinating), and we don’t have the right look. I have grown increasingly tired of the vast number of diplomatic ways that organizations and corporations can tell us that we are boring writers, and that hiking Canada is unexciting, that trekking a pathway is of no interest and that neither of us are either photogenic or good enough looking.  Yet these seem to be the essential truths of our expedition. 

This brings us to our next challenge.  Given that unfortunately this past week we also came to the conclusion of our tenure as a Royal Canadian Geographical Society Expedition. 

For which we would like to take this opportunity to thank the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for supporting our #Hike4Birds across Canada on the 28,000 km Trans Canada Trail in 2021!  There is very little funding available for exploration and discovery in Canada, and we were thrilled to receive $2,000 through the RCGS Major Grant for Expeditions in 2021, especially given the substantial costs we faced from extra travel, multiple quarantines, and campground closures resulting from the global pandemic.  It was an honour and a privilege to carry RCGS Flag #5 across three provinces last year, from the Laurentian Mountains along the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec, across the Prairies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, to Alberta's eastern border.  Despite spending more than eight weeks last spring in lock-down, we ultimately walked more than 3,500 km during a global pandemic, a drought, and an extreme heat wave, and reached some important milestones, including spending more than 400 days on the trail, completing 10,000 km on foot, and giving our 100th free educational presentation.  In the past year alone we shared 170 blog posts (bringing our total to over 700), hundreds of social media updates, thousands of amazing pictures of the nation, written 20 travel pieces for Eh Canada Travel, been featured in 35 articles in the media, and four podcasts, and continued to collect both scientific and academic data for researchers across Canada. 

In 2021, our efforts were recognized by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Sonya received the Inspire award from the Universal Women’s Network and was nominated for the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Nature Inspiration Award! While Sean became a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for his photography and outreach. 

Despite these achievements and overcoming the challenges of 2022, we once again are on our own and without support as well as having little motivation to continue. 

We have never felt more than now that it seems that so much of the world is actively pushing against anyone striving to accomplish something, to explore, or to do something unique. 

Doubt and Uncertainty

As hikers and pilgrims know, not everything you carry with you is in your backpacks unfortunately this past year has added a great deal to what we all carry inside.

While the focus of our #Hike4Birds has never been to get praise or recognition and we certainly don’t rely upon a government organization for validation.  Yet the fact remains that being noticed is inherently connected to us striving to helping birds, getting youth interested in the outdoors and reconnecting with nature.   It was always going to be more important to show Canada to Canadians, to meet with people across the nation, to share the wonders we have seen en route, and to encourage youth to explore their communities and the nation.

The peoples of Canada have always been the source of our encouragement and support.  Just as the landscapes of the nation have always been the true basis of our wonder.   

What Comes Next?

The past few weeks have flown by with travel becoming easier but our way forward is not much clearer. 

So what comes next?  Well...we honestly have no answers.  

More than anything we want to send out a huge thank you to all the groups and Canadians from coast to coast to coast, as well as the amazing Royal Canadian Geographical Society for being part of our epic journey and for helping us get as far as we have! 

What comes next is yet to be determined but we will always continue to promote diversity in the outdoor community, encourage youth to connect with nature through birds and Citizen Science, use photography and digital storytelling with the goal of making Canada better known to Canadians and the world. 

For now we wait at the crossroads, hope for clarity, and wait to see if we can find a way forward.

 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of
wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was
the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of
Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had
everything before us, we had nothing before us,…”

                                                                                 Charles Dickens,  A Tale of Two Cities