By Mel Vogel
Most of us spend explore The Great Trail in bite-size sections, enjoying a few hours of outdoor adventures at a time. But Mel Vogel has taken on a much longer Trail journey – a 15,000-kilometre hike across Canada, from St. John’s in Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia. This epic and challenging adventure will take at least two years – or eight seasons – to complete.
As Mel continues her demanding but fulfilling trip, she’ll be updating us with her stories and explaining how she is getting to know Canada by walking across it.
Canada just celebrated International Trails Day on June 2. That day I stepped on the Cataraqui Trail in Smith Falls, a trail which is part of The Great Trail system of over 400 trails connecting Canada from the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. On that day my memories went back one year remembering me standing on the lighthouse in Cape Spear, Newfoundland on a foggy morning with a 60-pound backpack. Optimistic, I made my first steps of millions I would take over the course of the next two-and-a-half years as I started into my so far greatest adventure: hiking 15,000 km westwards to Victoria, BC following the world’s longest recreational trail.
I have stopped counting how many times I’ve been offered a ride. Even though my feet were hurting, or the driver would jokingly promise “I won’t tell anyone”, I always refused with a smile and answered proudly and firmly: I walk.
For the first two months, my hike would lead me about 900 km on the T’Railway from St. John’s to Port aux Basques across Newfoundland.
My 60-pound backpack sat quite heavy and uncomfortable on my back. I suffered. My collarbones, my spine and hip bones were bruised and chaffed, and my feet were burning. Stumbling over stones, I slowly but steadily carried my pain for miles and it felt like it would never end. Surrounded by marshland, I sat exhausted on the dusty trail or cooled my sore body in the many cold rivers and lakes. I stretched these resting periods so as not to walk, so as not to have to put on the backpack that I could barely lift. In addition to the pain, I fought swarms of aggressive mosquitoes and nasty little black flies throughout hot summer months. As the sun sank and I lay in my tent rather uncomfortably, I was holding my breath when the sound of cracking branches echoed into the night. Whatever it is, I thought, I hope it does not find its way to my tent.
Pain, discomfort and fear became constant companions.
Giving up? No! This thought never crossed my mind.
With this hike, I took my love for the road to a new level and this old friend gave me something very precious in return: freedom and contentment. This and the beauty of my surroundings offset my suffering. I sang, I laughed, I screamed, and sometimes I cried my feelings of bliss and anguish into Newfoundland’s wetland and marshes.
Setting over with the ferry to North Sydney I spent the rest of my summer in Cape Breton and the mainland of Nova Scotia. After months of hiking, I realized with fascination, that my body was slowly adjusting. I began to walk a bit easier and boldly tested my new strength by hiking faster and further into some of my days.
By the end of my time in Nova Scotia, I had no problem with walking alone through dark woods or into the night. When I heard the coyotes howling in the distance at night I still found sleep. I loved to walk beside the tracks of wild animals. Moose, hare, deer, fox, bears and coyotes – they are all there surrounding me invisibly. And like a wild animal, I left my own tracks on dusty or muddy trails.
Along the Trail through summer and fall, I harvested wild berries, apples and yes, even mushrooms. After taking the ferry to Prince Edward Island, I enjoyed the colours of autumn leaves on this little island and occasionally picked a few potatoes and onions from the fields for supper.
It was a long, quite warm fall reaching far into December. A short shuttle drive across the Confederation bridge took me to the fourth province, New Brunswick. The temperatures became increasingly colder and I switched from summer to winter gear.
With the arrival of snow, temperatures sank below -25oC. Winter became my new challenge that I mastered well during the day. However, I struggled to winter camp out of fear of hypothermia or even frostbite with the unbearable cold moving in after sunset. As in the months before, Canadians, with their warmth and hospitality, made it possible for me to continue on my journey and to gain more practical experience for winter camping.
After visiting Quebec City, the days finally became warmer. Outside the city, the calls of the returning Canada geese announced spring. It smelled like earth and the first buds started to sprout. I had almost finished my walk through Quebec as finally, Mother Nature gave birth to new life. With trees finally blossoming, flowers blooming and surrounded by green so fresh and bright, my spirit became elated and light.
I am going to spend this summer in Ontario where I have more than 4000 km to cover. With a swimsuit and my first fishing permit in my pack, I am ready for a splash of new adventure while drowning some worms.
With a new year started on The Great Trail, I will face new challenges with a different strength, self-confidence and a new understanding of life and its values. For another year, I will be able to enjoy the simplicity and lightness of being and will continue to consciously take time for it as ‘being in the moment’ is all I have.
Living slow by walking slowly has brought everything a little closer to me and lasts a little longer as well. I am more deeply connected to the smell, sounds and beauty of the different seasons, people or wildlife that cross my path, and while I become more in tune with nature I become more in tune with myself.
I can’t get enough of my thoughts while moving along the Trail. It’s a dialogue that goes to the core of my innermost self. In those long lone hours with Mother Nature, I learned to love myself in a very humble, quiet way and learned (sometimes painfully) to listen to my needs more carefully.
Slow travel also allows me a different understanding of time and distance. Time to feel, observe and study. Time to come together and share our stories.
Hiking through five provinces in the past year and meeting people from all walks of life has reinstated my belief that most people are good. Their kindness and support since the beginning of this adventure has given gave me new strength and empowered me to grow as a human in my journey.
Find me walking