What We Learned About The Great Trail – And Each Other

Starting a 345-kilometre hike in the midst of winter probably isn’t the easiest way to start an outdoor adventure, but that’s exactly what Dawn and Terry McMillan did earlier this year!

The couple, who have been married for 31 years and have raised three sons, recount their adventures on The Great Trail and tell us what they learned about the Trail and themselves.

It was January 7, 2017. Bundled up in massive winter parkas, snow goggles and cleated boots, Terry and I embarked on our latest adventure – hiking The Great Trail from our Calgary home to the B.C. border, to celebrate Canada 150 and the connection of The Great Trail.

Slogging through fresh snow drifts and past frozen traffic, we noticed passengers staring and taking photos of us.  It was -16oC, but with the north wind it felt like -30oC.

Terry reaches his first destination – The Calgary Zoo

We covered our first 14.3 kilometres to the Calgary Zoo in excellent time.  We arrived cold and tired at our destination, both unsure if it had been fun, but positive that this was going to be an interesting challenge. This positivity kept us going. In the end, our journey lasted 80 hiking hours over 10 months. Together, over several hikes, we counted 420,000 steps over more than 345 kilometres.

We hiked or cross-country skied the Trail to British Columbia, learning, experiencing and conquering.  The Great Trail helped us explore our own city, and discover hidden wonders and Canadian history in our hometown.

Outside of Calgary, we also explored Alberta’s incredible terrain.  We tromped kilometres of cow pasture and rail line to Cochrane. We stoically made our way to Bragg Creek, before arriving in the foothills of the Rockies, later hiking amidst the beautiful majesty of the mountains. One of our more difficult legs as when we cross-country skied a long mountainous section into Banff.

What we learned about hiking

Terry and I broke our trips on The Great Trail into 26 hikes ranging from seven kilometres to 22 kilometres. There were a multitude of considerations when it came to planning – not least the complicated logistics of prevailing wind, snow or rain, elevation, road closures, vehicle access and, of course, hiking toward the best views.

Dawn and Terry continue their hike to the B.C. border –
in warmer weather!

Later in the year, we realized that we needed to do several hikes each weekend in order to reach our goal on schedule. So, we decided to camp, saving us hours of travel time.  We learned to tackle the longer, harder hike on the first day and to prepare a calorie-dense meal to have ready at camp when we returned. All this preparation was rewarded with a campfire and sleeping under the stars – priceless.

What we learned about equipment

We learned to dress in layers.  After a few trips, we expected to get too hot or too cold, so dressed in layers to prepare for that.

We always had an emergency kit, as well as asthma, allergy and pain medication.  On icy mountain trails, we learned the importance of bringing cleats. From our hiking experience, we assumed everything would get wet, so all our items were in Ziploc bags.  We respect the Trail and the outdoors – we know proper backcountry toilet procedures and pack out all our garbage.  No matter what, we make sure someone knows where we are and when we should be home.  Cell phones don’t work in the mountains.

What we learned about each other

Dawn and Terry on a snowy Trail section in Alberta

We learned to be patient, and to respect and appreciate the value of each other’s personalities and opinions.  Terry loves high-country hiking with majestic views.  I don’t.  I get vertigo and love valley bottoms, creek beds and magically deep forests. I like to hike with the end goal in mind, competitively travelling for speed.  Terry likes to stop and enjoy the trip, to take in the views and the history.  Our journey on the Trail taught us to compromise, to do and appreciate things that might bore or frighten the other, and as a result, we grew in trust.

Most of all, this experience helped us remember why we loved each other, and reminded us that getting older is the best reason to live out your dreams and adventures.