Learning to Love Solitude (and Hate Oatmeal) on a 15,534-Mile Canadian Trek
In 2015, independent Canadian filmmaker Dianne Whelan embarked on what is now known as the Trans-Canada Trail, a nearly 17,000-mile recreational trail that spans green trails, roads and waterways in the Atlantic to Pacific and north to the Arctic Ocean. On August 1, along with her parents, partner and friends, Mrs Whelan, 56, walked the last few meters to become the first person to complete the continuous trail (minus a few spur trails) that connects the three oceans of land and water. She plans to produce a documentary, “500 Days in the Wild”, detailing her six-year experience.
As a documentary maker of Mount Everest base camp and an Arctic expedition, Ms. Whelan had experienced extreme climates. But the Trans Canada Trail tested his mental and emotional strength, as well as his physical perseverance, including encounters with bears, thousands of solo kilometers, and countless amounts of oatmeal. Until the pandemic, her journey included stops along the way, often in Indigenous communities, where she collaborated with other artists. For a year and a half, she has been doing it alone, with the help of her partner, Louisa Robinson, who provides her with the food.
A few days before completing the course, she hoisted her canoe ashore on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, where she is normally based, just north of Vancouver, to talk about her adventure. The following are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity.
What made you decide to do the whole route?
As a storyteller, I really loved the metaphor of the trail being that umbilical cord that connected us all. When I left I thought that whatever we needed to know we had forgotten as a culture, at least in western culture. That somehow we had lost our connection to the web of life and the future. I called it an ecological pilgrimage.
What means of transport did you use?
About 10,000 kilometers (over 6,200 miles) I rowed. I paddled on Lake Superior. I paddled from Alberta to the Arctic Ocean. And right now I’m on the Salish Sea. When I am not paddling I am on land trails. Old railway lines are great because they never have a steep slope. In the winter, I would snowshoe or cross-country ski pulling a sled. Some were dirt roads and in those cases I rode a mountain bike. I was able to do these things because of human kindness. It was just meeting people, sharing the story, and people being like, “Hey, Uncle Joe drives this way, he can take your canoe.” It was very popular. I learned this beautiful story from an elder in the Mi’kmaq Aboriginal community, Danny Paul, who said that we are like trees. On the surface, each tree appears to be alone. Below the surface, all the trees in a forest are connected.
How did you manage to be alone for so long? Were you there continuously?
I like to say that loneliness reveals what a mirror cannot. I left with fear like any woman who goes out into the woods. But because this fear was never founded, this fear eventually disappeared. It was a very humbling experience; Certainly paddling on Lake Superior is so humbling to feel so fragile alone on these vast waters. Something old woke up in me and all of a sudden I started to feel more connected to life than I ever had before. I was not on the water paddling, I was with the water paddling. We remind you that humans actually represent 0.001% of life on Earth and that we are part of this incredible web of life. The only things I never developed affection for were ticks and black flies.
Since leaving, the house has been the trail. The first few years I tried to get through the winter. One of the old people I had met, a Cree woman, wrote to me and told me that we do not travel in the winter. This is when you create art, share stories, cook food. After getting that bit of wisdom, I was off track for about five weeks this winter. It’s never about athletic success. It’s like the old tale of the rabbit and the turtle. The turtle ends the trip. The rabbit burns itself. I dropped the bunny costume and put on the turtle shell.
Are you super fit? How did you prepare?
I did a little practice but not in a super crazy way. I hiked daily for up to 10 miles with a little weight on my back. I just started the journey slowly. I also prepared myself by taking a bush medic course so that in the event of an injury here, I could take care of myself. You train yourself as you go. I’m still waiting for this super fit thing to happen.
How does this trip compare to other extreme adventures you’ve been on?
They are all about the infusion of traditional Indigenous wisdom with science and technology to help people navigate danger to their safety. The great thing about science and technology is, yeah, we have these amazing satellite and GPS phones and high tech stuff. But when you’re about 200 miles from the North Pole and you hit a hurricane and it’s minus 80, all that technology stops working and at that point it’s the wisdom of the ancients that keeps you alive. – because it is their understanding and their relationship with the land and their experience that has been passed down to them through several generations. Everest was exactly the same: very few climb this mountain without a Sherpa. I have great hope that if we blend traditional Indigenous wisdom with science and technology, we can find sustainable ways to live with Earth and all life on Earth.
Do you ever want to see oatmeal or trail mix again?
I will never eat oatmeal again in my life. Already. Throughout the day I had a snack bag with trail mix, dried fruit, cheese, crackers and nuts. And of course, chocolate, and I have a thing for gelatin bears. Dinner consisted of instant noodles, pasta, and carbs. At first I was nervous about bears and tried to keep a clean camp. I met lots and lots and lots of bears and 98% were kind and wonderful to watch. I never carried anything other than bear spray for most of the trip. When I went to the High Arctic I carried a gun and had to use it once because a bear entered my camp. My partner was with me. She took the gun and fired a few warning shots and we quickly got carried away in the canoe and realized we hadn’t spilled our coffee.
Indigenous children have gone missing in Canada
The remains of what are believed to be Indigenous children have been found at the sites of former residential schools in Canada. Here’s what you need to know:
- Context: Around 1883, Aboriginal children in many parts of Canada were forced to attend residential schools as part of a program of forced assimilation. Most of these schools were run by churches and all prohibited the use of indigenous languages and cultural practices, often through violence. Illnesses, as well as sexual, physical and emotional abuse were widespread. An estimated 150,000 children passed through schools between their opening and closing in 1996.
- Missing children: A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up as part of the government’s apology and regulation regarding schools, found that at least 4,100 students died while attending them, much from mistreatment or neglect, others from illness or accident. In many cases, families never learned of the fate of their offspring, now known as “missing children”.
- Discoveries : In May, members of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation found 215 bodies at the Kamloops school – which was operated by the Roman Catholic Church until 1969 – after using ground penetrating radar. In June, an Indigenous group said the remains of 751 people, mostly children, were found in anonymous graves at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan.
- Cultural genocide: In a 2015 report, the commission concluded that the system was a form of “cultural genocide”. Murray Sinclair, a former judge and senator who headed the commission, recently said he now believed the number of missing children was “well over 10,000”.
- Apologies and next steps: The commission asked for an apology from the Pope for the role of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis stopped by before one, but the Archbishop of Vancouver apologized on behalf of his archdiocese. Canada has officially apologized and offered financial and other support for the research, but Indigenous leaders believe the government still has a long way to go.
Indulgences you are looking forward to?
Well, a toilet actually. And the food. I would say my bed, but I have come to a place where I am comfortable enough to sleep in my tent. I joke that for the first few weeks I will pitch my tent inside.
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