Magic is real, and it’s found on the Great Trail

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“It heard me rustle and above leaves
Soon did its flight pursue,
Still waking summer's melodies
And singing as it flew.”

John Clare, “The Cuckoo”

27,000 kms.

That’s the distance of the longest recreational trail in the world. 27,000 km is the length of Highway 401 placed end to end 33 times. It is the length of the Great Wall of China and then another 6 km.

27,000 km is what Sonya Richmond and Sean Morton will have hiked, kayaked, and explored in four years on the Great Trail of Canada.

Completed in 2017, the Great Trail connects all 13 provinces and territories (PHOTO: Come Walk With Us)

In 2019, the couple resigned from their jobs and sold their house to embark on the Great Trail, a cross-Canada path that spans all 13 provinces and territories. Both nature and birding advocates, Richmond and Morton of Come Walk With Us undertook the challenge to discover firsthand the beauty of their homeland and to promote the conservation of birds and their habitats, part of their Hike4Birds initiative.

Adventuring through the Great White North on foot

Come Walk With Us is both the name of their hike and an invitation for others to join them to explore the natural environment beyond their front doors.

“We were looking for a balance between the digital and natural world,” Richmond told us in an INNterview. She was getting disaffected with her desk job, tired of being confined indoors and staring at a computer screen all stay.

Morton (left) and Richmond (right) left their jobs to become full-time campers on the Trail (PHOTO: Come Walk With Us)

Formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail, the Great Trail was completed in 2017 to coincide with Canada’s 150th anniversary. Having several medium-length hikes under their belts — including 800 km along the Camino Frances in 2016 and 2017 — Richardson and Morton were encouraged to venture on their longest pilgrimage yet.

“We thought, ‘Let’s go for it!’” said Richmond.

“‘Let’s explore our own country, and along the way, we’ll try and share as much of the beauty and natural diversity we see.’”

A typical itinerary for the Come Walk With Us duo is as follows: the two wake up at dawn (“Or when the birds wake us up,” said Richmond) and get on the trail by 7:30 AM, hiking for nine to ten hours until the late afternoon, carrying about 50 lbs of provisions (replenished at supply points along the way). Richmond and Morton then scope for a safe, private location — ideally with a source of water — to set up camp, make dinner, and launder clothes.

The rest of the night is devoted to social outreach: for hours, the couple blogs about their reflections about the trail and update their social media accounts with photographic highlights of the hike that day. According to Richmond, this process takes them well into midnight, at which they retire. They do it all over again the next morning.

Richmond and Morton aren’t always on the hiking trail though.

“We do occasionally take a day off,” Richmond said. “About once a week, we go into a motel or organized campground to recharge our devices.”

Richmond typically carries 50 lbs of equipment for the Trail (PHOTO: Come Walk With Us) 

Birds of a feather walk together

The natural landmarks, the local flora and fauna, that the couple encounters are extensively documented on Come Walk With Us’ social media channels. Richmond said she has always loved animals, but during her undergraduate studies, she fell in love with ornithology, a love that would propel her to study birds for her master’s and PhD. She would eventually work for a non-profit organization for the conservation of birds.

According to Richmond, birds are an excellent port of entry into nature exploration, especially for the younger generation, whom she said is drifting further and further apart from the natural environment. 

“You can use your phone for citizen science: it’s a way to bridge the digital world with the natural one.”

To the young and old alike, she suggests downloading nature exploration apps like iNaturalist to engage in “treasure hunts” outdoors, sharing observations and images with like-minded nature lovers.

“It makes a difference to conservation, which is another way to have a meaningful connection with nature, but it’s also fun, like a game.”

Richmond and a rainbow in Newfoundland (PHOTO: Come Walk With Us)

There is a phenomenon known in the birding community called “the unicorn effect,” coined by American birder Chris Cooper. This effect is felt when one encounters for the first time a bird they have known only through field guides, but suddenly takes on the mystique and surrealism of a mythical creature.

It is something Richmond and Morton have both experienced regularly on the trail.

“It’s always super exciting to find something new,” she said, recalling the time she and her partner encountered a great horned owl in Nova Scotia. “It was completely unexpected because we rarely see owls. Seeing a great horned owl for the first time in real life was amazing.”

Trail magic: chanced upon, not conjured

Even though Richmond and Morton are always prepared and efficient, they still enlist the occasional help of strangers on their excursions, assistance that usually emerges at the most opportune moment, according to Richmond.

“We wouldn’t’ve been able to do this without the random kindness of strangers,” she said. “Everywhere we hike, the kindness of the local people has been amazing.”

Richmond said she and Morton are much indebted to the strangers they meet along the way (PHOTO: Daniel Baylis)

On the hiking trail, this kind of accidental fortune has a name: trail magic. The Trek defines trail magic as “an unexpected occurrence that lifts a hiker’s spirits and inspires awe or gratitude.”

“Trail magic may be as simple as being offered a candy bar by a passing hiker or spotting an elusive species of wildlife.”

For the Come Walk With Us couple, a significant incident of trail magic happened to them in Magnetawan, Ontario, where strangers hosted Richmond and Morton in a vacant cottage on their property. It was a serendipitous spell of trail magic.

“It had rained for three days prior, and everything we had was soaked,” she said. “Being able to have this private area where there was a baking sun, and we could dry everything was one of the best things we could have had.”

Despite the pandemic, there has been no dearth of trail magic along the Great Trail, according to the Come Walk With Us duo.

“Even within the context of challenging and uncertain circumstances, people were fantastic this year,” Richmond said. “They reached out to us, they offered us water and food and housing, completely physically distanced.”

The pandemic had only compounded the usual hurdles encountered on the hiking trail: there were times that supply points were shut due to reduced hours, there were times that locations that appeared on the map turned out to be permanently closed upon arrival. Richmond and Morton had set out to complete both Ontario and Québec this year, but only managed to hike through Ontario’s trails. Yet through all the peaks and troughs of their 27,000 km quest, human compassion keeps them going.

“There are challenges to this hike, but we have also seen the best of what people have to offer on the trail.”

Through the viewfinder: Morton and Richmond captured by fellow photographer Daniel Baylis (PHOTO: Daniel Baylis) 

To the eager novice hoping to start their first foray into hiking, Richmond suggests starting small: going on short hikes, then graduating up to weekend-long hikes, and so on. What’s important, according to her, is getting outside and fostering a curiosity for nature.

“The planet and the birds need our help,” she said. “In order for us to do that, we have to know what’s out there, and we have to love it. People aren’t going to protect what they don’t understand or love.”

Richmond was speaking to us from London, Ontario, where she will remain working full-time until winter thaws — ideally, in March, she told us — and the Trail is hospitable to hikers again.

In the meantime, Richmond and Morton will celebrate the holidays with their loved ones in the west coast via Zoom. After all, the vagaries of the pandemic are matched only by the vagaries of the great outdoors.

“You can never predict what’s going to happen on the Trail. It’s always something different.”

Richmond engulfed by autumnal foliage in Newfoundland (PHOTO: Come Walk With Us)

Wiki Production Code: A0437

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