In 2015, independent Canadian filmmaker Dianne Whelan set out on what is now known as the Trans Canada Trail, a nearly 17,000-mile recreational trail that encompasses green trails, roads and waterways from the Atlantic to the Pacific and north to the Arctic Ocean leads. On August 1, Ms. Whelan, 56, accompanied by her parents, partner and friends, walked the last few meters to be the first person to complete the continuous path (minus a few branch paths) that connects all three oceans, land and water. She plans to produce a documentary entitled “500 Days in the Wild” detailing her six years of experience.
As a director of documentaries about Mount Everest base camp and an expedition to the Arctic, Ms. Whelan had experienced extreme climates. But the Trans Canada Trail proved to be a test of their mental and emotional strength as well as their physical endurance, including encounters with bears, paddling thousands of miles alone and eating incalculable amounts of oatmeal. Before the pandemic, her trip included stops, often at indigenous communities where she worked with other artists. For the past year and a half she has managed it on her own, with the help of her partner Louisa Robinson, who delivered provisions.
A few days before finishing the trail, she pulled her canoe out to British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, where she usually lives north of Vancouver, to talk about her adventure. The following are excerpts from the conversation, which have been edited for the sake of clarity.
What made you decide to do the entire trail?
As a storyteller, I loved the metaphor that the path is that umbilical cord that connected us all. When I left, I thought that we forgot everything we need to know as a culture, at least in Western culture. That we had somehow lost our connection to the web of life and to the future. I called it an ecological pilgrimage.
Which kind of transportation system did you use?
I paddled about 10,000 kilometers (more than 6,200 miles). I paddled on Lake Superior. I paddled from Alberta to the Arctic Ocean. And right now I’m on the Salish Sea. When I’m not paddling, I’m on land roads. Old railroad lines are great because they never have a steep incline. In winter I went snowshoeing or cross-country skiing and pulled a sledge. Some of them were dirt roads and in those cases I went mountain biking. I was able to do these things because of human kindness. It was just about meeting people, sharing the story, and people were like, “Hey, Uncle Joe is going this way, he can take your canoe.” It was very basic. I heard this beautiful story from an elder in the Mi’kmaq indigenous community, Danny Paul, who said we were a bit like trees. On the surface, each tree looks like it is standing on its own. Below the surface, all the trees in a forest are interconnected.
How did you manage to be alone for so long? Have you been out all the time?
I like to say that loneliness shows what a mirror cannot. I went with fear like any woman who goes into the forest. But because that fear was never justified, that fear eventually disappeared. It was a very humbling experience; Surely it is just so humiliating to paddle Lake Superior to feel like such a fragile being alone on these vast bodies of water. Something old awoke inside me and suddenly I felt more connected to life than ever before. I wasn’t water paddling, I was water paddling. You will be reminded that humans actually make up 0.001 percent of life on earth and we are part of this incredible web of life. The only things I never developed an affection for were the ticks and black flies.
Since leaving home, home has been the way. In the first few years I tried to survive the winter. One of the elders I met, a Cree woman, wrote to me saying we don’t travel in winter. That’s when you create art, share stories, prepare food. After gaining this wisdom, I was off the trail for about five weeks this winter. It’s never about athletic performance. It’s like the old fairy tale of the rabbit and the turtle. The turtle ends the journey. The rabbit will burn itself. I dropped the rabbit suit and put on the turtle shell.
Are you super fit? How did you prepare?
I’ve trained a bit, but not in a super crazy way. I did a few hikes of up to 10 kilometers every day with a little weight on my back. I just started the journey slowly. I also prepared myself by taking a “bush medicine” course so that if I was injured, I could take care of myself out here. You will get in shape over time. I’m still waiting for this superfit thing to happen.
How does this trip compare to other extreme adventures that you have been on?
They are all about merging traditional indigenous wisdom with science and technology to keep people safe through danger. The great thing about science and technology is, yes, we have these amazing satellite phones and GPSs 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 of this technology stops working and at that point it’s the wisdom of the elders that keeps you alive – for it’s their understanding and their relationship with the country and their experience that has been passed on to them over several generations. Everest was exactly the same: very few come to this mountain without a Sherpa. I have great hope that if we combine traditional indigenous knowledge with science and technology, we can find sustainable ways to live with the 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. Ever. All day long I had a snack bag of trail mix and dried fruit and cheese and crackers and nuts. And chocolate, of course, and I have a thing for gummy bears. Dinner was instant noodles, noodles, carbohydrates. At first I was nervous about bears and trying to keep a clean camp. I’ve met many, many, many bears and 98 percent were nice and wonderful to watch. I never brought 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 came into my camp. My partner was with me. She picked up the gun and fired a few warning shots, and we quickly got into the canoe and found we hadn’t spilled our coffee.
Indigenous children disappeared in Canada
The remains of allegedly indigenous children were discovered at the sites of defunct boarding schools in Canada. Here’s what you should know:
- Background: Around 1883, Indigenous children in many parts of Canada were forced to attend boarding schools as part of a program of forced assimilation. Most of these schools were run by churches, and all of them prohibited the use of indigenous languages and cultural practices, often through violence. Illnesses and sexual, physical, and emotional abuse were widespread. An estimated 150,000 children passed through the schools between their opening and closing in 1996.
- The missing children: A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up as part of a government apology and settlement over the schools, concluded that at least 4,100 students died during their visit, many from abuse or neglect, others from illness or accident. In many cases, the families never learned the fate of their descendants, now known as “the missing children”.
- The discoveries: In May, members of the First Nation Tk’emlups te Secwepemc found 215 bodies in the Kamloops School, which was run by the Roman Catholic Church until 1969, after installing a ground penetrating radar. In June, an indigenous group announced that the remains of up to 751 people, mostly children, had been found in unmarked graves on the site of a former boarding 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 believes the number of missing children is “well over 10,000”.
- Sorry and next steps: The commission asked the Pope to apologize for the role of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis stopped in front of you, but the Archbishop of Vancouver apologized on behalf of his archdiocese. Canada has officially apologized and offered financial and other assistance in the search, but indigenous leaders believe the government still has a long way to go.
Any indulgences that you look forward to?
Well, actually a toilet. And eat. I would say my bed, but I managed to sleep pretty comfortably in my tent. I joke that I pitch my tent indoors for the first few weeks.
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