Award-winning author and filmmaker Dianne Whelan is on the move, hiking, biking, paddling and camping her way across the Trans Canada Trail - and she’s chronicling it all for a documentary. She spent the first two months of her adventure in Newfoundland, making her way across the island in July and August. In September, Downhome caught up with Dianne, as she was taking a break from paddling the Bras d’Or Lake in Nova Scotia.
“I really believe that the trail is quite symbolic. It’s like an umbilical cord that goes throughout our entire country and connects us all. And Canada is a beautiful country, filled with a lot of diverse cultures and ethnicities,” she explains. “But one thing that we all share… no matter what our differences are in culture and food, despite the fact that we’re all Canadian, what we share is a love of this land.”
At almost 24,000 km long, the Trans Canada Trail is the longest trail in the world. Though it isn’t officially open yet, people are already walking it. It’s expected to be complete by 2017, when Dianne hopes to wrap her project, “500 Days in the Wild.”
On July 1, Dianne began her walk in downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland by attending the Beaumont-Hamel ceremony before heading to the old train station for Mile Zero. Dianne chose to start her trip in Newfoundland in part because of her family’s connection to the province (her father is from Newfoundland), and because “it made sense to start in the east, which is sort of how the migration of people happened across this continent, anyway,” says Dianne.
She says she was surprised to meet so many families along the trail and was repeatedly overwhelmed by the kindness that was shown to her. People were quick to invite her into their homes and share stories and food, including her first taste of bakeapples. Some even offered her a bed for the night.
“I had a saying for Newfoundland by the time I was done, which was ‘the harder the rock, the softer the heart.’ Because the trail is hard, it’s rail rock, so it’s a hard, hard trail,” she says. “But the kindness of the people that I met more than counterbalanced the roughness of the trail.”
As a result of the hospitality shown to her, Dianne says she felt a sense of safety as she traversed the trail, mostly alone.
“I spent 52 nights out there and camping mostly alone, and there wasn’t one moment where I felt afraid. Ever. That’s a pretty amazing thing in this world right now,” she says.
Not everyone could take to life on the move the way Dianne has. Having spent years bouncing from one province to the next, in a way her life up to this point has been preparation for this epic journey. She attended high school in British Columbia and studied at McGill University in Quebec; she’s lived in Toronto, and for the last 15 years she’s made her home in eastern Canada.
“I really think Canada’s my home,” says Dianne. “Because I’ve always sort of lived all over it. I’ve moved, I don’t know, probably 50 times in my life. So I didn’t grow up in one place…So I really feel at home everywhere.”
Dianne has also travelled extensively; she’s hiked to base camp at Mount Everest and accompanied the Canadian Forces to the Arctic filming documentaries. Her experience in these colder climes, ironically, may have helped prepare her for Newfoundland’s summer this year, infamous for the bitter cold and rain throughout July.
“It was a hard summer in Newfoundland. And when I got to Gander, there were three days of rain. I didn’t go anywhere for three days. I waited for the rain to stop,” says Dianne.
Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, Dianne still found beauty in the scenery as she made her way across the island. One of her favourite spots for sightseeing was the Gaff Topsails. Located in Newfoundland’s interior south of the Baie Verte Peninsula, the old railway settlement is now abandoned except for a few cabins.
“It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” says Dianne.
The Big Finish
Dianne has a few rules about her trip, including that there’s no rush to get to the finish line. Back when Dianne was planning her route, she gave her project the optimistic completion date of 2017. Now though, she’s pretty certain her trip will take much longer than 500 days.
“It sounded great in principle a year ago, when I knew I would be launching off on this project and it needed a name,” Dianne says, adding she now estimates the trip will take her double that time.
“This isn’t the Amazing Race. This is actually very much about being mindful and being present…Part of the problem with humanity is that we’ve got into this attitude that we dominate nature and it’s ours to control and to use and to excavate and mine,” says Dianne, adding she’s putting those thoughts aside to focus on what she feels is important in life.
“It’s learning how to slow down and respect something that’s just so much more powerful than you are. So, to me, I’m going to do this, but if it takes me 500 days or it takes me 700 days - it takes me 1,000 days - I’ll be out there doing it. But I’m going to do it with a lot of respect for nature. And in doing so, ensuring my safety, really.” - By Elizabeth Whitten
Keep up with Dianne’s journey along the Trans Canada Trail by following her blog at 500daysinthewild.com.