There is no overland line connecting the east and westernmost points of Canada. Between these places – Mount Saint Elias in the Yukon Territory and Cape Spear in Newfoundland, if you’re curious – there is an almost infinitude of space.
It is space filled with forest, from fledgling to primeval. With rivers, that flow from three oceans to deliver unfathomable amounts of water to the largest freshwater lakes on Earth. And with contrasts: mountains, ancient and formidable, stand just a few hundred kilometres down the road from flat, dry, and desolate prairies.
Islands abound, too. One Canadian province is an island in its entirety. One half of another – Newfoundland and Labrador – is an island as well. It is this collective insistence to be apart from the mainland that interrupts any attempt at an unbroken line across the vast, infinite country.
Then, threaded through the provinces and territories containing this natural grandeur, are cultures so pronounced that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were travelling between countries rather than within one. Each is a proud and welcoming people whose distinct identities create a beautiful whole, despite the occasional deep-rooted tussle.
And perhaps most intriguingly, Canada is filled almost entirely with things that were largely unknown to me. Things like beaver tails and Timbits. Like kissing the cod and being screeched in. Or like the complex and nuanced rivalries between Francophone and Anglophone communities.
It is a rich, inviting tapestry, and the Trans-Canada highway – which runs from Victoria, British Columbia, through to St John’s, Newfoundland – is the closest thing to an unbroken line across it. Here are eight thousand kilometres of road that you’ll find filled with cars, articulated lorries, and speed limits way above those conducive to gentle exploration.
So it is that for an intrepid adventurer wanting to travel from one side of the country to the other by non-motorised means, the answer lies elsewhere.
The Great Trail was Canada’s 150th birthday present to itself. Or, technically speaking, its “Sesquicentennial of the Confederation of Canada” present.
As ideas go, it’s a wonderful one. Thousands of kilometres of dedicated track built to facilitate all the adventurous escapades the country is famous for, available for free and in full to anyone – Canadian or otherwise – providing they have the gumption and inclination to subject themselves to it.
When I first heard of the Trail back in 2013, I was filled with an immediate desire to cycle its entirety. I’d figured that adventure would unfold around me as I rode a well-tarmacked line making its relatively neat way from east to west. But it does nothing of the sort.
In fact, if you lay out a map of Canada, place your finger way out west on Vancouver, then run it eastward along the Trail, you soon end up heading northwest out of Edmonton, before circling up to the furthest reaches of the Northwest Territories. At this point – several degrees of longitude to the west of where you started – you swing yet further west into the Yukon. Then you start the eastward journey back to Edmonton. Rough calculations put this detour at around five thousand kilometres.
The observant among you would also note that the first section of this northward balloon is marked blue on the map, as are various sections near Saskatoon, Regina, and the majority of those in Ontario. Blue, of course, signifies water.
Then there are more detours south west of Toronto – the lines here look like a toddler has scribbled on the map with a green felt tip – before a good eastward push through Quebec and New Brunswick. The toddler has scribbled some more at Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, before a final blue line leads you across the sea to the island of Newfoundland. Mercifully, this one is dashed, signifying a ferry crossing rather than an expectation to set off from the mainland in a canoe.
Special mention also goes to the sections of the Trail near Medicine Hat, Alberta. Here you find several squiggles, each no bigger than punctuation marks when seen on the map, indicating sections not attached to any others and seemingly hundreds of kilometres from anything at all. Then – finally – is the lone outpost of trail on Baffin Island, stranded only slightly below the Arctic Circle.
In short, the trail doesn’t offer a particularly compelling alternative to the Trans-Canada Highway for somebody wanting to ride across – rather than around and about – the country.
It’s interesting to note that the name of the route was changed from the Trans Canada Trail to The Great Trail in 2016. Presumably to avoid accusations of false advertisement when people set off from Vancouver with expectations to be led eastward across the country, before ending up at the country’s north-westerly tip, stranded and confused.
Despite its many quirks and deviations, a curated trail running across the second biggest country in the world planted a seed in my mind that grew uninterrupted for several years. There were many reasons to ride across, most of which were convincing.
I wanted to experience Canada: to expand my knowledge of a country that, aside from Toronto, Québec City, and the road between them, was built on little more than vague stereotypes. In my mind the geography would be rugged and tree-heavy except for the anomalous Prairies, which would be rugged but free of trees. The people would be uniformly kind and regionally dressed: check shirts and beards westward of Toronto, sou’westers and galoshes to the east of Québec City.
I wanted to challenge these ludicrous stereotypes, and to replace them with opinions based on an observed reality. With stories of, and glimpses into, lives previously unknown. Into normals that would seem so unusual to me. Because although Canada is a chiefly English-speaking country firmly in the first world, where much of the surface-level culture would be very close to what I’d left behind, the deeper levels – the geography, the culture, the vibe – all of these things would be different.
I wanted to see snapshots of what it meant to be from Canada. Or to be Ontarian, Quebecois, Acadie, Nova Scotian, or whichever of the many subsets of Canadian that its citizens – reluctantly or otherwise – identify as. To better understand the tensions between the different faces of Canada, and how its people responded to them.
I wanted to experience more of the world’s generosity and inquisitiveness, to challenge the divisive notions that global events seemed so intent to push, and to confirm my suspicions that the vast majority of people in the world aren’t dickheads. I wanted to consign myself to something unknown, and to see what it contained.
There are literally billions of people in the world. Billions of futures motivated by different things; billions of pasts built on goals and memories and opinions. Having the privilege of passing through some other peoples’ normals and being afforded a glimpse into them became very motivating. As did the possibility to offer something back: to pique interests, to intrigue, and maybe even to convince someone else of the merits of a lifestyle of mild and temporary vagabondry.
Finally, I just wanted to ride my bike a really long way, as a way to scratch an itch for adventure which, left unchecked, was causing me to make some questionable life decisions. This hints at other reasons I wanted to be away, but in the spirit of a disclaimer I wrote in a magazine article just before the ride, I will spare you those details. “No one comes to a bikepacking magazine to hear a grown man ruminate on the deeper aspects of his life,” it read.
In short, I longed to be “living wherever we happened to be, with strangers becoming friends”, as Barbara Kingscote wrote in her account of riding across this great country. My hope was that by commending myself to whimsy; to an amount of time with nothing planned beyond riding toward a remote, almost abstract destination, these things would be allowed to unfold.
The rest of the book is coming soon. Keep an eye on your inbox for updates, and please spread the word!
Previous: The Fish and Chips of Human Kindness