Canada 2017

Meet two women crossing The Great Trail, Canada's epic new 24,000-km adventure

Sarah Jackson and Dianne Whelan are criss-crossing the country from opposite ends

Sarah Jackson and Dianne Whelan are criss-crossing the country from opposite ends

Sarah Jackson and Dianne Whelan: two women both on The Great Trail (Jackson, Whelan)

Next Summer, as Canada celebrates its sesquicentennial, the world's longest recreational trail will open in Canada, connecting the country from coast to coast to coast.

Only one person has completed the monumental challenge of crossing the country by foot along The Great Trail: back in 2013, Dana Meise completed a six-year, 16,000-kilometre trek (and he's still on the trail). Now, two different women starting on opposite ends of the country are on their own cross-Canada adventure — and each for a different reason.

Sarah Jackson, a 25-year-old sociology student from Edmonton, started the eastbound journey from Victoria, while Dianne Whelan, a 50-year-old filmmaker and writer from Garden Bay, B.C., embarked from the opposite end of the trail in St. John's.

Both Sarah Jackson (left) and Dianne Whelan (right) find time to put their feet up. ((Jackson, Whelan))

Both women began their treks in the summer of 2015, both are currently (somewhere!) in Ontario, and both have heard of each other, although they've never met.

"I think we both hoped we'd connect as we crossed paths, but we missed each other," Jackson says. "I'm farther east and she's farther west now, so no high five unfortunately! Hopefully at some point we'll get to meet each other, and that would be really cool."

All about The Great Trail

The Great Trail (Trans Canada Trail)
  • Formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail, The Great Trail has been under construction since 1992.
  • Upon completion, it will be the longest recreational trail in the world at 24,000 km.
  • The second and third longest trails are the American Discovery Trail at 8,138 km and the Grand Italian Trail at 6,166 km.
  • Four out of five Canadians live within 30 minutes of the trail.
  • There is no one owner: provincial and regional organizations, along with thousands of volunteers, operate and maintain the sections of the trail that comprise the whole, making it not only the largest trail in the world, but also one of the largest volunteer projects ever undertaken in Canada.

Seeing Canada in a different way

While Jackson and Whelan have the trail in common, their personal journeys differ.

Having recently finished her undergrad degree, Jackson was seeking adventure and looking at long distance walks around the world. The Great Trail offered a chance to "see Canada in a different way," she says. "The country I call home, but barely know."

Going into 150 years of Confederation, I thought it was a time to reflect on who we are and where we're from. This is also a story of reconciliation.- Dianne Whelan

Whelan makes adventure films; her work has taken her up Mount Everest and across the High Arctic. The concept of the world's longest trail fascinated her, and she loved the metaphor of a path that connects Canada's manifold communities from west to east to north. As a filmmaker, the story was irresistible: she took to the trail and is filming every step of the way.

When we reached Jackson on her cell phone (which she uses for navigating, keeping in touch with family and, when possible, a daily Instagram post), she was nearing Portland, Ont., on a part of the trail where sounds of traffic occasionally zoomed past in the background. Jackson hikes 25 to 40 kilometres a day and sticks to a strict "no-ride" rule: all of her kilometres are walked, except for when logistics like ferry crossings are needed.

Even in 2015 when she was "smoked out" of the trail due to B.C. forest fires, she hitched a ride back to where she'd left off when it was safe to return, to be sure to fill in the gap and stay true to her goal.

Views from The Great Trail, from Sarah Jackson (left) and Dianne Whelan (right) (Jackson, Whelan)

While Jackson is doing a 12,000-plus-kilometre, west-to-east version of the trail, Whelan​ is covering every available centimetre of the 24,000-kilometre trail, which winds north into the Northwest Territories and Yukon. To hike (and bike and paddle) the trail in its entirety, Whelan gave up her home, her car, and "all of my bills so the income I do make could be diverted into this project."

The dedication and immersion is remarkable — Whelan started this project with the title 500 Days in the Wild, but having now passed the 500-day mark with most of the country ahead of her, it's clear she has many more days to go. "I am the turtle," Whelan laughs. "I retired my jackrabbit the day I started this journey."

Hiking through history

For Jackson, exploring the country has meant encountering Canada's past in person. "I think what makes [The Great Trail] so special is the fact that it ties not only us to the land, but the history. I've walked through places that I had read about in class, but didn't connect with."

Sarah Jackson's tent (left) and Dianne Whelan's (right), on The Great Trail. (Jackson, Whelan)

Whelan, too, has history in mind. "Going into 150 years of Confederation, I thought it was a time to reflect on who we are and where we're from. This is also a story of reconciliation."

As she travels, Whelan is connecting with as many Indigenous people as she can and has filmed exchanges with Mi'kmaq and Cree so far. "This journey is a sort of a way of remembering," says Whelan. "I show up and I say sorry and I learn."

And she films — 100 hours of footage already. Every six weeks or so, her producing partner joins her on the trail to dump the footage onto hard drives, one of which gets sent to their editor in Toronto, who is cutting the documentary as they go.

Alone together

Both women cite the kindness of strangers as a highlight of travelling solo, and when asked about each other, the two women feel a mutual admiration.

"She was smart because the wind will always be at her back," says Whelan of Jackson's eastbound journey. "I thought it was very romantic to go from east to west because I'd be following the sun. But I've been cheering Sarah on since she started and now that it's two women doing this, quite frankly I just love it."

Water side and waterways on the Great Trail, Sarah Jackson (left) and Dianne Whelan (right). (Jackson, Whelan)

For her part, Jackson has had company for many stretches of the trail.

"Friends and family join me, I've walked with strangers who I found ahead of time, and people who I've just met along the way who have come for a couple hours at a time."

Jackson's parents have joined her — her dad just left after two weeks with her — and she hopes her family will meet her in Newfoundland at the end of the journey, which she guesses will be some time in April. The support and presence of the people in her life would bring her travels full circle. 

"Some of the folks who've walked with me along the way, I'd love for them to walk at the end with me," she says.

Corrections

  • We initially reported that no one had previously completed the trail, however Dana Meise did complete the trail as it existed in 2013.
    Dec 14, 2016 11:24 AM ET