Lessons in solitude: Adventurer nears the end of 24,000-km journey across Canada

Dianne Whelan is a documentary filmmaker working on 500 Days in the Wild, a film about her journey across The Great Trail, stretching  across 24,000 kilometres from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic oceans.

'Out here, spring is unfolding ... the seasons are my reality'

Dianne Whelan says her 24,000-kilometre trek across Canada has taught her about the importance of solitude and the power of nature. (500 Days in the Wild)

Dianne Whelan was startled awake when her tent, perched on the shore of Lesser Slave Lake, collapsed.

A black bear was pawing curiously at the tarp above her head, its claws a few inches from her mouth. She screamed and managed to scare off the animal.

Whelan is a documentary filmmaker working on 500 Days in the Wild, a film about her five-year journey on The Great Trail, which stretches 24,000 kilometres from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic oceans.

Now in the final weeks of her solo expedition, Whelan is preparing to return to a world changed by COVID-19. 

Her days, so often devoid of human interaction, had been largely untouched by the pandemic. 

"Out here, spring is unfolding," Whelan said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM as she travelled through northern Alberta this week.

"The leaves are opening up on the trees. The animals are having babies. You know, the seasons are my reality." 

Whelan has done most of the trail on her own, but the documentary filmmaker, photographer and author from B.C. said she has never felt alone.

About 7,000 kilometres of the trail is water and paddling has become her solitary passion. 

"It's the most ancient trail," she said. "When you're paddling an old route, you know that you're travelling something that probably the Indigenous people of this land have paddled for centuries, if not millennia.

'The world looked kind of crazy'

Whelan has travelled from Cappahayden, N.L., to Victoria, B.C., and cut a path through the wilds of the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

She took her first of many steps in 2015 in St. John's, N.L. 

At the time, she felt adrift. 

She had travelled the world, filming documentaries about Mount Everest and the High Arctic but her daily life had begun to feel monotonous, meaningless. 

She longed to reconnect with nature and her sense of adventure. Trekking across Canada felt like a pilgrimage. 

"I had just turned 50 and I just thought it was a good time to check out to check in, if you know what I mean. The world looked kind of crazy to me. 

"People have been living on this land for thousands of years and I thought it was time to go out, take this journey and pay my respects." 

Nearly five years later, Whelan is now in the final weeks of her journey. 

She has lived in her tent and carried her belongings on her back. She's pushed 150 pounds of bike and packs over rock, hiked through flooded bog, snowshoed through dense forest and skied across wind-blown prairie.

She never rushed. She often stopped in communities to learn from local elders. When the weather was bad, she would put up her tent and wait for the storm to pass.

We live in an economy and there had to be something more to it than that.- Dianne Whelan

The final 2,500 kilometres of her journey will bring her south, past Edmonton, over the Rockies and west to the Pacific Ocean and her home on the Sunshine Coast.

Whelan said she will be returning home with a new respect for Canada's wilderness and the cultures that have been shaped by generations on the land. 

As the pandemic interrupts the fast-paced rhythm of daily life, she hopes people will take their time in isolation to slow down, reconnect with nature and find meaning close to home. 

"The machines of commerce are constantly going and it seems really strange to suddenly see a big halt to everything. But I am seeing a lot more people outside playing with their children and fishing. 

"When I left, I really felt the need to live in a society. Right now, we live in an economy and there had to be something more to it than that."

Dianne Whelan is a Canadian filmmaker who knows a little bit about isolation. For the past five years, she's been trekking The Great Trail, the longest trail in the world, spanning 24-thousand kilometres across Canada. 7:38


Wallis Snowdon


Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from Pippa Reed


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