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Across rivers and tundra, adventurers take on Canada's Great Trail

The 24,000-kilometre Great Trail stretching across Canada and north to the Arctic Ocean is expected to be fully connected this fall. Meet some of the Canadians who have navigated the route also known as the Trans Canada Trail.

24,000-kilometre route expected to be fully connected this fall

For days, Dianne Whelan has been paddling her canoe along the rocky shores of Lake Superior and is only part way along a 1,000-kilometre section of the Trans Canada Trail, an epic route that is also known as The Great Trail.

She admits that the idea of paddling the largest freshwater lake in the world was intimidating, but she is relishing the remoteness of the area. 

"To be able to dip my cup into the lake and drink is a pretty special thing today," she says.

(500 Days in the Wild)

Remote camping

Whelan has been mostly camping along the route. The Vancouver filmmaker is documenting her journey through a project called 500 Days in the Wild. But Whelan admits her timeline is off. She's already spent two years on the trail and expects it will take her another two years to complete it.

(500 Days in the Wild)

'The land that connects us all'

Whelan, whose family heritage includes Mi'kmaq ancestry, has been connecting with Indigenous communities during her journey.

"I think it is important to remember that the 150 years is but a small chapter in the storybook of this land, and I thought it would be nice while we are celebrating this that I go out and make a story about the people that came before the settlers came." 

She sees her journey and the film she is making as a act of reconciliation. 

(500 Days in the Wild)

Longest recreational trail in the world

The route is 24,000 kilometres long and is billed as the longest recreational trail in the world.

It crosses a variety of landscapes, from urban centres to remote wilderness. People can hike, cycle, snowmobile, ski and ride horses through its many sections. Some of the route follows recreational trails, old railway lines, roadways and paddle routes. About one-quarter of the cross-Canada trail is on water.  

(500 Days in the Wild)

The beginning of The Great Trail

From the outset, the trail was a bold vision. The goal was to create a continuous route that would stretch from the shores of the Pacific to the Atlantic and north to the Arctic Ocean.  

The non-profit Trans Canada Trail was launched in 1992 and organizers had hoped to have the trail fully connected by 2000. The timeline proved too ambitious.  

The trail has 432 individual sections and the goal now is to have them all connected by this fall. Officials thought it would cost $400 million to build the trail, and while they don't  have a final tally, Paul Labarge, chair of the trail, says the original estimate was likely "light."

The Great Trail was previously known as the Trans-Canada Trail. (The Great Trail.ca)

Sarah Jackson

When 25-year-old Sarah Jackson finished her undergraduate degree, she wanted to experience adventure. So in June 2015, the Edmontonian set off from Victoria, B.C., with the goal of hiking across the country. Since she was travelling alone, she used a locator beacon designed to alert rescuers if she ran into trouble.

(Sarah Jackson/Sarahrose Daily)

Solo traveller

Because not all of the Trans Canada Trail was connected, and some sections were through lakes and rivers, Jackson made some detours to continue her trek.  

(Sarah Jackson/Sarahrose Daily)

12,000-km hike

Jackson's route was 12,000 kilometres and each day she would hike between six and 11 hours with a 30-kilogram pack on her back. Nearly two years after setting out on her journey, she reached St. John's on May 30, 2017.

(Sarah Jackson/Sarahrose Daily)

Dana Meise

As a forestry technician, Dana Meise frequently works in remote and densely forested areas, which helped him prepare to take on the Trans Canada Trail.

Originally from Prince George, B.C., Meise has a life-long fascination with geography and exploration. After his father suffered a stroke that left him unable to walk, Meise promised to walk across Canada for him and started hiking the trail in 2008.

(Chris Corday/CBC)

A multi-year trek

Meise spent six months of every year on the trail and finished the last section of the east-to-west route when he arrived in Victoria in 2013. Meise didn't paddle through any sections, so when he came to an area where there was no trail, he says he simply "bushwhacked" through the woods.

(Dana Meise)

One route to go

This summer, Meise is finishing the most northerly section of the trail and will be hiking from Dawson City, Yukon, to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., where he will reach the Arctic Ocean.

Unlike the early days when he used to carry a pack, he now pulls a lot of his gear behind him on a cart with wheels. After his trek is complete, he plans to write a book and make a film about his journey.

(Dana Meise)

Chrysta Wallin

As a kayak guide, Chrysta Wallin has plenty of experience on the water. Since last fall, she has been volunteering with the B.C. Marine Trail Network Association, a group that worked to develop one of the newest sections of the Trans Canada Trail: the Salish Sea Marine Trail. After Wallin found out no one had paddled the entire 257-kilometre route, she set out in May to challenge herself and do it on her own.  

(Chrysta Wallin)

Have paddle, will travel

Wallin didn't own a kayak so her first challenge was crowdfunding so she could purchase one. The route goes north from Victoria along Vancouver Island, then across the Georgia Strait and along the coast to Vancouver. She says before the trip, the worst-case scenarios played through her mind, but the waters were calm and she finished her paddle in three weeks instead of the month she had planned.

(Chrysta Wallin)

Pristine nature

Wallin's route took her through the B.C. Gulf Islands where she saw a lot of wildlife, including seals. She says travelling alone was incredible, and described living in nature as "probably most the human thing" she has ever done.

(Chrysta Wallin)