LAKELAND, Alta - There is an old saying that goes something like this – “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” - Lao Tzo. For Sonya Richmond and Sean Morton that step was taken three years ago when they divested themselves of their worldly possessions and began an epic journey on foot, across Canada.
The couple started in Cape Spear, NL in 2019, setting out to explore the country by hiking the Trans Canada Trail System. Travelling when the first signs of spring appear and hiking until the snow flies, it is no small undertaking. The trail encompasses 24,000 km and is the world’s longest network of recreational trails spanning from the Atlantic to Pacific to Arctic oceans.
Thousands of miles later and well into their fifth pair of hiking boots each, the couple found themselves in Alberta’s Lakeland hiking along the Iron Horse Trail earlier this month.
“The Iron Horse Trail is absolutely beautiful,” Richmond told Lakeland Today as the couple were enjoying a brief stopover in Smoky Lake July 7, before taking to the trail once again with Vancouver Island their planned destination by late fall. “The scenery is gorgeous, and I think that is one of the things that struck me the most, the Prairies are completely under-appreciated and stunning,” she said of their experience along the local trail.
There were several factors that eventually led them to begin this journey. Richmond had a desk job and while she enjoyed the work, she began to feel the digital world was swallowing up everything that was important to her. One could say she increasingly heard the call of the wild and a nagging desire to reconnect with nature, something the office environment was not providing.
Additionally, the couple was helping to raise a younger family member who was suffering from a video game addiction.
“He was basically skipping high school, lost his friends. He was just completely sucked into the world of video gaming.”
The way they got him to finish high school was to send him to an outdoor school where he unplugged and was immersed in nature. He thrived. He finished high school, graduated and he did well, Richmond said of the experience.
Richmond and Morton, who has a background in Canadian history and is a keen photographer, had always had a shared passion for hiking.
“We hiked the Camino in Spain and we liked that so much we went back and hiked across France the next year and then we walked across Portugal. When we were there, so many people said, ‘You’re Canadian, you’re from Canada, you’re from one of the most beautiful countries on earth, why are you walking in Europe, why are not walking across your own country."
It was a question so often asked of them that they were soon asking themselves the same thing.
“It kind of planted the seed and we thought why we don’t do this? If we are going to do something this big, we would like to share it with others and try and inspire others to build that reconnection with nature; we’ve seen firsthand how important that is.”
And so, the adventure of a lifetime began. ‘Come Walk With Us’ was born, and the couple have invited people to share their journey by following them online via their 'Come Walk With Us’ website Come Walk With Us | On the Trans Canada Trail, blog, and social media as they showcase the many miles they have already travelled and the many more yet to conquer.
Typically, they travel upwards of 50 km or more daily depending on the nature of the terrain. They camp as much as possible, moving from campground to campground along the way, stopping to re-supply with water and food in nearby communities and spending a night in a motel here and there to shower and recharge the various electronic equipment they carry with them to record their journey.
“I started a bird biologist, so I love birds and we have made that part of our hike – to encourage people to connect with nature though birds because they are everywhere,” Richmond said. “Literally, no matter who you are, where you live it is pretty much impossible to go outside without seeing or hearing at least one bird. Even if you are mobility-challenged, and you can’t get out of the house a lot, if you can put a bird feeder up on your deck you can watch them from inside. So, it is a way to connect with nature that is open to everyone.”
The couple are especially interested in encouraging youth to get involved and establish a connection with nature and empower them to make a difference through citizen science.
“In particular, we are encouraging people to use an app called iNaturalist – it allows young people to use their phones to identify what they are seeing in nature. So, it is creating this link between the digital landscape that a lot of us now inhabit and the natural one that is out there.”
People take a photo of something they see in nature, be it an insect or a bird or even a wildflower. They upload the picture using the iNaturalist platform and receive a series of photographs helping them to identify what they have photographed. Through sharing their photos with others, users are helping to turn their observations in nature into data that helps monitor wildlife populations, for example, and they do not need to travel across the country to do it.
“Just look in your own backyards; there’s amazing stuff there, amazing nature,” Richmond encouraged. “You can make a difference to conservation by basically going outside and finding really cool things in the natural world.”
Their journey has also been about the human connection, and they have quickly learned in their travels along the Trans Canada Trail System that people are generous and caring and genuinely interested in sharing their stories of the natural world around them and their views on conservation.
“The people out here are absolutely amazing. The random acts of kindness, the generosity of strangers, that is what has gotten us this far and we are really just trying to show people Canada is beautiful, it’s amazing and the people in it are kind and generous and good and there is hope.”
Richmond said they loved walking the Iron Horse Trail, describing it as offering up boundless opportunities for wildlife viewing along the way. Morton has captured stunning photographs of their hike through the Lakeland.
“There seems to be a very strong and friendly culture of ATV users along the trail – everybody has been really nice to us, really friendly. They’ve stopped and checked that we are ok. That makes walking a trail really enjoyable.”
What’s next after they reach Victoria later this year? Well, 2023 will see them back in Alberta, setting out from Fort Saskatchewan to follow the trail system to Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories.
“Originally, we planned to be done this whole thing in three years. It is now year four and we’re in Alberta but that’s okay – it’s about the journey, it’s about the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met. It’s absolutely fantastic being out here and so we’re okay with our slow progress.”