Interviewed by Christopher Di Raddo
Last year, Sonya Richmond and Sean Morton put their careers on hold to walk The Great Trail, a 24,000 km system of Canadian greenways, waterways, and roadways that connects the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. They did this in order to see their own country and to encourage youth to put down their screens and reconnect with nature. We asked them about their journey.
What made you decide to walk The Great Trail?
We were increasingly tired of spending our days working at desks just to pay bills and save for retirement. We had also begun to hike around the world and were repeatedly asked, “Since Canada is such a beautiful country, why doesn’t anyone hike across it?” Also, we had watched as so many people we knew spent more and more time online, on mobile devices, and in front of screens. From this we became increasingly invested in finding ways to engage youth to connect with nature and to see Canada, its diversity, cultures, history, wild spaces and natural places in a way that so few get to.
What exactly is involved in walking The Great Trail?
It took a year of planning to prepare with Sonya selling her house to pay for the venture. During our months of preparations we researched each section of the trail, and the regions we’d pass through. We rely on that information as well as trail maps, The Great Trail’s own app, and Google Maps as we trek.
Typically we carry everything we need on us—which means that our packs each weigh between 40-50 lbs. For gear we have our lightweight camping supplies such as tent, tarp, sleeping bags, water filtration system, and such. However to produce a daily blog, regular Facebook updates, and new Instagram posts we are also carrying photography gear, a drone, battery packs and a Garmin device in case of emergencies.
Each day—depending on weather, terrain, and water availability—we hike an average of 20-25 km. This number however has varied from 5 km along the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland, when we ended up scaling a cliff face on a rope in the midst of a snow storm, to as much as 50 km along the roadways in New Brunswick when we ran out of water and there seemed to be only endless stretches of private property, where we could not stop for the night.
As for our daily routine, each day usually involves us getting up around 6 or 7 am, having breakfast, packing up by around 8 am and hiking until about 5:30 pm or so. At which point we set up camp, wash clothes, wash ourselves if possible, make dinner, and filter water for the evening and the next day. Then around 8 or 9 pm—about the time you simply want to stop moving and lay down, our workday begins. It is at this time that we sit down to write our journals, draft and post the daily blog, process photographs, update our social media, and answer emails and inquiries, which typically takes us until about 1 am. If we are preparing for a presentation or finalizing an article for publication this time can be pushed even later. On a few occasions we have worked through the night and gone without sleeping
To put this in perspective—in 2019 we took, sorted and edited 139,000 pictures, wrote almost 300 blog entries (averaging 1 entry for every 25 km of trail covered), and aided in the publication of 54 articles—all while hiking across the Maritimes.
Where has this journey taken you so far? What’s been most memorable so far?
We began hiking across Canada along the 24,000 km long Great Trail, formerly the Trans Canada Trail, on June 1st, 2019. In 2019, we traveled more than 3,300 km across Newfoundland, Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, as well as Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and about 200 km into Quebec! In 2020, owing to the outbreak of Covid19, our plans had to be changed. It would be irresponsible to set out at the height of the lockdown, so we waited until the restrictions began to lift. However, even as we prepared to set out in May 2020, the provincial borders between Ontario and Quebec remained sealed. As a result, we resumed our trek in Ottawa and began heading westward. Our intention is to return to Quebec when it’s responsible to do so.
We have had so many memorable experiences along the way. Largely, it has been the overwhelming generosity, random acts of kindness, and countless words of encouragement that stand out the most. However we have also been fortunate to watch as Caribou ran across the central plateau of Newfoundland one afternoon, to be visited by a rare Pine Marten on the trail, and to wake up and find two large black bears outside of our tent one morning. We have also been lucky enough to photograph over 150 species of birds along the way as well.
What is it about the great outdoors that inspires you? How does it affect your writing?
Nature has always been the place both of us have gone to relax and put our thoughts in order. Whether it’s a quiet afternoon in the backyard, a walk through a community park, or time camping and hiking, nature is what most of us spend the majority of our year striving to spend time in.
What inspires us most is that nature is often sporadic, providing unexpected and unscripted moments. It is in the seeming randomness of events in nature that your mind is freer to make new associations, work through old problems, and reconsider everything you thought you knew. For us, time in forests seems to restore an awareness of what is essential to life, and the calmness of pastoral landscapes gives our minds and bodies time to settle back into the natural rhythms of the world in which everything seems more manageable and easier to understand.
Nature gives you space to think, free of the noise of the world—whether that is mechanical noises, or the mental clutter we seem to accumulate when we spend more time caught up in online memes or news cycles and all things which we are told are important. Writing in nature and about nature, we believe, also makes you more creative. Nature challenges you by reminding you that no matter how desperately hard you strive to represent even the most simplistic of things—a ploughed field, a tree swaying in the wind, or a trickle of water in a river—that you rarely are able to capture the essence of the moment. Because of this you have to strive again and again with nature to understand and write about it.
You are birders. What do you find most poetic about bird watching?
There is so much about birds that can be seen as poetic and inspiring. The diversity of the species, their ability to travel such long distances, the spectrum of shapes they have, the range of colours which flocks of birds can show, and of course the melodies of their songs. When you watch them, so much is easily dismissible as simply flitting and bouncing. However, as with every creature in nature there is nonetheless purpose to everything they do. So much in the birding world reduces them to check lists, statistics, and sightings, but to see them in this way is to simplify them too much, and only understand these magnificent travelers and singers in a very simple and almost mechanical way. To me, when I watch birds, they remind me of all the layers that exist in nature—each interacting, each depending on one another to be parts of a larger whole and which together compose a greater mosaic. I think you could watch and listen to the same bird throughout your lifetime and still find that you only understood the smallest part of it.
My favourite moment is lying awake in the early morning in the tent—at a time when you know no one else is awake and the world is just yours— and just listening to the dawn chorus. I love this moment, not because I get to hear what species are around me, or to think of anything in particular, but because whenever a day begins with such amazing song you know that there are fresh possibilities and experiences to be had.
How important is it to your creative process as writers to disconnect and get outside?
For very skilled writers, like Charles Dickens, or Walt Whitman, there is the ability to see, create and reflect our world regardless of the circumstances or where they are. Certainly we can, when necessary, pound out a blog in the noise a large city just as in the serenity of the countryside. Of course there is often so much to say about the wonderful towns we have trekked through—their histories, the flavour of the local culture, and the sights of places so many people will never get the chance to visit.
However we feel most connected to the subject and the content of what we strive to describe and convey to people when we are in nature. Perhaps that is because we are simply more passionate about nature, perhaps it is the rhythm of walking (which is a natural rhythm to life) but we think that the outdoors gives us more material and more clarity of thought to be able to represent what we see. I am not sure if our writing is better depending on whether it is produced in an urban environment or in the wilderness, but the draft feels more honest, more alive, and more genuinely authentic when we write in the woods.
About Sonya and Sean
Sonya Richmond completed an undergraduate degree in Biology and Environmental Resource Science, as well as a MSc in Watershed Ecosystems Management at Trent University before going on to earn a PhD from the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto. After this she completed her post-doctoral research at Birds Canada and began work as a Geographic Information Systems Analyst. She has presented at professional and academic conferences, published peer reviewed articles and more recently has worked on analyzing the Breeding Bird Atlases for British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.
Sean Morton is a professional landscape and architecture photographer who has had his images published in trail and nature magazines across Canada, and won a number of photography awards. His current project is photographing the length of the Great Trail, showcasing Canada’s culture, diversity, and natural beauty.
Read about their adventures on www.comewalkwithus.online or follow them online at: