In 2019, with the intention to disconnect from office culture, the couple sold their home and all of their belongings to engage in a four-year, 27,000 kilometre trek across Canada via the Trans Canada Trail.
Sonya Richmond said her love of birds, nature, and the outdoors led her to a career in environmental conservation, while Sean Morton has transitioned into the world of freelance writing and landscape photography. The couple hopes to raise awareness, appreciation, and connection to the beautiful and fascinating birds and natural habitats across Canada that help us recognize the value of our natural resources for own health, well-being, and long-term survival.
Between Duck Mountain Provincial Park and Good Spirit Provincial Park they have seen American White Pelicans, Common Loons, Red-Necked Greebes, Franklin’s Gulls and many prairie Swallows.
As they passed through the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border earlier this month, Richmond shared some insights from what might be considered the mid-point of the couple’s adventure.
Q. How did you and Sean meet?
Richmond: We met in Peterborough, Ontario while attending Trent University. As students we spent a lot of time camping and kayaking together in provincial parks.
Q. How did you come up with the original idea to distance hike together?
Richmond: We both had desk jobs, and didn't enjoy spending all day sitting in front of computers. We were beginning to feel like the digital world was taking over our lives and those of our family members, and that we were becoming increasingly disconnected from nature, ourselves, and each other. In 2016 we walked across Spain on the 800 km Camino Frances, and we liked that so much we walked across France on the 780 km Via Podiensis the following year, and then across Portugal on the Camino Portuguese. While in Europe we were frequently asked why we weren't hiking across Canada, since we were Canadians and Canada is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. When the Trans Canada Trail announced it was officially connected for Canada's 150th anniversary, we decided to hike across our own country to learn as much about it as we could.
Q. How long did this trip take to plan? Who would you like to credit as sponsors/supporters?
Richmond: It took us about a year to plan the hike. We began by learning about the trail, and figuring out how long we thought it would take to hike it, and what we would need. Then we sold our home to pay for the walk, donated most of our possessions to charity, and left our desk jobs behind.
During our first year we were supported by Birds Canada, whom we worked with to reach out to new audiences to inspire people, and especially youth, to become interested in birding and protecting important habitats for birds.
In our second year we collaborated with the Trans Canada Trail to share information about the birds and wildlife that can be found along the trail, and to inspire Canadians to explore the trail for themselves.
In 2021 we are currently a Royal Canadian Geographical Society Expedition dedicated to making Canada better known to Canadians and the world. Our goal is to inspire people of all ages, physical abilities, and cultural backgrounds to reconnect with nature and explore Canada for themselves.
Q. How many hours do you hike daily?
Richmond: We generally hike for about eight hours a day, preferring to cover between 25 and 35 km per day. However, the distance we cover depends on trail conditions, terrain, weather, and how many beautiful and interesting things we spend time exploring and photographing along the way. In bad weather we've hiked five km per day, and in places where we couldn't find anywhere to stop we've done 60 km.
Q. Can you describe any frightening or extraordinary things you have seen so far?
Richmond: On a trek like this you can easily get a little nervous of the unknown, but largely we have had the opportunity to enjoy extraordinary moments on the trail. We have learned so much about the country, met so many amazing people, and enjoyed so much time in nature.
We have been the first to see the sunrise in North America, we have scaled cliffs on rope ladders, walked along coastal footpaths, seen icebergs and puffins, spent evenings on the sides of crystal clear lakes, and gone days in remote wilderness without meeting anyone else. We have seen whales and seals in the Atlantic Ocean, watched herds of caribou, encountered moose and deer on the trail, heard coyotes call throughout the evenings, had run-ins with black bears, and of course seen hundreds of birds! We have visited National Parks, explored provincial reserves, sat in ancient cathedrals, forded ice cold rivers, wandered vast tidal flats and even wadded into the Atlantic Ocean in a section where the trail was washed out. On the way, some of our experiences have even been a little unusual – as we have walked on the ocean floor with goats, slept in a haunted jail cell, been actors in local plays for Parks Canada, trekked through snow blizzards, sheltered from hail and tropical storms, hiked amid tornado warnings, and survived a hurricane. In the last 14 months – like everyone else – we quarantined during a Global Pandemic.
The Trans Canada Trail has led us through remote country farmlands and quiet rural communities, across huge urban centres, to peaceful lakes surrounded by exclusive cottages, and to long abandoned ghost towns. We have climbed down coastal cliffs, crawled under fallen trees, navigated through forests, balanced across beaver dams which were as long as soccer fields, ventured along railways, spend days struggling through thick prairie mud, spent weeks at a time hiking in driving rain, and fighting against westerly winds. We have struggled over the unrelenting yet awe-inspiring rugged coastlines of Northern Lake Superior, visited indigenous petroglyphs, walked around an ancient Giant and along the rim of a meteor crater.
Best of all however, along the way we've also experienced overwhelming generosity, random acts of kindness, and countless words of encouragement.
Q. Does the wildfire smoke affect your trip?
Richmond: When we were crossing Manitoba we had a few days where the smoke from wildfires was really thick, and it covered us with an oily slime. The day we crossed from Roblin, Man. to Duck Mountain Provincial Park we had sore throats from the smoke and trouble catching our breath, and at the end of the day our clothes smelled like we'd been sitting beside a campfire all day. However, we've been extraordinarily lucky that the fires haven't been in our immediate vicinity, and with the exception of the backcountry trails in Spruce Woods Provincial Park, Man. we haven't run into any trail closures yet.
Q. Any injuries or health concerns along the way?
Richmond: So far we've been very lucky not to experience any major injuries. This year our biggest challenge has been dealing with the extreme heat. Hiking with a backpack effectively raises the temperature for a hiker about 10 C, and there have been a few days in the low 40's, which were difficult for us out on the exposed gravel roads. We carry sun umbrellas to provide some portable shade, and carry extra water to stay hydrated.
Q. What changes have you noticed in your overall health since you’ve started this practice?
Richmond: We've been lucky to experience some of the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in nature. Each spring when we set out our bodies gradually become stronger and we both lose weight over the course of the summer. This boosts our energy levels, and gives us a sense of personal achievement and satisfaction.
Q. What has been the effect on your mental/emotional/spiritual health?
Richmond: Being out in nature and meeting people along the trail has generally been an overwhelmingly positive experience. There are moments on the trail which have challenged us both mentally and physically, but often we have no choice but to continue, and coming through those moments together has made us mentally and emotionally stronger. Each challenge we overcome gives us a bit more strength to face the next one, making this a journey of growth and personal change.
Q. Do you ever feel bored while hiking long stretches? If so, how do you deal?
Richmond: Before we headed out we were afraid we'd get bored on the trail, but each day brings so many new things, and so many surprises that we're never bored. Slowing down and moving through the landscape at five kilometres per hour allows us to notice small things, like insects, birds, and wildflowers which are always there and always changing. Even when we walk through the same kind of landscape for days on end, the time of day, weather, and our moods change how we see and experience it, which helps us change our perspective to keep things interesting.
Q. How do you keep phones and cameras charged?
Richmond: We carry a battery pack to recharge our devices, which we recharge about once a week in a campground or motel.
Q. What will you do to celebrate when you reach the finish line?
Richmond: At this point it is difficult to even imagine the end of this epic journey. We will celebrate by spending time with family and friends, and then we plan to write a book about our experiences. After that, who knows?
Q. What do you enjoy the most about this adventure?
Richmond: We enjoy seeing new places, discovering new birds and wildlife along the trail, and meeting new people. Without the incredible generosity and random acts of kindness from strangers we wouldn't have gotten this far, and we are enormously grateful for the support and encouragement along the way.
Q. What do you miss the most about being home?
Richmond: Being on the trail has given us a new appreciation for running water. Having a shower at the end of a long, hot day, being able to wash our clothes after a dusty day on the roads, not having to ration our drinking water, and having access to cold drinking water when it’s hot outside are things we really miss out here on the trail.
Q. What is the most important message you want people to understand about what you are doing?
Richmond: We are walking a 27,000 km long trail that connects communities and Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast. The landscapes, birds, and wildlife we are privileged to see along the way are part of our natural heritage. Nature is for everyone, and we all have a role to play in protecting our natural resources for future generations. We are trying to inspire youth through birding and Citizen Science to become the next generation of environmental stewards and engaged community leaders. We can all make a difference if we work together.
Q. What have you learned about the trail that truly surprised you?
Richmond: Walking the trail has given us a much deeper understanding of Canadian history and culture than we ever expected. We've walked through fishing villages in Newfoundland, learned about Acadian culture in the Maritimes, early French exploration and the fur trade in northern Ontario, pioneer history, and the settlement of the prairies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan by a diverse mosaic of different cultures. We've also learned about First Nations and Métis history as we cross the land that was traditionally part of First Nation's territories. The Trans Canada Trail connects us all, and gives us a deeper appreciation of the ties that bind us together.
Q. Do you ever just want to quit? What is the hardest part?
Richmond: The hardest part of this hike so far has been living through months of COVID lockdowns off the trail, when our only interactions with the real world were through social media. Our hike became an outlet for the uncertainty, fear, and frustration many felt as a result of the pandemic, and we experienced unceasing criticism and daily death threats that had no basis in reality. At times this discouraged is to the point of wanting to give up, but it also renewed our conviction that helping youth to develop a strong connection with nature and themselves is necessary to help them gain the self-confidence and experience to navigate the online world.
Q. Best product or tip for hikers that you’ve learned along the way?
Richmond: Our best advice for hikers is to start small, figure out what works for you, and don't be discouraged. Gear forums are a great place to learn about what options are out there, but people will often say you'll never make it, or you'll die on the trail unless you have a certain piece of clothing, a specific brand of gear, or the physical ability to complete a trail in a certain amount of time or in a certain way. Everyone is different, we all do things in our own ways, and that is okay. Our advice is to know yourself and figure out what gear, what pace, and what comfort level you need to have an enjoyable experience.
For a detailed look into the epic hiking adventure, ripe with stunning photography, documentation and Canadian history check out the Come Walk With Us website.