ESTEVAN — From coast to coast by canoe and feet – Bert terHart's big new adventure is underway.
Once again, all he has for navigation tools are current maps he created from Canadian topographic data and using Cassens and Plath Ultra sextant, an artificial horizon and a compass. No electronic navigation aids whatsoever.
TerHart, a former Estevan resident who gained fame after he became the first North or South American to circumnavigate the globe solo, non-stop using only traditional navigation tools, and only the ninth person in the world to complete such a trip, is currently paddling and portaging his way across Canada to become the first person to sail solo, non-stop around the world and then cross a continent completely under his own steam.
Big new challenge
Throughout seven months, he will be following voyageur routes through seven of Canada's 10 provinces, paddling many of the same rivers that Canada's best-known explorers and cartographers paddled, as well as generation upon generation of Indigenous peoples for millennia.
By following traditional routes across the country without GPS or other forms of electronic navigation, terHart is trying to raise awareness regarding the roles that Indigenous peoples had in creating this country.
"All the names we know – David Thompson, Samuel Hearne, Alexander MacKenzie, Simon Fraser, Samuel de Champlain, Henry Kelsey, the list goes on and on – the successes of these extraordinary explorers, surveyors, and cartographers lay at the feet of Indigenous peoples all across Canada. Without their help, their work would have been impossible and Canada, as we know it, would not exist," said terHart.
Another idea behind this trip across Canada was to inspire Canadians young and old to live out their own adventures big or small.
"In your life, you will hear ‘cannot’ far more often than can. It's too hard. It's too far. You're too old. The only yes you need is the one you tell yourself. Give yourself permission to say yes. If you can do that, you can do anything." said terHart. "If you're willing to live just a little bit outside ordinary and you are persistent in those choices, then those small choices will add up to something that you cannot possibly imagine. I'm a firm believer in living your life just a little bit outside the box."
Setting big goals
Soldier, sailor, adventurer and serial entrepreneur, terHart doesn't like to be told no. He said he likes taking upon things that are next to impossible.
"It's a big challenge. But if you have really large goals, then you can fail over and over and over again and still succeed," terHart said.
He explained that with setting a large goal, one small failure or challenge along the way doesn't mean that you won't reach the goal, while with small goals the chance of failing due to some minor hiccups is much higher. And for him, solving problems and overcoming challenges on the way to a big goal is what made this adventure attractive.
"Small failure will derail a small goal. So you may as well just dream big, and then fail often and still succeed as opposed to dream small, fail once and then the whole thing goes over the side," terHart said.
Learning from those, who were first
He named his new attempt to make history Kai Nani Across Alone. Kai Nani is a Polynesian term that translates to synergy or harmony between wind and water. His wife, who is of Hawaiian and First Nations descent, originally chose that name for his canoe.
TerHart said that by canoeing and portaging through Canada, he wants to see the world around through the eyes of those who were making this route for centuries.
"I wanted to gain a more profound understanding of the role that the land, the rivers and the lakes played in Indigenous cultures. You can read about it until pages turned to dust, but I thought there was only one way to experience Canada as a Canadian. I'm a very proud Canadian. So I thought, the way to experience my country and to get a deeper understanding of the way that Indigenous peoples felt, was to see the country as they did.
"And if you're travelling through these [beautiful Canadian landscapes] very slowly, with an open heart and open mind, pretty soon, some of what Indigenous people may have felt about their own environments begins to seep into you, because that's just the way nature works.
"It's true, what they say, if you want to understand something about a person, you should walk a mile in their shoes, so I'm simply choosing to walk 7,000 kilometres in their shoes."
TerHart added that he is fascinated with how competent and resistant Indigenous people were. While he doesn't have any digital navigation, he still uses the best of the contemporary world's technology in the sense of gear and some tools, which the ancestors didn't have and still were making it across harsh Canadian land.
"My clothing has to be unbelievably good, it's technologically incredibly advanced, but it's no better than what they had back in the day. They had tools that worked extremely well, including clothing, and they were made with very primitive instruments, so to me it's astonishing."
'There is no rest'
TerHart left Steveston, B.C., on April 1. Since then he has trekked all across British Columbia and made it to Rocky Mountain House, Alta., by May 16. He plans on crossing into Saskatchewan towards the end of the spring and hopes to make it across the northern part of the province in 11 days.
The Mercury spoke to terHart while he was still in Yoho National Park, B.C. He said it was one of the more difficult days, and he was completely exhausted.
"Today was pretty hard because I ended up walking something like 40 kilometres, which is an awful lot, up and down the mountains, towing the canoe, so I'm a little tired but it was a beautiful day," terHart shared.
Highway 1 between Golden and Lake Louise was closed, and the adventurer had the entire road for himself.
TerHart hopes to make it to Big Shippagan Light, N.B., and the Atlantic Ocean by November. The short Canadian summer season puts a lot of pressure on the amazing adventure. TerHart left home in the snow and will be finishing his mission when temperatures most likely will be below zero for good. And to make sure that the route is completed, he has to keep walking and paddling through any weather, making 20-40 kilometres a day.
The first month of his adventure, when terHart had to cover many kilometres going uphill and upstream because of the B.C. landscape, was also filled with a lot of rain.
"It rained basically every other day," terHart said after covering his first 1,000 kilometres through B.C. "It rained last night so my tent is just a sponge right now. It's wet."
Since terHart is repeating the route of Indigenous peoples and voyagers, rather than travelling west-east, his track takes him north and south lots, following river streams that run north-south.
"There are no straight lines at all. This is awful, going north and going south and all you want to do is go east," terHart shared.
At 63 years old, he realistically evaluates the challenges, yet he said it doesn't affect his attitude.
"I feel great. I don't think B.C. is going to be the hardest part of it. It's the longest province to get through, and there's more walking. I think I've probably walked 500 kilometres and paddled 500 kilometres. But there are other parts of the trip that are going to be equally challenging in different contexts. But I feel very good about it," terHart said.
And while getting through often tricky routes is already a huge physical challenge, he added that the most difficult part of the adventure is actually knowing that you have to keep moving every day.
"There's no rest, it doesn't matter if it's raining, or if it's sunny or windy, or you're feeling terrible, or if you're really sorry, you just have to get up and go. To be honest, that's more than half the battle. It's physically or mentally one of the most challenging things because the pressure to keep going to make it is enormous. And this pressure is going to exist for seven months," terHart said.
Action is required
Kai Nani Across Alone adventure also carries a call for action, as terHart has created a petition, suggesting to rename Howse Pass, which links the Columbia River valley in the interior of British Columbia to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. This pass is one of only a handful to cross the continental divide and as such served as a primary route for trade and travel for generations of Indigenous peoples for millennia, which terHart would like to see being reflected in the new name.
"The message about Indigenous people has been extremely well received. It's a very difficult message to convey if you're an old white guy like me," terHart said with a laugh. "[People I talked to about it] agree firstly, that the role that Indigenous people played in creating this country is underappreciated. And they're happy to know that I'm trying to do something to address that. And secondly, that there's something more concrete being done with respect to renaming Howse Pass."
Joseph Howse was a fur trader, explorer and linguistic scholar, who created A Grammar of the Cree Language. Since Howse was over the pass only twice, and also had a river and a mountain named after him, terHart suggests finding a name that would better reflect the pass's Indigenous heritage and role.
As of May 16, the petition had 123 signatures out of the 200 goal. The link to the petition to have the Howse Pass renamed can be found at kainani.ca.