Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Swift Current to Battleford Trail: Swift Current to Herschel, continued

When you walk close to home, you begin to develop a deeper intimacy with a landscape you already know–if only slightly. It’s quite different from walking in Europe, for instance, where I find myself guessing at the names of plants and birds. Here, while I  struggle to distinguish durum from barley at a distance, and I find myself wondering if the dominant grass in a patch of unbroken grassland is rough fescue or something else, and although I can’t distinguish birds by their song very well, I still feel a kinship to this place. At times that kinship is a burden, and at other times it’s a gift. I find myself being constantly reminded of the history of this place, a history that, as Candace Savage says in her book Geography of Blood, encompasses an ecocide (the destruction of the buffalo and much of the grassland that existed here before settlers arrived) and a genocide (the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from this place, their incarceration on reserves and in residential schools). People like me have benefitted from those events, because they’ve made it possible for us to live here in the style to which we’ve become accustomed. We might not be responsible for them–we are not our ancestors, after all–but because we’ve benefitted from them, we’re still answerable in some way. Exactly what that answerability might look like is something we’ve talked about after our morning smudges. There’s some general agreement that feelings of shame and sadness aren’t productive, but still, when we stopped to look at a buffalo rubbing stone on our third day of walking, and as Rick made an offering of tobacco there, I felt overwhelmed by those emotions. It was the most powerful experience I’ve had on this walk.

Our departure from Swift Current coincided with a Métis culture camp, and after words were spoken by representatives of groups that used the Swift Current to Battleford Trail–a Métis elder, an RCMP officer–a large group of people followed us to the edge of town. Then they turned around, leaving only the most foolhardy to continue walking north. Hugh had let a Hutterite colony know we were coming, and they invited us to have iced tea and cookies. It was a hot day and the cold tea was delicious. They showed us their preserves, too–each bottle a work of art.

Then we spent the night in a farmyard, where we were served the most delicious chili I’ve ever eaten–and it wasn’t tasty only because of the day’s walk. The following night we spent in another farmyard. Gord, the farmer, told a story about his father’s experience of farming back in the 30s. “He shipped two cars full of lentils and got a bill for $17,” Gord said. That was the end of his father’s career as a farmer, but he was still drawn to that way of life, and made sure that his three sons each had a farm. 

In the morning we pushed on, across the South Saskatchewan River towards Kyle. It rained a lot that day–and even though that makes walking inconvenient and uncomfortable, in a dry land like this one isn’t allowed to complain about rain–so we stayed in the hotel and treated ourselves to supper and breakfast there. I was particularly exhausted that second day, because I was carrying a heavy pack as a test to see if I could make a walk similar to this one alone, without support, at some future date, and I learned that at this point I’m not fit enough to carry 20 kilograms over 30 kilometres. I’d better make this walk, I thought, rather than treating it as a dry run for some future walk that may or may not ever happen, and in the morning I switched the heavier pack for a much lighter one. Much happiness has followed that decision.

On the way out of Kyle, we met Amy, the proprietor of the Kyle Times, who warned us that the dessicants farmers spray on their fields of peas and lentils aren’t good to breathe. “There’s always drift,” she said, “and you’ll need to have something to cover your faces.” But so far we haven’t run across any dessicants being sprayed or any herbicide drift of any kind, although while we were looking at the petroglyphs today a cropdusting plane was buzzing back and forth on the horizon.

We spent the night in Sanctuary, a ghost town that has metamorphosed into a large farmyard. Most of the buildings are gone. We made camp next to a lumber shed, one of the few remaining structures. Despite the drought this year, the nearby slough is in flood. That’s been the case throughout this walk: the land is still working through the consequences of the past several wet years.

We were scheduled to spend the following night in a farmyard at Otter Springs, one of the important stops on the Swift Current to Battleford Trail, but the weather forecast was calling for rain, so we stayed in nearby Elrose, where we had a communal meal of chili and rice and red wine. On the Camino, communal meals help to develop connections within the group, and the same was true for us in Elrose. That made a difference the following night, in Greenam, another ghost town, where we all slept on the floor of what had been the local school and is now a community hall. It’s a small room, and the chili was working its magic on everyone’s digestion. The farts and snores were easier to take now that we knew each other better–and besides, I was wearing earplugs.

The next night, we slept in an abandoned farmyard known to the locals as Cappie’s Trees, after the family who homesteaded there in 1917. They’d abandoned the farm in 1937–a year many farmers finally gave up struggling against the drought and low prices–and the foundation of their home is still there. We’d walked across the Fairview Community Pasture to get there, and it had been a great if exhausting day of walking. Several local farmers and ranchers came by to say hello. One was the grandson of the people who had lived there; another was a retired RCMP special constable, who walked with us for several miles the following day; and another was a local rancher who is part of the group who now leases Fairview from the provincial government. He told us that just an hour or so before we got there, a bull had been lost in the caraganas that sheltered us from the wind. They’d tried everything, he said, and they simply could not get him to cooperate and return to the herd. “We knew you folks were coming and we were getting a little worried, but eventually he went back to the cows by himself,” the rancher said. He told us about ranching and about the management of community pastures and the conflict between farmers, who till the land, and ranchers, who prefer to see it left as grass. “This was pretty fair country until the farmers found it,” he told us, and thinking about our hike through the community pasture, across the Bad Hills, I found myself agreeing with him.

The next morning, we headed for Fiske. Hugh was giving a talk at the community hall there that night, and we set up camp on the lawn outside. It was a good campsite: there was running water inside and a flush toilet, something I missed at Cappie’s Trees, where I found myself having to relieve my bowels the way most of the rest of the world does it. I felt a connection to the majority of humanity and broke through a psychological barrier, although I’m not keen to repeat the experience right away. There’s a bar in Fiske, and we ate dinner and breakfast there. Then we started walking to Herschel, where I’m typing this on a long table in a sunny room at the Retreat House. Tonight we’re having another communal supper–spaghetti and meatballs, I hear–and tomorrow we start walking north again. I’m glad we got this break, because I needed a rest, and there’s a huge, broken blister on the sole of my left foot that needs some attention, or at least a respite from walking. And I just heard someone say that there’s cold beer in the fridge. That seems like as good a reason as any to stop writing and find something else to do with the rest of my afternoon. The next time I get a chance, though, I’ll pull out my keyboard again and let you know how things are going.

Swift Current to Battleford Trail: Swift Current to Herschel

My intentions were to blog every day about this walk, but I hadn’t taken into account the amount of time it takes to set up camp and cook. I’d thought that it might be hard to find a cell signal, but that hasn’t been much of a problem. And the solar panel that’s attached to my pack has been doing a pretty good job of keeping my phone charged. But aside from a few cryptic Facebook posts, I haven’t had much of a chance to share stories of this walk–until now. We have a rest day today, at the Herschel Retreat House, and assuming the cell signal here holds out, I’m going to pass along a few stories and photographs from the first half of the Swift Current to Battleford Trail walk.

Yes, the first half. We’ve covered some 150 kilometres–and one of the interesting things about this walk is the way that those kinds of numbers become less important over time–and we have about the same distance left before we reach Fort Battleford on the 20th of August. In fact, we usually use Imperial measurements to assess how far we’ve walked, because that’s how the roads we walk along were surveyed back in the nineteenth century: a mile between roads running north-south, and two miles between roads running east-west, except when there’s only a road allowance, or when there’s some kind of obstacle, like a slough or a coulee. Occasionally we walk on roads that deviate from the grid, and that’s always a treat. And sometimes we walk across pastures or on road allowances. But mostly our path takes us along hard, stony grid roads.

Who are “we”? Who is crazy enough to attempt this journey? Well, Hugh Henry from the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society is the primary organizer of this pilgrimage. He’s been planning this journey for more than a year, researching the history of the Swift Current to Battleford Trail, figuring out where it ran and determining a route that follows its path as closely as possible–because most of the trail is now beneath cultivated fields. Hugh has also been talking to landowners about our trek, getting permission for us to camp in their farmyards. It’s been a tremendous amount of work and we’re very grateful to him, because without Hugh, there would be no walk.

The other instigator of this journey is Matthew Anderson, who teaches courses on pilgrimage at Concordia University. Hugh and Matthew organized a walk along the Wood Mountain-Cypress Hills Trail two years ago. I heard about that pilgrimage when it was happening, but at the time I was still a full-time student and couldn’t get away to walk with the group. When I heard about this walk, I was overjoyed, because after walking through the Haldimand Tract last year, I became very interested in the possibility of pilgrimages close to home, pilgrimages that don’t require a flight to Europe or Japan, pilgrimages through the territory where I live–in the case of this walk, Treaty Four and Treaty Six territories in southern Saskatchewan. I contacted Matthew, who put me in touch with Hugh, and I’ve looked forward to this experience for the last year. Matthew leads his students in a pilgrimage to Kahnawake, south of Montreal, every June, and some day I’d like to tag along on that walk.

Harold and Rick walked the Wood Mountain to Cypress Hills pilgrimage in 2015, and they both decided to be part of the current walk. Rick is from Regina. He’s Métis and has led us in smudges and prayers every morning. Before beginning this walk, an elder told me to smudge every day, and Rick has made it possible for me to do that. Harold’s from Swift Current. He’s 81 years young. He would never accept this description of himself–he would wave it away with a dismissive gesture and say it wasn’t accurate– but we all admire his toughness and his wisdom and the speed at which he walks. I find it hard to keep up to him, and invariably he’s the first one to reach our destination. Both Rick and Harold end their walk here in Herschel, and we’re all going to miss them very much.

The other walkers who started out in Swift Current are Don, from Regina; Fred, from Waterloo, Ontario; Connie, from Frontier, Saskatchewan; my partner Christine, from Regina. We were mostly strangers to each other at the beginning of this walk, but we’ve formed a tight Camino family over the past week. 

Others have joined us at different times: Phil and Lorne and Kay. Lorne walked with us across the Bad Hills and the Fairview Community Pasture, and his partner, Linda, made dinner for us when we reached the community hall in Greenham, where we spent the night. And we’ve met with local people throughout this journey. Hugh has made presentations to audiences in Kyle and Fiske, and at Greenham we had an impromptu talk on the pilgrimage that Matthew, Harold, and Hugh made in Iceland last year. The interest people have shown in our quixotic trek has been gratifying: cold water or iced tea when we’re thirsty, waves, visits to our campsites. People have shared their knowledge with us and I’ve learned a great deal from them.

Don has to return to Regina for a few days because of work commitments, but he intends to join us again further up the road. The rest of us will lace up our boots tomorrow morning and start walking again. 

We’re going to be taking a tour of a local archaeological site in a little bit, and I have to get ready. I’ll post more photographs of our pilgrimage this afternoon. In the mean time, here is a handful of images from yesterday’s walk.

Another Training Walk

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We leave today for Swift Current and the long walk to Battleford. Yesterday I had one last chance to walk with everything I’ll be carrying in my pack, and I took it.



I had to visit the credit union, so I took a slightly different route from Sunday, and I walked the loop counterclockwise instead of clockwise. That meant I got to walk past the house in our neighbourhood where sunflowers seed themselves in the cracks of the sidewalk every year. Those sunflowers are one of my favourite things about this city.

On a gravelled front yard, a merlin was eviscerating a headless pigeon. He flew to the neighbour’s front porch and glared at me. “It’s okay, buddy,” I told him. “I don’t want your breakfast, and frankly I support the good work you’re doing, keeping the pigeon population down.”




I walked north on Albert Street. After a while I turned west. I passed someone’s plastic raincoat, somehow caught high in an elm tree. I started to feel hungry, so I stopped at a convenience store and bought a little bag of peanuts. I thought about my current writing project and wondered what the Swift Current to Battleford Trail Walk is going to be like. Eventually I found myself on Rochdale Boulevard, where I ate lunch.




After lunch, I headed back south. The clouds and occasional breeze promised some long-needed rain, but none fell while I was walking. I surprised three men resting in the shade of a sign announcing the project they were supposed to be working on. I saw joggers and cyclists and people walking their dogs, as usual. At one point a peloton of four bike cops on what must’ve been a training ride passed me.




After six hours and 25 kilometres, I was home. A few weeks ago, a friend told me I must be very fit, what with all the walking I do. “Not really,” I replied, thinking about all the things I can’t do, like haul myself into the gym in the winter. But it looks like I might be fit enough for the walk that begins tomorrow. Fingers crossed.




30 Degree Training Walk

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When you’re on a long walk, you take what comes. If it’s hot, you walk. If it’s cold, you walk. If it’s raining, you walk. There are alternatives–taking a day off, although there’s no guarantee the following day’s weather will be any different, or catching a lift or taking a bus, something that’s hard to do in today’s Saskatchewan–but neither of those appeals to me. I want to walk every step of the Swift Current to Battleford Trail Walk, whatever it costs.

We leave next week for that walk. It’s August, so it’s going to be hot. And we’re in a drought, so there probably won’t be any cooling rain. So today, we walked 24 kilometres in 30 degree heat, to see if we’re ready for what’s coming. I carried the pack I intend to carry. It was only half full–a tent, sleeping bag and pad, after-walk sandals, a reserve supply of Milk Bones, my iPad, and other odds and ends–but I’m not quite ready to walk in the heat with a full pack. You see, I just got back from ten days in a playwriting workshop at the Sage Hill Writing Experience. It was fantastic, and the manuscript I’m working on is much improved, thanks to the workshop facilitator, two-time Governor General’s Award winner Catherine Banks, and her clear thinking and incisive and insightful comments, delivered with kindness and gentleness. I can’t say enough good things about Catherine, or about Sage Hill. Still, sitting and writing and eating cookies hasn’t exactly prepared me for the walk. I’m behind in my training and I have to catch up. And I haven’t been walking in the heat. Something drastic needed to be done.

So this morning, we set out for Rochdale Boulevard’s infamous pho joints. We’d be there by lunch, we thought, and we’d be back before the worst of the day’s heat. We were wrong about that.




I’ve walked this route many times, on the footpath along Wascana Creek until that footpath ends, and then on sidewalks and desire paths as far as the strip of restaurants on Rochdale Boulevard in the city’s northwest. You’d think there were no surprises left. But there were. We walked past a gaggle of geese that seemed to be mourning one of their own, a bird in convulsions after some terrible accident. We watched for a while, until we realized that the goose was merely cleaning its feathers. Later we surprised a pod of pelicans resting in the shade of a footbridge over Wascana Creek. They came splashing out from their hiding place, dipping their beaks into the creek in unison, a behaviour neither of us had ever seen before.



Inspired by my Sage Hill colleague Kate Sutherland‘s wonderful photographs of paths and roads around Lumsden, where the writers’ retreat was held, I took lots of photos of the paths we walked. I always do that, anyway, but Kate’s photographs made me think there might be something of aesthetic value in those images. Of course, I could be wrong about that.





At Sage Hill, Catherine led us in a guided timed-writing exercise every morning, which tried to get us to engage senses other than vision in our writing. As I walked, I thought about Catherine and the sounds and smells I was experiencing: birdsong, the wind, the sweet scent of yellow sweet clover and thistles, the occasional hint of the creek’s fetid stink. It’s good practice to engage the senses while you walk, and Catherine’s exercise reminded me of that.




We ate lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant and then headed back south, towards home. There were few walkers or cyclists braving the afternoon heat, compared to the morning, when we chatted with several people walking their dogs. One woman asked what I was training for and was surprised by my answer. But after lunch, the sidewalks and paths were mostly deserted. Everyone with any sense was somewhere cool.




The big concern you face when you walk on a hot day is heat exhaustion. We were five or six kilometres from home when I saw Christine begin to flag. More water, more electrolytes. Pour some water on your wrist, on the inside of your elbow. Take a rest in a shady place, if you can find one. Take some ibuprofen. She recovered, and then it was my turn to suffer. I’m not used to walking with a large pack–hell, I’m not really used to walking at all, not after Sage Hill, where my longest walk was a four-kilometre stroll along the Saw Whet Trail–and the heat and the weight I was carrying really hit me with just a kilometre left to walk. But a kilometre? You can stagger that far without too much trouble, and I did. When I got home, though, I took off my boots and had a nap. When I woke up, Christine was sleeping. My legs are a little stiff, but I’ll be fine tomorrow.

It’s the heat, I think, that sapped our strength, rather than the distance. And it’s that same heat we’ll be facing as we walk from Swift Current to Battleford. But we knew it would be hot in August when we signed up. I hope we get used to it, quickly. If we don’t, the walk won’t be a lot of fun, will it?




Sunday South End Walk

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In less than a month, we’ll be walking some 300 kilometres through southwestern Saskatchewan, from Swift Current to Battleford, following the route of a trail used by settlers, Métis traders and buffalo hunters, and First Nations. (You can learn more about that walk here.) The days will be relatively short–just 20 or 25 kilometres–but it’s going to be hot and there will be little shade, and I need to get ready for both the heat and the distance. So does Christine, my walking partner. But we’re at different stages in our training. I’ve been walking 25 kilometres when I go for a walking, but Christine has been covering 12 or 14 kilometres. (I started walking before she did this year, almost as soon as the snow melted in April.) We wanted to walk together today, but how were we to do that, given our different needs and goals and distances?

Obviously, we needed to compromise. Christine is very methodical and concerned about getting injured. Injuries happen–a good friend of mine had to abandon a walk in France a while back because he ended up with a stress fracture. So Christine is right to be concerned. We talked about where we could go. I suggested we try walking around the lake and then through the neighbourhoods in the south end of the city. That should add up to 15 or 16 kilometres, I said. Christine thought that would be okay. And off we went.





We got to the only hill in the city–the Goose Island Overlook–and climbed it. You have to take your interval training where you find it, and unless you want to climb stairs in an office building, you need to make use of the Goose Island Overlook. Halfway to the top, a young fellow stopped us. He was in his twenties, from somewhere in south Asia. “Excuse me,” he said. “Can I ask you a question? You see, I’m new in this city, and I have to ask you: what motivates you to get up every morning and walk around the lake?” We explained that we were training for a longer walk in August, and that I’d walked 1,000 kilometres in Spain four years ago. “I could never do that,” he said. “It’s all I can do to drive here and then go home and have a cigarette.” “You’d be surprised,” I said. “When I was in my twenties, I couldn’t have imagined walking across Spain. But when I turned 50, I did it.” He wished us well and we finished climbing the hill.




We finished walking around the lake. We went through the university campus, past a stand of fireweed on the shore of the lake, and headed back into the city. By the time we got to Albert Street, some 12 kilometres into our walk, we were thinking about lunch.

“We could have salad at the Lancaster Taphouse, on the patio.”

“They have salad?”

“Every place has salad.”

“I don’t feel like sitting in a bar. What about the Japanese place in the mall?”

“That’ll be too much food. What about the falafel place in Harbour Landing?”

“Okay. Let’s go there.”

And that’s what we did. We walked along Gordon Road to Harbour Landing, a new commercial and residential development on the southwest corner of the city, right under the airport’s flightpath. We ate falafel. And then we turned north, towards home.



It was getting hot. And the walk had turned out to be longer than I’d anticipated–some 21 kilometres. But we made it home without any symptoms of heat exhaustion, without any injuries. All is well. And now it’s time for a cool drink in the shade.




A Different Route to Rochdale Boulevard

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More than a month goes by. It seems that every day something is going on that keeps me from going for a walk: errands, the garden, a sick cat who has to be taken to the vet–it’s always something. Finally, a free day. Well, not completely free. I have a few errands, but I can incorporate them into a walk. So off I go.

This time I try something new: I leave my walking sticks at home. I haven’t gone on a long walk without them for years–not since I bought my first pair, in fact, six months before I walked the Camino de Santiago. In Spain, there were two kinds of walkers: people with sticks, and people without sticks. I was always someone who walked with sticks. What’s it like to walk without them? I decide to find out.

I head up Albert Street. It’s not a nice place to walk, but that’s where my errands take me. Lots of traffic and few pedestrians. That’s no surprise: who’d want to walk up Albert Street?


I turn left onto Avonhurst Drive. I’m hungry and I know I have a long walk before lunch. So I buy a bag of peanuts at a south Asian grocery. I eat them as I walk. You can do that when you’re not using walking sticks.


I’ve never walked this way before and I miss a turn, going straight where I should’ve turned left. I check Google Maps. I don’t have to turn around; I can keep going and turn left after I cross the bridge over the expressway. I walk past a high school, and three girls point at me and laugh. Tilley hats, you see, are the opposite of cool.


I cross Pasqua Street. That’s another busy road, and there’s no sidewalk. I walk along an alley behind some houses on the west side of the road. The alley ends, but a road allowance continues north. The road allowance ends at a cluster of stores grouped around a Home Depot. I walk through the parking lot and turn onto Rochdale Boulevard. I’m close to the halfway point.

But first, lunch. I stop at the place where I had the delicious soup on my last walk. At the last minute, I decide to order tofu with ginger and onions. It’s colourful but otherwise a disappointment. Oh well. My mother always said, “What won’t fatten will fill.” I think that means that even if it doesn’t taste that great, it’ll keep me going. And it does.

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I walk to the end of Rochdale Boulevard and turn south on Courtney Street. This is the real halfway point, this intersection. A big sign announcing the new Coopertown development stands where Courtney ends at 9th Avenue North, but there’s no construction going on–not yet, anyway.


Now I’m on the footpath that runs along Wascana Creek. Cyclists pass me, along with a few people walking their dogs. I amuse myself by taking photos of the clouds.


I don’t see any loggerhead shrikes, but I see the sign inviting them to hang around (and inviting people to leave them alone, I suppose).


I cross under the CP bridge across Wascana Creek and have to make a decision. Will I carry on along the creek, or will I turn east onto 13th Avenue and treat myself to an ice cream? The ice cream wins out. I cut short my walk, and head for the ice cream shop, where I get a mango frozen yogurt. Then I turn for home.


My phone tells me I walked 23 kilometres. Would I walk that far without my sticks again? I don’t think so. Somehow I think it’s easier walking with the sticks. Maybe I’m just used to them. Anyway, I’m tired and stiff and I can feel blisters starting to form on the soles of my feet. When I get home, I take a nap. I’ll need to get used to walking longer distances and carrying a full pack if I’m going to enjoy the walk I have planned for August. I’d better get serious about training! Maybe another walk tomorrow?


Thinking About Boots


Since I finished Planetwalker, I’ve been thinking about boots. You see, John Francis started on his long walk across the U.S. more than 30 years ago, and footwear was different then. Francis wore heavy leather boots, the kind that, today, you’d consider old-fashioned. Now if you wear boots when you walk–and a lot of people prefer shoes–they’re probably lightweight, with GoreTex uppers and one-piece soles.

Heavy leather boots are, well, heavy. That makes them tiring to wear when you’re walking long distances. But they have advantages over fabric boots. They last a long time: I bought a pair when I was 17, and I was still wearing them 20 years later. They last that long because you can get them fixed: when the heels or soles wear out, a cobbler can replace them. That’s not the case with fabric boots. When the heels wear down, you have to buy a whole new pair.

When Francis walked across the U.S., he would stop and get his boots repaired when they needed it. He even carried spare Vibram heels with him, just in case a small-town cobbler didn’t have the right ones in stock. Two things about that are striking. First, 30 years ago, people still got their shoes fixed, because their shoes were designed to be fixable, and second, it wasn’t unusual to find a shoe-repair shop, even in a small town. Today, everything’s different. Shoes and boots are more likely to be designed to be disposable now. So if Francis were to walk across the U.S. today, he’d be replacing his boots every thousand miles, instead of repairing them.

We’ve gained something with lighter footwear designs: they’re more comfortable and not as hot. But we’ve lost something, too. Sometimes I wish I had the old-fashioned kind of boots. After all, isn’t it better to fix something instead of throwing it away?


planetwalkerIn 1971, two oil tankers collided in the fog beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. John Francis, a hippie living north of San Francisco in Marin County, caught a glimpse of the aftermath: oil coating the shore and volunteers trying to save dying birds. Those sights affected Francis deeply. He decided that by driving or even riding in petroleum-powered vehicles, he was contributing to a system that was destroying the planet. So he started walking everywhere. And for the next 22 years, he avoided trains and planes and automobiles. Instead, he walked, or occasionally cycled.

Most people thought that decision was strange, and that Francis himself, although harmless, was more than a little eccentric. But others got angry. Did Francis think he was better than everybody else? they asked. Who made him some kind of environmental saint? After walking, and arguing, for a few years, Francis made another big decision: he stopped talking. Not talking allowed him to learn to listen, he writes. That vow of silence lasted for 17 years.

Francis walked for some 10 years, including annual 500-mile hikes to visit friends in Oregon. Then he felt it was time to do more. With some friends, he established Planetwalker, an environmental education non-profit. And he started walking even farther: right across the United States, with stops along the way, in Montana and Wisconsin, to complete graduate degrees in environmental studies, including working as a teaching assistant. And he completed all that walking and studying without speaking a word. Instead, he communicated in sign language and with his ever-present banjo.

In Planetwalker, Francis tells his story. It’s a fine book, well-written and thoughtful and humble, with illustrations from the author’s sketchbooks. I’d heard about Francis–every book about walking makes reference to his story–and I’m glad I stumbled across Planetwalker in a tiny bookstore on the other side of town called Turning the Tide. No, I didn’t walk there–I was running errands, and so I was driving–but since I finished Planetwalker I’ve been wondering every time I get in the car to go somewhere: is this trip really necessary? Not that I could make the kind of commitments Francis did. I mean, I like walking, but going everywhere on foot? All the time? I don’t think I could do that.

One aspect of Planetwalker that interested me was the way Francis camped on his walks. In England, they’d say he was “wild camping”; in North America, it’s described as “stealth camping.” Francis would pitch his small tent wherever he stopped for the night, often on private land without permission. (Who can say who the owner of a particular plot of land might be?) Francis made his walk in the 1980s, and maybe things were different then, but he was rarely bothered by anyone, including law enforcement. I wonder if it would be possible to make similar walks now, camping behind trees or abandoned buildings or along roadsides, without getting arrested.

If you’re interested in pedestrianism, Planetwalker is definitely worth reading. And if you’re interested in the connection between the personal and the political, between global issues and local action, it’s worth reading, too. “The only person one has the ethical authority to change is oneself,” Francis writes. “When we change our self, we indeed change the world. As we continue our journey we can make a difference in our community and in the world, one step at a time.” If that’s true, it’s quite a hopeful statement. Planetwalker has given me a lot to think about, and I’m grateful to John Francis for writing it.

Sunday Walk: Destination, Soup



I’ve been thinking about where I’m going to walk this summer. I have a few ideas. But before I walk anywhere, I need to get back in walking condition after a winter of Netflix and promises to get to the gym that never amounted to anything. Last weekend, I walked the 13 kilometres around Wascana Lake (with a detour for coffee). Today, I decided to go a little farther. Well, a lot farther, actually.

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I struck out northwest along Wascana Creek, in the teeth of a brisk wind. The creek is rising and some of the underpasses are starting to flood, but for once my Goretex boots lived up to that fabric’s reputation, and my feet stayed dry. The water was higher on the way back. I still didn’t get wet. If it keeps rising, though, I won’t be able to make the same walk again next weekend.



The usual crowd were using the pathway: cyclists, people walking their dogs, other walkers, and runners, including some cadets from the RCMP training academy. But I also met this fellow. I haven’t seen him on the path before. He was quite friendly and not bothered by the dogs passing by.


The path eventually crosses the creek and heads directly north. Eventually, the path ends. I carried on beside the road until I got to Rochdale. Then I turned east. I was thinking about getting some phó soup, but the place I usually go to was closed. I kept walking, hoping I’d find something more appetizing than one of the fast-food places that line Rochdale Boulevard. And I did: an even better Vietnamese place, one I’d never been to. They served me a huge bowl of phó and a tiny pot of tea.

I’d walked 14 kilometres before lunch. It would’ve been sensible to stop there, to call for a ride. But I’m not that sensible. After lunch, with a belly full of soup, I started walking back south.



Beavers have been busy all along the creek. I saw what looks to be an occupied lodge, and a lot of fresh-looking chewed stumps.




The wind died down in the afternoon. Maybe that’s why there were more people around in the afternoon, including a bunch of guys playing cricket in a park along the creek.




Going from 13 kilometres to 25 kilometres was too big of a leap. I knew that before I did it. But I finished the walk in one piece. The things that hurt now? They’re telling me what I need to work on–stretching my hamstrings, for example. And although I did have a couple of hot spots on the soles of my feet, I didn’t get any blisters. So I’m happy. Maybe I’m more prepared for a walk this summer than I’d thought.



Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, by Jamie Bowlby-Whiting, and Walking and Trekking in Iceland, by Paddy Dillon

I’ve been watching a lot of Icelandic TV series on Netflix lately. And as a result, I’ve become interested in the landscape of that fragment of Europe sitting in the North Atlantic: the barren hills, the glaciers, the stark mountains. Would it be possible to walk there, I wondered? To find out, I ordered two books on the subject: Jamie Bowlby-Whiting’s first person account of crossing Iceland from south to north on foot with his brother Elliott, Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, and a guide to walking in Iceland, written by Paddy Dillon and published by Cicerone.


The subtitle of Bowlby-Whiting’s book tells most of the story: neither he nor his brother had any experience hiking before they attempted their walk across Iceland’s bleak and dangerous mountains. Their gear was useless, they weren’t physically up to hiking 25 or 30 kilometres per day while carrying 30 kilograms of gear (and not many people are–myself included, as I discovered in Ontario two years ago), and their only map covered just a fraction of their route. Because they weren’t prepared, they made many mistakes. They tried heading directly north, using a compass, and as a result they found their way blocked by raging glacial rivers which they had to wade across. Their packs were too heavy, so they got rid of most of their food; they ended up living on chocolate and uncooked ramen noodles for the remainder of their trip. Nothing cooperated: not the terrain, not the weather. A nearby volcano was threatening to erupt, and everyone told them they shouldn’t be walking near it. And yet they somehow managed to complete their journey. They were lucky, I think, because things could easily have gone very wrong for them. Well, even more wrong.

Across the Moon is a self-published book, and although I typically don’t bother to read anything that couldn’t find a regular publisher, I’m glad I made an exception this time. Bowlby-Whiting is an engaging narrator, frank about his mistakes and the liberties he takes with the truth early in the book. I like the book’s structure as well: reflective chapters about Bowlby-Whiting’s life and his relationship with his brother alternate with chapters about the walk itself. It’s a fun read.

And yet, I can’t believe the two brothers attempted this hike, given their experience and their equipment. Let me give you an example. Bowlby-Whiting always took off his shoes while wading through those glacial torrents. His brother Elliott did not. Now, everything I’ve read about fording rivers has said that it’s a terrible idea to do it without footwear: rocks can be sharp or slippery and it’s easier to fall when you’re barefoot. In his book on walking in Iceland, Paddy Dillon suggests carrying a pair of Crocs for river crossings (and as camp shoes). So does Justin Lichter, the author of Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking. “If the ford is tough then do not go barefoot!” Lichter says. “If the river is really gentle wear shoes when fording a river. They help with traction and protect your feet in case there are jagged rocks in the water.” So whether the ford is tough or not, you protect your feet, according to Lichter.

But wearing shoes while crossing those rivers didn’t help Elliott in the end. His shoes were cheap, you see, and they shrank and twisted as they dried. He couldn’t wear them afterwards and ended up walking the final 200 kilometres with flip-flops taped to his feet. I can’t imagine that. The moral of the story: don’t buy cheap shoes, and always carry a pair of decent lightweight sandals.

Flip-flops. I remember seeing a young Canadian walking the Camino wearing flip-flops and carrying a hockey duffel bag instead of a backpack. He was from Kelowna, I think. Everyone has their own way, I guess. And the Bowlby-Whitings managed to complete a trek I’d never attempt, even with preparation and decent gear. So who am I to say?


Walking and Trekking in Iceland is a completely different kind of book. In fact, it’s the kind of book the brothers might’ve considered consulting before setting out on their trek. Dillon describes both day-hikes and multi-day treks in different parts of the island. He also explains important stuff about Iceland that foreigners might not know–like how to buy topographical maps of the island, how to get access to private mountain huts, how the country’s bus service works, and when to go if you’re thinking about a walking holiday there. (August is busy and before June it’s too cold.) It’s the kind of book I’d have in a Ziplock bag in my coat pocket or at the top of my backpack if I were walking in Iceland, the kind of book one could use to plan a walking holiday in that country.

So read Across the Moon for a story about what not to do, one that luckily has a happy ending, and read Walking and Trekking in Iceland if you find yourself thinking about visiting that country.