Well, I set out from Kingston with a question: would I like the kind of thruhiking people do in North America–carrying a tent and stove and food and water–as much as I like walking from hostel to hostel, from B&B to B&B, in Europe?
I quickly got my answer: no, I do not. The pack is just too heavy. I remember my friend Angus saying he prefers canoeing to hiking, because he prefers to let the boat do all the carrying, and I think he’s right.
The trouble started early on the second day. The trail went through an unmown hayfield. No one has walked there, not in the last year, and so there was no trail. It took an hour to get through it, stopping every hundred metres or so to retie my boots because the grasses and wildflowers (Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod and thistles) kept pulling the laces off my boots. Because of all the rain that fell the night before, my boots quickly got soaking wet. After the hayfield, the trail was clearer, but when it reached a marsh, the waymarkers disappeared. So did the trail, covered by a lush growth of reeds and other plants. I misread the map and followed the only trail I could see. And got lost. I spent another hour stumbling through a forest, pushing through wild rose and sumac, until I found the rail trail I was supposed to be on. It was on the other side of a stream, of course, so my boots got even wetter. And wet boots–at least the pair I was wearing–cause blisters. Big ones.
I trudged down the rail trail, already exhausted, bent double under the weight of the pack. By four o’clock, I’d reached the village of Sydenham, less than a third of the distance I’d hoped to achieve. I ate a burger at a chipstand and asked people if the campground just south of town that was marked on my map was open. Nobody knew. I decided to push on instead of losing more time and energy looking for something that didn’t exist. By half past seven, I was in a pine forest overlooking a lake, and too tired to take another step or cook any dinner. There was a mossy clearing under the trees and I made camp. It was private land and I didn’t have permission but I didn’t care. Ten hours of walking and I still wasn’t halfway to my goal for day two.
I hung my bear-proof food bag in a tree and spent half the night listening to chipmunks trying to get into it. Fortunately it turned out to be chipmunk-proof, too.
It was time to reassess. I only had so much food, and if I kept moving this slowly I would eat everything before I got to Westport, the next town with (I hoped) a supermarket. The trouble was the pack. It was just too heavy. I could’ve foreseen this. I can carry a 10 kilogram pack and walk all day without complaining (very much). But 20 or 25 kilograms? Everything changes. When your pack is twice as heavy, everything gets twice as hard. Each kilometre feels like two. Every hill you climb is twice as high and twice as steep, every descent twice as precipitous. Something simple, like climbing over a stile, becomes a risky balancing act, the pack throwing off your centre of gravity. Your feet hurt twice as much. You walk at half the speed. At the end of the day, you’re twice as tired. Maybe if I’d spent the spring and summer training for this, maybe then it would’ve been easier–expecting that I would get used to the extra weight in the first few days was, to say the least, an error in judgement.
On the third day, the trail went through a hilly forest between Gould Lake Conservation Area and Frontenac Provincial Park. It would be a great place for a day hike, but it was no place to be stumbling around carrying a heavy pack. I climbed rock walls. I crawled under fallen trees. I walked along a sheer drop the lake below along a path that was crumbling under my feet. I saw no one one the trail and few signs that anyone had used it recently. There was no cell signal and I realized that if I twisted an ankle on the rocks or in the mud I’d be completely on my own. No wonder the trail association warns against hiking solo–a warning I should’ve paid attention to.
It took me six hours to cover six kilometres through the forest, alternately looking down to make sure I was on a solid footing and looking for the trail waymarkers, which weren’t always that easy to find. By the time I got to the road to Frontenac Park, I was completely exhausted. This is no fun, I thought. And the next few days will take me through similar terrain, and probably a similar kind of trail. There was no way my food would last until Westport. And I wasn’t going to last, either. My feet were covered in blisters and my walk had turned into a kind of shuffling hobble. I finally got a cell signal at the top of a hill and I called my sister-in-law, Barbara, who lives with her husband Mike in Kanata. Would they be able to pick me up at Frontenac? Yes, they would. Thank God for family! I plodded up to the park visitor’s centre. I heated some soup and ate some tuna and started to feel better. I changed out of my stinking shirt. Barb and Mike arrived at seven o’clock. I thanked them profusely for driving two hours to rescue me. My grand thruhike was over.
What could I have done differently? I could’ve been more ruthless about what I packed (maybe even an extra shirt was too much to carry?) and I definitely should’ve trained for the hike. I should’ve tried to figure out why my boots give me blisters when they get wet–I never had that problem in either Spain or England. But I don’t think I could’ve foreseen the trail conditions, the difficulty of the terrain, the absence of other hikers. Or the length of time it was going to take to finish the hike. On the Camino, it’s not unreasonable to expect to cover 300 kilometres in two weeks; on the Rideau Trail, it would take a lot longer, unless you are as fit as a 25-year-old firefighter and able to carry 25 kilograms as if it were a feather. I’m not, and I can’t.
But it’s not a total loss. I got an answer to my question. I know that, in future, I’m going to travel more lightly and stay in hostels or B&Bs, not in a tent. If I ever try hiking in the woods again, I’ll go with someone else–someone with experience. And I have even more respect for people like Bill Bryson or Cheryl Strayed or anyone who has managed to hike this way for weeks and months. It’s not something I can imagine doing. Not today, anyway. Today I’m going to relax and let my blisters heal.