When I was a teenager, I met someone who had done the Pennine Way long-distance footpath. And I gazed with awe on him. After all, 267 miles seemed a heroic achievement, requiring several bars of Kendal mint cake and the courage to face aggressive sheep dogs. I recall that man as I step out, for the first time, on Canada’s new long-distance footpath, The Great Trail (aka Trans Canada Trail). I am not at the start, or the finish, but somewhere in between, on a path that is a mind-boggling 15,000 miles (24,000km) in length, by far the longest footpath in the world. If you were to chop this distance into a series of satisfying 20-mile-long day walks, there would be sufficient for two years.
Yukon, Tombstone park
The Great Trail starts near St John’s, in Newfoundland and Labrador, and finishes on Vancouver Island, after an Arctic detour. I am in Yukon Territory’s Tombstone territorial park, taking the first of my own day walks along the path. Here it follows the Dempster Highway through the park, heading north towards Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic coast. I am not going that far, only a few miles up a valley called Grizzly Creek towards the spectacularly jagged Tombstone peaks. Underfoot is soft mossy forest floor speckled with flowers, the path later climbing steeply on to a stony ridge with sweeping views of dark brooding peaks. En route, my guide Benny points out moose, then marmots, but no grizzlies.
I’m not sure what I think about the grizzly bear, the Great Trail’s top predator. In theory I would very much like to see one. In practice I have twice watched The Revenant, a movie that shows what will happen if you wander alone through the woods without bear-repellent spray. I’m pretty sure Leonardo DiCaprio will not be making that mistake again.
Up the path we meet a Canadian family heading towards Grizzly Lake for a two-night camp. What does the Great Trail mean to them? “We love the idea – it’s like a huge long thread, connecting all Canadians together.” And what about the bears? They smile … they are from Yukon, where bears are as normal as sheepdogs in the Pennines.
My Tombstone hike ends with me watching beavers in a pool by the Dempster Highway. They slap their tails on the water’s surface in an attempt to scare me away. Nearby, a skunk hustles off, fortunately without using his human-repellent spray.
Dawson City and gold rush territory
My next walk – more of a stroll, really – is 50 miles south and a very different experience, proof that the Great Trail is not only about wilderness. I pick it up as it crosses the Klondike river and heads into Dawson City.
Ever since I read Jack London’s tales of the Yukon as a boy, I have wanted to visit Dawson, capital of the Klondike gold rush. I feared, however, that all traces of the sprawling, brawling, caterwauling town he knew might have been erased. London himself arrived here in 1897, as a 21-year-old greenhorn. Gold had been found just a few miles from town and every panhandler and freewheeler who had ever seen a newspaper headline was heading for Dawson, at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. It was one of those seminal moments in human history, like Woodstock, when you had to be there, or miss out forever. Most people missed out. The Klondike was so remote and dangerous to reach that the vast majority either gave up or died.
From the bridge on the outskirts of town I follow the Great Trail along the riverfront, admiring the period houses built on blocks to avoid sinking into the thawing permafrost. There is even an old bank made of tin, where the poet of the Yukon, Robert Service, once worked. He wrote the mantra for footloose long-distance walkers: “There’s a race of men that don’t fit in, a race that can’t stay still…” He is remembered here – less so in his native Scotland. A Parks Canada costumed guide does a great one-man show at Service’s old cabin in Dawson.
Up one side street I find remnants of London’s cabin, now part of an excellent museum. Back on the trail, I head around to Front Street. In one shop I buy, on impulse, a gold-panning dish and ask where to find “the real flavour” of London-era Dawson. The request leads to two tips. “You should take the ferry and walk down river to the shipwrecks,” says one man. “Then tonight go to ‘The Pit’.” He grins mischievously. “That’s the bar the tourist office don’t tell outsiders about, even though it was built during the gold rush.”
According to my map, I am on a spur of the Great Trail that actually ends where I catch the ferry across the river, so I am extending the path a little, adding about a mile. But that is the spirit of the trail, a project that started in 1992, Canada’s 125th anniversary of confederation, with the aim of finishing it later this year, for the 150th. The entire, gargantuan production is the result of community effort: thousands of individuals and local organisations working on their own sections, with a small team of enthusiasts to stitch it all together, like some pioneer patchwork quilt.
I walk off the ferry, then along the muddy riverbank. I stop and pan for gold, without success (I should have tried publicly accessible Claim 6 upriver, apparently). After a mile I spot my destination: three stern-wheel paddle steamers abandoned on the gravel bank above the river.
The paint has long since been stripped by a century of savage winters, but the old paddle wheels are there, and the smokestacks. I clamber across splintered decks, but it is difficult to recreate that lost world of gold fever, good-time girls and godawful hardships.
Later that night The Pit (actually the bar of the Westminster Hotel) proves a little more redolent, especially around midnight, when Sourtoe Sue gets up and dances on the bar to celebrate the arrival of a gold miner, who rings the bell and buys everyone in the house free shots. My head full of booze, I examine the colourfully suggestive paintings that adorn the walls. Did Queen Victoria really visit Dawson during the gold rush? And do that to a mounted policeman?
Alberta and the Rockies
For my final taste of the Great Trail, I transfer to Alberta and the Rocky Mountains. Above the town of Canmore, a new section of trail heads south along the spine of the Rockies, almost as far as the US border. Together with guide Nathan and the Great Trail co-ordinator for Alberta, Kirsten, I am going to walk by Spray Lakes reservoir and take a side path up to a viewpoint.
Is the Great Trail actually finished, I ask Kirsten.
“Trails need to evolve and be dynamic, so maybe it’ll never be done. It’s a work in progress,” she says.
Has anyone actually walked it all?
“Only one person has done it in one go: Sarah Jackson, a student from Edmonton. It took just under two years. Before that a forester, Dana Meise, also walked right across, touching all three oceans, but he did it in stages.”
Did either have any trouble with bears?
“I don’t think so.”
Will we have any trouble with bears?
“Unlikely. The trail is pretty busy.”
It is a crisp sunny day in the Rockies and all the snow-streaked peaks are sharp against a deep-blue vault of sky. We rise up through spruce and fir towards West Wind Pass. Nathan points out pink calypso orchids and the white and yellow dryas flowers. Below us in the valley, the Spray Lakes are a glacial milky turquoise.
Around lunchtime we arrive at the pass and a magnificent panorama. I set down my rucksack and take out a sandwich. A hiker, coming up behind us, strolls over. “I think there’s a bear,” he says. “It’s coming up the trail.”
Nathan and I exchange a glance. For some people, every tree stump can become a bear about to pounce. I pick up my camera and take a few steps back down the path. Almost immediately I see a tree stump ambling directly towards me, a tree stump with black fur and white teeth. He disappears behind a clump of pines.
“Let’s bunch together,” says Nathan.
The bear re-emerges suddenly very close indeed, only 10 metres away. He looks a bit ragged: his left ear is torn and there is fur missing from his shoulder. He looks like he needs a sandwich. I edge closer to Nathan and Kirsten.
The bear shows little interest. He crosses behind us and goes to a place where he can descend the slope safely. In a few more seconds he is gone. Only then do I realise that I had totally forgotten about the bear spray. It had never occurred to me.
Bears do sometimes attack, of course, but mostly they don’t. The Revenant is a film and not a guide to bear behaviour. The creature that attacked DiCaprio was actually a stunt man in a fat suit. I should also point out that the man who walked the Pennine Way, all those years ago, was threatened by a dog, but not actually bitten. Scare stories should never deter us from the big trail.
We descend from the pass and turn south. After a while I spot a white sign bearing three colourful figures representing the peoples of Canada – First Nation, English-speaking and French-speaking – in a schematic maple-leaf form. It’s a thrill to see that Great Trail sign and think of that immense route snaking across the continent. I still get that same thrill when I see the Pennine Way signs in Britain. It’s the thrill of being part of something epic and significant but – unlike the Klondike gold rush or Woodstock – always there and always available to all.
Way to go
The trip was provided by Destination Canada. Local trekking for the Rockies can be booked through Yamnuska Mountain Adventure. Responsible Travel has a 13-day hiking trip in the Rockies, using sections of the Great Trail, including around Calgary and Banff, from £1,739 excluding flights. Further information at explore-canada.co.uk, thegreattrail.ca, travelalberta.co.uk and travelyukon.com. Air Transat flies to Calgary from Gatwick and Manchester from £412 return (add-on car hire from £26 per day).