Dan Brown recalls the crisp morning he and his wife encountered a storybook-like scene while exploring the outdoors near their home in Duncan, BC. It was during a cold spell, and, while walking along a forested section of their favourite trail, the two came across some enormous waterfalls that were encased in ice. As clear and smooth as glass, the glistening cascades had become frozen in motion.
“I’d never seen frozen waterfalls on Vancouver Island before,” says Brown, who grew up in nearby Shawnigan Lake. “The leaves and rocks were all covered in a quarter inch of ice. It was so gorgeous. It was just this beautiful, natural wonder.”
A parks planning technician who specializes in trails for the Cowichan Valley Regional District, Brown has seen many other postcard-worthy sights while riding his bike along that same trail: a makeshift tunnel formed by the branches of towering maple and fir trees; a large beaver pond; wildlife such as elk, owls and bald eagles; the deep blue waters of Saanich Inlet.
The path that Brown knows so well is called the Cowichan Valley Trail, and it is just one small part of a much grander route, one that traverses the entire nation. Passing through more than 15,000 communities along 24,000 kilometres, The Great Trail connects the country from coast to coast to coast. It is expected to be fully connected later this year, to coincide with Canada’s 150th birthday.
The Great Trail has been years in the making. The dream of building the longest recreational trail in the world was born in 1992, when the not-for-profit Trans Canada Trail organization was formed. Since then, countless individuals and organizations have had a hand in the ambitious community-based project.
Described as a gift to Canada from Canadians, The Great Trail consists of a series of sections (such as the Cowichan Valley Trail) that are operated and championed by various municipalities, regional groups, provincial and national authorities and First Nations. The multi-use trail allows for walking, hiking, cycling, paddling, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
“It’s this incredible fabric of the entire country,” says Trisha Kaplan, trail development manager for Western and Northern Canada. In BC alone, it goes through various mountain ranges and ecosystems, from mountains to grassland desert to the Ponderosa pine of the Okanagan. On the coast, you have giant cedars. The diversity is very dramatic. It’s magnificent.”
Sarah Jackson has witnessed this diversity firsthand. The twenty-something Edmonton native is set to be the first woman to complete the trail, having left Victoria in the summer of 2015 with the aim of reaching St. John’s this spring. Carrying her tent on her back and sleeping under the stars, she has fallen in love with the meditative journey and with the people she has encountered along the way.
“I love realizing how happy I am to be walking 20 kilometres into a day,” Jackson says. “The kindness that’s been offered me, and how welcoming and generous everyone has been, is incredible.”
Besides connecting Canadians, the trail also reaches deep into the country’s history. Much of the Cowichan Valley portion that Brown has been developing for nearly a decade, for instance, travels along former CN railway tracks. It features structures like the wooden Kinsol trestle, one of the world’s tallest free-standing timber rail bridges. Standing 44 metres above the Koksilah River, where Chinook and Coho salmon swim, it’s a reminder not only of the country’s early logging and mining industries but also of its founders’ ambition and optimism.
“The Great Trail is all about connection on all kinds of different levels,” Brown says. “On a personal level, I can go out for a [bike] ride for hours and reconnect with myself and reconnect with nature. There’s so much to see. It forces you to slow down.”
“The other level is that we’re connecting with our local history,” he adds. “Part of what makes the trail unique are these old railways that allowed our communities to exist. The people who mined and harvested resources allowed these places to be built. When you share the trail, you’re walking in the footsteps of those people.”
To begin the journey along The Great Trail, there are three Kilometre 0 markers: one in the Inuvialuit community of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories; one in Cape Spear, Newfoundland; and another in Victoria on Vancouver Island.
From the BC capital, trail users will be able to venture northward, across Malahat Mountain and through the town of Chemainus—known for its vivid, immense outdoor murals—to Nanaimo. Or they can make use of BC Ferries’ marine links, connecting Vancouver Island to the Lower Mainland, to continue their Great Trail adventure across the Georgia Strait. These major ferry routes include Swartz Bay/ Tsawwassen, Duke Point/ Tsawwassen and Departure Bay/Horseshoe Bay.
While The Great Trail is anticipated to be fully connected by July 1, it will continue to evolve, Kaplan notes, with new sections incorporated over time. The Salish Sea Marine Trail, for example, a salt-water route for paddle craft developed by the BC Marine Trails Network Association, will ultimately connect The Great Trail from the BC mainland to Victoria. This 257-kilometre blueway will include stops at Lasqueti and Texada islands as well as the Sunshine Coast, among others.
Local groups continue to work toward completion of a Great Trail connection from Tsawwassen to Vancouver. Once that is complete, according to Kaplan, there could be an opportunity for a loop (Vancouver, Nanaimo, Victoria, Sidney, Tsawwassen, and back to Vancouver again), with BC Ferries playing a vital role.
“The feeling of getting off the ferry when you’re on foot or on bike is totally unique, like nothing else in BC,” Kaplan says. “It’s empowering. You get the fresh ocean air in your face. It’s freeing.”
Today, the BC portion of the trail is approximately 3,000 kilometres, with some spots, such as the Malahat Summit, providing 360-degree, quintessentially West Coast views of mountains plunging into the Pacific. For Brown, however, the beauty of The Great Trail lies in the small details that he dedicates his days to featuring; maybe it’s the smooth surface of a twisted arbutus branch or a collection of streaked stones.
“Developing a trail is part science, part feel,” Brown says. “In some corridors, you’re hiking through mature, old-growth forest or you’re going up and down a mountain. The trail needs to be a certain width and height. You want sustainable grades; if the trail is too steep or doesn’t have proper drainage, it will wash away. You want it to have a lot of viewscapes. You’re always making sure the trail will stand the test of time. You want it to be … accessible, but what I really like is finding the little things, like an interesting-looking tree or exposed bedrock—the unique things that contribute to the experience.
“The Great Trail helps people connect with nature in their own way,” he adds. “And if you kept riding in one direction and decided not to stop, you’d get to the other side of the country. It blows my mind to stop for a second and really think about that.”