Life and travel lessons from six years on the Trans Canada Trail. Words :: Kristin Schnelten.
It’s late fall, deep in the dense bush of northern Ontario. Well into her third year trekking the Trans Canada Trail, filmmaker and adventurer Dianne Whelan awakens with a sigh in her frost-covered tent. Stiff and bruised, she prepares herself mentally for what’s ahead—another day of cold-water paddling, another set of arduous, frigid portages.
Outside the zippered door, however, that prognosis becomes far worse: What was yesterday a choppy inland lake is now a solid sheet of ice; in the forest, 60 centimetres of cement-like wet snow encases everything. Overwhelmed by her predicament, a stunned Whelan thinks, Holy crap. What are we going to do?
A paper map and satellite phone offer a sliver of hope: Her cousin could plow his way through a closed road that intersects with her route only eight kilometres away, but from her frozen-over campsite, reaching that potential rescue seems impossible.
For this leg of her trip—a 1,200-kilometre paddle with 168 kilometres of portages, stretching from Thunder Bay all the way into Manitoba—Whelan has enlisted the help of a friend. That one-in-a-million kind of friend who can easily step away from life for a few weeks and will enthusiastically carry 20-kilogram dry bags across multiple laps of a four-kilometre portage. A friend who, serendipitously, also packed an axe.
It may have been a tiny, token axe meant for little more than splitting kindling, but it proves a godsend. Zip-tying it to the end of a ski pole, Whelan’s friend sits in the bow of their canoe, alternately chopping the ice and pulling the canoe forward while Whelan, having switched from her usual double kayak paddle to the wooden one she carries in reserve, chops and paddles from the stern. Every second there is the danger of capsizing into icy water.
As if that weren’t enough, the storm has rendered the portages virtually impassable. The sheer weight of snow on tree limbs has bent and collapsed many of them, freezing them into place like an icy web of tangled rebar.
It takes seven days of chopping and schlepping to travel those eight kilometres. One swing of an axe, one heave of gear, one brutal slogging metre at a time.
When she finally pulled her canoe ashore at mile zero in Victoria, British Columbia, three years later, Dianne Whelan became the first person to complete the Trans Canada Trail—the world’s longest official land-water route. The historic 2021 landing marked the end of a six-year cross-country odyssey, during which she pedaled, paddled, snowshoed, backpacked and skied from the Atlantic to both the Arctic and Pacific Oceans.
Amazingly, Whelan’s grassroots journey and the film she was hoping to make of it had no corporate backing and zero sponsors. Her bike was decades old, her canoes and kayaks all borrowed. When she lost a tent (and she lost many), she reached out to friends and family or received help from random strangers on her path (such as the ATV driver who happened upon her on the trail, head in her hands over a lost tent, and gifted his tent to her on the spot).
“It isn’t your typical adventure story,” she says. “It was a journey of the spirit. Not in a religious sort of way, but in a ‘follow your heart’ kind of way. There’s an old saying, ‘When you commercialize the sacred, it loses its meaning.’”
Thus, given the particularly personal nature of the trip and her age—50 at the time—Whelan had thought, Let’s just try it this way. The result? Both the journey and its documentation were paid for by human kindness.
The generosity of Whelan’s own mother had planted the seed for the project. “My mom always wanted to walk the Trans Canada Trail; in 1995 she donated to it on behalf of each member of my family,” she recalls. “Then in 2014 I found myself at a place where I had the opportunity to do it. I had just finished a decade-long film project, gone through a divorce, and my dog died. So all the things
that would have tied me to one place were gone. And I’ve always gone to nature to sort myself out when I feel like I’m losing the sense of purpose in my life, or I’ve missed the mark or made a wrong turn.”
She spent that winter in her family’s farmhouse on the east coast, training and planning in isolation. Orchestrating a July 2015 start in St. John’s, Newfoundland, she estimated she’d reach Victoria in two years.
The reality was a six-year commitment few of us can fathom.
Whelan kicked off the journey by riding, and ultimately pushing, her loaded mountain bike over an abandoned railroad bed, taking 10 days to cover what she’d hoped to do in two: “I realized, Wow, the mind doesn’t age. It still thinks you’re 20 or 25, and it remembers that last big trip you took. But your body is a reality check.”
Catching herself obsessing over her elapsed time and the number of kilometres she’d covered, she realized she had to rethink the entire thing.
“I was like, What the fuck are you doing? This schedule is a self-created reality. You planned your little trip, and now instead of just surrendering to the moment you’re focused on being behind. So I thought, You just gotta let it go, man—and burn that schedule.”
Realizing it was time to connect and not to race, she “took off the rabbit suit and put on the turtle shell,” finding that connection in countless interactions with strangers, extended visits in Indigenous communities and long hours spent simply sitting with nature.
“Probably the biggest change that happened to me over the six years out there was that my resonance changed,” Whelan reflects.
“The animals got closer and closer and closer, and my quiet time of being in observation with them got longer and longer and longer.”
What started off as butterflies and squirrels became moose and grizzlies, even stumbling upon an indifferent mother and her cubs, quietly devouring berries adjacent to the trail. Whelan credits her slight hearing impairment for some of those close encounters, especially at night. The animals didn’t sense fear coming from her tent, because she simply wasn’t hearing them.
“Fast and impatient is the energy of predators, and animals pick up on our vibration,” she muses. “I think our ancient ancestors had that sense; it was part of living with nature. It’s what happens to you when you spend a long time away from cities with your feet on the ground. Everything finally quiets down, and you strip your life down to the most basic elements of water, sleep, food and just always searching for home.”
“This schedule is a self-created reality. You planned your little trip, and now instead of just surrendering to the moment you’re focused on being behind… You just gotta let it go, man—and burn that schedule.”
Home, however, was an abstraction. With her house in B.C. rented out, Whelan spent most of those years either on the trail or pausing close to it. At some point she realized self-care was the most important task on her mission. “If I got tired, I had no problem staying in my tent for a couple of days, and just doing some extra cooking, journaling, and then carrying on. Or if the weather was really rough, I’d wait for nature to calm down. It’s not like I was going to go out there to fight a battle I was going to lose.”
She spent a week on a couch in Manitoba, waiting out a storm. A handful of times she left the trail entirely: a two-week visit to her ailing mother, a six-week residency in B.C. For the first two winters, she was out there plodding through the snow, but a chance encounter would see her shift in later years to sheltering in place for most of December and January.
“I met a Cree woman who said, ‘You say you’re out here trying to do it the old way, but we didn’t travel in that kind of weather. In the winter months, you take your lesson from the bear. What does the bear do? It hibernates. It’s a time of rejuvenation, a time of yin, time to rebuild, sew your buttons. It’s a time to fix your pack; it’s a time to get your maps; it’s a time to prepare.’”
Whelan credits similar friendly advice for saving her life multiple times: The friends who insisted she scrounge a satellite phone and helped her find second-hand dry suits for winter paddles; the stranger who taught her about cowboy cooking (prepping and eating dinner early, up-river from your campsite); her reluctant acceptance of a gun before entering grizzly country.
One morning, on a tiny island north of the Arctic Circle, she awoke to her partner Louisa’s terrified screams. An aggressive bear had entered their site—and it didn’t appreciate shooing and banging. Still scrambling in the tent, Whelan encouraged Louisa, who was nearly paralyzed with fear, to fire a birdshot warning. The grizzly advanced. When a second warning caused the bear to momentarily sit, Whelan frantically struck camp. (As isolated as they were, diving for the canoe and leaving their gear and food behind would’ve been deadly.) Louisa kept the gun trained on the slowly advancing bear, even as they eventually backed into the canoe and paddled away.
They later discovered an earlier paddler had a similar encounter on the same island, but was forced to choose the canoe-dive option. That decision had apparently taught the bear a memorable lesson: Scare them off, and you will feast.
She admits to making mistakes of her own: “Oh, I’m your classic fool for sure. And I don’t mind being that person… If I can do this journey, anybody can. I’m not a super athlete, or super anything. I’m losing my tents. My shoes are coming apart. I don’t have it together or figured out at all. It’s just with human kindness and perseverance that I somehow made it to the end.”
And yet, Whelan can lay claim to six years in the wild without injury, without illness, without a single search-and-rescue call. No matter how dire the situation. It was something she was determined not to have to do, especially as a woman. “As a woman, when you’re out there doing things, sometimes you’ve got to do it even better than you might have to [otherwise], just because you don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have done that.’ I’m trying to break those ceilings, not bring them down on us.”
Whelan can lay claim to six years in the wild without injury, without illness, without a single search-and-rescue call.
As a woman in the film world, Whelan knows firsthand about glass ceilings. Consequently, she filled key creative positions on this project with women, from executive producer and senior editor to sound mixer and director. “A lot of extremely talented men have
worked on this film. I love them, and I’m grateful for the work they’ve done. But as a woman director, and as the owner of this film, I found myself with the rare opportunity to be able to make those kinds of decisions. And this film is really about my love for Mother Earth. And you know, history is a line, right? But herstory is a circle. I wanted this one to be herstory.”
And that story is, in the end, one of community, from one end of the trail to the other.
“I intentionally chose subjects in my film that represent all political walks of life, because kindness doesn’t have a political party,” says Whelan. “And everybody’s kindness is what got me through this.”
Especially in Indigenous communities, where she made a concerted effort to stop, listen and learn. “When an Indigenous community is having a powwow, they’re telling everybody, ‘Come on down!’ And that reconciliation isn’t a political deal. It’s friendship. It’s getting to know each other, holding each other’s babies,” she says. “That’s how we unpack this stuff. Through kinship. Not through policy.”
Next spring, when she releases 500 Days In The Wild (a wildly underestimated title chosen early on the trail), Whelan will wrap up a decade of her life dedicated to a single project. She thinks of both the journey and film as pilgrimage, one with three themes: adventure, reconciliation and healing.
“It’s a film where a person who is overwhelmed by the world today finds hope and meaning again, mostly through connection and the realization that radical individuality is actually an illness in our society,” she says. “It’s something I romanticized most of my life, but now I realize what a crock of shit that is. We all need each other.”
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