On March 31st, at 8am, Meagan McGrath and I departed up the ice and snow covered Coastal trail into the misty realm of the Fundy National Park. The last time we hiked over ice together was at Everest Base Camp. A place where nothing grows and the air has half as much oxygen.
Meagan’s plan was for us to really push the first 20km through Fundy National Park. The trail at this point was still covered in snow and ice but it was above zero and the rain, although never a hiker’s friend, was of some help in melting the snow.
I am not sure what our packs weighed. I know that after four days of rain they weighed more. I carried the stove and fuel and some food, Meagan carried the tent, some food and rope. We each carried an ice ax, two poles, and a climbing harness. I could barely pick up Meagans’ pack.
Our pace day 1 was good, average of 2km an hour. We made 17km on day 1 and I was the one who suggested calling it a day. I knew we had a river crossing at Goose river the next day that would require we wait for low tide to cross and my toes had had enough toe bang. It continued to rain through the night and was still raining as we packed up the next morning. Meagan set the alarm for 8am with the aim of hiking by 9am. Low tide was to be at 12:30 so we hoped by 9:30-10:00am a crossing would be possible.
When the alarm went off, I sat up, grabbed my Herbalife powder for my morning shake, added water and began shaking. My buddy Marilyn suggested I mix a meal replacement with a protein shake to up the calories. It tastes like chocolate milk. Life is good. As I am putting my cup away Meagan is already out of her sleeping bag and got her gear on. There is no coffee or tea or breakfast when you hit trail with Meagan. Hence the vital need for the shake. I noticed at this point the spot gps was flashing red. I quickly go through my equipment bag and realize I have only two triple A batteries and I need four. So day 2 of the trip and my Spot gps signal that people are following as a safety back up is now dead. As is phone reception. We hit trail by 9:15am. This exceeded my standards, this fell below Meagan’s. I think it is at this point that the riff from the odd couple started playing in my head.
In less then an hour we were at the beach, howling winds and rain coming off the Bay of Fundy, we begin walking on the brown muddy shores of the river to find a spot to navigate across. There were actually two rivers that would need crossing. Once on the other side of Goose River we would begin the 41km Fundy footpath.
When hiking Meagan and I often walked alone, Meagan setting the pace and the lead, and I huffed and puffed behind. We are both used to hiking alone, and I was grateful we could do this together but also have the personal space. But water crossings were always done in consult with each other. As were steep ice portions of the trail.
As the second day unfolded I realized for our differences in strength and style we also had some interesting similarities. The first is that we both talk to ourselves, out loud, when in the forest. Of course what we say is a topic for a dissertation but I looked up people who talk to themselves and all is good, smart people like Einstein spoke to themselves. So chat away. And the second thing we shared was a reverence for nature. I think we both feel a sense of the sacred out there. That’s why we both crave the silence.
After the river crossings the trail became a bit narrower and a lot steeper. Imagine following a deer path on a steep slope with a heavy pack on. I thought about the camera I was carrying that I couldn’t use in all this rain, and those extra camera batteries. If not for the white flashing on the occasional tree it would be easy to get lost. Watching Meagan move was like watching a wave. There was a fluidity about how each leg moved forward, like gravity was her friend helping each step forward for the next step. This was the walk of a person who climbs 8000 metre peaks. And frankly it was beautiful to watch. My attempts at emulating it however did not bestow me with the same grace. I lack the fluidity, my hiking style more of a stomp, stomp. We hiked 11km on day 2. Our speed now dropped to 1.4km an hour. By day three that dropped to 1km an hour. And that is where it remained.
The rain continued and after four days everything was soaked. And then the rain stopped, and weather went below zero. The next morning we woke up to frozen hiking boots. I mean, really frozen hiking boots. I crawled out of the tent to see Meagan beating her boots against the ground like she was hammering nails into a new roof. I laughed until I realized I was frozen out of my boots, too. I ended up slipping them on but could not tie them up for the first hour. Here’s the thing with a frozen boot on the Fundy footpath. Several times a day you have to take your boots off to cross a river and taking a frozen boot off a cold foot and then trying to slip into frozen water shoes so you can walk across really cold moving water is uncomfortable. But at the same time, exhilarating, in a scream at the top of your lungs kind of way.
There were crazy staircases, and lots of up and down but the forest and views made it all feel somewhat magical and other worldly. And the final two cold days came with the reward of good views on the plateaus of the many climbs. But some of my favourite moments on the trail were tent time. You develop unspoken rituals when you share a space smaller then a double bed with someone who is not your lover. After getting settled we looked at the map and plotted our course for the next day. We shared a hydrated meal, had a hot drink, filled our water bottles with hot water and I put mine in my sleeping bag for warmth. Then we took time telling stories, talking about life, love, finding purpose, following passions and one night we put a candle into a coffee mug and took turns holding the cup of light and played shadow puppets. Thanks Meagan. What made this trip special was you.
There is a wisdom to an old tree and walking through a forest full of them for 6 days towering around you is like walking with wise elders. I honour those who came before us who had the vision to protect this land, these old tree’s, and this pristine coastline. Thank you for a vision that considered the future.
I was happy to see Ann Verrall filming at the end of the trail with Wally who opened the Park gate and let her drive to where the Fundy footpath ended on the Big Salmon river.
As soon as we got to the car Meagan and I bee lined it straight for chicken shawarma in Moncton. There is a bonding in shared hunger. She was an amazing guide and friend. I learned much from her experience.
Meagan has flown home now to Yellowknife and I have another departure from the trail to attend the Yukon Writer’s Festival including an author tour at various Yukon Community Libraries. I am excited and honoured to be a part of this years festival.
The Yukon has just finished its portion of the Trans Canada trail and I am still at least a year or more away from getting there on the trail but I look forward to meeting the other authors and people who live there.
When I return to New Brunswick I will paddle 92km of the St John River and then mountain bike the final 200km from Woodstock to the Quebec border.
When I began I never saw these departures from the trail. I thought only of the solitude I craved, the silence, and slipping back into a different sense of time. The world or at least my story of it had stopped making sense. But on a windy day in the park I watched tree trunks stay solid as all their branches blew wildly in the wind and I realized it was so because beneath the surface their roots are entwined into each other and around large stones and rocks. No tree really stands alone. Nor can we.