Big Walks – PEI’s Island Walk

Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking about doing a Big Walk. My bucket list has a number of them – the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain, the Bruce Trail in Ontario, and many more – and I keep reading about ideas for others as well. I had plans to take on at least one of these in each of 2020 and 2021, but the COVID-19 epidemic meant that those dreams stayed just that – dreams.

So come spring 2022, after 2 years of listening to me wish and sigh, my wife finally put the boot in and said it was time to either do one of these walks or else stop talking about it.

OK, agreed, but which walk to do? Knowing that 2022 would probably still have some COVID-19 travel disruptions, I decided to try something that was relatively close to home. Plus, knowing that this was going to be my first multi-week walk, it made sense to choose something that while challenging was also achievable in terms of length and terrain. That line of thought led me to the Island Walk.

Morning, Day 1

This is a relatively new addition to the world of long walks. It was first tried out in 2019 by a couple of experienced walkers from Prince Edward Island who had done the Camino de Santiago in Spain and who wanted to find a similar length walk that would showcase their home province. They came up with a route that combines walking on red-dirt back roads

with sections of the province’s Confederation Trail

to take you more or less around the coast of Prince Edward Island. It’s about 700 km in total, and is divided into a suggested 32 daily stages which range between 12 -26 km in length. In the end, I chose to do it a bit faster than that pace, finishing in 27 days.

Why?

The first question asked by most of the people I spoke to both on the walk as well as friends and family before and after is, why? Why do it?

The lazy answer to that is to say “because it’s there”, and that was part of it. Could I complete a long walk like that? And beyond that, I had a few other things in mind:

  • Exploring PEI – this was the only Maritime province I’d yet to visit, and seeing it on foot seemed like a great way to explore Canada’s smallest province
  • Physical challenge – despite trying to average 75 minutes of activity per day for the past 5 years, I’ve still managed to add a few pounds, and a good long walk was one way to shed a few of those
  • Trying out ideas – if I am going to do other long-distance multi-week walks, I’d like to figure out what works for me in terms of pace, gear, nutrition, etc. Doing so close to home was a bonus.
  • Thinking time – a walk is always a chance for me to clear my mind, but the mental challenge of maintaining focus while remaining observant while walking 5-6 hours a day is a new one
  • Put up or shut up – there comes a point where you either decide to do something or you put it aside.

Impressions

So having done, what did I think? Did I like it? Was it worth it? Did it meet my expectations or preconceptions?

At North Cape, Day 8

A couple of weeks have gone by since I finished it, and I’m still digesting it. There were things I liked – the structure of a long walk, the routine of getting up, getting ready, getting out, and getting it done, day after day. There was the rhythm of it, getting locked into a sort of Zen calmness and clarity, when the steady pace emptied my mind and I simply walked.

I liked some of the scenery. PEI is a low-key kind of place – no rugged mountains or crashing seas, but calm seas, long beaches,

green fields, wild flowers, fishing ports, and friendly people.

I liked the challenge, the push you need to start each day even when your feet hurt and the drive you need to see it through. I liked the solitude (I met exactly 6 other walkers and 4 cyclists on the route over 27 days) and I liked chatting to people that I met along the way.

I didn’t like the bugs – the mosquitoes were voracious.

I didn’t like the monotony of some stretches of the Confederation Trail, running flat and straight and on and on. I didn’t like having to to hitch rides most days to and from the route because there were few accommodation options adjacent to the route. And I didn’t like road walking, long stretches with no place to sit and rest, and hard asphalt that made my heels and ankles ache.

But those are quibbles. No journey contains only the highlights, there are always low lights and often no lights, and to expect otherwise is to be rudely awakened; but I wasn’t so much awakened to those things as resigned to them as being part of the journey that simply taught different lessons.

I guess the biggest takeaway for me is that a journey like this isn’t supposed to have one purpose, one impression, one lesson. Some time ago, a line I read in a blog post about the Camino de Santiago stuck in my head – “everyone walks their own Camino”. That message resonated again and again each day of my journey. No two people are going to do a walk like this, even if they are walking together, and do it for the same reasons while forming the same memories.

If I could distill anything out of this, I think it would be a few little mantras. Cherish the journey, respect the journey, and learn from it. Accept it on its own terms. Don’t overthink it. Your journey is its own lesson. Everybody walks their own Camino.

For the the last day, I’d deliberately walked extra distance on the preceding few days to ensure I’d have a short day at the end, partly in case of rain and partly because I didn’t want to finish the walk with a long sloggy day. And as I came into Charlottetown I was struggling to digest the journey, what it had meant, what I felt, how I thought of it. Ann wanted to meet me at Joe Ghiz Park where the route starts and ends, and a couple of friends, Michael and Carol, had come up from Lunenburg to surprise me and celebrate crossing the finish line. I was about a kilometre from the park, and way ahead of schedule, so I doddled a bit on the Hillsborough Bridge to look at the city skyline,

and then I texted Ann to say that I wanted to get there by myself so that I could try to process it. And so that’s what I did – walked the last bit trying to be normal, got to the park, took a selfie,

done

took off my pack, and when Ann walked in and gave me a hug, I started to cry. That was how I processed it – with tears, of relief and thanks. I thought I was walking by myself, and at that moment I realized that I was really walking with her.

Memories

Green on red – PEI’s colour palette in June is layers of green upon red earth, with little yellow and purple and pink and white flowered highlights.

Blue maritime skies. Grey rain-filled lowering clouds, and soft misty mornings. Green tunnels of trees and shrubs and bushes and ferns.

Odd sights.

Blue-green seas. Black crows. Red mud. And more green on red, red on green, again and again.

The rural character of the province sinks deep into your brain, until you expect no other colours. Green on red. Sunshine and trails. Memories.


Over the coming weeks, I’ll be writing more about this walk. Stay tuned.

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