Curious conservationists walk coast to coast
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When Sean Morton approached Sonya Richmond in a pub 24 years ago, and Morton asked Richmond if she liked hiking, who knew it would someday lead to a cross-country foot tour?
Their shared love for hiking and nature has brought them through Spain’s Camino de Santiago and across several hundred kilometres of Canadian trails. But their latest expedition was unlike anything the couple, who are in their mid-40s, have endeavoured before.
They sold their house and left their demanding day jobs in southern Ontario for something much grander — the world’s longest recreational trail.
Fewer people have hiked the 28,000-kilometre Trans-Canada Trail than have walked on the moon. But not unlike a space mission, Richmond and Morton had something special to keep them motivated as they battled — and conquered — extreme heat, forest fires and a hurricane: curiosity.
The underlying reason for their journey was to bring citizen science to the forefront and urge Canadians to pay nature the attention it deserves.
“We set out with the goal of inspiring people of all ages, cultural backgrounds, orientations, identities, genders to just get outside and connect with nature through birds, and learn more about this vast, incredible country for themselves,” Richmond told the Sun earlier this month.
If people fall in love with nature, they will feel more inspired to protect it, she said.
Before their Trans-Canada Trail adventure, Richmond worked as a bird researcher and data analyst. Morton, meanwhile, left his PhD program in interdisciplinary humanities to become a wildlife and landscape photographer.
As Richmond said, Canada is a vast land, which makes it nearly impossible to study the various plant and animal species that call it home. There simply aren’t enough experts and scientists to monitor everything that goes on here. That’s where everyday Canadians come in. Ordinary people can contribute to the collection of scientific knowledge through a practice known as citizen science.
An example of this is the annual Christmas bird count that takes place throughout North America every winter. People in more than 2,000 locations across the Northern Hemisphere will track the number of birds they encounter in a single day, whether it’s in their own backyard or a designated area in the field. The information collected by thousands of volunteer birders forms one of the world’s largest sets of wildlife survey data, according to Birds Canada. The results are used by conservation biologists, environmental planners and naturalists to assess the population trends and distribution of birds.
“It’s incredibly important for conservation. It has a huge positive impact,” Richmond said about citizen science. “By bringing people in and encouraging members of the general public to upload the observations they’re making, we have a shot at monitoring how our wildlife populations are doing.”
Richmond and Morton left Cape Spear, N.L., in June 2019 and spent the next three years — except for travelling back to Ontario to hibernate during the winters — trekking across Canada. They reached the finish line in Victoria, B.C., on Nov. 24 of this year.
Their expedition quickly garnered attention at the national level, including a sponsorship from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society as well as an acknowledgment from the prime minister himself.
Along the way, they spoke to nature groups, classrooms and ordinary passersby about their journey and the importance of conservation, particularly relating to birds. Many people reached out to Richmond and Morton afterward to share their own stories about connecting with nature.
“We helped people across the country, especially a lot of kids, actually connect with nature, start listening to the birds, start looking around. And that was our goal. I mean, that was just an amazing feeling to think that we might have helped people make that connection,” Richmond said.
Birds are important indicators of environmental change — this is part of the reason why the couple decided to highlight them throughout their trip. According to their blog, birds provide essential ecological services, such as pollinating plants, dispersing seeds, and helping control insect populations. When bird populations decline, it can be an indication of larger problems in nature.
While the topic of climate change and environmental caretaking can be politically charged, Richmond said she observed a shared sentiment among Canadians from all walks of life, whether they were fishermen in the Maritimes, farmers in the Prairies, or foresters in British Columbia.
“Talking to people from all these different backgrounds, one thing is abundantly clear. Everyone, no matter who you are, where you sit on the political spectrum … we all want one thing, and that’s to have clean air, clean water and the same opportunities for our children and grandchildren to work and play in the landscapes that we all grew up in,” she said.
“I think that’s a really important starting point.”
• • •
Richmond and Morton didn’t intend for the trip to last as long as it did. But like most things, the COVID-19 pandemic forced its way into their plans like a stubborn stone stuck in their shoe. They had one hiking season under their belt before the pandemic emerged in March 2020 and they were forced to take a hiatus.
In the meantime, as they waited for “stay-at-home” orders to lift, they kept in shape by hiking 10- to 20-kilometre loops around their neighbourhood.
While lockdowns delayed and shortened their time on the trail, the pandemic did offer the couple several bright spots as well.
“There was a bit of a silver lining for us, in that so many people during that time were looking for new ways to connect with nature. And our outreach really fit what a lot of people were looking for,” Richmond said.
As the pandemic barred most people inside their homes, they turned to virtual and digital forms of communication, such as Zoom. This gave the couple an opportunity they might not have otherwise had, which was to reach more Canadians in all corners of the country through the computer screen.
While the pair urge Canadians to get outside, they also recognize the reality of the digital-dominant world we live in. Telling children — and even adults — to drop their phones or other devices in favour of spending time outside can be a “difficult sell,” Richmond said.
But technology and nature aren’t mutually exclusive. There are apps such as iNaturalist, a social network for sharing biodiversity information. Users can upload images of the organisms they meet in their daily lives and connect with other community members on the app.
“If you can take it with you and use it as a tool to help conservation or to help build that connection … you’re using your screen to help bridge the gap between the natural landscape and the digital one.”
The pandemic was just one of the handful of roadblocks the couple faced on their journey. You can add extreme weather and climate events to that list. They were in Halifax when Hurricane Dorian ripped through Eastern Canada, and in British Columbia they faced forest fires and trail washouts.
But one of their most challenging days on the trail was in Emerson, Man. It was close to 50 C, Richmond recalled, and there wasn’t a sliver of shade in sight.
“Getting into Emerson is one of those days that really sticks in our mind, like that was just so hot.”
Manitoba is often shunned for its flat prairie and seemingly unadorned landscape. But Richmond said the province is simply misunderstood by the rest of Canada. Heading into the Prairies, their supporters lamented the “flat” and “boring” landscape on their behalf, telling them to get through the region as quickly as they could.
But after visiting Manitoba for herself, she said those sentiments are “completely untrue.” From species of ground squirrels they had never seen before to bears in soy fields and towering grain elevators, Richmond said Manitoba was one of the places that surprised them the most.
“We learned about the grain elevators … it’s this icon of the Prairies, and now they’re endangered because they’re sort of falling out of history. You know, [there are] all these amazing things that you don’t think about until you go exploring. And I think visiting Manitoba was just incredible for us, like we learned so much there and it is so beautiful.”
• • •
Richmond and Morton are now back in Ontario, recovering from three years on the road, but their journey isn’t over yet. Their next endeavour will bring them to the Arctic Circle — a first for them both — next spring. There, they will attempt to complete the last leg of their Trans-Canada Trail tour.
The trail through the Northwest Territories follows mostly highways and roadways instead of a footpath, and the terrain is hilly and mountainous. Because of the remote nature of the territory, the resupply points are few and far between, meaning the pair will likely have to carry more food and water on their person as well as mail themselves packages. Groceries in the North are also much more expensive compared to Southern Canada.
“I think we’re expecting it to be a bit harder than anything we’ve encountered,” Richmond surmised.
Once the pair complete their trek through the North, they will join the few people who have dared to travel the trail from coast to coast to coast.
“It’s just a vast undertaking,” she said. “And getting as far as we did from the Atlantic to the Pacific was a pretty surreal kind of moment, it was hard to believe we’d actually done that.”