Paddling Canada’s Great Trail

On the water with filmmaker Dianne Whelan on the Trans-Canada Trail

Photo: Ann Verrall

Dianne Whelan was "horrified" when a headline in favorite newspaper referred to her journey on the 14,900-mile Trans-Canada Trail as a conquest. The acclaimed documentary filmmaker from Garden Bay, British Columbia was the subject of a New York Times interview, where she described her adventures on the world's longest recreational trail. "I'm not conquering anything," Whelan insisted when I spoke with her in July at a backcountry campsite on Lake Superior's north shore. "I'm here to explore the physical landscape and to experience the spirit of the people, the water and the places."

Whelan was 50 years old when she set off from the eastern terminus of the Trans-Canada Trail, St. John's, Newfoundland, in July 2015. Recently completed in time for Canada's 150th anniversary in 2017, the so-called "Great Trail" connects the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. While it's primarily designed for hiking and cycling, Canada's vast wilderness waterways called for several paddling segments. Whelan said her journey was conceived at a crossroads in her life. "I had been filming at Everest Base Camp," she recalled. "I saw the dark side of humanity and it shook me. At the same time my marriage fell apart. The world stopped making sense to me. After a finished the touring the film I decided to go on a walkabout."

Photo: Ann Verrall

Whelan says the name of her creative project, "500 Days in the Wild," is a metaphor for the manner in which she's committed to getting to know the people and the land. It took her nearly two years of continuous hiking and cycling to reach Lake Superior, where a 550-mile water trail traces the remote north shore. Currently, she's still on the water—paddling the 600-mile Path of the Paddle section, through the myriad of lakes and rivers west of Lake Superior and just north of the Minnesota-Ontario border. Once she reaches Manitoba the Trans-Canada Trail once again heads overland. Whelan anticipates finishing her project in 2019.

Photo: Conor Mihell

When I spoke with her, Whelan was enthralled by Lake Superior. "At first it was daunting," said Whelan, who was a novice paddler when she donned a yellow drysuit and launched her solo canoe at Lake Superior's eastern end in May, and took her first strokes with a double-bladed paddle. "But this has turned out to be one of the most sacred times of my life."

Whelan was fortunate to participate in several traditional First Nations ceremonies this summer. While traveling, she quickly adapted to Lake Superior's fickle personality. "I retired my jackrabbit outfit for a turtle shell," laughed Whelan, describing how she came to relish the many days she spent weatherbound, cozy in her tent with her journal and a hot drink. "I've done more writing in the last few months than I did in two years."

— Follow Dianne Whelan on Instagram
— Canoeist, cartographer and author Hap Wilson mapped and produced a guidebook for the Path of the Paddle segment of the Trans-Canada Trail

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Cross-Canada with Mike Ranta
Dispatches from the Freeman’s year in the Boundary Waters
Paddling the Inside Passage with Wild Raven Adventure