15 August, 2023

Bonnie’s Trans Canada Trail: Shifting Gears

A tent and a bike on the grass in front of an older house with a sunset in the background

When I think of the “broken foot” chapter of my walk across Canada, Robert Burns’ quote “the best made plans of mice and men often go awry” comes to mind.  

Newfoundland was the first stop on the long awaited second leg of my cross-Canada walk. (Check out this article in my Trans Canada Trail series for more information on the first leg from BC to Ontario!) Mind, body, and 13 pre-packaged resupply boxes: I was ready! I knew exactly what I was getting into… or so I thought.  

Best-laid plans… and a broken foot 

Hiking with a broken foot

But the best-laid plans of seasoned hikers often go awry, and shifting gears – sometimes quite literally – is what trail life is all about.  

Newfoundland – no matter how you tackle it – is not for the faint of heart. The weather is moody, the province is deceptively big and the conditions on the old railway-turned-trail are often unforgiving for those on foot. In an eerie bit of foreshadowing, days before I broke my foot, I joined in on Trail Angel Chuck’s shed party while a group of hardy Newfoundlanders sat in awe of my journey. “If I walked that trail every day I’d be wrecked,” an incredulous Harry said over and over. I laughed and tucked an imaginary feather in my cap, not knowing that in a few days I would be experiencing my own version of this.  

So how did it happen?! It’s hard to say for sure. In this part of the country, the trailbed is made up of chunky rock suited for rail, minimally backfilled with finer material fit for feet. Maybe it was the unusually severe spring runoff that left dozens of epic washouts in its wake, many with drops of ten feet or more between the raised railbeds and the creeks down below. Maybe it was the repetitive strain of 800-some kilometres across the province fittingly nicknamed “The Rock.” Or maybe it was because of my nightly habit of running the last few miles to work up some wind and keep the mosquitoes and blackflies in a swarming black cloud behind me.

Coming to terms with a new reality

Whatever it was, it soon became clear that I wasn’t going to get far trying, as I often do on trail, to push through this pain. Coming to terms with my new reality – just 30 kilometres from completing the cross-Newfoundland trek, no less – was crushing. Hot, sweaty, dehydrated and tear-soaked on the side of the trail, I let out a good cry for my fleeting dream of completing this walk before beginning the truly arduous mission of hiking out to the highway and hitching a ride to the hospital in Port-aux-Basques.

Shifting mindset, shifting expectations, shifting timelines

Bonnie smiling while walking along the Trans Canada Trail

Waiting out the foot healing process was a series of shifting gears: shifting my mindset, shifting my expectations, shifting my timelines and eventually shifting into a new form of two-wheeled trail transit. The timeline for getting back on trail was ever-changing. I calculated and recalculated the walk goalposts accordingly: “If I heal in record time, and I zig here, and skip this zag, and push through here, and sail past there, I can make it home as planned/with a few adjustments/by the end of October, with a good hard push/by mid-November, with a little winter-weather discomfort.”

But you can’t rush healing. Four weeks passed and my tender foot was still puffed up and prone to shooting pain on short walks. Despair was starting to knock at the door when Trail Angel Kathleen, an occupational therapist, suggested I try cycling.

Cycling! An interesting prospect. On my first walk, I was often asked, “Why don’t you get a bike?”
Not my style, not as nimble, too much work, and not as reliable as my own two feet. That, and I’m a stop and photograph the blade of grass, smell the sap, read the sign, feel the bark, and investigate the scat kind of person! Three miles an hour is a good pace for taking it all in, I wrote in one of my early blog posts.

Nothing like a change in circumstance to change your tune, though! A couple of day-cycling trips and one overnighter with my walking boot on my foot and my pack on my back and I was on my way again.

Cycling came with all of the stresses I assumed it would: I worried about having the loaner bike or my gear stolen when stepping into a store to resupply on food or checking out local attractions; I worried about leaving it outside my tent overnight, exposed to the elements; I worried about popping a tire or breaking the bike in any way, especially on rougher terrain. But, to my surprise, cycling also has some perks, too!

Lessons learned when shifting gears. Here are a few things I learned when shifting gears: 

a bike leaning against a picnic table under a wooden gazebo

The Trail always provides! Even as things were going sideways with my broken foot, I still had faith that Trail Magic would get me through. I was lucky to meet Trail Angels like Walt, Chloe and James who offered me rides and kindness in the immediate post-break period, and health professionals Kathleen and Kaitlyn who helped me get back on track physically (click to read some of my other experiences with Trail Magic and Trail Angels on the Trans Canada Trail!) 

Bikes are more durable than I thought! I rode a hybrid road-trail bike and put it through the paces on an old, mountainous logging road with rough granite serving as the roadbed in many places, and much to my surprise, the bike held up.  

For me, walking is still the ultimate mode of transportation, but cycling did feel pretty luxurious: I’d pedal an easy 50 kilometres in just a few hours and have plenty of time to stretch, rest and check out the local surroundings. On foot, loaded up with a pack, 50 kilometres would be an enormous 14 hours or more worth of walking for me – I typically average around 30 kilometres a day! Shifting gears often has silver linings.  

Compared to forested soil trails, sideroad connectors and hard packed gravel trails can be hard on the body for long-distance walking, but these are the bicycle’s time to shine! Cycling through the countryside, salt marshes and rail trails with the wind in my hair felt picture-perfect and filled my spirits in a way that walking cannot.  

In all of its different forms, the Trans Canada Trail really does have something for everyone, and changing the mode of transportation can really shift the experience! 

Want to learn more? Keep an eye on this page in the coming months as I share section highlights, safety tips, trail magic, and what it was like tackling the Trail on bicycle after breaking my foot! You can also follow my Instagram stories (@bonnbury) and my blog (bonnvoyages.ca) for photo journals from the Trail. See you outside! 

Thank you