Canada’s new 700km island path

Canada’s new 700km island path

(Image credit: Carolyn B. Heller)

Prince Edward Island's new Island Walk spans 700km (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

A Canadian’s quest to design a pilgrimage-inspired path around Prince Edward Island is now the Island Walk, a 700km walking and cycling route.

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Pink and purple lupins swayed along Prince Edward Island’s Highway 101, where I’d just walked out of the town of Kensington. It was 09:00, and the road was busy with cars whose drivers seemed intent on finding coffee or getting to work. The smell of cow wafted across the wind before I spotted the animals grazing on the ridge. They were standing next to a sign that said, “Get high off our milk. Our cows are on grass.”

It was my fourth day walking the Island Walk, a new 700km route that circles Canada’s smallest province. Starting on PEI’s rural west end, I had walked past vinyl-clad farmhouses with ocean views, along a boardwalk beneath whirling wind turbines, and above red clay cliffs that plunged sharply into the sea. I had stopped for a midday country music hour at the Stompin’ Tom Centre, honoring Canadian singer-songwriter Tom Connors. I’d tromped through the rain along a secluded, wooded trail where swarms of canny mosquitoes tried to shelter under my umbrella. And after learning about PEI’s major crop at the Canadian Potato Museum, I had fueled my day’s walk with an extra-large cheese-topped baked potato served with freshly made potato chips. You know that a place is serious about its spuds when your potato comes with a side of potatoes.

Now, walking near the center of the island, with the breeze blowing and the wildflowers blooming, I realized that I was noticing things I’d never have attended to if I were behind the wheel of a car. A shingled barn, its green paint fading, that looked nearly abandoned except for its meticulously mowed lawn. Two pale-yellow butterflies flitting past a basket of marigolds mounted on a fence post. A swath of ocean barely visible through a clearing in the trees.

Bryson Guptill, the PEI resident who conceived the Island Walk, wanted to encourage both islanders and visitors to explore the region at this slower pace. After he and his partner Sue Norton hiked sections of the Camino de Santiago in Spain and France and the Rota Vicentina in Portugal, Guptill began wondering why there wasn’t a similar walking route through the towns and country landscapes of their home province.

He set to work mapping a path around PEI, which officially became the Island Walk in 2020. The walking and cycling route is divided into 32 segments that travelers can tackle individually, as I did, or as an extended circuit around the island, passing its Atlantic coast beaches, through its national park and into the villages where the Anne of Green Gables novels – perhaps PEI’s best-known export – were set.

Walkers can watch lobster fishers haul in their traps along the route (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

Walkers can watch lobster fishers haul in their traps along the route (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

But it wasn’t a straight road from conceiving the idea to launching the Island Walk. And, as a growing number of people discover this route, its creators are facing some ongoing challenges.

A retired government policy analyst, Guptill had been volunteering with Island Trails, a non-profit organization whose mandate is to develop and maintain PEI’s walking paths. He and Norton regularly walked many of the island’s woodland trails, as well as the 273km Confederation Trail that follows a former rail line across the island’s centre.

Unlike the Camino de Santiago, the Island Walk wasn’t based on an ancient pilgrimage route. Guptill wanted to link PEI’s existing trail network, rural roads and larger roadways into a new route around the island, divided into walkable 20-25km segments.

In October 2019, after mapping out a proposed route, I decided to test it out, recruiting Nora Wotton and two other PEI friends to join him. An experienced hiker, Wotton started serious long-distance walking when she retired from her teaching career. She had boarded a plane at 17:00 after her last day of work to begin a solo walk on the Camino de Santiago.

The Island Walk encourages people to explore PEI at a slower pace (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

The Island Walk encourages people to explore PEI at a slower pace (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

When Wotton heard about Guptill’s Camino-style walk around PEI, she was intrigued to try this close-to-home route. During their month-long trek, Wotton recounted, many islanders opened their homes, offering accommodations, food and drink, even a spot to get out of the rain to eat sandwiches they’d packed. The walkers watched lobster fishers haul in their traps, passed vibrantly hued blueberry fields and saw the island’s trees change color day by day.

“I got to see how pretty my own part of this beautiful Earth is. I’ve traveled around the world. And this is just as pretty as anywhere else I’ve been.

After this initial test walk, Guptill began working with the Island Trails organization and the provincial government to develop the Island Walk into a more viable product.

PEI's walking and cycling route is divided into 32 segments (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

PEI’s walking and cycling route is divided into 32 segments (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

Linda Lowther, a PEI tourism consultant who became the Island Walk’s first manager, led a team whose job, she explained, “was to make the Island Walk a reality.” They built a website, designed a logo and brochure, and planned signs marking the route. Lowther began contacting motels, inns and B&Bs to recruit them as partners who would house, feed and potentially transport Island Walkers. “I personally called every single accommodation within a kilometer of the Walk,” she said.

But in early 2020, responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, PEI closed its borders, putting the project on hold.

The following year, though, the first walkers began planning their travels, using information from the new website and from the Island Walk Facebook page. Lowther said she joined many of those walkers as they passed through the town of Cavendish where she lives. She wanted to learn what she was and was not working. “Ninety-nine percent of them loved everything,” she noted. “They just wish we had more bathrooms.”

Sections of the Island Walk that follow the Confederation Trail do have bathroom facilities, as do more developed regions, where walkers can duck into cafes or museums when nature calls. But other more rural sections have far fewer services.

The Island walk links PEI's existing trail network, rural roads and larger roadways (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

The Island walk links PEI’s existing trail network, rural roads and larger roadways (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

With Island Walk organizers estimating that between 250 and 400 walkers and cyclists will tackle the route in 2022, three operators have begun offering trip planning services. Experience PEI coordinates walking and cycling trips, Outer Limit Sports offers short-duration packages for walkers or cyclists, while MacQueen’s Bike Shop & Island Tours assists cyclists with rentals and trip plans.

PEI also has a rural bus service, launched in April, that can transport travelers to different parts of the island. While service on this T3 Transit network is still infrequent, one-way adult fares are only CAD$2 (about £1.30).

Laura MacGregor recently spent 31 days completing the entire Island Walk, after driving from her Ontario home in a small RV. She worked with Experience PEI to organize her walk for her. Company owner Bill Kendrick suggested an itinerary combining camping with occasional overnights at inns or B&Bs. He contracted with shuttle or taxi drivers to bring her to and from the trailheads each day.

The Island Walk doesn’t always have accommodations or campsites where each segment ends, MacGregor noted. “It’s not like the Appalachian Trail where when you’re done, you pitch your tent. It took a lot more planning because you’re not sleeping on the trail. You need to have accommodations elsewhere.”

PEI's red clay cliffs plunge into the sea (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

PEI’s red clay cliffs plunge into the sea (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

PEI’s Island Walk “is not the Camino yet”, she added. “I’d like to think infrastructure is going to evolve, but it’s still in the early days.”

Nova Scotia resident Gene Oickle chose to plan his own trip when he walked the first 16 sections of the Island Walk in June. After recent travel restrictions kept him from long-distance walking abroad, where he had previously hiked from Hungary to Italy, walked across Sweden and Norway, and completed the Camino Frances, he selected PEI’s comparatively flat terrain to help regain his fitness.

On his Island Walk, Oickle stayed several days at a few different accommodations, including Tignish Heritage Inn on the island’s western end and Warm House Retreat in Summerside, and paid the innkeepers to drive him to and from the trail. While these arrangements worked smoothly, he acknowledges that the transportation costs, which varied by the distance or time travelled, could be a deterrent, especially for solo walkers.

But for Oickle, the benefits of this slower way to travel outweigh its negatives. “When you’re driving,” he said, “you’re so interested in getting to your destination that you’re not really looking outside the window to see what’s out there.”

Pink and purple lupins sway along Prince Edward Island's Highway 101 (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

Pink and purple lupins sway along Prince Edward Island’s Highway 101 (Credit: Carolyn B Heller)

On foot, in a way, you see less of a place, covering far less ground than you could by car. But in other ways, you see more. You notice five red wooden chairs lined up in a field, positioned toward the sun setting over the ocean. You tune into the caws of the crows and the croaks of the frogs as you pass a pond, ringed with reeds. You rest your feet as a singer croons a Stompin’ Tom classic about the island’s potatoes:

It’s Bud the spud from the bright red mud
Rolling down the highway smiling….

During my five days on PEI’s Island Walk, I was rolling – no, make that walking – down the province’s highways, back roads and wooded trails. And like Bud the Spud, I was definitely smiling.

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