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The Great Trail: Stitching together the ultimate scenic route

Parc Lineaire des Bois-Francs in Quebec.

A quarter century in the making, groups have banded together to connect a roughly 22,000-kilometre network of cycling, hiking and canoeing routes for all Canadians to experience what this country has to offer, coast to coast, Kenny Sharpe writes

Across Newfoundland you can spend two weeks cycling through the woods from St. John's to Port aux Basques along the T'Railway, a multiuse trail that follows the very route once used by the Newfie Bullet train.

On Vancouver Island, you can now trek from the Cowichan Valley to Victoria through the Malahat First Nation across a new suspension bridge spanning the Goldstream River.

And in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, you can drive the Dempster Highway or canoe along the McKenzie River Trail, all the way north to Inuvik facing the Beaufort Sea.

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These are just three of the hundreds of trail-building-projects and connections across Canada that are now being brought together and rebranded as the Great Trail.

B.C.’s Panorama Ridge.

The Great Trail is a network of hiking routes, canoe creeks, roadways and bike paths that now connect and span more than 22,000 kilometres. Those involved in organizing and building it are heralding the completion of a milestone that's been 25 years in the making.

Chances are you've already hiked or voyaged on a section without even knowing it. The Great Trail, formerly called the Trans Canada Trail, has been built by the work of more than 470 provincial, local and volunteer groups across the country. They total thousands of people dedicated to building and maintaining paths and boardwalks in every nook and cranny of the country, from the rural pinches of Canada to the urban downtown centres.

"First you build it, then get people using it and then it becomes an icon that will hopefully last forever," said Paul LaBarge, the former Chair of the Trans Canada Trail Board.

Manitoba’s Caddy Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park.

Great Trail founders, Pierre Camu and Bill Pratt, came up with the challenge of connecting Canada's trails under one system as an offshoot from plans for Canada's 125th birthday celebrations. Twenty-five years and tens of millions of dollars in government funding and private donations later, Mr. LaBarge says the Great Trail is celebrating the completion of phase one – being connected.

"We were faced with the challenge to get the trail assembled … and our priority was to get it done. Our second priority is now to get the signage up so that people know they are on the Trans Canada Trail," he said.

Mr. LaBarge says in the years ahead he hopes people not only from Canada, but from around the world, begin viewing the Great Trail as one of the best on the planet, up there with other famous routes such as Spain's El Camino de Santiago or the Appalachian Trail in the United States. He says in many ways, the trail retraces the country's history.

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Ontario’s Coastal Hiking Trail.

"The roots of our trails start with our First Nations, the Indigenous trail routes. Then you have the route of the voyagers with the fur traders, the Hudson's Bay Company. And then you get the railway, the Trans-Canada Highway, so they are all iterations of the same thing," he said.

Valerie Pringle has been with the Great Trail project since 2002. In recent years, the journalist and television host has been tasked with having to raise $75-million in funding for the project.

Whether it's hiking north of Lake Superior, portaging on Caddy Lake in Manitoba or taking her grandkids for a walk along the Niagara River, Ms. Pringle says the true champions of the trail are those people in communities across the country who have lent their time and sweat to building the trail through each region.

Prince Edward Island’s Confederation Trail.

"It has been a grind on lots of levels but for those local volunteers, and I've met thousands of them, they keep the faith and they keep going," Ms. Pringle said.

"There was a group of high-school teachers [who helped build] a boardwalk trail over Hunters Bay, they started to cry because they finished a big thing. And now you see people there walking and cycling, it is so satisfying," she said.

On Aug. 26, hundreds of local events across Canada, as well as a marquee event in Ottawa, will be held to celebrate the connection of more than 90 per cent of the Great Trail network. And while there is still work left to be done, the milestone is being celebrated as part of Canada's 150th-birthday celebration.

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Project president Deborah Apps says now that phase one is complete, the next chapter will include a tourism push and the creation of a legacy fund to allow for the trail's continued expansion and upkeep.

"We've built it, we've connected it, we're ready, so the next chapter is, 'Come on world, come see what Canada has to offer,'" she said.

Alberta’s High Rockies Trail.


What it takes to connect Canada coast to coast

22,000 kilometres: The length of trail spanning Canada from coast to coast to coast including road and highway, hiking and biking trails as well as rivers. About 25 per cent of the trail is water with 75 per cent of it being over land.

1,659.5 kilometres: The length of the longest water route of the Great Trail flowing from the Northwest Territories through Yukon.

2185 metres: The elevation you will reach hiking along the highest point of the Great Trail through Kananaskis Country in Alberta.

15,000 communities: The number of Canadian communities that organizers say are now connected.

477 groups: The approximate number of trail-building groups at the local or provincial level who have helped build the trail since 1992 connecting 432 distinct sections.

8,000 and counting: The number of Great Trail signs that have been installed across Canada. Organizers say another 4,000 still need to be installed.

1,800 left: The number of kilometres of gaps within the trail left to be connected.

213: The number of planned events across Canada on Aug. 26, 2017 to celebrate the milestone of 90-per-cent completion for the Great Trail.

Editor’s note: Paul LaBarge is the former Chair of the Trans Canada Trail Board, not one of the Great Trail founders. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.
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