Three years ago, I left Toronto to walk across Canada. Now I’m riding out the pandemic in an Arctic community of nine people

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Three years ago, I left Toronto to walk across Canada. Now I’m riding out the pandemic in an Arctic community of nine people

Melanie Vogel left Toronto in 2017 to walk 20,000 kilometres across Canada, following the Great Trail from the Atlantic to the Arctic to the Pacific oceans. Now she’s on lockdown in Eagle Plains, a tiny Yukon outpost on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Here’s how her adventure has gone so far.

As told to Liza Agrba

“I’ve been travelling for a long time. In 2011, while living in Vancouver, I backpacked around Asia, Australia and New Zealand. I journeyed through India, hiked to the Annapurna base camp in Nepal, drove an old Russian motorbike for two months through Vietnam and lived with a nomadic family in Mongolia. In 2013, after I returned to Vancouver, I decided to hit the road again. I packed up my few belongings and bicycle and hopped on a train to Toronto, where I got an apartment downtown and worked as a coordinator for two business improvement associations. I cycled around, discovering new neighbourhoods, and volunteered with the Friends for Life bike rally for the Toronto People With Aids Foundation. I wrote daily journal entries and attended ecstatic dance sessions at Dovercourt House. And yet I still felt a void—a loneliness that a city of millions of people couldn’t fill.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about travelling. I’d read about the Great Trail, formerly known as the Trans-Canada Trail—a 27,000-kilometre network of more than 400 trails running across all 10 provinces and three territories, through wilderness, urban and rural landscapes, over greenways, waterways and roadways. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And so, in July 2016, I decided I would walk that trail. My route would start in Newfoundland and continue west through Nova Scotia and Quebec, down to the southern tip of Ontario, back up to Manitoba and across the prairies before turning north to the Yukon and Northwest Territories. After hitting the Arctic Ocean, I would head south to Alberta and continue my walk west to the finish line in Victoria.

“I prepared for my journey for about a year, studying the trail and collecting my gear. I took a wilderness first-aid course and attended a weekly survival meet-up group, where we learned essential skills like how to construct a shelter, tie knots and even build an upside-down fire (they last longer than the traditional kind). I mostly had basic hiking gear: a backpack, tent and sleeping bag; good boots and socks; weather-appropriate clothing, including a mosquito sweater (since I knew Newfoundland would be buggy); an emergency beacon and first aid kit; and a bush knife and bear spray—all essential when you’re hiking across Canada. When I told people about my plan, they’d look at me with big, doubtful eyes and ask cynical, incredulous questions. ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this whole thing on your own,’ they’d say. My confidence sometimes wavered, but eventually, I stopped defending my choices.

‘On June 2, 2017, I set foot on the trail at the Cape Spear lighthouse. I couldn’t see much to start, because it was so foggy, but I remember standing on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, excited and exhilarated. That dream soon became a tough and exhausting reality—but also a beautiful and interesting one, which is why I’m still going. In my three and a half years on the road, I’ve camped in -40-degree temperatures, endured countless blisters, and encountered hail the size of golf balls. It can be challenging to replenish my drinking water on long, empty stretches of trail or farm roads; sometimes I have to rely on the kindness of strangers passing by to refill my water jugs.

Melanie set off on her journey from the Cape Spear Lighthouse in Newfoundland.

“The biggest struggle is a mental one. I spend so much time alone, in my own head, thinking constantly. You have to be good with yourself: to be alone without feeling lonely. I walk between zero and 50 kilometres a day—anywhere from a few minutes to eight hours—depending on my mood, the ground, the weather and who I meet along the way. I eat very simply: my diet mostly consists of non-perishables, like noodles, couscous and rice, oatmeal, granola bars and trail mix. I’ve walked through countless environments, from highways and cities to forests, marshlands and farmer’s fields. I mostly camp, but sometimes, when the weather is really harsh, or I can’t find a good spot to pitch my tent, I’ve stayed with generous people who open their homes to me, many of whom spontaneously offer me a space after meeting me on the trail. The theme of my journey has not been strength or bravery. Rather, it’s been kindness: the kindness and support I received across Canada.

“By March 2019, after nearly two years on the trail, my spark and taste for discovery was fading. Winter was about to pass the baton to spring. I was being hosted by a couple, Pat and Dave, in St. Malo in Manitoba. For two days, Dave joined me on sections of the trail, and then Pat would drive us back to their home, and drop us back off at the spot where we left off. On the second day, a yellow Lab came running our way and walked with us all day. He didn’t have a collar or any other identifiers. At the end of the day, we brought him back to the area where he started following us. I knocked on many doors, but no one knew who he belonged to. I took him to the vet, who guessed he was between a year and a year-and-a-half old.

“He’s been with me ever since. On our first day together, he waited patiently for me to set the tent up and slept on a tarp in my vestibule, poking his cute little face into my inner tent when I unzipped it in the morning. Two weeks in, I named him Malo, after the place where our friendship started. I was hesitant to have a dog along with me—it was supposed to be a solo journey, and I value my independence—but we’ve grown to love each other so much. He’s the best companion I could have asked for.

Malo joined the journey along the way

“In February 2020, Malo and I set off from Fort Nelson, B.C., enjoying a beautiful view of the Northern Rockies. We were on the Alaska Highway when I first heard about the pandemic. I was staying at a highway maintenance camp on the border of the Yukon, and everyone there was talking about Covid. We entered the Yukon on March 13, and not too long after, the territory closed its border to non-essential travel. I was concerned about Covid, but I was also in a vacuum, since I wasn’t constantly reading the news. I figured it would pass relatively soon. Since I was low-risk, travelling alone on the road, I was mostly worried about my parents, who live in Germany. I texted with them a lot, making sure they were okay. I started thinking I might need a place to stay for a little while, and made a Facebook post looking for someone to host me near Whitehorse. I didn’t have any luck with that, since people were hesitant about having visitors stay over.

“I was in Watson Lake, a town of 800 people in the Yukon, when I met a woman named Linda at the Yukon Territory sign. She was my stroke of luck. Linda drove ahead into town to make sure I got a place to stay. I ended up staying at the Bighorn Hotel for the night; the local church offered  pay for it but the owner let me stay for free. Soon, we were back on the Alaska Highway. After 400 kilometres, Malo and I took a turn onto Teslin Road, where two police officers, Dave and Ashley, found us camping in a ditch beside the road. I told them I’d run out of water, and they immediately offered to help, driving off to fill my empty water jugs before I moved on. Reaching Carcross the evening of March 31, I fell asleep to the glow of the Northern Lights and the barking of coyotes, and woke to drumming, from a nearby Indigenous community, which echoed into the desert. It was -25 degrees. I put on my down suit to watch the sunrise.

“Ashley checked in with me that morning and introduced me to a local named Jeannette, who invited me to stay with her and her partner, Roger, at their cabin by Lewes Lake en route to Whitehorse. We planned to stay for one night. Instead, we ended up bubbling with them for three and a half months to comply with Covid travel restrictions. Our time together was an unexpected gift. I stayed at their cabin most of the time, going into town once in a while to buy food (masks and disinfectant wipes in hand). At one point, Jeannette started baking sourdough bread; Roger and I were her willing taste-testers. I spent most of my time journalling, reading, chopping wood and gardening. I now call them my Yukon family.

“My greatest challenge was uncertainty: not knowing when I would be able to return to the road. Patience is not my greatest strength. The next leg of my journey was up into the Northwest Territories, which had also closed its border. I requested an exemption, to no avail.

“When the Yukon lifted its travel restrictions on July 1, I continued my journey; Jeanette baked me a loaf of sourdough for the road, and I made sure to carry masks wherever I went. But most of the time it was just me and Malo. We walked the Millennium Trail into Whitehorse, then the Dawson Overland Trail to Braeburn. It was an unusual rainy summer, so the Dawson trail was quite an adventure: we had to cross sections that were completely underwater and deal with swarms of mosquitoes on the way. The last night before reaching Braeburn Lodge, we heard a wolf howling, though we only ever saw its tracks. It felt incredible to be back on the road.

“From Braeburn, we made our way on the Klondike Highway to Dawson City and stopped for a mini-adventure at Ethel Lake to pick morel mushrooms in a forest that had burned the previous year. For four nights, Malo and I camped in the forest and walked over scorched ground and dead trees. My pants were ripped from the sharp branch tips; Malo and I were dirty every day from the black sud.

Melanie and Malo near Dawson City, Yukon

“From Dawson City, we moved on to the Dempster Highway toward the Northwest Territories. There, we stopped at Eagle Plains, a hotel and community near the Arctic Circle. Eagle Plains has a cute sign that says, “Population: Nine people.” That’s literally true. There’s just the 32-room hotel, service station, and a maintenance camp. The entire population is made up of the nine people who work at the hotel. By this point, it was September, and I knew the winter was coming, and travel restrictions would leave me in logistical limbo. I realized that I’d need to find somewhere to set down roots during the coming months until the pandemic was under control. On my second night in Eagle Plains, I had a chat with the owner, Stan, in the bar of the hotel. On a whim, I asked if he needed any help. And as it turned out, he did. Stan offered me a part-time housekeeping job, with a salary, free food, accommodation, and a comfortable place for my dog; he says the Yukon is built on dogs. Malo is so loved here, and he gets to play with two other dogs, River and T, who live in the hotel.

Malo and Melanie walking the Dempster Highway

“I’ve been staying in Eagle Plains since September—and I’ve now been a Yukon resident for a year. The pandemic and this place have become part of my big adventure. When I first got stuck, I went through a period of grief and frustration, but eventually decided to put my energy elsewhere and make my stay on the Arctic Circle worthwhile. I’m learning about life in the North, eating caribou and witnessing fog bows (like a rainbow, but in fog). I never get tired heading out in the cold at night to watch the Northern Lights. And then there are stories from people who live and work here, from the truck drivers, some of whom have served the North for more than 40 years.  Like the one about Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper, and the epic manhunt find him, or the one about Lillian Alling, the woman who passed through the Yukon while trying to walk from New York to Siberia crossing the Bering Strait—nobody knows if she ever made it.

“Lately, I’ve been checking with maintenance crews, hunters and conservation officers to see if the migrating porcupine caribou herd—we’re talking thousands of caribou—have been spotted near to the Dempster Highway, which they’re expected to cross. That would truly be a thing to see.

“Usually, there would be tourists, but obviously that’s not happening right now. I’m truly in the middle of nowhere, with boreal forest, river valleys and mountain ranges as far as the eye can see. After work, I read, sort through my photos, write about my experiences so far, and take long walks on the Dempster Highway and through the forest. In fall, I picked cranberries. Now, I go snowshoeing. I entertain myself by trying to spot ptarmigans—entirely white birds that blend into the snow. Even though this place is the same every day, it always has something new and interesting to offer, thanks to the people who visit, to the subarctic weather conditions and this ever-changing, wide-open sky.

“In my journey, I’ve learned that the outdoors is not about strength, manning up or having balls. Nature knows no heroes or warriors. It’s simply a place of learning, observation and understanding that everything is connected. It’s about using our numbed senses and suppressed instincts fully again—about preparedness, perseverance, discipline, respect and openness. It’s about curiosity, and accepting that life walks every moment on the fertile ground of death. Society is embracing its ride on the fast track, but I decided to hit the brakes and slow down. I’ve grown physically, mentally and spiritually, and built a deeper connection not just to this land and its people, but to nature and my authentic self. With all this, I experienced real contentment. While it’s still only skin deep, I hope that one day it will settle into my bones. Once I can continue my trek into the Northwest Territories, I will walk 400 kilometres to reach the Arctic Ocean, and another 3,000 kilometres after that to hit the finish line in Victoria. No matter what happens, I’m going to finish this trail.”