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Cross-Canada birders aim for Sechelt this December

They began in Newfoundland in 2019, got as far as Quebec in 2020 and by December 2021 two hikers with a Sechelt connection are hoping to make it to the Sunshine Coast.
Sonya Richmond on the Great Trail in eastern Manitoba in late 2020.

They began in Newfoundland in 2019, got as far as Quebec in 2020 and by December 2021 two hikers with a Sechelt connection are hoping to make it to the Sunshine Coast. 

Sonya Richmond and her partner, Sean Morton, have been walking across Canada on the 24,000-kilometre Great Trail to promote citizen science and birding. So far, they’ve hiked more than 6,500 kilometres.

Richmond, an ornithologist and former GIS analyst with the charity Birds Canada, and Morton sold their house in Ontario and are relying on donations and sponsorships. Richmond’s parents live in Davis Bay.

By the end of 2019 they had trekked 3,000 kilometres from Newfoundland to the shores of the St. Lawrence River.

The intention was to start the 2020 leg where they finished off, at Rivière-du-Loup, Que., but COVID-19 travel restrictions were still in play in May, so they began in their home province and made it as far as Winnipeg.

“We’re planning to go back. We’ll get that chunk,” said Richmond of the Quebec leg, adding it will likely be in 2022, the year they plan to complete the trip with a walk to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

COVID-19 forced them to start a month later than expected. They mailed re-supply packages to themselves to avoid shopping at local stores, and stayed in more motels, since many provincial parks were closed.

The pandemic brought good surprises for the pair, too.

They debated cancelling their 2020 hike, but kept walking because of the “unprecedented opportunity” to help people connect with the outdoors.

Surprisingly, many people went out their way to support them “in a physically distanced way,” said Richmond. People joined them on the trail, wearing masks and staying six feet apart.

In terms of outreach, the response “was overwhelming,” as people stuck at home developed a renewed interest in nature around them. 

“Bird feeder sales apparently went through the roof this year. A lot of people got interested in it. A lot of people were asking questions. We were thrilled,” she said.

They provided close to 40 presentations, mostly over Zoom, and were able to speak with some classrooms outside, at a distance, while on the trek – more outreach than they had expected was possible.

As they walked through Ontario, they were exposed to a range of environments, both urban and natural. “It’s an amazing experience,” said Richmond.

Another unexpected lesson was an appreciation for how many elderly people assist with trail maintenance. “A lot of that didn’t get done in the spring,” said Richmond, since many senior volunteers were self-isolating. “When they stay home and they can’t get out … you really miss the work they’re doing.”

As for 2021, Richmond and Morton are staying in London, Ont. over winter and plan to start in Winnipeg “as soon as the snow melts” and will be racing the weather to get over the Rocky Mountains and to B.C. before winter.

Crossing the prairies will be “a huge challenge,” admitted Richmond, but “our goal is the Sunshine Coast by Christmas.”