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In a June 3 Guardian story, reporter Mitch MacDonald writes that Island Trails, and its predecessor organization P.E.I. Rails to Trails, was formed more than 25 years ago after Canadian National Railways announced it was shutting down the railway and tearing up its tracks. That news must have come as a shock to many Islanders who depended on the railway to get around before we had reliable paved highways. The railway would have been especially important at this time of year when our red dirt roads would have been wet, muddy and impassible.
Don Deacon and other visionaries, including Gordon McQueen, saw opportunity where others felt fear. P.E.I. is the only jurisdiction in Canada that successfully converted it’s abandoned railbeds into a non-motorized greenway. Protected by the Trails Act, this 440 kilometre greenway (licensed for use by snowmobiles in the winter months) is owned and maintained by the P.E.I. government. As such, it is the envy of every other jurisdiction in Canada.
Island Trails, who lobbied long and hard for construction and maintenance of the Confederation Trail, celebrated completion of the final Iona to Stratford spur in 2014. Since then, the organization has focused on building and maintaining eight woodland trails located in North Cape, Breadalbane, Bonshaw (owned and managed by the P.E.I. government), Winter River, Dromore, Gairloch, Boughton River and Forest Hill. It does this without any paid staff and with a very small number of volunteers armed with chain saws and weed whackers.
The story for Island Trails could end here, but Island Trails wants to spearhead something much bigger.
In North America, and in other parts of the developed world, hiking and biking are growing at an unprecedented rate. Participation in hiking alone has increased by 50 per cent since 2006 (U.S. statistics). This growth can be explained in part by a growing recognition of the health benefits associated with active living, but there is another factor – growth in leisure time. In “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” Yuval Harari forecasts that future generations will spend less and less time working. Instead, we will have more time for leisure activities – like hiking.
This has already started to happen. Interest in hiking in Europe is on the increase. This is especially true in Spain, where participation in the pilgrimage walk to Santiago de Compostela has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. Just 2,500 individuals walked from all parts of Europe to Santiago in 1985. That number had increased to over 300,000 by 2018. That number is expected to increase again in 2019.
Next door to Spain, the Government of Portugal has developed a series of hiking trails in the south which do not head to Spain but focus instead on the seacoast and rustic villages of rural Portugal. Very little has been spent on new infrastructure. Instead, the government is utilizing existing trails and concentrating on improved signage and maps. Hundreds of hikers are now using the Rota Vicentina (221 km) and Via Algarvina (300 km). We hiked there ourselves in April 2019.
P.E.I. needs to expand existing trails to give hikers better access to views of the ocean at North Cape, East Point and elsewhere. A “Walk Around the Island” would cover 700 km and use the Confederation Trail plus existing secondary roads to let hikers enjoy our best vistas, and eat and stay in smaller centers like Tignish, Alberton, Wellington, Kensington, St. Peters, Souris, Bridgetown, Montague, Cardigan, and Murray River. Public expenditures would be minor and could be focused on signage and information sharing, making use of existing country roads and viewscapes. This “Island Walk” would make use of existing B&B’s and other accommodations along the way.
This is an initiative that would provide disproportionate benefits to rural parts of P.E.I. where most of these trails would be located. It’s also a vision that could be supported by all political parties in our new way forward in P.E.I.
Bryson Guptill served for several years as president of Island Trails. He is the author of a guidebook on hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain and is a member of the Island Trails Board of Directors.