Cycling the Trans Canada Trail with Edmund Aunger

Update: On November 1, 2017, Pam Damoff (MP Oakville North-Burlington) presented Petition e-957 in the House of Commons, calling for the adoption of a Trans Canada Trail Act that will set minimum standards for safety and quality, and ensure that the trail is a genuinely non-motorized, and world-class greenway. The Minister of the Environment, Catherine McKenna, must now table a response within 45 days.


Cycling the Trans Canada Trail with Edmund Aunger

My decision to bicycle 12,500 kilometres on the Trans Canada Trail – from Victoria, British Columbia, to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island – was not inspired by an adventuresome spirit; it was imposed by a heart-breaking trauma and a guilt-ridden conscience.

On July 14, 2012, my wife, Elizabeth Ann Sovis, was struck and killed by a drunk driver while we were on a three-week Trans Canada Trail cycling holiday in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. 
“No roads,” she had reminded me every year for a decade as I planned our summer bicycle tours. “I won’t ride anywhere near motorised vehicles. It’s too dangerous.” She trusted me to respect this fundamental rule and to keep her safe.

During our early travels, when I naively believed the Trans Canada Trail organisation’s much publicised commitment “to provide a safe and enjoyable trail experience on high quality trail,” maybe I could have been forgiven for putting her life in danger. But, after several years of harrowing and life-threatening incidents, I no longer had any excuses.

Three days after her death, I contacted the Trans Canada Trail headquarters in Montreal and volunteered to do whatever was needed – lobbying, campaigning, fundraising – to promote the completion of a national trail that would be safe and accessible for hikers and cyclists of all ages and abilities.

And on November 21, 2012, in an Edmonton coffee shop, I met with Deborah Apps, president and CEO of the Trans Canada Trail organisation, and explained my plan to bicycle the trail from coast to coast – from the Pacific to the Atlantic – over the next five summers. She promised full support with travel logistics, media communications and public relations.

The next spring, however, after learning that Elizabeth had strongly opposed the motorisation of the Trans Canada Trail, Deborah Apps had an abrupt change of heart. There would be no collaboration. I was on my own.


Trans Canada Trail, Otter Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Richard K. Aunger.

The Province of British Columbia owns over 2,000 kilometres of former rail corridor, including 600 kilometres designated as Trans Canada Trail, and various governments – federal, provincial and municipal – have invested more than $50 million to construct a quality tread surface suitable for cyclists. Unfortunately, off-road motorised vehicles have overrun these rail trails, causing environmental damage and threatening public safety.

Trans Canada Trail, Cochrane, Alberta. Photo by Edmund A. Aunger.
After witnessing a horrific accident that left three teenage cyclists dead and six injured near Cochrane, Alberta, founding president Bill Pratt promised that, in order to avoid such deadly collisions in the future, the Trans Canada Trail would be built as far as possible from motorised vehicles. The TCT organisation has now reneged on this pledge and placed more than 8,500 kilometres of “trail” on roads and highways.

Trans Canada Trail, Prince, Saskatchewan. Photo by Edmund A. Aunger.
In both Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Trans Canada Trail commonly follows convoluted and unsigned routes on dirt and gravel country roads – or in the drainage ditches beside these roads. Although these routes usually carry less motorised traffic than paved highways, they are just as dangerous. And their harsh surfaces discourage hiking and cycling. Saskatchewan, alone, contains almost 6,000 kilometres of abandoned rail lines, but has shown little interest in acquiring any for trail development.

Trans Canada Trail, Jessica Lake, Manitoba. Photo by Edmund A. Aunger.
From Jessica Lake, Manitoba, the Trans Canada Trail splashes eastward along a 1,100-kilometre chain of rivers and lakes leading to Thunder Bay, Ontario. In 2009, the TCT organisation abandoned plans for a “costly” $6.5 million land route, deciding instead that this “blue trail” – christened the “Path of the Paddle” – would be cheaper. According to its designer, Hap Wilson, “There are long, arduous portages, violent white-water rapids, windswept lakes and seemingly endless swamps.”

Trans-Canada Highway, Nipigon, Ontario. Photo by Edmund A. Aunger.
At Thunder Bay, Ontario, the Trans Canada Trail plunges another 990 kilometres eastward through treacherous Lake Superior to Sault Ste. Marie. Hikers and cyclists have little option but to trek on the notoriously dangerous two-lane Trans-Canada Highway. In 2013, cross-country cyclists Robert and Irene Booth were struck and killed by a careless driver in Nipigon, Ontario, on a stretch travelled daily by 1,300 commercial trucks.

Trans Canada Trail, Kelly Lake, Ontario. Photo by Edmund A. Aunger.
As a rule of thumb, the annual outlay for trail maintenance should be about ten percent of the original construction costs. Unfortunately, in many provinces, few resources have been allocated for the upkeep and care of greenway trails. And, like this Kelly Lake section near Sudbury Ontario, they fall rapidly into disrepair, are soon overgrown and virtually impassable.

Trans Canada Trail, Tweed, Ontario. Photo by Edmund A. Aunger.
Bill Pratt and Pierre Camu, the founders of the Trans Canada Trail, vehemently opposed a 1999 decision to grant access to off-road motorised vehicles, arguing that it would effectively drive away the intended users – pedestrians and cyclists. They were right. But the Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance, like many trail associations, aggressively promotes motorised recreational activity as a money-making tourist attraction.

Trans Canada Trail, Mont-Laurier, Quebec. Photo by Edmund A. Aunger.
Long before the dream of a cross-country trail, Canada’s largest cities – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton – had already constructed separated tracks for cyclists and pedestrians. In many smaller communities like Mont-Laurier, however, no dedicated cycling tracks have yet been built, and the Trans Canada Trail shares the main street with cars and trucks. Not pleasant; not safe.

Trans Canada Trail, Piedmont, Quebec. Photo by Edmund A. Aunger.
More than any other Canadian province, Quebec has successfully converted decommissioned rail lines into an extensive network of linear parks. The ban on motorised vehicles is strictly enforced, tread surface is constantly maintained, tourist amenities are strategically located and, consequently, the trail is widely used by cyclists of all ages and abilities. In 2010, National Geographic rated Quebec’s cycling trails the best in the world. Cycling contributes $1.2 billion annually to the provincial economy.

Trans Canada Trail, Upper Dorchester, New Brunswick. Photo by Edmund A. Aunger.
In 2012, Elizabeth refused to ride her bicycle on the Trans Canada Trail passing through Upper Dorchester, New Brunswick, en route to Prince Edward Island. She said it was too dangerous. So we packed up our bikes and took the train from Moncton to Sackville. Two days later, after cycling less than three kilometres on a similar highway – where there were neither trains nor buses – she was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

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