Travel

Walking the wild way: Algonquin to Adirondacks

Following in the footsteps of Alice the moose on the A2A “Pilgrimage for Nature” Trail

The ecologically connected landscape of the A2A trail is a critical link for wildlife movement in eastern North America. (Photo: Mark Raycroft)
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Any well-travelled backcountry trail will have its ghosts, still intent on old destinations. Early on in our trek, we stopped to summon one. My hiking buddy Bill and I were in the Five Ponds Wilderness of New York State’s Adirondack Park, and we’d come to a wetland — fern-fringed and hemmed by the typical regional forest of yellow birch, white pine, sugar maple and striped maple.

The air was soft and still, the water a pellicle of light. The trees gathered themselves against time and storms and insects. With the record amounts of summer rain, we were walking through a drenched landscape: brimming ponds, breached beaver dams, wooden bridges strewn with flood debris and overflowing streams panicking down the rises. I was glad for a chance to take off my heavy pack.

“Call her, Jamie,” said Bill.

When I looked at him quizzically, he looked out over the marsh and called out, “Alice!”

He reminded me a bit of Marlon Brando in the film A Streetcar Named Desire — “Stella!” — except that Brando hadn’t been wearing a T-shirt with a moose on it.

Yes, a moose. Decades ago, an intrepid cow moose named Alice was radio-collared in Adirondack Park and tracked by scientists as she wandered into Canada. She swam the St. Lawrence River and walked across one of Canada’s busiest highways, the 401, eventually living out her days in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. Her journey highlighted the importance of the Algonquin to Adirondacks (A2A) ecological corridor as a travel route for wildlife. And it inspired the work of the A2A Collaborative, a cross-border conservation charity that works to protect and enhance the A2A corridor. That group had created the A2A “Pilgrimage for Nature” Trail — the path we were walking.

But no moose, real or ghostly, raised its head from the water to wonder who was disturbing the peace of the wilderness. I hoisted my pack to my shoulders, feeling a twinge in my upper back. Here we were, two guys in in the footsteps of a moose. I wished I had trained more, beyond just carrying cases of beer home in my knapsack.

“Do you think we might end up with permanent damage from these packs?” I asked Bill.

He shrugged. “Well, what do you and I have left — maybe 15 years or so? Not long to suffer.”

Jamieson Findlay spent five weeks walking and cycling the A2A “Pilgrimage for Nature” Trail, which runs between Adirondack Park in upper New York State and Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. (Photo: David Trattles/Can Geo)
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“After we die we may be set to write an essay about our life story,” wrote Stephen Graham in his 1926 classic The Gentle Art of Tramping. “Fifty years in an office will be found shrivelled up to a dot, and a few days in the wilds will expand into the whole essay.”

Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo. Map data: routes base on maps created by A2A Collaborative
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In early 2023, I was ready for an infusion of the wild. I worked for a nature organization, but most of my time was spent in front of a screen. I wanted a broader margin to my life. A trek to raise funds to support the A2A ecological corridor fired my imagination. I had first heard about it while working for Parks Canada, when I was researching a web article on “animal travellers” and stumbled across Alice’s story. The A2A region, I learned, was home to some of the last large-scale forest and wetland linkages left in eastern North America. For many millennia, it had served as a “wildway” — a travel route for animals — that followed the Frontenac Arch, part of the Canadian Shield that extends down across the St. Lawrence to form the Adirondack Mountains. 

My employer, Nature Canada, was ready to get behind the trek, and the A2A Collaborative was keen, too. That’s how I ended up in Newcomb, New York, on Aug. 12, 2023, determined to be the first to cover the entire stretch of backcountry paths, roads and rail trails that make up the A2A “Pilgrimage for Nature” Trail. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. I’d talked my high school friend Bill Barkley into accompanying me.

“I enjoy in a companion a well-stocked mind, or observant eyes, or wood lore of any kind,” wrote Graham in the aforementioned Gentle Art of Tramping. Bill had these qualities in spades. He couldn’t take a step on the trail without spotting an edible mushroom, or a curved section of tree that might have gone into the construction of a Viking longboat, or a bit of chagga (a medicinal fungus that grows on yellow or white birch).

“Did you know you have erectile tissue in your nose?” he said to me once, during a discussion on breathing.

I learned a lot in those first few days as we trudged through mud, clambered over storm-toppled trees and forded beautifully clear streams the colour of purest amber because of the natural tannins. Nothing broadens the mind like travel, especially backcountry travel with backcountry people. From Bill I learned the value of collecting dry twigs and bark (so you’d have something dry to start a fire in wet conditions). From a wilderness citizen we met at one of the primitive campsites, I learned what a bear smells like (“somewhere between a porta-john, a dumpster and a skunk”). And from Alex French, an American conservationist and board member of the A2A, I got a vision of a rewilded Adirondacks (“I want to see the wolves and mountain lions come home”).

Writer Jamieson Findlay walked and cycled through the Algonquin to Adirondacks (A2A) ecological corridor to raise funds for, and awareness of, the work of Nature Canada and the A2A Collaborative. (Photo: David Trattles/Can Geo)
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That last sentiment was something I could definitely get behind. Wolves and mountain lions — or cougars — are seen, rarely, in Adirondack Park, but the area doesn’t have its own populations. The ones that appear come from somewhere else. Wolves come down from Algonquin Provincial Park using A2A — which again underlines its importance as a wildway.

After about 10 days, we left the backcountry and started walking roads.

When the plan to walk the entire A2A route proved a bit too daunting, Jamieson Findlay borrowed a bike to travel some sections. (Photo: David Trattles/Can Geo)
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That’s the funny thing about the A2A “Pilgrimage for Nature” Trail: a good part of it is not trail. Once you leave Adirondack Park, just east of the town of Harrisville, you’re on pavement until well into Ontario. To be fair to the A2A Collaborative, they had designed the route to be multi-modal (biking, canoeing and walking), but I hadn’t done the necessary planning to vary my transportation.

Roads have their own ecology and archeology — Bill found dozens of items on the shoulder, including a pair of Panama sunglasses that he cleaned up and wore — but after a while, pavement calcifies the spirit. We saw more dead animals than live ones. Our packs seemed to grow heavier with each day. I started to get blisters. At that point, Bill suggested a respite.

Just north of a small upstate town called Gouverneur, we approached a simple white building with tiered birdhouses out front, horses in a paddock and kids in bare feet darting about on the front porch. A bonneted young woman opened the door, and Bill and I explained our trek — how we wanted to travel without using mechanized transportation, and how we needed to cover a stretch of county road that day. Bill’s intuition turned out to be sound: the Amish family was willing to help. We ended up getting a two-hour ride in a horse and buggy, driven by an amiable young man named Levi. At one point in our journey, a pickup passed us on the road, stopped just ahead and spun its tires so that smoke drifted in our faces. I thought it was a local yahoo trying to make trouble, but Levi just chuckled.

“We sometimes do work for that guy,” he explained.

If you have a big pickup truck and your friend has a 19-century buggy, I guess this is how you josh him.

Writer Jamieson Findlay (left) with friend Bill Barkley, who walked with him for much of the journey. (Photo: David Trattles/Can Geo)
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We entered Canada on Aug. 25, 2023, walking across the Thousand Islands Bridge, and then Bill had to go home to his apple orchard to bring in the crop. I was joined briefly by my friend Lisa, who arrived at the start of a blisteringly hot week in early September. But then Lisa had to leave, and I was facing roads once more.

And I still had two-thirds of the route to go.

Just outside the town of Calabogie, Ont., I stayed with Dave Miller, former A2A executive director and current board member, and his wife, Debbie. Around the campfire, Dave got out his guitar and treated us to some finger-style magic, including one of his own songs about “Nimblewill Nomad,” a wanderer and the oldest person to have completed the Appalachian Trail. I wondered if Nimblewill Nomad had ever experienced road fatigue like mine. I was tired of having to get up every morning and just cover distance. The days were starting to feel averaged out, smeared into a dull paste. And I was way behind schedule.

That’s when I decided to take Dave up on his offer of a bike.

Every traveller finds, when recounting their voyages, that the odd and unsettling experiences often make better telling than the uplifting ones.

It was certainly allowed, according to the self-imposed rules I had outlined to the Amish family. At Renfrew, I set out on the bike Dave had lent me, feeling freed of gravity (he had also taken my pack and given me bike panniers). Soon I found myself on the J.R. Booth Heritage Rail Trail, a multi-use path that follows the original railway bed for the Ottawa-Arnprior-Parry Sound railway built in the late 1800s.

And I started to take things in again. Wetlands with dead trees sticking up like porcupine quills. Smudges of autumn reds and yellows in the trees. A turtle, and later a man, walking the trail. The turtle didn’t stop for me, but the man did. He turned out to be one of the local volunteers who maintained the rail trail, and he told me the original railway had brought soldiers east to fight in two world wars — and then brought them back at the end of the fighting.

Jamieson Findlay and Bill Barkley biking along the A2A route, which includes both road and trail sections. (Photo: David Trattles/Can Geo)
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“The ones who rode this trail east were singing,” he said. “But on the train back, there was no singing.”

In Barry’s Bay I enjoyed the hospitality of Bill Schroeder, a retired teacher and friend of A2A, who had arranged for me to speak to several classes of Grade 9 students at Madawaska Valley District High School. The students had written out their questions beforehand on large flip-chart pages: Did you hunt and fish on your trek? How did you maintain personal hygiene? What was the most memorable part of your trip? No hunting or fishing, I told them; just foraging for berries and mushrooms. As for personal hygiene, I had treated it as a journey rather than a destination.

But the most memorable part of the trip? That was harder to answer. Every traveller finds, when recounting their voyages, that the odd and unsettling experiences often make better telling than the uplifting ones. There was the time in upstate New York when Bill and I did some rough camping (on a patch of land that wasn’t an official campsite). A state trooper stumbled upon us at 10 p.m., looking for somebody wanted by the law. He listened with interest to our explanation about the A2A trek and said he would check to see whether we could camp there — “If I don’t come back, you can stay put!” Before he went, Bill asked if we should be worried about the person he was seeking. “No, no,” said the trooper casually. “Just keep your personal belongings close at hand.”

He never appeared again, and neither did anybody else, but I wouldn’t say it was my most restful night.

“The curve of your adventure,” wrote Stephen Graham, “is a broken arc.”

Jamieson Findlay and Bill Barkley at the western gate of Algonquin Provincial Park, where their trek ended. Findlay, who was the first to walk and cycle this vital wildlife “wildway” from end to end, raised funds to support maintenance, mapping, conservation planning and protective fencing along the trail. (Photo: David Trattles/Can Geo)
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The last stop on the route, before entering the eastern gate of Algonquin Park, was the hamlet of Whitney, Ont. There, Bill Barkley rejoined me, along with photographer Dave
Trattles. Both of them had brought bikes, and together we cycled into Algonquin and stopped at the eastern gate office.

“We’re looking for a dignitary,” said Bill to the woman behind the desk.

Most active at dawn and dusk, moose are one of the most iconic residents of both Adirondack Park and Algonquin Park. (Photo: Mark Raycroft)
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Here was another occasion when I should have done more prior planning. We needed a dignitary, of course, because we planned a photo-op at Algonquin and wanted someone authoritative but smiling, who could shake our hands for the camera. I was thinking we’d have to get Dave Trattles to be our dignitary when up stepped Leonie Coleman, the park’s group leader for backcountry programs at Algonquin. After the photos

with Leonie, who aced the dignitary thing, we cycled ahead to the Algonquin visitors’ centre, where we opened a celebratory bottle of cider from Bill’s orchard. Then it was back to Whitney to gather up our gear and head home.

It’s all in the past now — rain, wind, wildflowers, clouds, sun, mud, rivers, lakes, pavement, ospreys, foxes, coyotes… and people. I was continually struck by the goodwill and interest people showed in our trek. Almost nobody had heard of the A2A corridor, but the story of Alice the Moose struck a chord with all. People understand that animals, like humans, need to move. Yet we put up deadly barriers to their movement — roads and railways — to facilitate our own. An ecological corridor like A2A seeks to restore the flow of life around us. As I wrote on the Parks Canada website, “it is an artery of nature, oxygenating entire ecosystems.”

For five weeks I breathed that oxygen, and found the broad margin to life that I’d been missing.

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This story is from the March/April 2024 Issue

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