It's been a cold winter. And this is a long post, so bear with me.
Sometime in early January, local news ran a story on the impacts of sub-zero temperatures for homeless citizens in Waterloo Region. The shelters were beyond capacity. Social service organizations were making arrangements to house people in hotels during the frigid nights. It seems like we’ve had a lot of bitterly cold nights in the past couple of months.
I work for a small female-founded clean technology company. Livescape builds living walls and green roofs, so without any green roofs to work on, winter is a slower season for us. We decided to use our idle time to undertake a spontaneous fundraiser. The goal was to walk across Waterloo Region in 24 hours on a local trail system and try to raise $1000 to donate to The Working Centre, a local non-profit dedicated to combating poverty and homelessness. We named it Waterloo Region Crossing.
I’ve completed endurance events before, but I’d never planned my own event, nor had I undertaken such a feat during sub-zero temperatures. My work colleagues were equally inexperienced. Winter is a volatile season, and the weather conditions can fluctuate by the hour. We knew we would need help, so we started sending emails and making phone calls.
After our first radio interview on 570 News, Brad Baumber reached out to me. Brad is an old friend from my adventure racing days and has a wealth of knowledge on the risks of endurance events. He’s an ornge air ambulance paramedic and has been on adventure racing support and medical crews for over a decade. His text was blunt: “what’s your contingency plan if things go south out on the trail?”. I didn’t have one, but he did.
For the next 8 weeks we were juggling media interviews, trek logistics planning, fundraising, training, and community relations work. MEC came on board as an event sponsor and set us up with equipment, Westmount Signs printed event signage for us, The Accelerator Centre and Hutton Forest Products sponsored checkpoints, and as the interviews and newspaper articles were released, more and more donations rolled in. We surpassed our initial goal of $1000 within a week, and decided to shoot for the moon, changing our fundraising goal to $5000, a target I did not expect to hit.
Trekking isn’t exactly a spectator sport, but we wanted to find a way to give people a more intimate perspective of our journey. Cam Wind, one of our colleagues from the Accelerator Centre has a passion for film, and had offered to come shoot some footage of the trek. Introducing him to film industry professional Mitch Mommaerts and MEC staff member Bo Urbina, the trio decided to grow the scope of their project and shoot footage through most of the day to create a documentary film for Waterloo Region Crossing.
Before we knew it, the trek day had arrived. We met at 7am at The Walter Bean trailhead just north of Galt. We were joined by Charles and Geoff from The Grand Valley Trails Association. With a warm send-off from our friends Angela and Brian, we were on our way with Lily the malamute leading the way.
The first section of the trek took us through a beautiful snowy forest. After the first hour the trail joined Blair Road, onward to Fountain Street. We stopped for a pit stop at Conestoga College, and then continued on to the pedestrian footbridge across Highway 401 before trekking through the Doon Valley Golf Course and on to Pioneer Tower.
It’s an interesting experience, the first time you realize you’re being followed by a drone. It sounds like a distant swarm of wasps, but when you look up to see it, there’s a real “Woah. the future is NOW” moment. Regardless of the creepy sci-fi feelings it evoked deep in my soul, I’m sure Cam captured some breathtaking footage of the wintry grand river.
The snow was falling softly as we trudged enthusiastically along the trail and up the hill to Pioneer Tower. 2.5 hours into the trek we were full of energy and feeling great about the day. David Bebee of The Record came to meet on the hill with his snowshoes and his puffy marshmallow coat, snapping photos. As we approached the tower were greeted by Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, The Accelerator Centre CEO Paul Salvini, and Brad, who’d boiled us some water with his very fancy camp stove. We woofed down some homemade pizza pockets, and were just about to continue on our trek when Mike Farwell from 570 News rolled in to give us another little boost of support and snap one more pic. Paul lives a few blocks away from the tower and had invited us to use his home as an official "rest stop" location.
The hike through Deer Ridge Neighbourhood was full of surprises. We got a call from CTV’s Maleeha Sheikh, asking where she could find us to shoot a piece for the 6 o’clock news. Shortly thereafter, Joe Mancini, head of The Working Centre, found us on Deer Ridge Drive and walked with us for a while. We trekked through Deer Ridge and down King Street to the Walter Bean Trailhead across the street from Freeport Hospital, where Maleeha intersected with us and spent about 45 minutes conducting interviews and talking with us about our trek. Lily was spent at this point and our colleague Ang brought her home for some well-earned relaxation.
Next we were off through Freeport and Chicopee area before we hopped back onto the trail. One of the documentary crew, Bo Urbina, grew up in this area. His parents had graciously offered their home for the film crew to use as a home-base, downloading their footage and charging their camera batteries. Bo’s mom welcomed us with open arms, offering to make us coffee and allowing our whole crew of snowy hikers to briefly warm up.
The Walter Bean Trail is poorly marked through the city, and at one point we had to detour up Lackner to reconnect with the trail. The highlight of my day was at 3pm, when three of my brothers-in-law, my nephew, my husband, and my daughter all came out to give hugs and walk with us. It was at this time that we said goodbye to Charles and Geoff, and continued on our way. They had been walking with us for 8 hours.
For the next couple of hours, Ashley, Dave, and I were on our own. This was unfortunate only because we traversed through the most stunning sections of the trail, areas none of us had ever seen before, and no one else got to share our experience. Kolb Park was serene and beautiful, the gently falling snow quietly blanketing the river and trees. We crossed at Victoria Street, and stopped in at the BMW dealership to refill our water bottles. While we were there we had a lovely chat with one of the saleswomen who enthusiastically shared our trek website info with her colleagues. Maybe we can approach them as checkpoint sponsor for next year’s trek ;)
Stanley Park Optimist Natural Area was also a stunning stretch of trail that we completed on our own, with winding paths densely lined by Eastern White Cedars. The trail led us straight into Bingemans lands, where ahead of us, a cross country skier was bounding toward us with a huge smile on his face. It was Ashley’s friend Gaelen. Gaelen is the kind of person who, i’m sure, gave his mother heart attacks throughout his boyhood. He seems the type to live life to its fullest, pursuing all manner of high-risk physical wilderness activities.
Once we arrived in the Bingemans parking lot, we were greeted by a group of Ashley’s friends and housemates who had been to two prior checkpoints trying to connect up with us. They’d been driving around for hours and were full of triumph at having finally found us. They’d brought hot chocolate, apples, and doughnuts, a welcome treat after our long section of trekking alone. Brad was waiting for us with warm chicken soup, checking in to see how we were doing.
The next 3 kms, Gaelen skied alongside our group as we trekked through the hilly forest section between Bingemans and the Economical Insurance Trailway. We were losing light fast, but Cam and Bo found us with the drone and managed to shoot some more footage both from the air and on the trail. At Economical Insurance Trailway another of Ashley’s friends stopped in with chicken sandwiches and coffee, and we took a few moments to change out of our cold damp socks.
We continued on toward Woolwich Street, cutting through the neighbourhood to pass a flooded section of trail. Friends David and Tasha pulled up with their kids in the car for a quick hug before we cut back onto the trail at Kiwanis Park and on to Marsland Landing, where the trail was broken in by a timid fox who watched us curiously as we passed through his territory.
Brad was waiting at the Marsland Landing parking lot with warm socks and a change of clothes; at this point in the trek the elements were beginning to take their toll and warm dry socks felt like a real luxury. Ashley’s friend Thalie showed up to give us hugs and encouragement as we continued on into the dark.
The next section of the trail cut onto neighbourhood streets, and we were spontaneously joined by another friend Jasper. He’d brought his camera and took some great evening shots. While we were headed toward University Avenue two deer bounded across the street 50 feet ahead of us and took off into a construction zone. They watched us from the top of a dirt pile, backlit by the city lights.
While we were walking down University Avenue, Cam and Mitch jumped out from behind a fence and gave Ashley a small heart-attack. I laughed super loud and I didn’t feel bad about it at all. As we walked I called my brother. His 30th birthday was the following day, and he had a bunch of friends over at his condo. Instead of birthday partying they’d been drinking wine and watching our SPOT tracking device progress through the trek. He and his friends were making plans to take a taxi out to meet us at the end of the trek around 3:30am with champagne, and he was trying to coordinate this plan with me. It warmed my heart that he was even considering doing this amazing thing, but I convinced him that while the thought was so sweet, he should not take a taxi with his inebriated friends into the middle of the countryside in the wee morning hours.
By this point in the night we all had to “go”, and as we were passing by a firehall, we decided to knock on the door and see if they’d let us use their washroom. Three firefighters greeted us. They’d seen us on the news that evening and welcomed us into their facility. In addition to replenishing our water supplies, they brought us into the garage and showed us the trucks. This was by far Dave’s favourite part of the trek. He was like a kid in a candy store.
Our next stop was at RIM park, in the parking lot at Elam Martin Heritage Farm. Much to our surprise, Paul Salvini (CEO for The Accelerator Centre), had driven out to see us again, 12 hours after the last time we’d seen him at Pioneer Tower. Brad had a tent with a heater set up, and he inspected Dave and Ashley’s blistered aching feet. Our colleague Nicole McCallum had come out as well, to trek the final 5 hours alongside us. We changed our socks, restocked our food and water, and had some final hugs before we began the final section of our trek at 10:30pm.
The stop had cooled down our bodies, and we were heading into one of the longest trail sections through unbroken two-feet-deep snow. This was the most challenging part of the day for me. No matter how much I kept moving, my body would just not warm up. I focused on the footprints ahead of me and didn’t even look up for the next hour, willing myself to keep walking despite my discomfort and my worry that I was slipping into mild hypothermia. Suddenly, out of the darkness, we noticed a shadowy form approaching us from the opposite direction. It was Gaelen again, coming to break in the trail and lead us through to the next stop. My body finally started producing heat as we approached the end of the trail section and came out on the roads.
Brad was waiting again with the truck, and we changed socks one more time before beginning our country road section where we would trek from North Waterloo to West Montrose in one fell swoop.
The country roads were hard on our hips, knees, ankles, feet, and our spirits; a real physical and mental challenge. From midnight to 3:35am we walked along the asphalt in the dark, with nothing but open fields surrounding us. We were exposed to the weather and knowing we had no more stops until the end, we felt very alone. Our beacon of light during this section was Nicole, who trotted along side us, bubbling with enthusiasm and chatting about all kinds of positive uplifting things to keep our minds from fixating on our discomfort. We were also visited by a Waterloo Regional Police officer, who pulled over to see what we were doing, and then came by 30 minutes later and offered to get us coffee. His encouragement was a lovely treat during this difficult stretch. My feet felt like lead and my knees felt brittle, like dry firewood.
Ashley and Dave were limping along, slowly but with determination as we approached the final few kms. Ashley had pre-existing injuries before the trek, a bulging disk in her back and trouble with her hips. In addition to her inflamed joints, her feet were badly blistered by this time. She had never completed any kind of endurance event, and I admired her perseverance and dedication in the face of these challenging circumstances.
When we passed through Winterbourne, it felt like we still had a hundred miles to go, even though West Montrose was just a few kilometres away. There isn’t much to say about the final few kms. It was just one step after the other. When we finally reached the bridge, I had never been so happy to see truck headlights. Brad and Cam were waiting for us at the finish, there to capture our exhausted final few steps. We barely had enough energy to muster a smile for the camera, but we had completed our journey. It wasn’t until the next day that we realized we’d also reached our fundraising goal. We had surpassed our $5000 target for The Working Centre.
So, my colleagues and I trekked all the way across Waterloo Region, walking non-stop for 20 hours in the cold. We were fortunate. We were well-equipped. We had manageable temperatures and light snow. We didn’t have rain. We didn’t have sleet. We didn’t have -20 degrees with a windchill. At the end of all of this, I’m left feeling like there are no circumstances under which I could possibly relate to what it’s like for homeless citizens who have to endure through harsh Canadian winters. Waterloo Region’s homeless citizens are resilient beyond my capacity for understanding. They endure not only through the unforgiving climate, but also persevere despite the hopelessness and despair. It has given me a profound respect for these true survivors, and a newfound motivation to help ease their struggle in whatever small way I can.
We completed the trek as a trio, but we reached our goals as a community. Thank you so much to everyone who played a role in making this happen. We will complete Waterloo Region Crossing again next year, and the years after that. We hope you’ll join us next time.