Dianne Whelan on becoming the first person to complete 16,000-mile Trans Canada Trail: "You suddenly feel more connected to life"

Filmmaker reflects on lessons learned after six-year Trans Canada Trail journey

Our "Pushing the Limits" series meets a Canadian woman who is the first person ever to complete the Trans Canada Trail.

They say to get to know someone, you must walk a mile in their shoes. But to really know Dianne Whelan and what she's seen over the past six years, that trek would take more than 16,000 miles.

The Canadian became the first person ever to complete the Trans Canada Trail, the longest trail in the world, spanning hundreds of walking paths, roads and waterways.

The 56-year-old filmmaker set out for her hardest expedition yet, beginning in 2015, traveling the entire Trans Canada Trail alone. She made the journey over the course of six years, on foot, bicycle and by boat – connecting with nature and strangers along the way.

The solo pilgrimage, in which she traveled from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arctic Ocean, and to the Pacific, is the subject of Whelan's next documentary.

Filmmaker Dianne Whelan became the first person to travel the entire length of the Trans Canada Trail, a 16,000-mile solo journey.  "500 Days in the Wild"

"There's something very fragile about being alone out on Lake Superior, or deep in the woods," Whelan said. "After a while, there's something that wakes up inside you, and you suddenly feel more connected to life than you've ever been."

The trail is so long, in fact, that If you were to crisscross the United States five times, you still wouldn't cover the distance of the Trans Canada Trail.

Correspondent Jamie Wax asked, "Do you come out of the low depths of loneliness and isolation into that moment?"

"I never really was lonely on this journey," she said. "I felt a strong sense of connection to the world that was around me. The web of life. I went on this journey not to prove some sort of athletic accomplishment. In fact, by day 10, I realized, Jamie, that I hadn't even gone as far as I thought I could go in one day.

"So, I burn my schedule. And I joke with people that that's the day I dropped the rabbit suit for the turtle shell," Whelan laughed, "and, you know, surrendered to how long the journey was gonna take me."

Over six years, Whelan traveled about eight months a year to cover the 16,000-mile Trans Canada Trail.  "500 Days in the Wild"

No schedule to follow allowed Whelan to travel on her own terms, taking breaks when she needed a rest or when the weather was too dangerous.

Through her lens, she captured the rugged pathways and the tools she needed to navigate the land … the water … and at times the treacherous conditions.

On average, she spent about eight months on the trail each year. Along the way, Whelan crossed paths with strangers who, she said, never failed to offer her a helping hand, and spent time in Indigenous communities on whose ancestral land she was traveling.

"That's where I actually found my hope," Whelan said, "in learning a different relationship to the Earth. Instead of living on it, living with it. A lot of Indigenous communities, they think about seven generations. Every time you're making a decision, you think about seven generations into the future. How radical that would be if we brought that into the corporate boardroom, or into government. We're telling our kids, 'We care.'"

On August 1 Whelan's journey finally came to an end. Her family and the new friends she met traveling walked with her hand-in-hand as she became the first person, and first woman, to complete the entire trail.

Wax asked, "What did it feel like on mile zero?"

"I was definitely crying," she said. "And it wasn't because my journey was over. It was because of all the kindness of people. When you watch the news sometimes, you're quite certain that the whole world's full of sociopaths, and it's not. I put myself in a very vulnerable position being out there alone for as long as I was. And I met a lot of people. And not once did I not meet kindness on my journey."

Whelan's next journey: sharing the wisdom she learned on her adventures in a new book and documentary, both titled "500 Days in the Wild."

"Nature is a place that we could all turn to through our isolation to find healing," she said. "I definitely found my hope in human kindness all across this land, and it is what connects us.

"For all of our differences, we're all connected by this land and by the water. We are one."

To watch a trailer for the upcoming film "500 Days in the Wild" click on the video player below:

500 DAYS IN THE WILD by 500 Days in the Wild on YouTube

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