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Go east young hiker, go east

22 Nov 2010 by Guest Blogger in Birdwatching and Hiking & Walking
Region: Avalon

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By Craig Copeland and Kathy Copeland, Calgary Herald

Hiking the East Coast Trail outside St. John's last fall, I had one of those rapturous, living fully in the now, experiences.

My wife, Kathy, and I had seen nobody for an entire, glorious September Sunday. The trail, the forest, the sea belonged to only us. Or rather we to them.

For hours, we trekked in silence, intensely aware of our surroundings: the earth underfoot, sharp cliffs just beyond our shoulders, the Atlantic Ocean thundering onto rocks far below.

But voices from the other side of the continent interrupted my walking meditation: "Have you hiked the West Coast Trail?"

I have written hiking guidebooks and it's a question I hear often, mostly from people new to hiking. The trail, on Vancouver Island, strikes some as exotic and others as over-hyped, one that didn't live up to its billing. "Too crowded, too much clearcut forest visible just beyond the narrow margin of mature trees," they say. "And having to make reservations and hike the WCT as a one-way through-trip is an expensive hassle."

At that point in the conversation, I've always suggested backpack trips superior to the WCT. But now I know the appropriate response. I ask, "Have you hiked the East Coast Trail?"

The answer I typically receive is, "Where's that?" It's an astounding confession about what should be Canada's pre-eminent long-distance hiking trail and one that deserves to be world-famous.

The ECT traces 540 kilometres of our country's eastern fringe: the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. About 220 kilometres of the trail -18 distinct, but continuous sections from St. John's south to Cappahayden - have been developed to international hiking standards and are signed, mapped, and maintained.

The other 320 kilometres are hikeable, but undeveloped. The ECT Association (eastcoasttrail. com) intends to have the entire trail fully constructed by 2016. The WCT, by the way, is a mere 75 kilometres long.

But it's the ever-changing, constantly engaging scenery that distinguishes the ECT.

This is no endurance plod through dense forest. Here, it's the plummeting cliffs, towering sea stacks, open headlands and rocky terraces that seem to go on forever.

The ECT also remains stubbornly, sometimes alarmingly close to vertical crags. Often a single seaward step will land you in the frigid water if you're not vigilant. It makes for exhilarating hiking.

On the 23-kilometre section between Shoal's Bay Road and Bay Bulls, we hiked past a blowhole called The Spout that erupted in a 15-metre geyser every two minutes. Later, we watched a submarine-sized whale cruise by. In between, we feasted on blueberries.

Much of the ECT is in stunted boreal forest granting frequent views of arches, pinnacles, sheer fissures, deep caverns and countless waterfalls leaping from land to sea.

Long stretches of the trail cross rolling swaths of "tuckamore" - a mix of tightly knit, ankle-to-knee-high coastal vegetation that allows you to see the entire horizon.

The 11-kilometre section from Petty Harbour to Cape Spear (North America's easternmost point) is mostly tuckamore, which gave us the odd-but-pleasing sensation we were traversing alpine/ maritime meadows.

The trail affords as much variety as a European Grande Randonnee, the large network of foot paths in western Europe. The section from Shoal's Bay Road to Bay Bulls is wild, lonely, rugged. From Petty Harbour to Cape Spear, the trail is less remote, more tame. Near St. John's, the trail is downright urban, comprising elaborate catwalks and staircases.

One section starts at the northendof theSt. John's harbour, in the historic neighbourhood called the Battery, then climbs Signal Hill. Another ascends from the tiny bay of Quidi Vidi on the city's edge. Both are invigorating, beautiful and can be appreciated in a two-hour, out-and-back jaunt.

Notice I haven't mentioned backpacking. That's because Kathy and I day-hiked the ECT. You can backpack it, if you prefer. We passed inviting campsites with spacious tent platforms hidden in the forest. But it's possible to day-hike the entire trail, spending each night at a seaside inn or B&B -an option you don't have on the WCT.

Or you can stay several nights in the same lodging and pay your host to shuttle you to and from whichever section of the ECT you choose to hike each day.

A couple days we hiked on our own. Other days we hiked with acquaintances -St. John's residents who know the ECT intimately.

One of our companions was Catherine Whitehead, who first hiked the ECT when she and her family moved to St. John's 26 years ago. She grew up in Lake Louise and her hiking experience spans the globe, so I asked her how the ECT compares to other trails.

"I love the ECT as much as trails I've walked in the Rockies, Kootenays, Scotland, England, Bavaria and Austria," Whitehead said. "The scenery here is different but just as exhilarating."

Anand Yethiraj, also of St. John's, regularly hikes the ECT. When asked what keeps him returning to it, he said, "There must be 150 different shades between blue and grey in the water and sky, and another 100 shades between red and green on the land."

Tali Smith, an ECT maintenance volunteer, clung to the trail like a barnacle when I asked what she would miss most about it if she left St. John's forever. "I'm not leaving!" was how she prefaced her lengthy, enthusiastic response. "But I'm not leaving!" was how she concluded.

The five days of hiking the ECT transformed Kathy and me into proselytizing zealots. Now we're the ones eagerly asking, "Have you hiked the East Coast Trail?" hoping for an opportunity to tell all about it.

IF YOU GO:

Seasons: Hike the ECT in May if you want to see icebergs. Hike it in July if you want to see the world's biggest population of humpback whales. Hike it in September if you prefer sunny days and mild temperatures.

Options: Each section of the ECT has its own character, rewards, challenges. Some are shorter, easier. Others are longer, rougher. It's easy to customize the ECT by hiking only the sections best suited to you and your companions.

Resources: The East Coast Trail Association (eastcoasttrail.com) is a fountain of knowledge. It sells detailed maps with trail ratings, as well as guidebooks that illuminate the ECT's human and natural history. The association invites your specific questions via phone, 709-738-4453, or email, information@eastcoasttrail.com.

Accommodations: Lodging is available in many of the 32 villages along the ECT. You'll find links to numerous accommodations on the ECT Association website.

Connections: Trail Connections (trailconnections.ca, 709-335-8315) offers packages that include ground transportation, accommodations and meals, allowing you to devote your time and energy to hiking the ECT.

Considerations: You're travelling from afar to visit Newfoundland and hike the ECT? Boost your return on investment by driving seven hours across the island to hike in spectacular Gros Morne National Park. The Gros Morne Mountain circuit is among Canada's premier day hikes. The Long Range Traverse is a multi-day adventure through magnificent wilderness.