The Island Walk, a 700-kilometer walking and cycling route, is the result of a Canadian’s quest to design a pilgrimage-inspired path around Prince Edward Island.

Pink and purple lupins swayed along Highway 101 on Prince Edward Island, where I’d just walked out of Kensington. It was 9:00 a.m., and the road was congested with cars whose drivers appeared to be on their way to get coffee or to work. Before I noticed the animals grazing on the ridge, the smell of cow wafted across the wind. They were standing in front of a sign that read, “Get a high from our milk. Our cows are grazing on grass.”

My fourth day on the Island Walk, a new 700-kilometer route that circles Canada’s smallest province, had arrived. Starting in the rural west end of PEI, I walked past vinyl-clad farmhouses with ocean views, along a boardwalk beneath whirling wind turbines, and through a forest. and above cliffs of red clay that plunged sharply into the sea. I’d stopped by the Stompin’ Tom Centre, which was honouring Canadian singer-songwriter Tom Connors, for a midday country music hour. I’d walked through the rain on a secluded, wooded trail, where swarms of cunning mosquitos attempted to shelter under my umbrella. And, having learned about PEI’s main crop at the Canadian Potato Museum, I’d fueled my day’s walk with an extra-large cheese-topped baked potato served with freshly made potato chips. When your potato comes with a side of potatoes, you know a restaurant is serious about its potatoes.

You know that a place is serious about its spuds when your potato comes with a side of potatoes

Now, as I walked near the island’s centre, with the breeze blowing and the wildflowers blooming, I realised I was noticing things I wouldn’t have noticed if I were driving. A shingled barn with fading green paint that appeared nearly abandoned except for its meticulously mowed lawn. Two pale yellow butterflies flit past a marigold basket mounted on a fence post. A narrow swath of ocean visible through a clearing in the trees.

The Island Walk was created by Bryson Guptill, a PEI resident, to encourage both islanders and visitors to explore the region at a slower pace. After hiking sections of the Camino de Santiago in Spain and France with his partner Sue Norton, Guptill began to wonder why there wasn’t a similar walking route through their home province’s towns and countryside.

He began mapping a path around Prince Edward Island, which became the Island Walk in 2020. The walking and cycling route is divided into 32 segments that visitors can tackle individually, as I did, or as a longer circuit around the island, passing its Atlantic coast beaches, through its national park, and into the villages where the Anne of Green Gables novels, perhaps PEI’s most famous export, were set.

But the path from concept to launch of the Island Walk was not easy. And, as an increasing number of people discover this path, its creators face some ongoing difficulties.

Guptill, a retired government policy analyst, had been volunteering with Island Trails, a non-profit organisation tasked with developing and maintaining PEI’s walking paths. He and Norton walked many of the island’s woodland trails, as well as the 273-kilometer Confederation Trail that runs through the island’s centre.

The Island Walk, unlike the Camino de Santiago, is not based on an ancient pilgrimage route. Guptill envisioned connecting PEI’s existing trail network, rural roads, and larger roadways into a new route around the island that would be divided into walkable 20-25km segments.

After mapping out a proposed route, he decided to test it out in October 2019, recruiting Nora Wotton and two other PEI friends to join him. A seasoned hiker, Wotton began serious long-distance walking after retiring from teaching. After her last day of work, she boarded a plane at 17:00 to begin her solo walk along the Camino de Santiago.

Wotton was intrigued to try this close-to-home route after hearing about Guptill’s Camino-style walk around PEI. During their month-long journey, many islanders opened their homes to them, providing lodging, food and drink, and even a place to eat sandwiches they’d packed. The walkers observed lobster fishermen haul in their traps, passed through vibrantly coloured blueberry fields, and witnessed the island’s trees change colour from day to day.

“I got to see how pretty my own part of this beautiful Earth is.”

“I got to see how lovely my own part of this lovely planet is. I’ve travelled all over the world. And it’s just as beautiful as anywhere else I’ve been.”

Guptill began working with the Island Trails organisation and the provincial government after this initial test walk to develop the Island Walk into a more viable product.

Linda Lowther, a PEI tourism consultant who became the Island Walk’s first manager, led a team whose job it was “to make the Island Walk a reality,” she explained. They created a website, designed a logo and brochure, and planned route signage. Lowther began contacting motels, inns, and bed and breakfasts to recruit them as partners in housing, feeding, and potentially transporting Island Walkers. “I called every single accommodation within a kilometre of the Walk,” she explained.

However, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, PEI closed its borders in early 2020, putting the project on hold.

However, the first walkers began planning their trips the following year, using information from the new website and the Island Walk Facebook page. Lowther said she joined many of the walkers as they passed through her hometown of Cavendish. She wanted to know what worked and what didn’t. “Ninety-nine percent of them loved it all,” she said. “All they want is more bathrooms.”

The Island Walk sections that follow the Confederation Trail do have restrooms, as do more developed areas where walkers can stop in cafes or museums when nature calls. However, other, more rural areas have far fewer services.

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