How long does it take to walk from Newfoundland to Tuktoyaktuk? As it turns out, five years — give or take a global pandemic.
Along the 28,000 kilometres of trail connecting Canada’s three oceans, Melanie Vogel says the memory she will treasure the most are the friends she’s made along the way — particularly her four-legged travel buddy Malo.
The German-born adventurer has spent the last five years walking the Trans Canada Trail with the goal of seeing all three oceans surrounding Canada. She began June 2, 2017 at the Cape Spear, Nfld. lighthouse and has been making her way across Canada ever since, finally reaching the Arctic Ocean on May 5, 2022.
“I have a very strong longing for the road and have been traveling already for a long time,” said Vogel. “After returning back to Canada from a two year world trip in 2013 I couldn’t stop thinking to hit the road again. I read an article about the Trans-Canada-Trail which has grown to a 28,000 km network of more than 400 community trails that connect Canada across 10 provinces, three territories through wilderness, rural and urban landscapes.
“While I consider this a solo hike it is powered by human kindness. Without it I might have long run out of energy as it’s such a huge undertaking to walk multiple years on a 28,000 km long trail.”
As one could imagine, walking across one of the largest nations on the planet has posed significant challenges. Vogel said the first thing she learned the hard way was how to camp in Canadian winter, which almost put a stop to her journey as -30 C nights set in.
Since then, she’s traded her three-season tent in for a full complement of winter camping gear and has become quite skilled at being outdoors.
“I was worried when falling asleep in my tent I wouldn’t wake up,” she noted, adding she almost did herself in crossing the Salmon River in Fundy National Park, N.B. “The river had swollen due to strong rainfalls the days prior and the water was freezing cold and waist deep and the crossing very risky. I shouldn’t have done it but I was stubborn. I contemplated while watching the river for about an hour to understand its flow and find a safe spot to cross.
“I was extremely cold reaching the other side but I made it safely.”
Another major challenge to her journey was the time alone on the road. Vogel said it would get draining constantly thinking her own thoughts, coupled with a haphazard nutrition and sleep patterns — it wore her down. Over time, she developed a number of mantras to help ground herself and keep going.
But the single greatest help on the road came in the way of a dog named Malo, whom she met on the trail in Manitoba in 2019. The homeless hound and her quickly became the best of friends and after spending a month in the area trying to connect Malo with her home, Vogel decided to take the pooch under her wings. The two have been inseparable ever since.
“He was clearly a runaway, a free spirit,” she said. “To accommodate him took quite a lot of logistical and financial adjustment but I was willing to make it all work because, love wins.”
The longest 400 kilometres
Ironically, the longest part of the journey for Vogel was two years in Eagle Plains, which she reached during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the time, the NWT had among the most stringent Covid-19 policies in the country, only permitting essential workers to enter the territory. Unable to complete the final 400 kilometres to the Arctic coast, Vogel found herself stranded in Eagle Plains without a source of income and little idea how long she would be stationary.
Fortunately, northern hospitality came through and helped carry her the rest of the rocky way to the shore. First, the Eagle Plains hotel offered her a job while she waited the pandemic out, and for eight months she served truckers moving goods across the invisible barrier. Then, her hopes were dashed as the NWT and Yukon first announced a travel bubble in June of 2021, which popped before she could get across the boarder.
Finally, when the NWT eased restrictions in early 2022, Vogel and Malo set out again with a borrowed wagon in April to reach the Arctic coast, but the journey continued to put obstacles in front of the determined pair. But kindness from people along the Dempster helped her along the way.
“The challenge was real,” she said.”I ended my first day with a flat tire after a tiresome 28 km walk through the Richardson mountain range. I was exhausted and my whole body ached as I hadn’t walked with full gear for 1.5 years. I felt so grateful that Ben not only invited me to stay at his cabin at Midway but that he and his friends fixed my tire.
“Another blow of my tire left me stranded right before reaching the Mackenzie River. This time it was John that came to my rescue. We loaded all my gear in his pick up and I walked all the way to frog creek where I planned to stay for the night in a pullout. John drove ahead waiting for me there.
“When John left me behind I realized I had just loaded all my belongings on the truck of a stranger who I know nothing about other than his first name and the colour of his truck. But this is what the journey is partly about to have faith and believe in the goodness of your fellow humans. As I handed him my gear so did others hand me their key to their home or cabin trusting that it will be alright that we treat this trust or kindness with respect.
“Instead of camping at frog creek I ended up at another John’s home in Tsiigehtchic. While I had to backtrack and walked the remaining 20 some km to the community the next day good people, which hikers like to call trail angels, fixed my tire once again.”
Time was not on Vogel’s side, as she learned while crossing the Mackenzie that the road would soon be closed due to spring break-up. The pair’s journey hit another snag as they were confronted by an aggressive dog. In the process of bear-spraying the animal to protect herself and Malo, Vogel accidently sprayed herself.
Able to flag down a car driven by two women, Vogel recovered in Inuvik before returning to the spot she was stopped and continuing the journey, escorted by her new friends. As she continued on the highway, passerbys would pull over and offer her food and drinks to help her along.
When she finally made it to Tuktoyaktuk, she learned the ice roads were on 72-hours notice. With a blistering Arctic wind, she stayed for dinner with two new friends she met in town before hightailing it back to Inuvik and hitchhiking back to Eagle Plains, getting across the last crossing with less than 48-hours notice.
“Joe and Diane had invited me to join their family for a dinner,” she said. “As I stepped through the door, I looked at a well-laid table with traditional northern culinary which included snow goose, caribou meat and caribou head. The hospitality of these kind people made my short stay in Tuk a humbling and memorable experience.
“It might sound cheesy but my walk to the Arctic has already taught me that it truly is all about the journey and not the destination. So many times, I had day dreamt how reaching the Arctic would be. How I would dip my feet in the ocean, how I would sit to reflect, that I might even shed a tear. None of this happened. The ocean was still frozen, the wind blew harsh and ice cold which made staying beyond the obligatory photo op way too miserable, but touching the Trans Canada sign and kissing and telling my exhausted dog that we made it and can rest now for a bit was still a very emotional and joyful moment.”
The final Leg
Now back on the trail, Vogel is within sites of her final goal, reaching Victoria, B.C. to have completed the Trans Canada Trail by foot.
She noted five years on the road has changed her perspective on just about everything.
“As someone who has been born and raised in Germany, I am genuinely proud of myself how I coped and navigated through the Canadian wilderness and the Canadian winters over the past five years,” said Vogel. “I have grown as a person physically, spiritually and mentally. I learnt to balance doing with just being as both are equally necessary. I am much more content and in tune with myself when I am out there as nature knows no judgment. A lot of things that matter in society don’t matter here which naturally caused a rethink of my values, beliefs and priorities.
“For example, there is no such thing like ‘wasting time’ in nature. And at times when I wonder where I belong it is nature where I feel always welcome. The trail has given me lots. Freedom, contentment, inspiration and love in form of a four-legged companion I named Malo. I have grown on the trail and have rehabilitated my connection with nature.
“Now that I have reached the Arctic Ocean, I am on my way to the third and last ocean. That’s about 3000 km left to go. This journey will be finished once the water of the Pacific Ocean washes over my feet. And then? I am definitely not putting my feet up. I converted an old chevy into a camper van during the pandemic which will be my home on wheels as I have no intention to settle.
“My life has been quite an adventure and I will keep it that way.”