I have always been a walker. Living in downtown Ottawa the past four years, I walk everywhere, even when it would be faster to take the bus. But these walks are modest, never taking much longer than an hour. Almost a year ago, inspired by Canada’s 150 celebrations, I wanted to take it further, literally, by walking across Ottawa, from Orleans to Kanata.
Before I set my route I spoke to Ottawa local Dan Rubinstein. He wrote Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act about his experiences walking thousands of kilometres around the world and its transformative power. He spoke about the different ways long walks, like the one I was planning, can benefit mind, body and soul.
“A sense of yourself and how you fit into the environment of where you are,” he says. “The less we walk, the more we engage with the world in fast moving vehicles or digitally, the less connected we are to the people and places around us.”
According to Rubinstein, walking can also benefit creativity. Your perspective slowly changes with each step, constantly providing a new way to look at things.
“That allows you to think about other things, problems, challenges and struggles differently. If not to come up with solutions, it is just to understand things a bit more.”
“Whoa,” was all I could muster as a reply. For some inexplicable reason, that really struck me. Eventually I was able to mouth words again and ask for advice on my route.
“Be open to serendipity, just to discover what you discover along the way,” he says. “Go through boring and unassuming places where you don’t know anything about them, because you never know what you are going to see along the way.”
That stuck with me.
My plan was to start at Place d’Orleans with a wide finish line of anywhere in Kanata. The route would be made up as I went along to encourage exploration. Also on Rubinstein’s advice, I would forgo any navigational aid. No maps, no compasses, no GPS.
The day before my walk, I went to the Running Room in the Glebe for some walking shoes and supplies. The employee Lawrence Wright, Rubinstein and my friend, Dylan Jones, a graduate of Algonquin’s outdoor adventure program, all advised me that using brand new shoes was a very bad idea.
I stubbornly thought it was a very good idea. Anything would be better than the shoes I had which contained more holes than a raccoon ravaged garbage bin.
On top of the new shoes, I got socks designed to keep my feet dry, a red Running Room water bottle, an assortment of energy snacks and most importantly: anti-chaffing cream. I have never listened to instructions more carefully than when Lawrence explained where and how to apply the cream.
“The most important part,” I said as he handed it to me.
I was starting to get nervous on the morning of the walk. From where I lived, the ride to my starting point felt like it was in another province. I began to wonder if I was in over my head. I became incredibly aware of my body, every little joint or muscle that did not feel 100 per cent stockpiled doubt in my head.
I distracted myself by thinking about another issue: Where will I shit if the feeling comes?
At 7:30 a.m. I reach the deserted parking lot of Place d’Orleans mall. I grew up in Kanata and I think this was the first time I actually got out of a car and put feet on the ground in Orleans. My first directional decision was to go north towards the river. Using the Queensway as reference, I made my best guess and took my first steps.
It is weird how fast the feeling hit me.
I am free. I can go wherever I want. I have all day to explore.
It was a powerful feeling to say the least. I was not going to the store and back. I was roaming. I ditched the sidewalks and walked through the very first field I saw. I laughed aloud at the irony of getting a strong sense of freedom in a suburb. I eventually made it all the way to the path that goes along the river. After cutting through parks and school grounds and hopping some fences I reached my first landmark: The great Ottawa River.
It was pristine. The morning was calm, and the water, a mirror. I never really saw the river away from the noise of downtown and it was breathtaking.
I began to pass by other walkers and runners on the river path. More importantly, I pet at least five different dogs who were super happy to see me. I shared “hellos” and “good mornings” with almost everyone.
At 8:50 a.m. I took a break and realized how stupid I was for ignoring the advice on my shoes. Blisters were beginning to form on the insides of both heels and I had nothing to relieve the discomfort.
The river path eventually takes a turn away from the river and detours into a small wooded area. My neck got a workout trying to take it all in. A small creek down below, fallen and standing trees intertwined with each other. Thinking about Dan’s point about perspective, I focus on one tree and watched the branches on it slowly rotate as I walk by, creating a new design in the branches every second.
Due to the increasing pain in my heel, I take a quick rest on the next bench on the path. I remove my shoes and socks to reveal two fully formed bubbles of body fluid covering each heel.
“Blisters?” a man said while jogging by, never breaking a stride.
In the best decision I made all day, I break and clear them out. It hurt for another hour or so, but the pain went away eventually.
At 11 a.m. I make it to Rockcliffe Lookout. An elevated view over the river into the shores of Gatineau that I never knew existed. It was a picturesque view alien to me and full of aliens too (tourists).
Despite the wonderful view, I find myself more motivated to keep moving, fearing that remaining stationary would hurt more than it would help in the long run.
From Rockcliffe, I moved up Sussex Drive. I lean into the bars at 24 Sussex hoping to catch a glimpse of someone notable. Nothing. A bit further along, I spend time at Rideau Falls, another Ottawa landmark that I have never seen. The water is way more powerful than the pictures show.
At noon, I make it downtown. It was amazing watching the skyline reveal itself on the approach. Buildings popped in and out of view, giving a different layered picture to look at with every block. It is familiar scenery, but in that context it looked new and spectacular. I detour through Major’s Hill and boy is it ever scenic (I make note to come here for Canada Day fireworks). I rest at Parliament, and notice my feet are starting to go numb, but I think it doesn’t matter.
At 12:20 p.m. I make it to Lebreton Flats and take another rest, the shortest walking stint I did all day. The numbness in my feet has now escalated into pain. Putting a foot down on anything that was not perfectly flat and level just multiplied the sensation. My strides were accompanied by a limp from here on out.
From Lebreton, I worked my way past the slants of the Canadian War Museum, following the river once again to my favourite picnic spot gone illegal: Prince of Wales Bridge. This was only another 20 or so minutes of walking, but my feet have become twice as painful as before. I make it to the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway near Mechanicsville and decide to change my plans.
Up until this point, I was a wide-eyed walker. Soaking in the beauty in everything around me. Self-reflecting thoughts flew through my mind, allowing everything that I was hung up on to pass by me with my constant forward motion. Now things were different. I set myself a task that I felt I needed to complete. I was past the midway mark and would never forgive myself for not trying my best to finish. The exploratory thoughts were gone. I took one look at the parkway and all the curves and turns it takes and thought:
No way in hell. I need efficiency.
I cut through Tunney’s Pasture to Wellington Street West. It is about 1:30 p.m., I have been walking for six hours so far. Mentally, I feel fine. I still have energy and food, it’s just the pain in my feet slowing me down. About a half-hour later my knees start to go. Any meditative state I held or calmness I had is gone. I tell myself this is no longer a sightseeing tour. This is now an endurance test.
While I’m moving down Richmond Road my phone rings. It is my friend Dylan calling to check up on me. I don’t think he understood how much that call meant. I had been alone walking for seven hours and being able to talk casually with a friend gave me a lot of motivation.
At 3 p.m. I am resting at Carling Avenue by the Cineplex. My feet are visibly swollen. I was not sure how much more I could physically do, but I had the willpower.
Andrew Haydon Park, 3:30 p.m., my mom shows up with a car to check in on me. As I was telling her about my physical state, she offers the choice for me to stop and the opportunity get in the car, grab some McDonald’s and be sitting on a couch with my legs up all in under 30 minutes.
I decline quickly and leave before I have a chance to think about it.
The last stretch on Carling to Kanata was the closest thing to a personal hell I have ever experienced. Nothing to look at and no sidewalks to separate my fragile flesh bag from cars. I swore at the top of my lungs every few steps due to the pain I had in my knees.
My legs are telling me to stop. My brain is telling me to stop. I override it. In the immense amount of pain I was feeling, I found motivation and drive. I can’t go through all this and call it quits. I must keep going or the pain is for nothing.
This is where I get the phone call from my concerned mother.
“Fuck off! Fuck off! Fuck off! Fuck off!” I yell at her number on the phone. I answer and state: “I will call you when I am done,” then immediately hang up.
At the intersection of Carling and Herzberg Road, there is Bourk’s Complete Car Care. I decide that could be my finish line. I get a red light at that last intersection. The wait feels like hours. Once the walk symbol comes on I almost fall, that brief stop waiting for the light to change stiffened up my legs. Once across I collapse in the shade of the sign out front. Unsure if I should count this, I pull out my phone and start Snapchat. A Kanata filter is available. 5:00 p.m. almost on the dot.
Good enough. This is Kanata. I reached my goal.
I call my concerned mother and let her know she can pick me up and take me home. Thanks for supporting me while I did this mom and I am sorry for swearing at your name on my caller ID.
I learned a lot while on this nine and a half-hour journey. The first half from Orleans to Parliament was amazing. It was so peaceful and I found a deeper appreciation for the natural beauty around the city and the downtown core itself. Ottawa is a beautiful place. The river, the trees, the history, the architecture all put together modestly.
I learned a lot about what I can do if I set my mind to it. It really was my mind keeping me going over the 42 kilometres I walked. I had the drive and nothing could stop me, knowing I would eventually succeed as long as I kept putting one foot forward. No matter how small the steps, I would succeed. That is a lesson I will carry for a long time. It seems so simple when put into writing, but it is an incredibly powerful feeling. Pain is temporary, but you can be proud of what you have accomplished forever.