An adventurer from Victoria has completed a massive challenge — paddling and portaging his canoe alone across Canada, from the Pacific to the Atlantic — and says he is overwhelmed by the open hearts and generosity of everyday Canadians.
Bert Ter Hart set out from the mouth of the Fraser River in Vancouver on April 1st and put his hands on Shippagan Light House in New Brunswick on October 1st, covering roughly 6000 kilometres in just six months.
“It was completely overwhelming,” Ter Hart tells CityNews “Everyone has this intrinsic idea that the Pacific and the Atlantic are not connected, so it was a surreal moment, and it really sort of stuck how far I had come.”
Ter Hart travelled solely by canoe or foot — pulling his canoe and equipment over the land-based portions on two wheels — using the same routes as Indigenous Peoples and European explorers and cartographers, using the same navigation techniques.
The idea was for Ter Hart to gain insight into the relationship between First Nations, those early Europeans, and the land and water they travelled.
“The first thing that comes out is it’s really hard — it’s not easy — and these people were extraordinary in every way you can possibly define extraordinary. That sense of awe and amazement and utter disbelief at the kind of people it took to live and thrive in this country never left me for one second through this entire trip.”
That trip took Ter Hart across B.C., the Rocky Mountains, the Prairies, the Canadian Shield, and into the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence, through everything from vast emptiness to bustling cities, but he says there were always curious and open people, ready to lend a hand.
“The people who helped me along the way, I could give you a long list of names … it was extraordinary on many different levels and contexts to be helped by complete strangers,” he says.
“What’s interesting about that is that’s the way it was. If you were an Indigenous person travelling across country, you would be helped from village to village to village, as long as you weren’t arriving as an enemy. It’s different if you’re travelling with an open heart and an open mind.”
But he points out Indigenous people and early Europeans were not travelling in a vast wilderness as he was.
“The wilderness was populated, there were villages on the river, virtually on every bend, on every point in the lake. That information is lost to us because at the time Indigenous people were using Canada’s ‘super highways,’ every bend was known … there was an incredible amount of local information that was contained among tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of people. Now it’s all gone.”
However, Ter Hart says when he did encounter people along the way, he was always helped, like those who came before him in previous centuries.
“It’s heartwarming to know that same kind of spirit exists in spades across all of Canada. There isn’t anywhere I went that genuinely concerned, loving, compassionate people stopped to lend a hand, ask if i was okay or if I needed anything. I leaned heavily on that in lots of instances and, in fact, probably could never have done what I have done.”
Ter Hart estimates he has at least 500 signatures on his canoe from people he connected with along his journey and hopes his efforts have also left an impression on those he met during his travels.
“Some aspect of what I was doing seemed to resonate with everyone that I met on the way … it’s easy to be cynical about politics and division and the country in general but everywhere I went, the people were just amazing.
That doesn’t say anything about me, that says something about the people that I met,” he says.
“For anyone who’s willing to step outside — and you don’t have to travel across the country — you will find the connections you make are going to be transformative, inspirational, and motivational.”
Ter Hart feels it’s worth every hardship to try to connect with people, saying you will be overwhelmed by those you meet.
“It keeps you humble, I’ll say that. It keeps you humble.”