Dianne Whelan: The RD Interview

Filmmaker and adventurer Dianne Whelan on moose encounters, the songs that keep her company on the Trans Canada Trail and what Canada’s 150th means to her.

Dianne Whelan illustrationIllustration: Aimée Van Drimmelen

15 Minutes with Dianne Whelan

Reader’s Digest Canada: You’re on a multi-year trip travelling the full length of the Trans Canada Trail—which measures nearly 24,000 kilometres—by human-powered means. How do people react when you tell them?

Dianne Whelan: Everyone’s been very positive. I thought I might get more raised eyebrows. I’m not an extreme athlete; I’m an artist from Vancouver. I’m making a film and writing a book about this trip. When people realize I’m a middle-aged woman attempting this journey, I think they’re amused. But I can also see the light of adventure in their eyes.

You’re walking, paddling and biking. Do you have a preferred mode of transportation?

I love canoeing. It’s what I was most frightened of because I’d never done solo trips before, though I’d been out in the bush for a couple weeks. I compare the Trans Canada Trail to an umbilical cord that connects us all. Parts of it are old railroad tracks, and that represents a particular part of Canadian history. But when you’re in the canoe, you’re paddling traditional Aboriginal routes, the same way people travelled 12,000 years ago. I don’t have words for that.

What part of your body hurts the most right now?

My lower back. I’m 51, so I had a sore back even before I started out.

What inspired this trip?

We’re marking 150 years of Confederation, but we’re also at a point of reconciliation. The big question is: how do we celebrate Canada and also respect the First Nations people who were here before us? For me, doing this trail is like going back to the old way—and honouring the past in the process.

How has your mindset changed since you started on July 1, 2015?

This journey is my personal eco­logical pilgrimage; as with everyone else who is on a pilgrimage, it’s about knowledge of your true self. When I started, as a woman going out on my own into the woods, I was afraid. Then I realized that the fear wasn’t in nature, it was in me. I sleep peacefully out there now.

Have you encountered any furry friends scratching at your door?

I woke up one morning in Newfoundland, not far from where I started in St. John’s, and rolled out of my tent to find a place to go to the bathroom. When I looked up, I was surrounded by a herd of moose. As I’m peeing, these creatures are towering over me. They just kept chewing.

I bet things can get pretty repetitive on the trail. Have you had the misfortune of having a song you hate stuck in your head?

Fortunately for me, they’ve all been Joni Mitchell songs. The spirit of this land is in that woman’s music.

How do you think this experience will change you in the long term?

Being in nature’s silence—it’s almost like a renovation. Behind all that bad wallpaper and horrible drywall, there’s a beautiful stone wall. I feel like I’m slowly unravelling a lot of layers, and I’m excited to see what I’ll find when it’s all done.

Track Whelan’s cross-country journey here.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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