Making the East Coast Trail
It was a beautiful summer day in 1994 when a group of 20 plus volunteers headed up the hill north of Bauline on the first ever scouting mission for what would become the East Coast Trail.
The group was made up of both locals and Come From Aways, or Newfoundlanders by choice, as Peter Gard prefers to call himself and the other expats who recognized that the old berry picking and hunting trails that ran along the coast of the Avalon Peninsula needed to be protected before they disappeared.
“The big vision involved people investing in sweat equity and doing something for the community for no money,” said Gard.
It was, and is, the sweat and perseverance of both the expat and local community volunteers that makes the East Coast Trail a continued success. That and making trail blazing an enjoyable exercise.
“If it hadn’t been fun, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Gard. “Most people involved were professionals looking for some exercise on the weekend and had a Saturday to give up. It’s a helluva lot of fun to open up trail.”
Janet Kelly, then the extremely busy owner of Auntie Crae’s, was the second (after Gard) to sign on as a lifetime member of the East Coast Trail. Her establishment also served as a meeting place for the fledgling group. “Those were the happiest days spent in my whole life,” said Kelly, referring to the back-breaking outings to open up trail. “When I was there, no one could find me.”
“I remember going out cutting that first time in Bauline. It was so awful at first. There was no trail. No birds. It was dead. We had two little kids with us, one four and one six. But it turned out quite lovely. We made it to a clearing at the top and there was a mother and baby whale down in the harbour that made up for everything. And the kids were great. They walked the whole trail. I made up an award later and framed it for them.”
“From then on, we’d be out cutting trail almost every weekend for three years,” says Elke Dettmer, a German folklorist in Pouch Cove. She also took it upon herself to bring in travel writers from her native Germany where hiking was a well-entrenched pastime and stress buster.
Still, “(at the time) the government wasn’t convinced that the trail was worthy of funding,” Dettmer said.
But Randy Murphy, president of the East Coast Trail Association since 1996, was able to “convince ACOA to put 50 cents on the dollar on administration,” said Gard. “With ACOA, we had an office to coordinate.”
Murphy had already hiked in the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and other parts of the Appalachian Mountain Trail when he found himself back in Newfoundland in 1985 hiking coastal trails with his then five-year-old son using the Trails of the Avalon guidebook written by Gard and Bridget Neame (Gallows Cove Publishing; 1989).
In May 1995, he came across a full-page colour article in The Evening Telegram talking about the idea of a through trail and knew he wanted to be a part of it. He attended the first East Coast Trail Association AGM in Torbay in 1995 and has been a driving force ever since.
“In 2019, the Trail will be 25 years old, and we’ve accomplished well beyond what we thought we would,” says Murphy. “But the Trail is only as good as the level of trail protection that’s there. There’s still no government protection in place since 1995. There is a major push to get something meaningful in place for the 25th year. The government is always receptive, always willing to talk. We want to move beyond talk to action.”
With 300 plus kilometres of trail cut and mapped between Cappahayden on the southern shore to Cape St Francis, 65 km north of St John’s and between Cape St Francis and Topsail Beach on the Conception Bay side, that initial group of volunteers should be proud.
“I can walk any part of the trail and still see what volunteers were doing,” says Gard referring to the mid-1990s when they first started cutting the trail. “We calculated the volunteer hours. It was in the millions.”
The Association is working with Memorial University’s Computer Science Faculty to launch an app featuring all-new digital maps before the annual Trail Day fundraiser in Petty Harbour on June 2. The new maps will feature more information on the communities which link the 26 paths which make up the East Coast Trail. The Association is also working on revamping trail head signs and highway and community signage to make trail heads more visible.