Hiking the Eastern Continental Trail
Hiking great distances from one end of an established trail to the other has become a popular pursuit within the United States and an activity that I have come to appreciate beyond measure. The practitioners of these end-to-end walks, recognized as “thru-hikers,” take great pleasure in their perambulatory achievements. One such long-distance trail is known as the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT). As with other hikes of great magnitude, blazing the ECT is no small feat yet I aspire to hike the trail to completion with continuous footsteps in the upcoming months.
Tackling the enormous 5,700-mile Eastern Continental Trail from Key West, Fla. to Newfoundland in Canada will likely be one of the most ambitious undertakings of my entire hiking life. The sheer size is mind-bending, its length totaling more than all other long-distance trails I have hiked—combined. A commercial jet flying from Key West to Newfoundland would take five hours at cruising speed. A trip by car would take fifty-four hours. The extent of the hike is so vast that it would be the same as if someone drove their car from Los Angeles to New York City then turned around and drove all the way back. The trail, or more accurately network of trails, has been dubbed “a beast,” a term evoking the immense challenge the hiker faces. The ECT is a hike that demands physical endurance, mental strength, and tremendous patience. Beginning in the southernmost point in Key West, Fla., the ECT meanders through sixteen eastern states all the way to the tip of Maine. Next, the trail enters New Brunswick in Canada and goes all the way up to Cap Gaspé, Quebec. Then the trail picks up in Prince Edward Island, next in Nova Scotia, and finally terminates in Newfoundland. This mile-conquering trek is one of the grandest of all thru-hikes. The trail beautifully combines the Florida Trail (FT), the Appalachian Trail (AT), and the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) —among others—into a continuous footpath. It is unclear how many people have completed or attempted this thru-hike as there are no formal records kept. In fact, no comprehensive trail guide even exists for the ECT. The Key West-to-Cap Gaspé journey was first made by John Brinda in the late nineties and then taken on by the legendary “Nimblewill Nomad” who completed the long-distance hike and wrote about it in his book entitled Ten Million Steps. From the archipelago of the Florida Keys to a distant provincial land once settled by ancient Vikings, the Eastern Continental Trail is an expedition of fairytale proportions.
The ECT can be thought of in broken-up chunks such that the hiker is blazing one trail system at a time from beginning to end. Those trails are then further reduced to manageable sections. I have segmented my hike into forty-one such parts that piece together the “ECT proper.” There is of course much roadwalking (aka “yellow-blazing) in order to logistically connect the different footpaths involved. The total length of the ECT depends on the alternates and optional trails the hiker selects. As a northbounder (NOBO), I plan on going west around Lake Okeechobee and east around Orlando on the Florida Trail (FT) portion. Rather than terminating this long-distance hike in Cap Gaspé, Quebec as some hikers traditionally have, I will press on and continue hiking through Prince Edward Island, then to Nova Scotia, and finally to Newfoundland. This selection brings the total ECT net mileage to approximately 5,700 miles!
Why Take On the Eastern Continental Trail?
What would possess someone to hike the better part of a year from the swamps of Florida to the lighthouses of Newfoundland? A sense of personal accomplishment? Record-setting for an FKT (fastest known time)? Escape from an office cubical? As with other past hikes, the idea snuck into my head and refused to exit. Thru-hikers, if anyone at all, understand how a dreamy idea can take control over one’s thought life. Once the idea lays hold, there is not much choice in the matter. The ECT kept tapping me on the shoulder and the vision of making this end-to-end journey persisted. The calling for epic adventure resides inside most any man; oftentimes, however, that calling is ignored. A common expression within the thru-hiking community is, “the trail chooses you.” Sitting down one day on the easy chair, I was planning out a trip of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Since I also had long wanted to hike the Florida Trail (FT), my thought was to combine these two long hikes into one. While researching this merged two-part hike, I was reminded of a continental hike that went all the way up the entire Eastern Seaboard into Canada. I whipped out a little map of the Eastern Continental Trail, snickering at first. Before long, however, I was fully committed to the vision of walking the ECT’s entire length from the alligator-infested waters of Florida to the Canadian snow-mantled mountains.
Answering “the whys” of any considerable end-to-end walk is important since a hiker needs valid reasons to fall back on when the going gets tough. When popped the “why-question,” I explain that this endeavor is a calling of the heart. There is nothing I need to prove to anyone; this a response to what my heart is asking me to do. Hiking the ECT is unconventional, impractical, expensive, and may be viewed as a logistical nightmare; however, this outdoor enterprise is an opportunity to reinstate the true spirit of adventure. We are seekers, you know? The happy-go-lucky and quixotic adventurers will one day recline back on their rockers when their bones are arthritic and hair is white and exclaim, “I was undeterred and lived like there was no tomorrow!”
Even though the trail is excruciatingly long, there are many worthy reasons for wanting to hike this remarkable getting-away-from-it-all footpath. Revisiting some of my earlier reasons for pursuing long-distance hiking—including the Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Colorado Trail (CT), and the Arizona Trail (AZT)—I realized that my most basic reasons have remained unchanged.
1) Dedicate to a singular purpose in an ever-chaotic world of distractions and renew a sense of purpose as an important piece of human fulfillment
2) Learn more about myself as an individual, sharpening and refining my personal identity and character, coming out a much stronger person at the end
3) Shun the negative feelings and failures of the past, embracing the hope that comes through forward movement and perceiving each sunrise as a new day and a fresh start
4) Forge new friendships and acquaintances, relating and learning from others
5) Revel in the take-it-all-in views and abundant wildlife that are seldom seen and experienced by others
6) Dedicate the time and place for natural solitude—a kind of peaceful reflection almost unheard-of in today’s noisy world
7) Appreciate to a greater degree the wonders of creation
The projected time for me to complete this thru-hike is nine-and-a-half months (December 2021-September 2022). Since Florida can be hiked in the winter months and Canada generally needs to be hiked before mid-fall, the chosen timeframe accommodates the changing weather as the months progress on the northbound route. The December-to-Septemberish hike before me will in no way come without much dedication and persistence. A hiker can easily be in over his head and suffer from exaggerated expectations about his own physical and emotional abilities. Keeping perspective is the name of the game. The ECT offers the special opportunity to engage with the natural surroundings and to gain a fresh sense of personal accomplishment beyond any previous activity. The experience will be like no other as the extent of the trail’s length is so great and the scenes of nature so rich. The motivational reasoning is not so much about “finding oneself” or “getting in touch with the inner being;” instead, this venture recognizes the chance to live freely as never before. That, to me, is worthwhile.
—Outback (David J. Mizer)