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Friday, October 22, 2021

From Tofino to Cape Spear: A man and his dog’s long walk to restore a Scottish forest

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TORONTO — A Scottish, kilt-wearing minstrel and his Alaskan husky sled dog are walking across Canada to save a bit of the Scottish Highlands.

The duo set off from Tofino, British Columbia at the beginning of March and are just leaving the town of Spanish, which is north of Manitoulin Island and about 600 kilometres west of Ottawa, the next big city on their route.

Michael Yellowlees and his dog Luna have been walking for more than six months now and the affable 31-year-old with shoulder-length strawberry-blonde hair, a beard and a soft lilt to his voice says it’s going well.

“We’re walking about 40 to 50 kilometres a day now,” he says, noting they’ve picked up their pace and got into a rhythm of sorts.

They started at a slower pace and with the simple goal of raising money for the charity Trees for Life. It’s based in Dundreggan, about 235 km northwest of Edinburgh, and focuses on restoring the Caledonian Forest, which once covered most of Scotland.

It started with a dream

“I dreamt of doing this walk about three years ago when I was walking in the Highlands,” Yellowlees says. “I’ve always found it to be a sad landscape, with not a lot of forest … but I learned that it should be forested entirely.”

He learned about the Highland Clearances, the forced evictions of about 15,000 Scots to Canada between 1770 and 1815 to clear land for sheep pasture. He also learned about the Trans Canada Trail.

And so his dream began to take shape and ultimately led him to the surfing town of Tofino, nestled on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by mountains, rainforest and wildlife.

He set up a Facebook account, a JustGiving fundraising page, threw his belongings on his back and started to walk with Luna, the dog he adopted.

Along the way he’s picked up 5,000 Facebook followers, written a bunch of songs and raised more than $22,500 to help rewild the Highlands. He’s also discovered that, even in these sometimes bleak pandemic days, the kindness of strangers offers kinship, hope and inspiration.

“I thought it might be quite a lonely year, but it’s been quite the opposite,” he says, noting people have brought him food, offered him shelter and friendly conversation.

“It’s really carried me along,” he says. “Rather than a physical challenge, it’s more of a mental challenge to keep going everyday.”

Yellowlees did a long distance walk across India in 2017, when he was battling with depression. That jaunt took about a month, so he knew what he was getting himself into this year, but his 8,000 km trek across Canada is a good deal further.

Long-distance walking

“I find with long-distance walking, a lot of the time you have to confront yourself,” he says. “And being out in nature has been a huge help and relief.”

He’s struck by the natural beauty of Canada and the vast amounts of wilderness.

He travels light with just a few belongings including his beloved guitar. Still, carrying a couple of sleeping bags, a tarpaulin (no tent) for occasional shelter and a camping stove proved to be quite a load to carry, so he’s transferred it all into a pushcart, which is easier to handle.

Yellowlees and Luna usually stick to the trail, diverting to the highway when necessary. During the hot summer days they’ve taken to walking early in the morning and late into the night. And they’ve been soaking up the scenery.

“There’s been so many great days,” he says. “I’ve seen so many different landscapes – the Rockies, the flatlands, the wilderness of Ontario, so many beautiful places.”

All the while Luna has been a faithful companion.

Recently they took a break from the walking, opting to paddle in a canoe, like old voyageurs, south from Kenora, which is about 1,790 km northwest of Toronto. But while they were on a portage, Luna ran off into the woods and disappeared.

After a seven-day search the two were reunited and the walk continued, this time with the addition of a GPS phone for Yellowlees and a GPS tracker on Luna’s collar.

Wildlife encounters

“We’re getting the full Canadian experience,” Yellowlees says, adding he’s been ticking things off his bucket list – sometimes when he least expects it.

That’s what happened when he was walking along the north shore of Lake Superior at dusk and he encountered a big, black bear in the ditch along the highway.

“I got the biggest fright of my life,” he says, before laughing. “I was very thankful I was wearing my kilt.”

The bear stood up on its two hind legs before running off, while Luna remained calm, Yellowlees says.

Another highlight was hearing wolves howling a few weeks ago, when he was nearing Thunder Bay.

“That was a very spine-tingling moment,” he says.

The proud Scot had never been to Canada before, although he wanted to visit. His mother, Karen Yellowlees, was born in Toronto and lived there briefly before returning to Scotland.

She’s been avidly following his journey from the family home in the Dunkeld, the so-called Gateway to the Highlands, about 95 km northwest of Edinburgh.

“I think the scale of the walk is so great,” she says in an email to CTVNews.ca on Friday, as she gets ready to hold a garden fundraiser for her son.

She says she doesn’t worry about his safety, though she sometimes thinks he may be getting a bit tired.

Making a difference

Karen Yellowlees describes her son as a free spirit, a wonderful musician and a proud Scot.

“He appreciates the beauty of the Scottish Highlands and would love to see a return to the Caledonian pine forest of old, and all that that might entail, for example the diversity of native species and wildlife.

“He stands for something that we must all hopefully aspire to,” she says. “Steadfast and courageous, with a strong belief that we can, if we try, make a difference.”

Richard Bunting, a spokesperson for the Trees for Life charity, says the walk is definitely doing just that. The money raised will go toward rewilding the Highlands.

“His epic walk across Canada will make a real difference to our work bringing Scotland’s Caledonian Forest back from the brink,” Bunting says in an email on Friday. “Scotland’s ancient pinewoods stretch back in a line to the last ice age, and they are found nowhere else in the world.

“So Michael’s efforts are contributing to saving a unique habitat and to tackling the nature and climate emergencies,” Bunting says. “His journey really is a journey of hope.”

Wayne Chisolm, who met Yellowlees through a mutual friend when the Scot first came to Canada, agrees.

Chisolm, who is currently based in Amherst, about 210 km northwest of Halifax, has helped with all the logistics from route planning to the search for Luna when she went missing.

“Michael is literally one of my fav people on the planet,” Chisolm says. “His smile is infectious, his demeanour kind and caring, and he not only has the soul and charm of a bard (great songs!), but is giving up a year of his life – for this worthy cause.”

The two friends will meet up when Yellowlees makes it to Nova Scotia.

The last stop

But first, Yellowlees has some more walking to do.

His brother Jamie Yellowlees is coming from Scotland to join him for a few weeks of walking. The brothers are due to meet in Ottawa. (And their mother is sending a replacement kilt.)

Yellowlees says he’s looking forward to having some company before he reaches the last stretch of his walk in the Maritimes.

“As much as an adventure as this has been, I’m very much looking forward to reaching the Atlantic,” Yellowlees says.

He plans to finish his walk at the Cape Spear lighthouse, the easternmost point of the country, which is about 15 km southeast of the Newfoundland and Labrador capital St. John’s.

“I think it will feel like getting home at that point,” Yellowlees says. “I’ve heard there’s a lot of Celtic culture there and I’m looking forward to experiencing that.”

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