Michael Haynes is a regular CBC radio commentator with decades of experience in trail development in Canada and Europe. He has authored numerous bestselling trail guides, including The Best of the Great Trail, Volumes 1 and 2.
Shauna Kosoris: What was the inspiration behind your two new books, The Best of the Great Trail, Volumes 1 and 2?
Michael Haynes: I had worked on developing the Trans Canada Trail (TCT, now named The Great Trail) in Nova Scotia from its inception as Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Trails Federation. Many times over those years I would receive questions from both visitors and residents asking to be directed to the “best parts” that they could visit for a day trip. It occurred to me that although most people were unlikely to consider hiking/biking the entire 24,000km of the TCT, they nevertheless would want to experience a part of it. In addition, because the route is constantly changing, trying to profile the entire route was pointless, because it was always going to be different by the time you finished writing. So, instead of it all, why not profile sections that were particularly scenic or popular, and a few in every province?
What was your research like for writing these two books?
It was a multi-year project. First, I had to select the sections to profile. I did this by contacting the provincial trail associations and requesting their recommendations. Secondly, I approached the local managers – where they existed – of each recommended trail section and obtained some background information. Third, I hiked/biked each of the recommended sections: Eastern Canada in 2015, Western Canada in 2016. This required more than 25,000km of driving and 3,500km of hiking/biking. After this I began the writing process, including follow-up contact with the local/provincial trail communities and any local features, such as the Thunder Cape Bird Observatory, that I wanted to include in more detail.
Did you plan at the outset to write a two-book set?
Originally I wanted to have a one-volume book which featured 50 routes across the country, including Northern Canada. As I worked with the provincial/territorial trail associations, this changed. First, the territorial groups expressed no interest, for almost 100% of their routes are on roads or water. I could obtain no assistance from them, so soon decided to restrict myself to the TCT’s original east-west alignment. Secondly, the provincial associations provided far more suggestions than the number that I originally requested. As I attempted to winnow these into my preferred plan, I simply was unhappy with some of the routes that might need to be ignored. Fifty was uncomfortable; 60 appeared more satisfactory both to me and the majority of the provincial associations.
After that, it became an issue for the publisher. One volume of 60 routes, profiled in the detail I wished, would have become one rather large, expensive item. So it had to be two volumes, and finally I had to decide where to split the two. That is how Ontario became the only province to appear in both volumes, with the south in the east and from North Bay to Manitoba in the west.
I only began hiking in my early 30s, after my first visit to the Rocky Mountains. When I returned to Nova Scotia, it was extremely difficult to find information about places to hike. There was a small book about trails available through the Canadian Hosteling Association, but it was dreadfully inadequate. Over nearly a decade I searched out managed trails – which were few, informal hunting/fishing paths on crown land, derelict roads to abandoned villages, and any place where people walked. Very few were known except by locals. This was pre-internet days, so I kept hand-written notes. People began to approach me for my notes, and many encouraged me to write a book. Finally, in August 1995, my first book, Hiking Trails of Nova Scotia, was released, the first commercially published trail guide for my province, and it was immediately successful.
You’ve written over ten hiking and biking guides centred around trails in Canada. Has your process for writing these guides changed over the years?
When I first started, it was pre-internet and I didn’t even have a cell-phone. I took my pictures using film, and showed my presentations using a slide projector. Over the years, I switched from taking paper notes to a hand-held tape recorder, to today’s digital recorder. Similarly, as pictures became more important, I switched to digital photography, obtaining ever better camera bodies and lenses of higher resolution.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the reason that I write the guides. When I started hiking, I was uncomfortable in the forest and frustrated by the challenge in obtaining accurate information, particularly for beginners. So I wrote my first book, and all subsequent works, for novices primarily. I thought that there must be many people like I was after my first hike in the Rockies, excited by the new activity, eager to get started, but uncertain how to do so. I wanted to make it easy to start, hoping that others would discover what I had once I began exploring the outdoors.
Even today finding accurate and credible online resources that are novice-focused remains a challenge. I try to use clear language a minimum of jargon. I construct my books so that the directions to each trailhead is accurate, that there is a recommended route that I have hiked myself and accurately describe, that I provide cell reception and GPS trailhead coordinates, and that the book profiles options at every difficulty level, so that novices can start with level 1 and 2 (beginner) and – if they choose – work up to level 4 and 5 (advanced). Once they are comfortable hiking level 4 and 5, they should have the knowledge base and confidence level to be able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of other, online resources themselves.
Have you done any hiking in the Thunder Bay area?
I have hiked a number in the area, but my favourite remains the Top of The Giant at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. But residents of Thunder Bay who enjoy the outdoors are so lucky, because they have so many great options.
What are you working on now?
When I began writing again after an eight-year break, I released Hiking Trails of Ottawa in 2010. I am working on that work’s 2nd edition, due for release in 2020. But I think that your question really asks if I have another project in mind as ambitious as The Best of The Great Trail. I do not, largely because there is nothing comparable to The Great Trail (TCT) in Canada. I doubt that there will be another trail system anywhere that will reach or exceed 24,000km in length. So when one has undertaken that, where could one go next?
Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
My favourite, since I first read it in the 1970s, is George Orwell’s 1984 – even though I think that Aldous Huxley’s vision of future society has proven to be closer to the truth. However, I think that Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, even though it discusses media/intellectual culture pre-internet, still is a singularly important work. I return to it every few years.
And what are you currently reading?
Actually, the last book I finished was Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke. But I am currently (slowly) working my way through Tony Judt’s Postwar: History of Europe Since 1945. I tend to read History and Political Science for personal enjoyment.