302 Days and 5,000 Miles Later: Hiking Key West to Canada Along The Eastern Continental Trail

  • Updated: November 09, 2021
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

On December 28th, 2020 I flew off for Key West Florida with nothing other than my phone, backpacking gear, and an optimistic plan to walk the seldom done Eastern Continental Trail all the way to Canada. Assuming the border opened I hoped to finish up in Quebec at Cap Gaspe completing the entirety of the Florida Trail, Pinhoti Trail, and Appalachian Trail along the way. 

On October 26th after 302 days and a bit over 5,000 miles I found myself standing at the northern tip of Nova Scotia. 

If you're wondering why I ended up in Nova Scotia instead of Quebec you can thank the rather complicated trail closure situation up there. The short version is that due to moose hunting and caribou mating season most of the trail closes around late September.

So when after 4,500 miles I arrived at the New Brunswick / Quebec border I elected to skip over Quebec and continue another 500+ miles along the next section of the International Appalachian Trail. That involved crossing the 91 miles of Prince Edward Island and then the 300 miles of Nova Scotia before it became apparent that the approach of winter wasn't going to allow me to complete the additional 400 miles of Newfoundland. So instead I elected to hike 106 miles along roads from the IAT terminus in North Sydney to end at Meat Cove at the very northern tip of Nova Scotia.

It is a choice I very much recommend for anyone looking to do the ECT northbound. While I did do quite a bit of road walking the last few hundred miles the scenery was downright spectacular, the stealth camping was extremely low stress, and everyone I met up there was super kind and welcoming.

So how did it go backpacking from the southern tip of Florida to the northern tip of Nova Scotia? Well my stated purpose in doing the Eastern Continental Trail was that I wanted to do something that would push me in ways that the PCT had not. And by that standard this was a rousing success.

There were challenges along the way both expected and unexpected. Once I left Key West walking the Keys was even more costly and less pleasant than I expected. It was more something to survive and not something you'd catch me volunteering to do again.

Florida had record water levels this year. I heard it was a 15 or a 30 year high depending who you asked. So that meant I had my feet wet constantly. Big Cypress and Bradwell Bay were pretty much all water and the Suwannee section was in flood conditions to the point where I had to wade up to my beard at one point.

But hey, in the end if you haven't had the occasional mid swamp croc staredown or ridden out a tornado warning under an Orlando bridge can you truly say you've done the Florida Trail?

Somewhat surprisingly despite the road walking and other challenges the Florida Trail ended up being my favorite section of this entire trip.

Yes there are road walks, yes your feet get wet to the point you will find yourself shaking you head at people online who still believe in the concept of bringing water crossing shoes, but it also takes you back into all sorts of spectacular areas that have a feel unlike anything else I've ever hiked. Add on top of that the lack of crowds and an active trail community fighting the good fight against mother nature and...well...Florida to keep the trail passable and it was just an all around great experience. I would bet money you'll see me do it again at some point.

And those road walks and occasional nights spent in the bushes on the side of some random highway prepared me well for the next section which involved 200 miles of road walking through rural Alabama and occasionally bigger cities to connect with the Pinhoti Trail. 

This was the section other than the Keys I worried about the most before doing the trip. But as is usually the way with things I worried more than I should have.

The good news about road walks is that consistent mileage is easy to do. You can get your mileage using Google Maps and also figure out the next gas station or other stop so food and water carries are fairly minimal.

Also in this section my girlfriend Jen flew out and spent her spring break week hiking with me. This meant she was able to share in memorable experiences such as the well meaning and quite inebriated local who both let us camp out back at a lake house and proceeded to declare with great heart that if anyone messed we us we had to let him know because "shit was going to go down."

She did however miss the time the local pulled up in a car and tried to get me to accept a gun because of some bad dogs that someone owned up ahead. 

Speaking of dogs of all the various dangers real or imagined along this trail the worst by far was dogs in rural communities. Even fellow hikers who were major dog people had issues thanks to mistreated or just dangerous pitbulls and other aggressive breeds charging out at us from behind houses and attacking sometimes for half a mile at a time. By the time I reached the Pinhoti I was a pro at fighting them off with my hiking poles while moving and I can talk at length why you want those instead of any sort of dog / bear / pepper spray.

And then there were the storms. I've hiked in rain before but being primarily based out west even if it's a downpour for a day or two that's usually the exception to rule and at least you can dry out gear in between. This year the east coast had quite the rainy season. 

The first tornado warning was a bit traumatic as I ran through an open field near Orlando that was covered in power lines with no options for cover unless I wanted to hop a fence and bang on someones back door. But once again soon I was a pro at monitoring developing storms on my phone and rolling with whatever decisions had to be made. 

Which occasionally led to situations like this where after walking for hours in a flat out deluge I ended up camping on the locked side porch of a church as everything else flooded and I waited to see if anything more serious was going to develop.

The Appalachian Trail is of course known for being a challenge in and of itself. But by the time I reached the southern terminus at Springer Mountain I was 1,900 miles in so there were no trail legs to build up. 

Crowds were at times a major detractor from any attempt at a wilderness experience, the commercialized aspects of the trail were somewhat shocking, and rain and humidity were so constant that I spent a good chunk of the trail running around in underwear and a tank top since nothing would dry. But oh boy was it green.

My lovely girlfriend also joined me once again for about 1,100 miles meaning I had someone to laugh at my jokes, share in the misery, and on one memorably occasional inflict chemical burns on me due to a tide pod based laundry mishap at the last hotel. 

Eventually I was solo again and into the wilder northern region of the trail. Everything said about the difficulty of New Hampshire and Southern Maine is pretty much right on point though I found the individual segments you see written up as "the hardest mile" like Mahoosuc such are generally overblown and just used for bragging rights. But the trail does turn into more of a scramble for long long sections and even where you are on a trail the constant rocks and roots are a constant trip hazard and knee killer. 

By the time Katahdin happened and I had my last experience having to deal with crowds at Baxter State Park I was past ready to get on to a less congested trail.

Fortunately when I descended the knife edge route and connected with the International Appalachian Trail I found I all but had it to myself from there on out. At least as far as hikers. I did see a few moose though!

I made a lot of friends with locals, ran into some rather nice Amish folks in multiple places, walked roads, and even waded waist deep through a beaver bog while hiking the stripe between the US Canadian border. And there was that one incident where I ended up locked inside a hunting lodge with some folks because of a disturbed individual running around outside.

And then on September 15th after a surprisingly hard to get COVID travel test and while battling my way through the latest round of rain and high winds I crossed into Canada.

After the occasionally tense encounters in the more rural areas of the United States I found Canada to be a real breath of fresh air. Despite the fact New Brunswick was suffered through a major spike in COVID cases I just had to get used to showing my vaccination card and leaving my contact information whenever I went in anywhere.

From here the trail was mostly a mix of old rail trail and yet more walking on the side of roads. This did have the advantage of giving my battered legs a bit of a break.

I reached out to the Quebec section of the IAT while I was in Maine to confirm the information I'd been given earlier and found to my alarm that I had a problem. A big problem.

The Quebec section is made up of a number of different sections several of which have their own rules. Some of these close due to moose hunting or caribou mating season and despite knowing people who had been able to hike it in October I was told most of the trail would be closed to me.

I ended up going down a rabbit hole planning an increasingly elaborate and expensive plan to hike the two open sections only to find out that even one of those was going to be partially closed.

I briefly thought I might be ended my trek at the New Brunswick / Quebec border.

But thanks to stubbornness, some good advice from other hikers and individuals with the IAT, and an epic example of trail magic where someone drove across the entirety of the province to come get me and drive me out to the next section of trail I continued on and ended up doing another 500 miles.

I don't think I even knew Prince Edward Island existed before this but I spent 5 distressingly pleasant days hiking across a rolling landscape covered in farms and friendly people.  

My only real stress point was occasionally water since I didn't want to filter out of streams running past farms which might contain pesticides but beyond that my biggest concern was whether someone would wander by and interrupt my dinner by wanting to chat.

After 91 mellow miles I walked into the ferry and caught a $41 ride over to Nova Scotia where another 300 miles of mellow roadwalking awaited.

I was getting pretty run down by now but the literal explosion of color that kept getting better and better along here helped bolster my tired body.

Granted while I was tired the only thing that prevented me from continuing on and doing the 400 miles of the IAT across Newfoundland was the approach of winter. 

So on the advice of another IAT hiker I set my sights north on Meat Cove on the very northern tip of Nova Scotia.

It was 106 miles of roads from North Sydney to Meat Cove. Sometimes the traffic was bad and many of the business were now closed for the season. But the views were just spectacular.

And then at long last I came around a corner and there I was looking down at Meat Cove.

And so I did the only logical thing and walked a bit further to camp on the tip of Cape Saint Lawrence

The beautiful image was a bit ruined by the fact a storm damn near blew me off the cape in the middle of the night requiring me to relocate at 2 am but all in all that wasn't an inappropriate end to my trek.

So in the end due to a lot of stubborness, coffee, and not a small amount of luck I was once again able to meet all my goals. And combined with my 2020 northbound PCT thru hike I'm now 2/3 of the way to the vaunted Triple Crown of Hiking. So needless to say plans for the Continental Divide Trail are firming up for 2022.

This time around I tried doing the vlog thing as an experiment. I'm not the biggest fan of most...well any YouTube hikers. I just don't do the spectator sport thing very well. But after the initial learning curve I found making videos helped me capture a certain immediacy that's often missing when I write about something after the fact.

So if you are interested my YouTube channel First Church of The Masochist Hikes has a 116 episode 28.5 hour playlist called Hiking Key West to Canada 2021 where I captured clips throughout the day, every day, for the entire 302 day trek and edited them together into episodes.

So what's next? Well for the moment I'm off trail and trying to reintegrate back into society for a bit so I can teach some volunteer classes back in SoCal. And then diving, hopefully lots of diving. And whatever other trouble I can get up to. 

More soon!

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