Happy 20th Birthday, East Coast Trail

Susan Flanagan susan@48degrees.ca
Published on June 3, 2014

Peter Gard describes himself as a writer, chef and social engineer. He is also the owner of guest homes in Petty Harbour and St. John’s. But Gard is perhaps best known by the people of this province for being the Godfather of the East Coast Trail.

In the early 1990s, Gard, a Saskatoon native who had come to

St. John’s to study at Memorial University, had a dream of developing a long-distance hiking trail skirting the coast of the Avalon Peninsula from Topsail to Cape St. Francis to Cape Race.

The problem was such a trail costs money — a lot of money. Money that Gard did not have. So he started looking for it.

“There was initial enthusiasm,” he says from The Rooms café on a grey day in May. “But it was hard (for the government) to comprehend who would invest (in such a trail). It didn’t make businessmen wealthy. I didn’t put people up in swanky resorts.”

One day, Gard met with Joe Carter, developer of the Harbour Symphony, and told him of his dilemma.

“Joe told me, ‘Just keep talking about it,’” says Gard, explaining that was an important piece of advice and one he took to heart, telling anyone who would listen about his vision.

In 1994, his efforts paid off when he met up with an old friend, Elke Dettmer, a German folklorist living in Pouch Cove who had started a group called Community Connections. She invited Gard to speak to the group.

“I was doing workshops all over the Northeast Avalon in 1993-94 to encourage new business ideas in my area — Pouch Cove, Flatrock, Bauline,” says Dettmer.  “I (started) Community Connections as a volunteer organization. First we started a newspaper (Oceanside Press), then we were looking for more hands-on activities. That’s when I ran into Peter Gard … who told me about his dream. ... About 20 of us attended his slide talk about hiking all over the world, and he got us hooked immediately.”

Meeting Dettmer and speaking to likeminded people was a pivotal point, says Gard.

“I gave a talk to Community Connections and we started working (on the trail) that week,” he says. “The pitch was you could go out on a Saturday, bring the dogs and kids, and clip branches taking out all your aggression on the bushes. … I figured out what people would do and went back and forth to Canadian Tire buying tools. We opened 25 kilometres of trail that year.”

Of that core group of 80 volunteers, many — like Randy Murphy and Ed Delaney, Robbie Hicks and Adrian Tanner — are still involved in the development and maintenance of the East Coast Trail, as it came to be known.

Gard, who moved from Vancouver and is familiar with the popular West Coast Trail, acknowledges not everyone was too keen on the name he had chosen. But as founding president, Gard stuck to his guns. He understood recognition value, the fact the name could roll off a hiker’s tongue, bookend trails for a country bookended by coastal hiking paths.

Volunteer work continued on the East Coast Trail in 1995 and by the end of the season 80 kilometres of trail had been opened. By 1996, the volunteers numbered 200 and were successful in opening 125 km of trail.

“It was then … we were hitting the limits of what we could do with a volunteer group” says Gard. “Three years into the volunteer stage, it was clear … that we couldn’t continue this way.”

But every cloud has a silver lining and out of those initial 200 volunteers came a core group who started the East Coast Trail Association (ECTA).

“The scores of volunteers who showed up to clip branches on Saturdays also volunteered the skills needed to institutionalize the trail, to take it from the dream stage to what it is today,” says Gard. “The trail became a shared passion, and it was that collective sense of building something, of having fun, of giving something to the community which created the trail.”

There were volunteers who could get a charitable number, volunteers who could do the books, volunteers who could write grant applications. There were bridge builders and lawyers to deal with land issues and challenge the definition of right of way in a court of law. Janet Kelly used to bring the coffee — a very important thing considering most volunteers were working full-time jobs and raising families  while trying to build this trail on evenings and weekends.

Gard equates the building of the Trail to making a movie.

“If you take the time to read the credits after a movie, there are a lot of names,” Gard explains.

Names like Randy Murphy, who first joined the board in 1995 and has been president of the association for the past 18 years; like Adrian Tanner, who also joined the board in 1995, and has served in many roles, including five years as vice-presient land and legal; Robbie Hicks, a 19-year volunteer who joined the board in 1995 and was the ECTA’s first treasurer. Hicks has been churning out notices to keep members in the loop since before the era of the Internet; and, Ed Delaney, who served on the board from 1994-97 when he took on a paid role as trail manager, a position he still holds.

The hard work of all these people paid off and in the fall of 1997 the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) and the provincial government came through with generous grants, providing ECTA with money to hire trail crews and run the office.

The timing was also fortuitous. The cod fishery had collapsed and many people found themselves out of work.

“People were so down on Newfoundland,” says Gard. “Not just people from away, but Newfoundlanders, too, were badmouthing Newfoundland.”

“The East Coast Trail was (a) positive thing,” says Gard, adding he wanted to scream out to Newfoundlanders and say, let’s show some pride. “We don’t have to say that anymore.”

The East Coast Trail Association has hit a lot of milestones. In 1995, the association uncorked a three-tonne boulder from The Spout, allowing a natural sea-water geyser to breathe for the first time in decades. In 1999, with the help of private industry, ECTA rebuilt the 150-metre suspension bridge in La Manche that had been destroyed by a massive wave in 1966. And in 2012, the trail was listed as one of the 10 best adventure destinations in the world by National Geographic magazine.

“The thing that makes me most proud,” says Gard, “is the trail as a whole. That it exists and will protect the whole coast. That we have saved Newfoundland from going the way of Nova Scotia … or the Okanagan with people buying up the coast, which is such an important part of the culture here.”

Gard is also proud of inspiring hundreds of people to get together and become proud custodians of 265 kilometres of world-class hiking trail on the Avalon Peninsula.

Twenty years into the project, the focus is now on sustainability, including trail protection and maintenance.

But, like most things in life, sustainability does not come free.

It’s for that reason that on Saturday, June 7 the East Coast Trail Association will hold its 20th annual ECT Tely Hike at King George V Park next to Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s. The celebration begins at 8 a.m. when hikers meet to register and get bused to trailheads as far south as Maddox Cove and as far north as Logy Bay in honour of the Trail’s 20th birthday.

This year ECTA hopes to raise $200,000. If you’d like to be part of this 20th anniversary party, log onto eastcoasttrail.com and click on the hiking boots. If you’d like to donate to a particular team, they can be found at the bottom of that webpage.

If you are unable to make the hike but are interested in becoming a member of ECTA, here is how it works. Individual/family memberships cost $25, whereas community/organization memberships cost $100. Life memberships are $500 and can be purchased as the ECTA office at 50 Pippy Pl. Call ahead, though, to make sure someone is there: 738-4453. ECTA is a registered charity and tax receipts are issued for all memberships and donations.

The ECTA office also has trail books and maps. Gard is co-author with Bridget Neame (the two met on the last Newfie Bullet to Carbonear in 1983) of the two ECT Guidebooks to date: No.1, which covers Fort Amherst to Petty Harbour–Maddox Cove, sells for $21.95; and No. 2, which covers Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove to Bay Bulls, is $28.95.

You can purchase both books for $45.95. A full set of ECT waterproof maps, which are rated for difficulty, covers paths from Cape St. Francis to Cappahayden and costs $40. Guidebooks and maps are available at several locations, including The Outfitters on Water Street and the bookstore on MUN campus.

Susan Flanagan is a journalist who would like to thank ECTA sponsors like the three levels of government and many long term corporate sponsors such as ExxonMobil, The Telegram and Mountain Equipment Coop. In recent years companies like Newalta, Husky, Vale and Suncor have come on board. The full list is on the website. Susan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca.