Walking Across Canada

In the wake of the Great War, five plucky Maritimers made it from sea to sea

On January 17, 1921, a couple of young amateur athletes named Charles Burkman and Sidney Carr set out from Halifax to walk to Vancouver. A week later, the father-and-son team of Jack and Clifford Behan set off in pursuit. And another week later, a newly married couple, Frank and Jenny Dill, decided that joining the hike would make an excellent honeymoon.

Ninety years later, conditioned by Terry Fox, Rick Hansen and the hundreds of marathons that raise funds for various health causes, our assumption is that the 1921 foot race must have been about raising money for diseases. It was indeed for health, but no diseases or disabilities were the focal point, and no money was involved other than an almost desultory prize ($500) that was not even put up until after most contestants had already crossed New Brunswick.

The end of the Great War had plunged Canada into a prolonged economic depression. War–industry jobs disappeared, the massive female workforce was dismissed and thousands of demobilized soldiers returned to find no place for them. In the opinion of the Halifax Herald, these ingredients had produced a precipitous rise in youthful sloth.

“The difficult thing is to make the young understand that what applies to racing and athletics applies with even more force to the real success of life,” scolded the Herald. “Every young man knows that if he wants to win a race he must run, and run HARD and OFTEN.” The newspaper then announced that Burkman and Carr would make a “leisurely hike” across the country in less than seven months in order to set an example of the healthy benefits of what it unfelicitously but pointedly called “cheap sports.”

The word “sports” galvanized Jack Behan. He and his son were both war veterans; while the older man had returned unscathed and gung-ho for more adventure than his dull postman’s job could ever deliver, Clifford suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which left him unemployable. The robust father probably interpreted his son’s shellshock as a lack of manliness that could be rectified by a hearty 5,900 kilometre jaunt.

With the entrance of the Dills, as told by Shirley Jean Roll Tucker in The Amazing Foot Race of 1921: Halifax to Vancouver in 134 Days, “what Burkman and Carr originally intended as a casual walking tour officially became a spirited, three-way competition.” Both Dills were unemployed and health-conscious. Jenny was the kind of spirited post-war young woman who had no intention of surrendering the advancements her gender had gained during the war: she saw the cross-country race as a grand stage for demonstrating what women were capable of doing, and for encouraging them to get out there and do it.

Each of the contestants started out in terrible weather that only got worse over the entire Maritime leg. Sid Carr quickly retired, which saddled Burkman with a handicap he was never able to overcome; although he had a huge lead by virtue of his early start and excellent physical condition, hiking 4,800 kilometres by oneself proved a debilitating mental and physical burden.

None of the hikers had the sort of entourage or masses of fellow-participants that Hansen and today’s neighbourhood marathoners enjoy. Moreover, due to the poor state of roads in 1921 Canada, the hikers chose to walk the railway tracks instead of the roads. This meant bypassing populous southern Ontario in favour of the tracks that ran from Ottawa to Dryden through northern wilderness and tiny towns that were often nothing more than a station house. These were incredibly lonely places, rife with real threats of wolves, bears and wildcats. Travelling alone through hundreds of kilometres of such surroundings would rattle anyone’s resolve.

As none of the competitors had jobs except Jack Behan, they all depended upon the charity of those whom they met along the way, and the sale of ten-cent postcards of themselves to souvenir seekers. Their faith in their compatriots was rewarded, albeit usually by expatriate fellow Maritimers. The further west they went, however, the less friendly they found the natives, and the less willing to waive the costs of food and lodging. Alberta and British Columbia in particular were hostile toward anyone from the east, even penniless hikers, taking it for granted they were out to exploit western resources even if those resources were only what might be in their own larders.

Tucker has assembled The Amazing Foot Race of 1921 entirely from the daily reports filed by the three teams of racers for publication in the Herald, along with that newspaper’s own articles and editorials. It takes some narrative bridging to expand these exercise-logs into journalism, and it is still not reliable history (she calls it “social history presented in journalistic form”), but it has the advantage of multiple authentic first-person narratives that make it easy for the reader to cheer for all five participants. Some of them even proved to have an intriguing flair for expression: Sidney Carr lauded one free meal as “one of the finest spreads you ever stuck your teeth into,” while Burkman told of a wind that “nearly blew the eyes out of us” and Jack Behan reported overhearing an onlooker remark that he and his son resembled each other so much that “we do not know t’other from which.” While Tucker is a quiet and unobtrusive author, she resorts to “creative fiction” to dramatize some of the contestants’ exchanges.

“We were limbered up, stiffness gone,” Burkman said.

“A mere 3,564 miles left to Vancouver,” Carr scoffed.

“But not much when you say it quick,” Burkman laughed.

Where did this exchange come from? Is Tucker inventing it wholecloth, or quoting directly from newspaper interviews or building upon something Burkman and Carr wrote in their daily report?

There are also many interjections about “setting new records.” Was there really a record for a woman walking from Halifax to Vancouver—especially if Jenny Dill herself is apparently the first to even attempt it?

Jenny is the contestant we root for the most, not just because she never backs down from a challenge, but also because she remains patient in the face of incredible, unrelenting sexism. Endlessly praised as a “plucky little woman” and a “frail little beauty” whom no one expected to survive even as far as Truro, she gave multiple interviews at every stop along their 134-day journey in which she was forced to defend herself for trying to prove women could exercise without fainting.

The daily logging of kilometres walked, towns visited and weather endured inevitably dips into occasional tedium (menu details every single day become especially irritating). Fortunately, the tension keeps us going as the racers catch up with one another, suffer blistered feet or minor injuries, wander off path, go incommunicado for three days, snipe at one another in their reports and struggle over the Rockies route that included terrifying “spiral tunnels” that in places were 22 kilometres of impenetrable darkness packed with poisonous gases from train exhaust.

All five arrived in Vancouver within a five-day period, incredibly enough in less than five months. (Read the book to find out who won.) Keep in mind that they had none of the high-tech hiking gear of today; they made do with long johns, woolly bush-jackets, wool socks that constantly bunched up into painful knots and primitive hiking boots worn until they fell apart. Their indomitable courage and determination, and their boisterous spirits that rarely seemed to flag, make these five ordinary Canadians every bit as worthy of our admiration as Terry Fox. Shirley Jean Roll Tucker has done us a commendable service in reviving their
memory.