It is late afternoon and Michael Yellowlees and his Alaskan husky Luna are far from home, but making good time, as they walk along the Prescott-Russell Recreational Trail into Vankleek Hill.
Dressed in his typical Scottish kilt, the native of Dunkeld, Scotland, and Luna began their 8,000-kilometre journey across Canada in early March of this year, departing from Tofino, on Vancouver Island, as they set out to raise funds and awareness for Scottish charity Trees for Life. Yellowlees hopes to reach Cape Spear, Newfoundland, by early November. The trip is being documented on a Facebook page Yellowlees has set up: Michael and Luna – A Rewilding Journey.
“I got this idea very much from walking the highlands in Scotland,” says the 32-year-old Yellowlees, who previously walked across Spain in 2015 and India in 2017 and says long-distance walking has always been a passion of his. “The idea came to me at a time when the life I thought I would lead wasn’t happening, so it was time to get a new dream.”
The mission of Trees for Life is to rewild the Scottish Highlands, by enabling the restoration of the globally unique Caledonian Forest, which once covered much of Scotland. Yellowlees says about five years ago he realized the highlands he enjoyed walking through did not look the way it should.
“Scotland’s a very sad landscape – it’s beautiful in it’s own way, but it’s also very bleak,” says the cross country adventurer, outlining the damage done over centuries. “Shipbuilding for the British Empire, the industrial revolution and a couple of world wars – it’s never had the chance to recover properly.”
The cross-Canada journey was partially inspired by the song ‘Letter from America’ written by Scottish pop group The Proclaimers. The tune, about Scottish settlers moving to the New World, asks when they will return to Scotland. The lyrics inspired Yellowlees to come to Canada and encourage Scottish Canadians to give back to their homeland, in order to help rebuild the forests once walked by their ancestors.
Over the past few days, as he has spent time in Glengarry, Yellowlees has had many reminders of home – something he says has occurred throughout his travels.
“To be honest, that’s the way it’s been right across Canada – you’re seeing Scotch-named places as you go,” he observes. But here it’s very prevalent. Almost every place you turn there’s a Scotch nameplate.”
As he crosses the country, Yellowlees has marveled at the vast amounts of wilderness he has traveled through on his journey.
“I’ve met loads of bears just in the last little while, I’ve heard wolves howling at night, I’ve met coyotes on the trail,” he says. “I’m getting to meet all this wildlife and experience the wilderness that we don’t have in Scotland – it’s been lost to us.”
The adventurer describes his journey as a bit of a double-edged sword, noting he is raising money to rebuild the wilderness in the homeland he loves, while at the same time marveling at the Canadian wilderness.
“I’m wandering through Canada telling Canadians that what you have here is amazing,” Yellowlees says. “What you have in Canada is really, really special so make sure you look after it – otherwise you’ll be in our situation of starting over again.”
The trip has also provide a stark reminder of what is at stake, with Yellowlees and Luna witnessing some of the damage that has been done in Canada already. He believes people across the planet must become more involved in protecting the environment.
“I think we’re getting to the point where we no longer have a choice in the matter – the planet’s going to start kicking us off,” says Yellowlees, noting the extensive wildfires across North America. “As I’m walking across this place, Canada’s on fire; so is Australia; there’s flash floods across Europe. There’s going to be more and more of that if we don’t start paying attention.”
The variety of landscapes and people have also made a huge impression on the Scottish traveler.
“I’ve experienced all these different landscapes and I’ve experienced all the different people along the way,” Yellowlees says. “The support I’ve received from everybody along the way has been beautiful.”
“It’s magic to know there are beautiful people everywhere and get to experience that kindness all the way across.”
The walking trip across Canada took more than two years to plan, with Yellowlees often working two jobs at a time in his native Scotland to earn enough money to save up for the adventure. He also worked at a dog sled facility in British Columbia upon arriving in Canada, which is where he met and fell in love with Luna, who will travel across the Atlantic to live with him in Scotland when the trip is over.
“By the time I get to the end of this trip I’ll be broke,” Yellowlees admits, with zero regrets. “But I meet people all the time who say ‘Ahhh… I wish I had done stuff like that when I was younger’.”
“Well you can still do it now, it’s just a choice. If you choose to do something, you can do it.”