Frances Stober, raised in Chomedey, always liked walking and hiking, but found that something was missing from the pathways of Canadian and American landscapes.
“A lot of forests, a lot of paths where you’re looking at your feet, you’re looking at the trees – it’s only at the end when you get to the top that you see something, and can say, that’s so cool!” she observed, on the phone from Scotland.
Now that her daughters are on their own, Stober, 57, who has a degree in Landscape Architecture, decided to seek new horizons, “a walk where I could see something.”
And that’s what brought her to Scotland on her latest long-distance walking vacation.
In 2014, after researching England, which has a well-established walking culture, Stober decided to try Scotland with her brother David, who was recovering from a back injury. “Why Scotland? It has lots of walking trails, golf, which he does, and Scotch, which we both drink,” she said, on a break from her walk.
They flew over and did four days of walking on the West Highland Way, which runs from outside of Glasgow, at Milngavie, to Fort William. Walkers can choose routes that vary from gentle to moderate to challenging, depending on fitness level and degree of difficulty. There are 18 different itineraries offered to suit walkers’ goals and abilities. The terrain varies from well-worn paths to rugged in places. It features stunning scenery in such areas as Loch Lomond, Ben Nevis, and the Trossachs National Park. And at the end of the hike, walkers can take the Harry Potter steam train from Fort William to Mallaig.“The thing about the mountains here is that few of them have trees, and whenever you’re walking you have a view, not only when you get to the top of the mountain but all the way up as well.”
That first long-distance walk was “an epiphany” for her, and after completing her training as a Montreal tour guide, Stober is committed to doing more of them. She arranges her walks in Scotland so that they go village-to-village and cover from 15 to 30 kilometers in a day.
“I usually sleep where I stop, when I’m doing a long-distance route.” She prefers walking in May, which is very popular, making it even more necessary to book all her reservations in advance. Her walks are carefully planned and mapped out.
As we spoke, Stober was resting from her walk on the Great Glen Way in the western highlands, her current five-day trek that would take her from Fort William to Inverness. Also an avid cyclist — she uses her bike to get around Montreal from April to November — and jogger, Stober is in shape and did not require training for this jaunt. “I play hockey, and ultimate Frisbee in the summer. I cross-country ski as much as I can. I’m in OK shape. I don’t run marathons, but I can run 10k.”
For shoes, she bought a pair recommended for trekking, as opposed to those that are best for hiking up a mountain. “The best brand is what fits you best,” she said.
Is she fearful of walking alone in a strange country? Stober laughed and said she does it to maintain her independence: “I’m more selfish than anything. I like to walk at my own pace. I just don’t like rushing or waiting.”
She is so thrilled by the vistas that she does not miss casual conversation. “I am thanking whatever you thank that I have this opportunity because I am so much where I want to be!” she enthused.
“I talk to people on the way. There are often people going in the same direction and you might stop and talk to them when on a break, or during lunch. On my way to Fort Augustus. I met four gentlemen, thru-hikers, who were walking with full backpacks, including tents.
“They were walking slower because they had so much equipment, so I said, ‘okay, guys, we’ll see you when we got to Fort Augustus.’ And I did. We met and I had a pint and they had some cider. I’ll probably cross them again tomorrow.”
Like any practiced hiker, she carries a daypack with water, food, and rain gear. Because the paths are well used, there is excellent infrastructure along the way including inns, bed and breakfast
facilities, and baggage transfer services.
Does she recommend this to others?
“This walk, the Great Glen Way, is very smooth, not a lot of ups and downs or tricky paths. It’s just a question of having that level of fitness to be able to go the distance.”
Other walks may require more experience and are more appropriately considered hiking. They include narrow paths or steep hills, requiring a higher level of fitness.
In her second Scottish walk last year, Stober walked the Skye Trail in a seven-day north-south walk from Rubha Hunish to Broadford on the Isle of Skye, which she did with her daughter Simone. Last September, Stober walked on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, known as the East Coast Trail. It was her first in Canada. “The whole walk on the trail is about 245 kilometers, and I did more than 170 kilometers over 11 days. It’s a coastal walk and has a fair bit of up-and-down, but never sustained. There is a good infrastructure there, but it’s not as extensive as in Scotland.”
She flew to St. John’s, attended a food festival in Bonavista, and then was driven back to the starting point for her walk in the coastal town of Pouch Cove. “It was breathtaking, beautiful, and scary depending on where you were. The sound of the waves, the smell of the sea. It’s exceptional. In the forest, the smell of conifers is amazing.”
During the week, she would run into two to four people a day, apart from maintenance workers. “I had a wonderful meeting with two through-hikers, walking with all their gear and tents. They were from Calgary and were doing about 20 kilometers a day. I ran into them a few times and invited them to stay with me at the cottage.”
On this hike, she stayed in three places, often walking and getting a lift back to the base, or being driven out and walking back.
Walking works on many levels, she says. “It’s something almost all of us do. There’s no learning curve.
“To do what I do you need to be in reasonable shape. It’s a question of building up your endurance. That is not unreasonable for anyone if you take it slowly.
“Walking is cardiovascular, and for me it’s important for my head. It gives you time to use your mind. From discussions I’ve had with medical professionals, the only scientifically proven way to benefit your memory and your mind is through exercise.”
Stober says she tries to integrate it into her lifestyle. “I don’t take the bus, I don’t drive a car. I give myself an extra hour to walk.
“Planning a holiday like this, I’m seeing the country, the culture, the cities, the landscape, but I’m also walking 15 to 20 kilometers a day.”
And you don’t have to cross the sea to find interesting and challenging walks, she says. For example, she is working on completing walks around the perimeter of the Island of Montreal.
“Everyone can come up with challenges like this for themselves. Our own city has so much to offer, and I can walk as many miles as I want and find a bus or a metro. For me, that makes me happy to be there, happy because I can always have an amazing view.”
Frances Stober will discuss her walking tours and answer questions at the Cummings Centre, June 16, at 10 am.