Steve Dominy has been hitting the trails in and around Sault Ste. Marie for nearly 40 years. An avid hiker, his maiden voyage was the Tower Lake stretch on the Voyageur Trail back in 1983; he’s been hooked ever since.
After moving to the Sault from Brockville, ON, Dominy landed work in forestry research.
“But the job I had was kind of a static job; analyzing data and that sort of thing,” he says. “I missed getting outside.”
After finding the Voyageur Trail Association, he joined as a member and started volunteering with the organization. “This was my chance to get out and enjoy nature and be with like-minded people.”
The Voyageur Trail was conceived in 1973. The initial vision was for the trail to run from South Baymouth (on Manitoulin Island) across the north shore, stretching north to Thunder Bay.
“That vision was very ambitious,” says Dominy, “particularly given we’re in the north and we don’t have the same population (as in Southern Ontario) to be able to maintain that kind of trail.”
Nevertheless, the volunteer-run organization manages to maintain a continuous 300-kilometre section from Spanish to Goulais, in addition to other areas north of the Sault. People use the trail year-round; even in the winter you can find snowshoers, back-country skiers and fat bikers. The trails are marked by rectangular blazes on the trees, white for the main trail, yellow for loop trails and blue for side trails. The VTA also produces a guide book that gives written descriptions of trails, including length, what to expect, and how to get to access points.
Dominy started out as a hiker, but quickly got involved volunteering in other areas. “When I joined (in 1983), I think I was seen as fresh blood,” he chuckles. “The next thing I knew, I was the membership secretary. I’ve been the president of the local Saulteaux club, and I’ve been president of the VTA. Currently, my main roles are to update, produce and distribute the guidebook, look after the online store, and do trail maintenance; clipping branches, moving trees off the trail.”
With all the damage from last December's ice storm, it has been a busy winter.
“A lot of trees were bent over and broken, and had to be removed,” says Dominy. “We’ve been slowly working our way through, focusing on the areas that are heavily used.”
Dominy tries to make it out to the trails at least once a week; he also organizes work parties to get them up to par before the summer season.
“There’s a huge need for people who are willing to volunteer a couple of days to get out to a work party and help us maintain the trails,” he says. “There’s also a need for help behind-the-scenes; organizing events, helping with the guidebook, maintaining our social media presence.”
The trails attract a wide swath of users; both members and non-members alike. And while the VTA membership tends to skew older, Dominy has seen more young people out using the trails. “Everyone is welcome to use the trail. But our biggest expense is our liability insurance coverage to protect the trail users, so getting a membership helps.”
Dominy is passionate about keeping the trail going because he sees the value it offers the entire community.
“I believe it’s providing a free outlet for individuals to get out and enjoy nature. It’s close to the community; all you need is a good pair of walking shoes. You don’t have to have a lot of money or equipment,” he says. “It contributes in a big way to the health of the community; and more than physical health, there are mental health benefits to exploring nature like this.”
Dominy has great memories of backpacking and overnight backpacking, wading across rivers, seeing animal tracks and wildlife. He likes to mix up solo day hikes with longer group hikes.
“There’s the social side of it too; getting out there with people who share that common interest,” he says. “Many lifelong friends have developed through hiking.”
With the looming threat of climate change, Dominy believes that hiking renews one’s reverence toward the natural world. It offers a deeper understanding of what we have to lose.
“Breathing fresh air; appreciating nature — many of our members just like being outside. They’re not necessarily naturalists; not every hiker knows all their plants and birds. It’s not critical to know those things to enjoy that experience. You can just get out there, get some exercise and clear your head.”
To donate or become a member, visit Voyageur Trail Association and follow the Saulteaux Voyageur Trail Club on Facebook for updates. You can also save the date for their annual dinner, coming up on April 24.