Michael Yellowlees on his rewilding journey through Canada
There is no doubt that our supporters are an amazing group of people. Committed to raising awareness and funds for nature in ways that are inspiring to many, while deeply personal to the individual: we simply could not do this work without you. One such individual made a big impact last year - not only raising more than £50,000 for rewilding, but winning over the hearts and minds of an entire nation across the Atlantic.
In 2021, Michael Yellowlees, originally from Dunkeld in Perthshire, walked the entire breadth of Canada, from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland - a 5,000-mile epic trek that took nine months to complete, all in aid of rewilding the Scottish Highlands. Accompanied by his stoic Alaskan husky Luna, Michael's walk resembled that of a pilgrimage. It wasn't about scaling mountain peaks, wearing the latest high-performance gear, or breaking any records. Living simply, often walking along busy highways, sleeping outside or relying on the kindness of strangers for shelter during bad weather, Michael's walk came down to one thing: human connection - and its power to inspire change.
'The idea of rewilding starts with people first,' he told us during a video call from St John's in Newfoundland. 'Yes, in Canada, they have wilderness that we don't have here. In comparison, they have an abundance of wilderness and wildlife. But it is under threat. By highlighting where we are in Scotland, in terms of the biodiversity we've lost, it helped make people realise that what they have in Canada is really special and in need of protection.'
Canada's Scottish diaspora and their heartfelt connection to their ancestral homeland added another dimension of emotional urgency to the trip. Wearing his kilt, Michael's obvious Scottish identity meant people went out of their way to talk to him. 'The kilt told a story before I answered any questions. People immediately knew where we were from,' he said. 'But it also tied in beautifully to one of the reasons for the trip. As well as looking at the landscape of Scotland, you're then tying it into the history of its people. As the forest was disappearing in Scotland, so were the people - and many of them were moved to Canada. So Canadian Scots got on board with what I was doing really quickly. People were even speaking Gaelic to me.'
As Michael and Luna moved further east, their legend grew - to the point where they were getting bagpiped into towns and cities, greeted by mayors and crowds of people. They spent a night in Ottawa's Fairmont Château Laurier - put up for free in the enormous 660,000-square-foot castle - when the nights on either side they had slept in a shop front and beneath a park bench. The immense generosity shown to them during the nine months was a common theme of the trip.
One of the biggest highs of the trip for Michael was the wildlife. Any preconceptions or fears about predators were soon dispelled. 'Sitting quietly and watching brown and black bears play in the lakes of northern Ontario was incredible,' he explained. 'And, of course, hearing wolves howling was a real privilege because they are so elusive. To encounter them is a rarity.' He also saw beavers, otters, moose, skunk, porcupine, coyotes and a host of birdlife.
In northern Ontario's remote Lake Country, Michael faced his biggest challenge. A 400-kilometre section of the trail required paddling in a canoe - as a means to pass through the dense forest. During a portage, Luna jumped from the boat and disappeared into the woods. The pair were separated for a week. Frustratingly, Michael suspects that she didn't go far. Her lead probably got snagged on a tree branch - but she is a very quiet dog, and despite Michael's desperate searching he couldn't find her in what was extremely thick undergrowth. Thankfully, she returned to their base camp on her own accord, having managed to break the clasp of her lead to escape. Physically and emotionally wrecked from the experience, they took some time to recuperate.
But they made it, all the way to Newfoundland's Cape Spear - arriving to huge crowds and media attention in early December. Canadian Prime minister, Justin Trudeau, sent a letter of congratulations. And most importantly, some of Michael's family were there waiting to hug him.
We spoke to Michael in February, at which point he was beginning to grapple with the big question: what next? He has decided to retrace his journey with a speaking tour - to share his experience and reconnect with some of the people he met along the way. He also hopes that by revisiting the towns and villages he passed through, he can reinforce his memory of the journey to aid in writing a book.
The trip was one of Michael's many big walking challenges - a love for putting one foot in front of the other that started on the Camino de Santiago in his early 20s and continued with a walk across India in 2017.
Walking 40 - 50 kilometres nearly every day for nine months is an enormous feat of mental and physical endurance. We are incredibly grateful that Michael chose to champion the cause of rewilding with each step. To everyone who supported Michael and Luna: thank you. To all Canadians who now know about Trees for Life: hello. It's wonderful to have you on board with our rewilding journey.
Michael used JustGiving to support Trees for Life. JustGiving is an easy-to-use online giving platform that puts full fundraising creativity in your hands.