The snow in the Chic-Choc Mountains of Quebec wasn’t quite deep enough for John Davis to ski the final legs of his 7600 mile trek. But as we sat in a Union Station restaurant in Washington DC this week, just five days after the completion of his epic 10 month journey, Davis ticked off the other modes of personal transport that had propelled him forward on his Trek East: paddling (both kayak and canoe), bicycling (thousands of miles), hiking (with a backpack), sailing (on Lake Champlain) and running. The snorkeling and swimming don’t really count because, although a lot of fun, they didn’t actually get him from point A to point B. And Davis needed to cover ground if he was going to travel from Key Largo Florida to the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada under his own power.
It turns out that was the easy part. The hard part is fulfilling his larger mission: Namely, connecting remaining pockets of wildlands in the crowded East Coast corridor by something other than roads. Because, although I-95 might connect you with your family in Jersey for the holidays, for most other creatures on Earth, it actually disconnects. Roads fragment natural landscapes into small islands of habitat. They create dangerous barriers to wildlife dispersal and trigger additional development as new arteries branch out from old ones. In the eastern United States, the result is an archipelago of isolated wild areas separated by oceans of sprawl and highway. For species requiring little space who can carve out a home amidst shopping malls and suburban lawns, this may not be a problem. For large predators needing extensive territories, a growing matrix of roads and its accompanying development can be a slow death sentence. On the East Coast, that means cougars.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared the eastern cougar extinct just this year, but that didn’t stop Davis from anointing the cougar the wildlife icon of his trip. After all, if he could travel up the East Coast under his own power from the Everglades to the Smokies and on up into the Adirondacks and beyond, then maybe someday cougars could as well. For now, the only remaining population in the East is the Florida panther, a subspecies cornered in a remote pocket of South Florida, weakened by inbreeding and disease. Young males often head north, looking for new territory not already claimed by their older, more established counterparts. But they quickly run into Florida’s formidable highways and development. Those that make it through the gauntlet are rarely rewarded: females are even less likely to cross the sea of sprawl than males.
Davis doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but does want to raise awareness about the need for wildlife corridors. In doing so, his own route north was complicated by human, rather than panther, imperatives. Amidst all the peddling and paddling, he regularly met with scientists and conservationists to connect the various players who can make an eastern wildway (as he calls it) happen. That meant the occasional fossil fuel powered side trips into cities to meet those people and accommodate busy schedules. “This is not the route that a panther would choose,” he admits.
Perhaps more tellingly, Davis had to rely more on roads than he liked, not finding enough river corridors or off-road trails to make the long haul without some substantial road biking in between. He told me that cars were his biggest challenge of the trek, worse than biking 80 miles in the cold pouring rain of Maine this fall, or in the humid heat of Maryland’s hills in July. You can read about his close encounters of the dangerous kind on Florida’s Tamiani Highway on his blog here, and his distressing observations about Roadkill Nation, (a.k.a. Pennsylvania) here.
Despite the hardships, Davis already is planning future treks in the Rockies and West Coast. In the meantime, he’ll be working with conservation groups throughout the East to begin piecing together an eastern wildway that links remaining wild areas together in an ecologically functional chain. I hope to catch up with him again on his next adventure and continue sharing his story with those excited as much by the challenge of a cross-country trek, as by the preservation it promises.