Charles and Carol Fernandes can boast they know every Tim Hortons along Highway 11.
They probably could recommend half-a-dozen motels along the same route, too, if you’re interested.
That’s because the couple has spent 71 days over the course of five summers walking along the road that long has claimed the title of World’s Longest Street.
Yonge Street, which becomes Highway 11 at Barrie, is 1,896 km long, twists into the wilderness of Northern Ontario, and is not known for its usefulness as a long-distance sidewalk.
The Fernandeses, however, made it their mission to do what it seems no person has done before: walk the entire distance.
The pair took the final steps in their years-long journey when they reached Rainy River on Sunday (May 8) at 12:55 p.m, walking hand-in-hand.
It was 2007 when Carol casually suggested the two of them—she already an avid hiker, he a later bloomer—walk Yonge Street. Charles recalls agreeing, then thinking, “Oh no, what did I do?”
The walk began April 21, 2007 at 1 Yonge St. in Toronto (the office of the Toronto Star). This earliest stroll passes high rises, shopping centres, and Ryerson University, and understandably bares no resemblance to the same street 100 km later.
It wasn’t until the couple reached Huntsville, 232 km from their starting point, that they believed they could walk the entire 1,896.
“Now we definitely think it’s doable because we worked out logistically how we’re going to do it,” Charles recalled thinking at the time.
Charles, a retired business administration professional, dove into the logistics side of things with enthusiasm. After using a combination of public transit, taxis, and helpful friends to get them to their destinations in that first summer, he decided they needed a new plan.
For each leg of the trip, they drive their own car to a starting point (this spring they used Fort Frances as one hub), where they rent a second car. On a walking day, they drive car one to three-, five-, or 10-km from their starting point, depending how long they want the first leg of their walk to be.
Then they walk from car one back to where the second car—filled with salmon sandwiches and carrots for lunch—is parked.
From there, they drive the second car until they are their preferred distance from the first car, then walk back to the first car again.
While this method leads the occasional onlooker to protest that they are driving west and walking east, Charles pointed out this way they avoid backtracking.
Once the details were established, the couple planned out another three summers spent walking further across the province.
Beyond making motel bookings and packing snacks, Charles and Carol wanted a theme for their journey. They chose “Mind, body and soul,” which they tied into their yoga practice.
Mind represents the psychological process they needed to motivate themselves for the journey ahead. Body signified the strenuous climb into the north where the highway is rolling—and populated by mosquitoes and black flies.
“And then the soul,” said Charles. “Meaning now we’re down to the end, the big euphoria of finishing.”
A typical day of walking began with a breakfast of yogurt and cereal, and lots of coffee, while the couple read, including checking the weather reports and doing some research on the surrounding area. Then they did the bulk of the day’s walking in the morning—with pockets full of energy bars and Canadian flags stuck into the backpacks of water they each carry.
The mornings generally are quiet as the two are pensive, walking single file down the highway.
They liked to inject their afternoon walks with a little extra motivation; that’s when they switch on their mp3 players, as long as the noise of passing traffic wasn’t too loud.
While the roadside is rarely a hub of activity, the Fernandeses have enjoyed such landmarks as the Terry Fox “Courage Highway,” a variety of “welcome to town” signs, and even a few moose and bears—all of which are outlined in the book where Charles has documented their walk.
After a day of exertion, the couple wound down with yoga, massage, and a shower.
As they made their way across the province averaging 27 km (and 31,000 footsteps) per day, they’ve appreciated the beauty Canada has to offer.
“People always say, ‘You’ve been to over a 100 countries, what’s your favourite?’ We say Canada,” noted Charles.
“People don’t realize how much stuff we have here.”
But beyond the breathtaking views and wildlife, the impact of struggling natural resource-based industries on communities along this highway is clear.
“We’ve seen a lot of towns that are really struggling,” noted Carol Fernandes. “They’ve had a mine or a pulp mill or something like that and it’s been their only industry and it’s closed, and how they’re coping with it.
“It’s really sad to see that they really are struggling.”
That being said, she also joked that they could design a perfect town with a combination of features from all the successful communities they have walked through.
Both Charles and Carol gushed about how much they enjoyed strolling along the riverwalk here in Fort Frances.
Charles admitted the walk was a tough personal challenge, especially because it stretched over five summers. They had planned to finish last summer but their schedule was interrupted when they moved from Mississauga to Elliot Lake after falling in love with the idea of small-town life during the first half of their walk.
Even so, breaking the imposing 1,896-km trek into smaller pieces made it more manageable.
“Whenever people have a project that they think they’d like to do, if they break it down small enough, take your time and plan, you can do it,” Carol advised.
“And even if you don’t finish it, at least you’ve tried.”
While they have no plans for another adventure like this, they are satisfied this one is complete.
“People have told us, ‘Wow, that’s a good inspiration,’” Charles said.
“People may not walk that much, but maybe it will inspire them to do something that they’d thought, ‘I’d like to do that but it’s so intimidating,’” he reasoned.