As Zwena Gray makes her way through the Bruce Trail, she is constantly reminded of the journey her ancestors took. Less than two centuries ago, there were enslaved people who took the same trail seeking freedom and a new life in Canada.
She has no fear of being attacked, captured by enslavers, or even killed from escaping a southern plantation.
Her obstacles are Mother Nature and her body.
“We mostly hike in silence,” said Gray of her trip through Ontario’s Blue Trail. “It gives me time to think about this and what it means. It feels liberating. It’s a connection to the environment that provides a sense of joy and freedom.”
Bruce Trail is the longest and oldest marked trail in Canada, running through Southern Ontario from the Niagara River to Tobermory at the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula.
Gray set off to hike the 559-mile trail with a friend in late April. When completed, she will be the first Black woman to hike the entire modern-day Bruce Trail all at once while honoring those who have walked the same path before her on the Underground Railroad.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people seeking freedom entered Canada fleeing slavery in the US. Between 1850 and 1860, about 15,000 to 20,000 people reached the Province of Canada, making it a vital Underground Railroad route. Most of those people migrated to various parts of Ontario, which became a prime location after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act allowed people who had escaped and freed workers in the north to be captured and enslaved. Because of the Act, Harriet Tubman was forced to lead people further north into Canada for freedom.
Gray, a Detroit Mich., native and environmentalist, said she is taking this time to marry her passions and roots.
“So many people in Detroit have been instrumental in my growth and development. Detroiters are my family, and I take that energy of home everywhere I go and represent us in everything I do. I want to connect my community to nature. It’s important for Black people to be present in these natural environments. It’s important for us to showcase the freedom and liberation and ease of existing in these spaces.”
Growing up, Gray would go on family camping trips, and she was always fascinated with the outdoors. In addition to that, she also had an interest in technology.
In her early teens, Gray was writing code, building autonomous robots, and became an entrepreneur with Ztring, her line of wearable technology through jewelry. After spending time in Napa Valley during a time of extreme fires, she became a steward of the environment and began sharing her passion for climate change whenever she could.
“Climate change is affecting our forests, our ecosystem, our wildlife, and overall, our future,” Gray said. “By experiencing nature in its truest form on the Bruce Trail, I want to share with people how there’s so much joy to be found in the outdoors and encourage them to care more for our planet and ultimately our wellbeing.”
She recently moved to Canada to attend Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, majoring in environmental studies and science, and minoring in gender and social justice studies.
Gray said a family member told her about the trail, and after doing research, she decided to plan a trip. Planning took about six months, including preparing food, training, and securing housing.
“It’s about endurance,” said Gray. “We will see what my body does along the way.”
There is no camping allowed on the trail. Gray made arrangements with supporters and friends along the way for housing, including sometimes camping in backyards. Gray typically hits the trail around 7:30 a.m. and wraps up at 5 p.m. before dark.
Gray also said family members, friends, and followers plan to join her throughout the journey for day hikes at various points. She anticipates wrapping up sometime in June. By April 22, 2022, they had hiked 55 miles of the trail.
On the journey, she plans to meet with local leaders and museum curators to share the history of the Bruce Trail through art, like creative writing, poetry, and visual art. Another goal of the hike is to learn about the legacy people who escaped enslavement left along the Bruce Trail and in the communities they created there. She has arranged to speak with historians as she travels to get perspective on that history along the way.
“I really wanted to connect with nature and history,” Gray said. “This will not be the end of my journey. It’s only the beginning.”
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