Camino Nova Scotia is offered through the continuing education division of Halifax’s Atlantic School of Theology (AST)—but it’s not your typical seminary course.
The program invites members of the public to take part in short pilgrimages along stretches of hiking trails in Nova Scotia, intended to foster the kind of spiritual growth often experienced by participants of the Camino de Santiago and other spiritual walks, says Camino Nova Scotia co-ordinator the Rev. Nicole Uzans.
“It’s about as far from a classroom as you can get,” says Uzans, who is also rector of the Anglican parish of Northumberland, along Nova Scotia’s north shore. “It’s an experience of spiritual formation, of community formation…There’s a lot of possible tie-ins with a more academic approach to Christianity, but this is a kind of education for the soul.”
Launched in 2013, Camino Nova Scotia offers a small number of six-day hikes along select trails in the province, mostly converted from former railways. Participants travel in groups of up to 15—“large enough that there’s that awkward feeling at the beginning of the week of ‘Who are these strangers?’ and yet small enough that a real sense of community almost magically comes together by the time we’re parting ways at the end of the week,” Uzans says.
The day begins with breakfast and prayer, followed by roughly 25 km of walking over six to eight hours. Participants walk at their own pace. There’s a common evening meal at the day’s destination—typically a participating church—followed by relaxation and conversation time, and then another prayer together before bedtime.
Hikers have included young adults to people in their 70s, and come from a variety of spiritual backgrounds, Uzans says. Many are Christian, but some have no formal religion, and attendance at the prayer services is optional. It’s common for participants to be at some point of transition in their lives—about to make a big move, for example, or perhaps in the midst of a grief that they’re having trouble coping with.
“They just set their feet on the trail and see where it will take them,” she says.
Many find the experience of prayerfully walking through a landscape—in solitude or in the company of others, as they wish—can renew them in subtle but important ways, Uzans says.
“It can really be a mobile retreat…where the influence of a wider world can gently interweave with whatever’s going on inside a person,” she says. She cites the view of U.K. writer Robert Macfarlane (author of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot), that certain landscapes can prompt us to a self-knowledge that we would experience nowhere else. Walking through nature, she says, also exposes us to rhythms very different from those in which we normally live—the slow “pace of being” that trees have, for example.
Pilgrims sometimes also find they connect deeply with their fellow travellers.
“There’s this aspect of walking with your own stuff, but not walking alone,” she says. “Often at the end of the day, as I’m seeing people come in…I can see it on their faces that they’ve really shared something out there on the trail, and that’s beautiful to see—that there’s a kind of trust that develops as people are walking in the same direction.”
In its first year, the program consisted of a single, longer hike along the Rum Runners Trail, which wends its way northeastward along the coast from Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to Halifax. This summer, there will be three pilgrimages: two through part of the province’s rustic Annapolis Valley, June 25-30 and July 16-21, and the third along the south shore route.
A shuttle brings hikers from AST to the starting point of each pilgrimage. The south shore route actually ends back at AST; for the other routes, hikers take the shuttle from the end point back to Halifax.
Pilgrims supply their own sleeping bag and mat or air mattress, but don’t have to carry them on the actual hike—support staff bring them by van to each daily destination. Groceries are also supplied, and laid out for hikers to prepare their own breakfast, lunch and snacks. Participants pitch in to prepare supper together at the end of the day.
Regular fees for each pilgrimage are $800 per person ($750 for those who do not need to take the shuttle). A reduced rate is available for full-time students, people under age 30 and those with low incomes.
More information on the hikes can be found on the Camino Nova Scotia website.