hiking day cape breton tradition unstructured play unsupervised children

Hiking Day is a Cape Breton tradition that promotes unstructured play

I’ve lived in several provinces, each tending to call the holiday Monday in May something slightly different.

May 2-4; more a nod to how many beer you buy than the original date we’re celebrating. Maylong; say it like it’s all one word, not the May long weekend. Some crazy folks I know simply call it Victoria Day, a nod to the Queen for whom the statutory holiday was created to memorialize.

But to me, the second-last Monday in May will always be Hiking Day.

I’ve come to learn that this term is very much a colloquialism specific to the Northside (the North Sydney – Sydney Mines – Bras d’Or areas of Cape Breton), and a tradition that is still alive and very much immortalized in the memories of those who grew up there. A local grocery store posted a photo on Facebook of its ‘Hiking Day Bags’ (a grab bag of treats, something you might see handed out at Halloween) and within a few hours, hundreds of people had chimed in, sharing fond stories of their childhood holidays.

Hiking Day was not so much an occasion focused on promoting physical activity or admiring nature, but more about getting the kids out of the house. Not the family – the kids. This was a day when we as children pushed the boundaries of unsupervised adventure. We organized ‘hikes’ that saw us spending the day out and about, picnic snacks at the ready, and nary an adult in sight.

I remember doing ‘the loop’ one year, roughly a 10 kilometre journey that basically followed the route our school bus drove each morning. We biked some, walked more. I’m pretty sure it took us ALL day. Three kids, on our own. Ages nine & eight. It was awesome – and unsupervised.

There were no cell phones to check in. No expectation that someone would take offense to us out on our own and involve the authorities. The only thing I recall being questioned was our stamina – could we really make it all the way around the loop on foot? It was a challenge that pushed our sense of independence, and perhaps that of our parents’ expectations, too. It was a rite of passage that every child I knew talked about completing.

I can’t imagine the reactions today if we were to allow small groups of elementary school students to head off on day-long, 10-kilometre adventures without supervision. We’re not even allowed to let younger students to get off the school bus and walk home alone. And yet, we hear complaints of a generation raised that is unable to take care of themselves as adults.

It’s hard to find the balance between keeping children safe and teaching children to be safe. I’ve written about this before, when Utah passed a ‘free-range parenting law.’ This legislation basically tries to define that gray area between recognizing a child who is being neglected by their parents/guardians and a child who is being given small freedoms and responsibilities in an effort to encourage critical thinking. We need to protect children, but we also need to allow them time to be independent.

One of the best parts of Hiking Day was that, at least to my recollection and that of my friends, it was something we did – not an outing our parents organized, but an adventure that we created. Books have been written and school systems created around the power of this philosophy, that allowing children freedom to explore nature hones critical thinking skills, inspires creativity, and connects children with their community and their environment. Maybe it’s time Hiking Day becomes a tradition beyond the Northside.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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10 thoughts on “Hiking Day is a Cape Breton tradition that promotes unstructured play

  1. Lisa Tomko May 20, 2019 at 9:06 am

    Love this article..it brought back some wonderful and very happy memories from my childhood growing up in Sydney Mines. Happy Hiking day to you too!

  2. Sheena Lawley May 20, 2019 at 8:46 pm

    As a Northsider myself i have kept this tradition alive with my kids..this year we hiked on sunday (its raining today in Moncton) and we also refer the may long weekend as hiking day!

  3. Andrew Nelson May 21, 2019 at 1:47 pm

    Love this article! As a Northsider myself both my wife and I are passing this tradition onto our kids, as we went on a hike and BBQ Sunday in Halifax due to the rain on Monday.

  4. River rat May 19, 2021 at 12:32 pm

    Awesome article. It certainly was a day looked forward too. We fished,swam,hiked,biked. And took lunches ,had Weiner roasts and were completely wore out by bedtime. It certainly was an amazing day. Great memories.

  5. Maureen May 22, 2021 at 11:18 am

    Love this article!! Growing up in George’s River, Nova,Scotia Canada, my group of friends looked forward to this day each year. We were good kids and we always came home safe. Some of my best childhood memories.❤️

  6. Donna Matthews May 22, 2021 at 4:59 pm

    Hiking day was huge part if my childhood and a family tradition as our large family would hike from our family home in Sydney Mines to oir cabin in groves pt (17.5 km) and gather for some a&k chicken this was an over 35 year tradition which included many family members grandchildren and great grandchildren friends and extended one year we had over 50 of is walking, this will always be the weekend of as we called it “the walk”

  7. rose bonnar May 22, 2021 at 8:57 pm

    so many memories of hiking day. this was always a fun time, rain or shine . i also passed this tradition off to my son . this was a great read , ty

  8. Mary May 23, 2021 at 5:43 am

    Beautiful Story and I still celebrate Hiking Day.
    I always pack a lunch and venture off .
    I was a host mother to many International children over years and I remember them calling from a beach one year saying it getting dark can you pick me up . It was a puzzle to find out what beach they were at because they did not know the name … lol….and we sure have lots of coastline on the Northside .
    So every year I get pictures and stories from these students on Hiking Day sharing the adventurers as an adult of May Long Weekend . ❤️

  9. Grace Jones May 24, 2021 at 1:46 pm

    Hiking Day it was called on the Northside and growing up it was our first family adventure for the summer season. pack a lunch an off we would go. My brother and dad fished, and we explored the area or any old building we found. .As I grew older, my friends and I packed a lunch and walked to a nearby brook or stream, ate and walked home 😊. My husband and I passed this tradition on to our children who always looked forward to “Hiking Day”

  10. Kelly Spooney June 12, 2022 at 2:35 pm

    Always loved hiking day , pack a lunch , head out early in the morning come home by supper time and had the best day ever with your friends, I passed it on to my kids and now they do it with theirs , thank you for writing about this , love the memories

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