Zayell Johnston was tired of putting off something he’d wanted to do since he was 20 years old.

So for nine months last year, the Saskatchewan resident took a 9,000-kilometre walk across Canada and ended up taking over 11.8 million steps.

“I’ve always been the person who liked going out into nature and exploring,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “I don’t know what spurred me to walk the country -- maybe you know, the ‘Forrest Gump’ movie where he was just running.”

During his walk, Johnston said he waded through mud, trudged through snow and even bumped into bears in the wilderness.

The 27-year-old man from Yorkton, Sask. documented nearly everything on social media to help show off the country.

“The point of the journey was to see Canada,” he said. “We talk about how Canada is the best country in the world with the friendliest people -- and I wanted to see that.”

And Canadians didn’t disappoint: He regularly had strangers offering up food, places to sleep or areas he could set up his tent.

“An elderly couple in Calgary was the first experience of offering a place to stay -- lucky coincidence, because it was my birthday back in April,” he laughed.


He splashed his face with water from two oceans

Back in February, Johnston began his journey the same way he would end it on Nov. 25. by splashing his face with ocean water.

He first splashed his face with water on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and then along the Atlantic coast albeit 25 pounds lighter and with a thick, grizzly beard.

He opted not to drive or bike across Canada because he felt the trip would be “more authentic when you walk it.”

Johnston said when people drive along the highway, they can end up letting “half of Canada go by in a blur.”

He started walking from Mile 0 on the Trans-Canada Highway in Victoria, B.C., walking along smaller trails and even the TransCanada pipeline at some points.

Johnston said he averaged 50 kilometres each day and was constantly struck by the sheer vastness of the country – particularly in the Rocky Mountains.

But he was always sure to watch his back, especially as he noticed how many lynxes, moose and even bears crossed his path.

“One deer was a little too friendly … so I had to spook him away,” he recalled. “I saw four black bears but they were more interested in running across the road than me.”


His journey was part of a bucket list

His trip was one of the items on a bucket list he’d written when he was 20 years old. Goals included getting a six-pack, backpacking across Europe and finishing school. He wanted to finish the list by the age of 25.

“But life happens and things don’t always turn out the way you want them to,” he said.

Although Johnston did see Europe, his career as a visual effects contractor “didn’t pan out” in Vancouver. So he returned home to his parents in Saskatchewan.

There, he learned more about wilderness camping and then decided to walk across Canada -- two years past his original deadline.

“It’s now or never, right?” Johnston said. “At the end of the day, the only person you have to answer to is yourself and don’t care what people think.”

He set out with a budget of $7,000 for equipment, food and other necessities. He logged his steps on a Fitbit and made sure to get a GPS tracker so his mother would always know where he was.


Weather forced him to stop several times

Weather was a constant worry for him, with the worst experience happening in the Maritimes during hurricane season.

Johnston was even forced to wait out Hurricane Willa in a ferry terminal in Channel-Port aux Basques, N.L.

“I was thankful because there wasn’t anywhere else to go,” he said,

He had to stop several times during his trip, including during a blizzard near Lake Louise, Alta. where he hunkered down in a small hotel.

Before that, Johnston stopped for a whole month near the Coquihalla Highway in the B.C. Interior because “winter stuck around an extra month.”

“And that’s just the way Canada works, you can’t predict the weather and you got to work around it,” he said.

 

A stranger got him a job at a ski resort

During that month, a stranger vouched for him and he landed a job at a ski resort in Manning Park in B.C.

“He didn’t know me at all … but he said, ‘let me see if I can give you a hand,’” Johnston recalled.

As he made his way across the Prairies where he grew up, Johnston leaned on family and friends for lodging. But places to rest became more scarce as he moved further east.

“Especially in Newfoundland, I was just like, ‘how am I going to get through this?’” he said. “There's no way. It was hard to have patience near the end.”

During the stretch from Winnipeg to Niagara Falls, Johnston was fortunate to always find places to set up his tent and only ended up staying in hostels a handful of times.

Throughout the trip, he fondly remembers the kindness of strangers: “Half the time I [didn't] even ask for help and they just came out of the blue and surprised me.”

“I think I had three different people bring me a coffee … I don’t know what it is about Newfoundlanders and coffee,” he chuckled.


Journey’s end

As for what’s next for Johnston, he’s hoping to travel more and eventually, complete the difficult task of paying off his student loans.

“I feel like that’s more impossible than walking across Canada,” he joked.

Since coming home to Saskatchewan he’s applied to become a forest firefighter and made sure to mention his Canada-wide walk on his application.

“It’s definitely in the resume,” he laughed.