This story was originally presented to a room of people at IGNYTE, hosted by SYPE Saskatoon.
While my name is Jay Brown, to some I am known as SaskHiker.
So, what is SaskHiker?
Saskhiker.com is a free-to-use website that provides people with the information they need to get outside and explore Saskatchewan’s hiking trails. When I am not hiking, I am a marketing and communications consultant here in Saskatoon.
Now that you know what SaskHiker is and what I do, I want to tell you why I started it. I don’t have much of an agenda or advice to share with you. Take whatever you want from this short little story.
To understand why I made SaskHiker and where the idea came from, I am going to need to tell you some history about myself.
During the winter of 2015 I was unemployed for several months. I was let go from what I thought was going to be my dream job; instead it had left me broken.
For those of who have spent any time unemployed; you most likely have felt that tight grip of anxiety that slams you in your chest every time a cover letter you agonized over is lost into the blackhole of a hiring manager’s inbox.
During my prolonged job search I began to lose confidence in my career experience, “Maybe, I don’t know anything. Maybe, I am worthless.” These were the thoughts that burrowed into my brain rejection after rejection.
For every door slammed I was given the same line, “we found someone who we feel is more qualified than you.” It was clear that I wasn’t valuable enough.
My intention isn’t for you to feel sorry for me, but I really don’t think I ever would have started or even got the idea for SaskHiker if I didn’t lose my job. It is pretty crucial to this whole story.
Okay, so now that you know where I was at that moment in my life. I need to go back even further to my childhood for you to understand where the roots of SaskHiker are.
I grew up on a 100-acre acreage 30 minutes east of Regina. My family is home to some of the last remaining natural aspen forest in southern Saskatchewan and thus my backyard was an unofficial nature preserve.
My brothers and I spent our childhoods out in the bush following the tracks of coyote packs who had stalked a deer in the night, peaking our heads into badger holes when someone dared you to, and listening to the distinct chattering of aspen tree leaves in the wind.
I had grown up outside, but after moving to Saskatoon, attending University and starting my career I for some reason stopped venturing past my front door.
Okay, so let’s snap back to me, wallowing on the couch, wearing sweatpants I hadn’t washed in weeks, constantly refreshing my inbox waiting for an opportunity to come my way.
It was my girlfriend of 10 years, Britney, who gave me the motivation to peel myself from the cushions. I knew she was anxiously watching my confidence wither away and wanted to find a way to help me. I don’t know when she said it to me, but one day she looked at me before leaving for work and said, “You need to do something. You need to get out of the house.”
She was right, but what the hell can you do when you have no money? Well…. walking is free.
That first hike was just me going down to the river and exploring the hidden paths of Saskatoon.
To me hiking is a form of meditation. It’s all about putting one foot in front of the other and trying to pretend that your backpack isn’t heavy. You aren’t running a race, you are just getting from Point A to Point B.
Hiking allows you to take time to reflect on yourself and let new ideas seep into your brain. The bombardment of stress in our day to day life often gets in the way of a fresh perspective. But on the trail, it’s just you, your thoughts and the breeze in the trees and maybe a bear or two.
As I began to explore more trails in the province it became quickly apparent to me that online hiking information in Saskatchewan didn’t really exist.
You couldn’t just type, “Saskatchewan Hiking Trails” into Google and get anything of relevance.
So, does it seem cliché that the idea for SaskHiker started on a Saskatchewan hiking trail?
During this period of my life, the biggest resource I had was time. I had all the time in the world to learn new skills that might help me in my job search.
When I started building SaskHiker, my goal was just to make it a portfolio item that I could show a potential employer that I could do something, anything, more than the person they interviewed that morning.
As someone who is a marketing professional, I need to show that I can make a brand, create a communications strategy, buy digital media or design a website. I need to show that I have value and that’s where SaskHiker comes from.
SaskHiker was born out of necessity. I needed to explore the natural world again to save myself, and I needed to learn new skills to make myself stand apart from my competition. I saw the market need, I knew it was something I could be passionate about, and I saw how I could increase my value.
I launched SaskHiker on Tuesday April 14, 2015.
The next day CBC contacted me to talk about it on air and before you know it, I had 235 people visit the site. From that first day to now I have had over 130,000 people use SaskHiker to fuel an adventure. I wonder how many blisters I have caused?
So, what has SaskHiker given me and why do I continue to do it? Well, it has given me the opportunity to be on a ‘reality web-series’, get thousands of dollars in free gear and I get paid once in a while to visit the places that I love.
Professionally it has given me two very rewarding jobs, a wealth of knowledge I never thought I would have and a continuing outlet to learn and test new ideas.
But SaskHiker has done more than just help me professionally and monetarily. It has given me the opportunity to share the nooks and crannies of Saskatchewan, a place that I love.
I routinely get messages from people looking for ideas on how to explore Saskatchewan. It is always fun to help people plan a weekend adventure.
People have even come up to me and said things like, “Hey are you SaskHiker? I just hiked Grey Owl trail in Prince Albert National Park – it was awesome thanks for the info!” I mean, how cool is that?
SaskHiker has also been a source of many new friendships as people have shared their love of hiking and the outdoors with me. And my desire to add new routes onto SaskHiker has led to many of my old friends tagging along for the fun as we explore somewhere new together. It’s in these moments that we have made lifelong memories.
Finally, SaskHiker has allowed me to build and strengthen my relationship. My girlfriend and our two dogs have marched many kilometers on the trail together. It is here that we have planned our lives, shared our fears and passions, and talked about the weird stuff that only comes out in the privacy of nature.
My slogan for SaskHiker is simple, it is, “Go outside. There’s fun stuff out there.”
This was what I said to myself as I worked up my lost courage to get off the couch. That first step has led to this one and who knows where the last one will be.
What started out as a spark of an idea on a Saskatchewan hiking trail has grown into something. I am not too sure what it is, but it is something I am proud of. SaskHiker is by no means a massive achievement for mankind, but it is something I get to share with others.
I think everyone has the potential to do the same. We all have passions, lets share them. It always starts with the first step.