Recently, my wife and I had dinner at the home of a work colleague, where we met his wife as well. I’ve worked with him for a number of years but hour respective spouses had not met us or each other. You go into these social situations with a bit of nerves because you want to hit it off but you’re never quite sure. In this case, it was great – a simple, tasty yet slow meal, enjoyed while sitting for hours at the table chatting till midnight.
I thought of that as I was out for a walk the next day. The pleasure of a simple meal, good chat, laughter and smiles. I like simple things, and I like enjoying them at leisure, like reading a good book for hours of an evening while sipping on a whiskey in front of the fire. And I like long walks, for similar reasons – they’re simple, and yet they are savoured slowly, providing ample time for uncluttered thought. Over the space of several recent walks, on grey and glooming November days, I mulled over some recent news items I’ve seen recently.
The first one was about an announcement by the Ontario government, for a plan to build another major highway and then later for a different proposal to widen one of the major highways in the west end of the Greater Toronto Area. These projects have been mooted for years, and there’s a debate about whether to go ahead with their construction. The argument for is that traffic loads have increased so that more roads are needed to reduce congestion and delays. The argument against is the opposite – that building more roads just increases their supply which effectively lowers the price of driving (i.e. congestion delays) thus creating new demand that soon results in new congestion and delay. In other words, increasing the supply induces demand by reducing price – a basic piece of economics. This might also be phrased as “if you build it, they will come”.
Another recent thought-provoking news item was about Artificial Intelligence (AI). We’re heading quite quickly into a world where AI can power transport. Likely within the next 10-20 years, as cars become more autonomous, AI systems will improve traffic efficiency – in other words more cars can use existing roads. Taking humans out of the equation will also help us reduce and then eliminate the impatience and selfishness that leads to shake-your-head silliness like driving on sidewalks (which really happened recently just a few blocks from where I live).
At the same time, young people do not seem to be driving as much as their parents did nor seem as interested in owning a vehicle (based on a sample size of 1, our son, in mid-town Toronto). Plus, jobs are changing, so that we’re much more able to telecommute rather than physically commute. And then there’s the retirement of the boomer generation (which grew up with cars), and their workplace replacements see less need to drive, especially as public transit improves. All these trends argue that at the very least, traffic patterns are likely to change, if not reduce in volume.
On top of all of this there’s climate change, the cause for which the overwhelming weight of evidence points to carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Cars, and other forms of transport (trucks especially), are one of Canada’s largest sources of carbon dioxide, especially when you take into account the extraction of oil, its transportation, and its refinement into fuel. Adding to that, remember that building roads by itself generates a lot of CO2 emissions – making cement for concrete is an energy-intensive process largely fuelled by natural gas, and asphalt is held together by bitumen tar which comes from petroleum.
So the notion of building more highways, now, at this point of the 21st century, seems like a reactive response to a “today” problem based on the practice from 20 years ago, rather than a proactive response to head off anticipated problems 20 years from now. In other words, it’s backwards-looking decision making. Between advances in AI, changes in demographics, and the need to respond to climate change, it would seem to make more sense to invest the billions of dollars a new highway will cost into better public transit and urban planning.
All that seemed clear to me as I turned over these thoughts on my walks. And then, shortly after the announcements about these highway projects, I saw a much less publicized article about a plan to improve and expand the Waterfront Trail sections near the Scarborough Bluffs, an area through which I had walked this past summer and about which had thought at the time that it was both spectacular and under-utilized. Hallelujah I thought – induced demand strikes again. If you build trails and parks, then walkers will appear.
And that led me back to why I walk. Walking is a simple and self-contained activity – it needs no real equipment or practice, it accomplishes a goal, it requires minimal infrastructure, and it benefits both the practitioner and their fellow citizens. Long term thinking about walking abounds – there is an abundance of urban planning studies, social studies, and practical evidence that making neighbourhoods and cities walkable increases the well-being of the residents.
What gives me hope is that over the past 10-20 years, we’ve seen an increase in walking and cycling infrastructure. Volunteer-led organizations have mapped out, built, and maintained the Great Trail, the Waterfront Trail, and the Bruce Trail, and thousands of other local organizations have created recreational trails throughout Canada. There is a groundswell of interest in and demand for walking infrastructure.
It’s true that there are fewer opportunities for political grandstanding and ribbon-cutting when a new trail opens. The local city councillor and maybe a provincial MPP will show up for a quick photo and that’s about it, compared to premiers and prime ministers who host press conferences and photo ops in hard hats while holding silver shovels, whenever a new highway is announced. Hundreds of walkers will use the former, but hundreds of thousands of voters will use the latter, so where’s the sexy in opening a $2 million trail when you can cut the ribbon on a $2 billion highway?
Still, I see that as blockbuster thinking rather than incremental thinking, big splashy announcements instead of quiet openings. We know from studies in geology and from biology, that evolutionary forces are powerful yet slow-moving. There are few occasions (dinosaur-killing asteroid strikes aside) when evolution must pick up its pace. Long-term, slow changes are the norm. So in why does our decision making insist on quick wins, big announcements, and the timescales of one election to the next? In human terms, long-term ought to mean generational thinking – 20, 50, or 100+-year timespans. Does it help you now, or does it help your great-grandchildren?
We focus on the now, it seems to me, because that our time horizons have shrunk. We want to shop on-demand, eat on-demand, and entertain ourselves on-demand. Why defer gratification? Why can’t we have it now?
What does a walk have to do with this? Part of the answer is that a walk takes time. As a form of exercise, walking is a slow burn activity – you need a 2 hour walk to burn off similar amounts of calories from a 30 minute high intensity work-out. That’s why walking encourages long-term thinking, because it just takes a while to do it. If I want to walk to Montreal (and that’s on my bucket list), it’s going to take 3-4 weeks instead of 3-4 hours.
Plus walking is green. It’s human-powered and needs minimal infrastructure and equipment. Our ancestors walked barefoot over grasslands, and we can walk with just a pair of shoes over gravelled paths. Building a few km of simple trail, even if you include some park benches, waste bins, toilets, and water fountains, doesn’t cost much because it doesn’t take much effort or equipment. And that also means it’s quick, a concession to our instant gratification culture.
All of this means that walking for the long term has multiple levels. On timescales of hours, walking for the long term is about contemplation, finding space to think and consider and survey multiple points of view before coming to conclusions. On timescales of months and years, walking for the long term is about exercise and health and retaining the ability to contemplate. And on timescales of decades and generations, walking for the long term is about the conservation of resources, creating a legacy for future generations, and attempting to avoid the worst consequences of the now-inevitable changes in climate that we’ve sparked.
Deep thoughts from a few walks on grey days. Maybe I need another stroll to mull it over.
On a chilly, rainy, grey, November day that felt more like December, I was trying to cheer myself up with recollections of warmer days. Strolling in the Beaches came to mind. The neighbourhood is perfect for Little Walks on a summer’s day (and any time of the year for that matter).
On mid-week summer’s day, there are parents and little kids, camp groups, seniors, tourists, ice-cream eaters, sunbathers, paddlers, cyclists, roller-bladers, and more. There’s usually a breeze off the lake, even on the hottest days, and there are lots of shaded benches, not to mention the lake itself for cooling your toes. The city has put lots of Adirondack-style chairs along the route, perfect for people watching.
There’s a hot dog stand and a pizza outlet. There are sometimes food trucks, and often ice-cream vendors. Nearby Queen Street has many restaurants, grills, pubs, bars, and food shops. Your options are many and tempting.
Come on a weekend and it’s busier, and there are different events going on in the parks – concerts, ball games, markets, and more.
Come in other seasons and it’s much the same but with autumn’s blazing colours or winter’s natural ice sculptures or spring’s new growth. You can walk over and over, and still smile at something amusing each time.
It’s one my favourite Little Walks. When my wife and I returned to Canada in 1999, after living in London for a few years, the first place we came was to the Beaches on July 1, Canada Day. That stroll along the boardwalk was our welcome home. A few years later, we walked it again, this time a few days past my wife’s due date awaiting our son’s arrival, in hopes that the stroll and slice of spicy pizza would spur things along. And then recently we’ve made a semi-habit of walking it each New Year’s Day, for a blast of chilly fresh air.
If someone said to me, what should I do as a tourist in Toronto, strolling the boardwalk would be at the top of my list. You learn a lot about a place in observing how the locals relax and this is Toronto with its hair down wearing its weekend clothes. Come see.
Lately, I find I’m a bit restless. I’ve written previously about my bucket list of Big Walks. It seems that since I crossed a couple of these off my list, I’ve been bitten by the Big Walk bug, and now I can’t wait to try another one.
People talk about mid-life crises. I don’t think it’s a crisis so much as a turning of the page. My professional life is slowing down, our son is soon off to university, and I’m ready for new challenges in my life. I’m relatively healthy, we can afford it, and I have time.
So now what? Winter has arrived, so big walks in Ontario in this weather are much tougher, especially if you’re carrying a pack over snowy/icy unpaved trails, and I’m not enough of a glutton for punishment to take these on right now, so that rules out things the Bruce Trail and the Great Trail until spring. Heading somewhere warmer would be a possibility except that we’ve already used up our travel budget for the year, what with trips to Bermuda, Ireland, and India, plus my Niagara to Toronto walk.
There are some shorter, paved-trail walks I can do as day trips to avoid carrying a pack and running up hotel bills – things like the Waterfront Trail from the Rouge River to Ajax – and that will help keep me fit over the winter.
Other than that, however, it seems that as much as I’d like to just take off on a long multi-day walk right now, I’ll have to do that in armchair fashion for the next few months. That’s ok, there’s something cozy sitting by the fire on a winter’s evening catching up on travel books about walking, diving into maps, and sketching out plans.
So that’s my mid-life crisis. Instead of a Porsche, I’ve invested in packs,
boots instead of a Bentley.
My fashion sense comes from Mountain Equipment Co-op – nothing says sexy like a good pair of GoreTex gaiters.
It’s an obsession, I admit. At least it’s cheaper than a sports car, and it’s better for the environment to boot.
Autumn has always been my favourite season. In Toronto, there are phases to it. Coming out of September and through early October, we usually keep our late summer warmth with the bonus of dryer, clearer weather with lots of bright blue skies. Then as you drift through the rest of October and into early November, the nights get cooler and the autumn colours take over the parks and neighbourhoods. Around then, usually by early or mid- November, we’ll get our first frost overnight and our first snowflakes. Our autumn usually turns into winter temps and weather well before the winter solstice and turn of the season on Dec 21, so when you think about it, between the late summer bit and the early winter bit, a Toronto autumn is really the 4 weeks or so between about early October and early November.
And while it’s a short stretch of the calendar, it’s made for walking. We’ll get lots of dry days, not too cold, and with scenery that never gets old no matter how many times you’ve seen autumn colours transform a park. When we lived in England back in the 1990’s, I missed that turn of the season more than anything else.
This year, autumn arrived right on cue. Late September and early October were glorious – blue-sky autumn days that demanded to be used because you knew that in just a few weeks, those gentle blues would turn to steely greys and the autumn rains would turn to frosts and snow.
So I did – I headed out for several longish walks through favourite parks and soaked up the sun for as long as I could. One favourite hike in early October was through Mount Pleasant Cemetery and down the Moore Park Ravine to the Brickworks. The autumn colours were starting to develop and on a mid-week afternoon, there were only a few people about so I could savour the quiet. I love this place.
Wandering the paths through the park, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of the city. The park is only about 15 years old, and is the result of natural regeneration nudged by careful planning, turning the clay quarry that provided many of the bricks that built Toronto landmarks like Old City Hall and Massey Hall into an urban oasis. It’s wonderful any time of the year, and at its best in the autumn.
As the month of October wore on, we started to get some grey skies and gusty rains, stripping those gorgeous colours off the trees and turning the trails to pointillist visions.
Every year, around mid October, there will be newspaper articles and social media posts about where to go to see the perfect fall colours. I ignore these. The perfect fall colours are right outside, in my favourite parks along my favourite trails. Toronto is awesome pretty much all of the time, and autumn is when it’s awesomeness on display, the more so because it’s natural and unforced. We take it for granted at lot of the time, so it’s worth reminding ourselves that we live, as the Parks Department motto says, in a city within a park.
And then in early November, other walks became reminders that winter is around the corner. I went up the East Don Trail on a blustery chilly day, maybe 4-5 C at best with an actual wind-chill under a grey forbidding sky, and was teased by a few snow flakes.
Then a few days later, we had actual snow, only a cm or 2 but enough to leave a trace on the ground. It feels like our 4 weeks of autumn have come and gone for this year. The forecast going forward is early winter – snow showers and low single digits as day time highs, with negative temps overnight.
That’s ok. The cycle of seasons means change, which means variety. Were the weather constant year-round, it would get tedious I think. So walking in wet leaves under blustery skies, now, is the path that leads to walking under soft spring breezes amongst new growth, in a few months. There’s greenery coming – you just have to be patient.
In early October, we had a stretch of those blue-sky, warm-for-the-season, autumn days that demand that you use them. So I did – I headed out for a walk through a favourite park, Tommy Thompson, to take advantage of just-warm-enough-for-shorts-and-a-T-shirt temps and perfect sunshine, enough to keep you warm but not enough to make you overheat.
What I also wanted to do was fill in a gap – in looking at the map of the Great Trail, I could see that a big chunk of it within Toronto consists of the Waterfront Trail, and I’ve walked nearly all of that except for a short stretch through the port lands and along Cherry Beach. To get to Tommy Thompson Park, I could complete my missing bit of the Waterfront Trail and cross that off my list of completed sections of the Great Trail. (And by the way, when did I get to be a cross-off-the-list guy?)
I decided to start at the Distillery District and walk south along Cherry Street along the Martin Goodman Trail. This takes you over the Cherry Street bridge to cross the Don River channel. The view west is of the harbour.
The view east is of the Don River, lined with the construction sites that are slowly turning the port lands into parks and urban areas.
At the bottom of Cherry Street, you come to an unexpected little treasure – Cherry Street Beach park. The view across the water to the south is of Tommy Thompson park and looking west you get a view out past the Toronto Islands to the lake.
As I stood there looking out over the beach, a song from the soundtrack of my university days came into my head – the Pukka Orchestra’s 1984 hit called Cherry Beach Express. It’s a catchy tune though the lyrics are pretty dark – it’s about a practice that was alleged against the Toronto Police back in the 1970’s and ’80’s, of taking suspects out to Cherry Beach in the middle of the night and roughing them up. Standing there in the sun, it was hard to believe that 30-40 years ago Cherry Beach was not a place you’d visit voluntarily. The city has done a lot of growing up since then, both in terms of parks and its relationship with the lake, and more importantly in terms of social progress. I can’t believe that in today’s Toronto, such a practice would be tolerated (if it actually happened then). Still, like I said, it’s a catchy tune – look up Pukka Orchestra and check out their back catalog. Toronto produced a lot of great groups back then.
With that thought fading, I turned east to follow the Waterfront Trail and soon came to the hulk of the defunct Hearn generating station. This coal-fired electrical generation plant has been shut down for years but there seems to be no plan yet for it’s long term use, though the interior has served as a backdrop for several films and TV shows. The chimney dominates the view, looming over the trees along the trail as you near it.
From the Hearn, the trail takes you further east, to the corner of Commissioner’s Road and Leslie Street where a new entrance is being constructed for Tommy Thompson Park (what was once known as the Leslie Street Spit). It was such a gorgeous day, I wanted to do the full trail through the park out to the lighthouse at the tip.
There was a stongish breeze off the lake and a bit of chop so the soundscape was composed of waves slapping the shore, rustling reeds, and the shushhh of leaves in trees. While I was only a km from the downtown core, apart from the occasional aircraft overhead my footsteps were the only man-made sound.
If you stick to the lake-side of the park, the trail takes you through some new growth bush, and on this early autumn day it was just starting to turn colour in a few places. The sunshine made it warm enough for grasshoppers, crickets, and cicadas to serenade me as I walked, and I was joined by a couple of wee grass snakes sunning themselves.
As I walked, I passed only a couple of people out for a bike ride. On a mid-week visit, I mostly had the place to myself, something that helped me to tune out the world and just get into the zen of a hike on a beautiful day. My strides were on auto-pilot and I could enjoy the scenery, the sun, and the breeze. I kept to the left at the fork halfway down the trail so that I could take the loop around the ponds in the middle of the park, and then at the next trail intersection, I turned west to head out to the tip.
There, a small hill serves at the base for the lighthouse. It’s been much decorated with graffiti over the years.
Below the lighthouse, there isn’t a beach as such – instead the reclaimed nature of the park is on display. The whole of the park is based on excavated soil and construction debris that came from the gradual development of the buildings that now form the Toronto skyline. Over the years this landfill has supported the growth of plants that have transformed the old Leslie Street Spit into the new Tommy Thompson park. The underlying concrete and bricks on display at the lake-facing side of the tip have been used by artists to create sculptures that cover the area.
But when you turn back towards the city, the skyline view across the harbour is stunning, all the more so when you think that many of those buildings exist because their foundations required excavating soil that had to go somewhere, and that somewhere is where you are standing. One of these days, I’m going to come out here late in the evening to get a sunset view.
After taking a break to soak up the view and have a sandwich, I turned to head back. By taking the harbour-side trail I could complete the loop around the park, while passing the more mature wooded parts of the park, the oldest bits that have had the longest to generate plant cover. There are more of the improvised sculptures here, wherever old construction debris is exposed.
The trail is really a road along the harbour-side of the park, built for the trucks that until recently had been delivering more fill to extend the spit. Now that the park is closed to further dumping, this road has become a test track for bikes. I was passed and repassed frequently by cyclists doing time trials up and down the trail. They were in their zone and I was in mine, as I trudged back to the park entrance.
As you come out of the park, you pass a trail through what has recently been designated as Villiers Island. This part of the port lands is going to become part of the redeveloped mouth of the Don River. The idea is to carve a new channel for the Don that will allow the river to pass through a more natural wetland area instead of the shipping channel that it’s forced through today. By doing this, the original habitat will be partially restored and the wetlands will provide flood control as well as park space.
It’s great to see that, out of the growth of downtown Toronto and the many towers that make up its skyline, Tommy Thompson park has emerged and will be joined by even more green space. Come back in 20 years and you might not even realize that it’s all man-made.
As a society, we’ve often prioritized economic growth at the expense of making a mess, so I’m happy to see that now we’re getting good at cleaning up those messes and turning them into something that our kids and grandkids will appreciate.
Having recently completed a couple of the bucket list Big Walks that I’d like to do, the experience has got me thinking about some of the other Big Walks on my list. The one I’m truly itching to do is the walk from John O’Groats in Scotland to Lands End in Cornwall, covering Great Britain end to end.
For various reasons I think that’s a couple of years down the road. For one thing, I’ll need probably 3 months to do it, and I just can’t see making that kind of time available quite yet. For another, I’ll need to train up to that kind of distance. So in the meantime, I’ve been exploring other long walks that are more doable in the here and now, and that’s led me to the Great Trail.
Also known as the Trans Canada Trail, this network of interconnected paths, roads, and waterways covers Canada from coast to coast to coast. The Trail is constantly being updated, and as of 2019 it’s at 24,000 km. Of that total, several thousand km are water-trails for canoe and kayak, so realistically I’ll never be able to walk the whole thing. Nevertheless, I can do parts of it, especially the bits nearby, so my bucket list now includes the approximately 1000 km or so of the Trail within a few hours of Toronto.
When I started exploring the Great Trail map, I realized that in fact I’ve already walked some of the parts that are within the City of Toronto – for example I covered about 80 km of the Waterfront Trail between Etobicoke Creek and the Rouge River this year. What I also noticed was that in Toronto, the Great Trail includes parts of the Toronto Pan-Am Trail and the Pan-Am Connector Trails.
I walked that recently, and now have added another 30 km or so to my lifetime total of the Great Trail. As it turns out, these trails are not yet very well signed-posted and documented trails. This path is a work in progress, but the general idea links together the Port Union Waterfront Trail from the Rouge River to Highland Creek, the Highland Creek trails through Colonel Danforth Park, the trails through Thompson Park, the Gatineau Hydro Corridor, the Taylor Creek Trail, and the Lower Don Trail to the lake. There are also some city streets to cover to link these together, and hopefully soon we’ll get these properly and completely mapped and linked.
Nevertheless, it’s already a great walk. I recently I covered the bulk of this on a glorious October day, and the scenery was spectacular, like this stretch below in Highland Creek Park.
That walk gave me a taste of what the Great Trail holds – if it’s so much fun in my own back yard, what about the other sections?
As a result, I’m now thinking about how to string together parts of the Great Trail into 1- and 2-week journeys that I can do over the next couple of years. For example, there are trails that link Niagara-on-the-Lake to Hamilton, Hamilton to Kitchener, Kitchener to Barrie, and so on.
All of these are within an hour or two from Toronto to either the start or the end of the trail, so the logistics are easy, plus some parts are even close enough that I could use the GO Train network to come home at night so that I can do them as day hikes. That gives me lots of ways to enjoy these trails, work up to long distance treks, and keep costs down.
Outside of Toronto, there are other parts of the Great Trail that look interesting, such as the 100 km Sea to Sky Trail from Vancouver to Whistler, the 200+ km Confederation Trail across Prince Edward Island, or the near-900 km cross-Newfoundland T’Railway Trail. That’s the beauty of it, there’s a range of trails from a few km to hundreds in length, and they cover the whole country.
And one of these days, if I want to get really ambitious, I think I might walk from Toronto to Ottawa (around 600 km by the Trail), walk from Ottawa to Montreal (also around 600 km), and possibly do both back to back over a couple of months – what I’m thinking of calling my TOM walk, from Toronto to Ottawa to Montreal.
I guess one of the perhaps unexpected consequences of the Big Walks I’ve done so far is that, having now scratched the Big Walk itch, I want to take on more of them. They’re a challenge physically, and I like the idea of planning for them and completing them. The Great Trail offers lots of ways to do that.
It reminds me of an old joke, that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. I’m thinking about the Great Trail that way – I’ll take bite-sized chunks from the Great Trail smorgasbord. I’m looking forward to it.
I’ve written previously about why I walk – for exercise, for exploration, for contemplation, for escape. One of my favourite walks in Toronto is through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where all of those reasons find a place.
I wandered through recently with a more specific purpose in mind. My friend Paul passed away 6 years ago on Thanksgiving Day, and so in mid-October I wanted to pay a visit and lift a toast to his spirit.
It’s beautiful there any time of the year, but I have to admit that autumn is my favourite time. The trees were just starting to turn, and there was enough of a chill in the air, despite the sunshine, that you could feel the change in seasons.
It felt like the autumn scene would soon resemble winter.
But as I walked I thought about the history of Toronto as it’s reflected in the graves and monuments around me. The older parts of the cemetery date to the 1870’s and 1880’s, and the great and good of Toronto at that time have Anglo-Scottish names that testify to the dominant waves of immigration that arrived then – names like Gage, Eaton, Massey, and Strachan are prominent as are the mausoleums they built for themselves.
The waves of immigrants from the British Isles are also reflected in monuments like the one erected by the St. Andrew Society to commemorate the many Scottish families that came to Canada.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery is also a place of history, holding the graves and monuments to many of the men who fought for Canada during World Wars 1 and 2. Some of these monuments are grand, like that for George Barker.
Others are quieter and in some ways more powerful. There is a section of the cemetery dedicated to veterans who passed away at the nearby Sunnybrook Hospital, which was built during World War 2 to help heal the many casualties of that war. Each grave is marked by a simple headstone that lists a name and branch of the service. It’s in a quiet wooded section of the cemetery, and the peacefulness is welcome when you think of what those men must have experienced.
In other sections of the cemetery, new waves of immigration are reflected in their names – the Anglo-Scottish are joined by the Italian, the Greek, the German, the Ukrainian, the Chinese, the Japanese, and many others. It’s the melting pot of Toronto illustrated in stone.
And then there is the personal history, the history of friends and family we knew. The history of a city and of grand families may be familiar to us in a general sense, but the history of a person we knew is much deeper and closer. Touching that history to recall laughter and rich conversation – that’s the essence of a cemetery.
Mount Pleasant has the Forest of Remembrance where ashes can be scattered in a wooded grove. When I’m walking through the Cemetery I usually pass through and pause at the stone that bears a plaque with Paul’s name. I say hello, and let him know how Fiona and the kids are doing. This visit I also raised a flask of Irish whisky and drank a toast. Sláinte.
The other functions of a cemetery – as history, as places of exercise, as places of beauty – all reinforce that main purpose, of remembrance. I walk in graveyards because I need the walk as exercise, because I’m interested in the history they relate, because I crave the quiet atmosphere and the beauty of the setting, and most of all because they connect me to the past as well as to the future we all come to.
As I was leaving the cemetery and walking up the busy Mount Pleasant Road, the image of the fence around the cemetery stuck in my mind. Is the fence to keep people out, or is it to keep the memories in? I think it’s a boundary, separating the memories we want to hold close from the outside world that rushes by because there are things to do and living to get on with. We know that, we know the world has to carry on, but we want to remember. That’s what cemeteries are for.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve walked the Don River many times, and recently I walked the lakefront as part of my trek across the city from Etobicoke Creek to the Rouge River. On my list of walks in Toronto, there was one, however, that I had never done – walking the Humber River. Late this past summer, in early September, I decided to scratch that itch.
The Humber rises well north of the city, and flows through western Toronto from the city boundary at Steeles Avenue and down to Lake Ontario. Like the Don River, there is a well-laid out trail system and a series of parks that let you walk most of its length, and also like the Don there are also a few private areas like golf courses that force some detours.
I started my journey at the Lake, in Sunnyside Park, which is on the east bank of the river. The boardwalk here leads directly to the Humber Bay Arch Bridge.
On a Sunday in early September, it was crowded with walkers and cyclists. I followed the Humber Trail path which starts on the west bank of the river at the Sheldon Lookout. The river is quite wide here compared to the Don – the Humber is actually a much more substantial river than the Don is in terms of water volume, and at the mouth of the river on this day there were a couple of canoeists out as well as a guy on a jet ski heading out onto the lake.
The path at the mouth of the river heads straight north, and takes you under the Gardiner Expressway and the adjacent Lakeshore Boulevard. You are right beside the river and there are marsh areas full of waterfowl on the eastern bank, but the traffic noise and the dark tunnels under the roadways take away any sense of the natural environment. It’s a relief to clear those and emerge into sunshine, and within a few hundred meters you’re back amongst the trees.
Walking north, I passed a mural painted along a fence by the Humber Water Treatment Plant. It was done as part of the Toronto Street Art project by Anishinaabe artist Philip Cote, and it explores different themes from Anishinaabe culture in a street-art/graffiti kind of style. I was struck by the vivid imagery, and it reminded me that the Humber was part of the transportation network of rivers used by the First Nations peoples who lived here prior to the immigration of Europeans.
The land where the City of Toronto is now was settled by First Nations peoples for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The name of the city itself, Toronto, comes from the Mohawk language. And yet, while we rightly celebrate the cultural diversity of Toronto, we always seem to do it in terms of the global melting pot – we talk about the United Nations of Toronto and we seek out restaurants and foods from dozens of cultures outside of North America. We rarely, however, talk about the other nations that were already here when Europeans first arrived – the Mohawk, the Seneca, the Algonquin, the Ojibwe, and others. There are many clues to this history scattered about the city in place names, street names, historical plaques, and now this mural, and for the rest of my walk that day along the Humber, I mulled over this vital part of our history and asked myself why we take it for granted.
Pre-colonization, and early in the colonization period, in the 1600’s and 1700’s, the Humber River formed part of the canoe route from the Great Lakes into the interior of the province of Ontario, helping to connect Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario along what has become known as the Carrying Place Trail. One of the first Europeans to travel along the Humber, at least according to a somewhat murky history, was the Frenchman Etienne Brule, and so today there is Etienne Brule park along the river. I had forgotten about that part of the city’s history – as Yogi Berra said, you can see a lot just by observing.
Continuing north from the park, the Humber Trail goes up the east bank of the river in this section. You soon pass the first of several fish ladders that have been added to the river. These small dams help with flood control, and since the river is part of the Lake Ontario salmon run, the fish ladders help them as they head up river to spawn.
I kept going, on the lookout for a quiet spot to sit for lunch, and around Magwood Park I found a nice bench overlooking the river beside another fish ladder, a perfect spot to stop for a bite.
It was a coolish day, but nevertheless I had worked up a sweat on my hike, so when I stopped for lunch I had to put on a jacket. It was a reminder that late summer would soon turn to early autumn.
After that pause, I kept going north. I had had thoughts of going all the way up to Steeles Avenue, but part way along I changed my mind and decided to aim for Eglinton Avenue. The Humber Trail keeps going north and I could have caught a bus and gotten home from Steeles that way. Instead, by turning east at Eglinton I could cut through back streets to pick up the York Beltline trail and walk all the way home.
Between Magwood Park and Eglinton, you cross the river to the west bank, near Dundas Street. As I walked north, I was struck by how much quieter it was along the Humber compared to walking along the Don. I didn’t miss the constant traffic on the Don Valley Expressway. Instead, the wider Humber river flowed between shaded river banks with marsh areas attracting many herons, geese, ducks, and gulls.
I was really enjoying the walk and was disappointed to realize that I’d come to Eglinton after only about 2 hours. I didn’t want to leave the river, but by this time I also realized that the new running shoes I was breaking in had led to a hot spot on the heel of one foot. That confirmed that here was where I’d have to start heading back home. I crossed Eglinton and took one last picture of the Humber as it flows under that busy road.
The walk home from this point was a different kind of adventure altogether. After the peacefulness of burbling water, I was back into traffic and city streets. I didn’t want to walk along the busy Eglinton Avenue, so I skirted north aiming for Tretheway, so that I could cut through the Mount Denison neighbourhood and cross Black Creek Drive and Keele Street.
As I walked up and down the hills in this area, the hot spot on my heel turned into a full blown blister. Stubbornly, I decided to tough it out and kept walking. I told myself if it got really bad, I could just jump on a bus and let the TTC get me home, so I gritted teeth and kept going.
When I reached the York Beltline, near Caledonia Road, I knew I had about 45 minutes of walking to go so after a short break to catch my breath, I set my mind to ignoring the blister to see this through. I was limping by now, but I didn’t want to quit. Each one of those 45 minutes seemed to take about 90 seconds instead of 60, but slowly I got closer to home. It was a relief to finally reach our flat and take off my shoes to survey the damage. There was a raw patch on my heel, and that night I resolved to always carry a blister kit in my pack.
Once home, and out of my shoes, I reflected on the Humber. I think I prefer walking along it compared to the Don River, because of the traffic noise that can overwhelm you along the latter. I definitely would like to keep going and walk the whole length of the river within the city boundaries, and the cool thing is that if you keep going north of Steeles, there are trails along the Humber that continue north for another 10 or 20 km. I need to add that to my bucket list, so that I can say that I’ve walked the length of the Humber.
Duration: About 23 hours of walking over Days 4, 5, and 6 of the TONotL journey
Length: About 95 km in total
Climb: According to my fitness tracker, I climbed the equivalent of about 140 flights of stairs over the 3 days, so about 500 meters worth. That’s most of the height of the CN Tower.
Weather: After some early rain on Day 4, the rest of that day and Day 5 were gorgeous – low 20’s, blue skies, and fresh breezes. Day 6, however, was cloudy, muggy, and high teen’s to start turning to 2 hours of rain to finish the walk.
Route: About 32 km on the Day 4, walking down off the escarpment from my Day 3 Bruce Trail exit point, through the town of Grimsby and following Mountain Road north to the lake, then turning west and following the Waterfront Trail all the way around the corner of Lake Ontario across Hamilton Harbour to Spencer Smith Park in Burlington. On Day 5, another 36 km following the Waterfront Trail, along Lakeshore Road or on Trail sections going through various parks, to finish in Port Credit. Finally on Day 6, about 27 km from Port Credit along the Waterfront Trail, initially along Lakeshore Road, and then onto the Martin Goodman Trail in Toronto. I left the Trail at Coronation Park and walked up to Fort York, and then through the downtown core to finish at Nathan Philips Square in front of Toronto City Hall.
Be warned: This post has blisters in it. And kissing.
On Day 4, waking up in the B&B outside Grimsby I could hear the drops of water as the wind shook the night’s rain from the trees. Everything was damp though at least the rain had stopped. It was chilly and cloudy still, but the day promised to improve and by afternoon it was going to be sunny.
I was looking forward to the change in walking conditions, going from the often rugged footing of the Bruce Trail to the benign pavements and sidewalks of the Waterfront Trail. I could make better time and cover a longer distance more quickly, and I could take rest breaks in parks instead of sitting on damp logs.
The downside, however, is that the Waterfront Trail, of necessity, has to follow long stretches of road because much of the actual waterfront along Lake Ontario is privately owned. There are some public parks, and especially when I got Mississauga and Toronto there were public trails that form part of the Waterfront Trail system, but most of the remaining 95 km back to Toronto would be along roads, and roads meant traffic.
So I exchanged the Bruce Trail soundscape of air cannons and birds for one of trucks, motorcycles, and cars. Day 4 of the journey, between Grimsby and Burlington, was the worst for this. The whole day was dominated by the roar of traffic along the busy Queen Elizabeth Way (and by the way, we do the dear lady a disservice naming that road after her – the Roaring Road would be much more appropriate). Even in the Hamilton Beach neighbourhood where you walk next to the lake, I could hardly hear the lap of waves or calls of birds. I cannot imagine living there, though I guess you’d eventually condition yourself to ignore it. It’s probably like my tinnitus – it’s always there but you are only conscious of it when you choose to be.
At any rate, walking down Ridge Road outside Grimsby, I passed where I would have re-entered the Bruce Trail and then where I would have exited it again, if I had finished the last 2.5 km of the Niagara Section. It looked wet and slippery. My feet were giving my issues, with the blister on one toe threatening to become multiple blisters. I had rubbed them thoroughly with anti-chaffing cream that morning and had bandaged and taped as needed, but I knew there’d be new blisters by the time I reached Burlington.
To get to the official Waterfront Trail from the town of Grimsby, you have to cross over the QEW, and walk through a residential area. I went as far north as I could to get near the lake, and walking west along Lakeside Drive I came to a little park, where there was a great view over the lake. The skyline of Toronto was clear under the clouds, and that skyline would be the beacon for me as it drew closer hour by hour for the next 3 days.
Once you’re on the Waterfront Trail, you just follow the signs as you hug the lake as much as is practical. For much of its length between Grimsby and Hamilton, the Trail follows the North Service Road, and in many places this is just meters from the QEW itself. Some stretches are separated by a concrete sound abatement barrier, about 3 meters high, and others by nothing more than a chain link fence. There was no way to fool myself into thinking this was pleasant. I just walked as fast as I could to get through it.
Eventually, painfully, I came to Confederation Beach Park in Hamilton, on the east side of the harbour, and there I could join the Waterfront Trail proper. From here the Trail as a separate walking path is continuous all the way to Spencer Smith Park in Burlington, so the 2nd half of my day would be removed from the QEW, yet never so far as to be removed from the drenching sound of traffic.
I found a nice bench in the sun and had a bite and a rest. I knew I had been motoring and found that I was a bit more than half way through my planned route for the day. Compared to my pace on the Bruce Trail, this was flying.
The Trail turns north here as you start to curl around the western end of Lake Ontario. North of Confederation Beach Park, you pass through the Hamilton Beaches residential area. This feels distinct from the rest of the city, and I guess it’s always been a bit of a getaway-from-it neighbourhood compared to areas closer to the downtown core. You’re quite close to the water and many of the house have fantastic views over the Lake, and yet there’s that constant traffic roar. As well, Hamilton has a long history of heavy industry, and while the pollution from the steel industry is a fraction of what it once was, there’s still a distinct tang in the air. It doesn’t help that a long line of electrical transmission towers march north right at the water’s edge.
As you go north, eventually you come to what’s known as the Burlington Canal, which cuts through the isthmus that encloses Hamilton Harbour. This is crossed by a lift bridge, and the Trail uses that bridge to hop over the water, so you have to climb up to it.
From the bridge as you cross, you get a great view of the harbour looking under the higher Burlington Skyway that carries the QEW over the canal. The steel works that made Hamilton an industrial powerhouse for a 100 years line the harbour.
Looking the other way, you can see along the Lake Ontario shoreline towards Toronto.
Once you climb down off the bridge and rejoin the Trail, you’re only about 3 km from downtown Burlington and Spencer Smith Park. I covered it quickly, because I wanted to get to my hotel and chill out for a bit. My parents were passing through Burlington returning from a vacation of their own, and we had arranged to meet for dinner that night. I did pause for the view from Spencer Smith Park, where I could see across the lake where the dark line of the Escarpment was clear. It was hard to believe I’d covered that distance in just 4 days.
That night, over dinner I recounted some of my adventures on the Bruce Trail to my parents. They were quite proud of how I was doing – thanks Mom and Dad.
I had treated the blister on the little toe of my right foot the night before, and I could see that I had another one developing on the big toe of the same foot. As well, the tops of both feet were irritated and red, and both heels were looking bruised. There was nothing for it but to lather both feet in anti-chaffing cream, tape up my raw baby toe, and put on my shoes and socks. At least the road would be flat for the most part and crossed through several parks, so I planned for breaks where I could take off my shoes to air my feet.
I had to pause within the first hundred meters that morning, because the early sky was a lovely salmon-peach, and the old saying came to mind – “red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning”. I knew from the forecast that Day 6 promised rain, and the view over the lake was telling me the same.
It’s pleasant enough walking along Lakeshore, as there’s much less traffic compared to the highways, the road is lined with trees, and it’s mostly a quiet residential area. It’s also kind of boring. From Burlington to the Mississauga city limit, you basically pass through 20 km of upper-end housing with a few parks and the shopping areas at Bronte Harbour and downtown Oakville. Any given random stretch looks more or less like this:
That said, walking through Bronte Harbour I was able to stop to pick up some fruit, and in Oakville I had lunch in Lakeside Park. At every stop, a glance north-east up the lake showed the Toronto Skyline getting closer.
After 20+ km, as you leave Oakville and enter Mississauga at Winston Churchill Drive, Lakeshore Road turns north for a bit and becomes Southdown Road, before turning back east and reverting to Lakeshore Road again. This jog takes you around some large factories and chemical plants, though there’s also some park land in there too.
It’s noisy, dusty, and there’s a chemical odour in the air. I was tired and my destination in Port Credit lay on the other side of these factories, so once more it was head down and chugging to motor on through.
On the other side of the plant, the Waterfront Trail deviates from Lakeshore Road and takes you through some quieter streets in the Glen Leven neighbourhood, before eventually leading you to Jack Darling Park. This made for a good final rest stop for the day, and once recharged, I set out to cover the last few km into Port Credit.
The Waterfront Trail returns you from the park to Lakeshore Road, and marching along it here is much more cityish compared the stretches in Burlington and Oakville – the traffic here is heavier, the road is wider, and the speed limit is higher, so you get a good dose of traffic noise and dust because the Trail runs adjacent to the street. I could see my hotel getting closer, and also saw a grocery store where I could pick up some dinner and some lunch for the next day. I was pretty tired when I finally got there, and the hot shower was welcome. Still, I was a bit nervous looking at my feet because the blister on my big toe was getting worse, to join the mess on my little toe. One more day.
It rained overnight but it had stopped by the time I set out. Once again I put blister bandages on the toes on my right foot, slathered on the anti-chaffing cream, and laced up my shoes for one last day.
In my day job, I manage software projects. Often, as you get closer to a deadline, the team will get what I call completionitis – that drive to the finish that can mean cutting corners and making mistakes in the haste to cross the finish line.
I could feel it in myself, completionitis, but being conscious of it meant that even though I wanted to get home as fast as I could, I didn’t want to cut corners. While it was shorter and more direct to simply follow Lakeshore Road all the way into Toronto to Fort York, I told myself that I’d follow the Waterfront Trail signs even if that took me through parks and neighbourhood back streets and made the journey longer.
I also decided that to end my journey appropriately, I would keep going past my original end point at Fort York and instead continue on to finish at Nathan Philips Square by city hall. I wanted to make sure I got a selfie in front of the Toronto sign there, so I texted my wife to ask her to meet me there, stopped for a coffee to fuel up, and set off.
At first the weather gods were with me. The sun came out, I put on my sunglasses, and delighted in the breeze. I even got a shadow selfie.
It’s only a bit more than an hour’s walk from Port Credit to the Toronto city limits, and I couldn’t help myself – I had to leave the Waterfront Trail for a bit so that I could take a picture of the Welcome to Toronto sign at the city limit at Etobicoke Creek.
After that, I rejoined the Waterfront Trail. The sun by now had disappeared and ominous clouds were building. Knowing rain was inevitable, I wanted to make time and kept walking as quickly as I could, passing up spots for a break and only pausing long enough to put the rain cover on my pack.
This was familiar ground because I had walked this part of the Waterfront Trail just a few weeks ago on my Toronto Crossing trek, so I wasn’t interested in exploring. I made pretty good time, and in fact was ahead of schedule when I crossed the Humber River over the white arched bridge.
Just past this, in Sunnyside Park, I found a covered picnic area where I could finally stop for a break, almost 4 hours after I had left Port Credit. I was impatient to finish by this point, but I forced myself to relax, took my shoes off, ate slowly, and rehydrated. When I was done, I put on my rain jacket against the growing chill, and was glad I had done so because just as I started out again, the heavens opened. I walked for 30 minutes in a steady rain, which finally slowed to a misty drizzle as I got to about Ontario Place.
Just east of Ontario Place, you come to Coronation Park, and there I finally said goodbye to the Waterfront Trail, turning north up Strachan Avenue to reach Fort York. The rain picked up again as I approached, but I paused to take some pics.
By now I’d put in my ear buds and cranked up some energy music (an eclectic playlist of pop and country that I’ve shared on Apple Music). I was in full slog mode, like when I did a marathon a couple of years before, and I needed the push and distraction of the music to keep me going.
From Fort York, it was a short climb up Bathurst Street to King, and then a zig-zag through the Entertainment District to reach Queen and University. The rain was coming down harder, and completionitis was driving me past the pains in my feet. I was so into it that I was ahead of schedule, and arrived at Nathan Philips Square at least 10 minutes earlier than what I’d said to my wife and my son, who’d also come down to meet me at the finish.
I knew they’d want to see me march in, so I took off my pack and waited on a park bench to cool down, though at least in that time the rain finally stopped. When I reckoned they should have arrived, I put my pack back on and walked out into the Square. The first thought I had when I saw them was that either I had shrunk under the weight of my pack or my son had grown another few centimetres in the past week.
My wife came up and I gave her a hug and a kiss, though she wrinkled her nose as she stepped back. Later when I got into the car and the waft of my wet-dog aroma hit my nose, I understood why. Sorry Hon.
After that, it was time for the obligatory selfie.
A few days after I got back, I was chatting with a fellow parent at our sons’ volleyball game, and I mentioned the walk I’d just completed. “What made you take that on?”, she asked. “Was it to raise money for a charity?” Others have asked me that as well – why? Why walk for 6 days?
I’ve written previously about why I walk. Sometimes walking is a form of contemplation, of immersing oneself in the walk. Sometimes it’s exercise. Sometimes it’s exploration. This walk was about all of those things, and as well, sometimes walks are like with this one – they’re about the goal. I set a goal, made a plan, and took pleasure in executing it. Along the way of course I got some exercise (though damnably, I finished at about the same weight I’d started at), I saw many new things, and I had time to think.
Thinking time was a big part of the appeal for me, and in fact at one point I found myself thinking about what I had been thinking about over the past few days as I walked. I realized that a strangely diverse range of topics had drifted through my head:
what percentage of vehicles on Lakeshore Road were Porche Cayennes versus Range Rovers versus landscaper pick-ups
baseball players who’d had their careers cut short by concussions
weird bits of roadside trash (who throws out a bunch of VCR cassettes? Who still even owns a VCR?)
which was more annoying, the sound of leaf-blowers or the roar of highway traffic
All that said, if I have to answer that “why?” question honestly, I did this walk because I knew it would be a challenge and I wanted to see if I could do it. Long distance walks are hard. When it’s hot and you’re exhausted, when it’s raining and you’re cold, when your feet hurt, when blisters pop, when your shoulders ache under the pack – all these things accumulate and at some point on a long walk it’s inevitable that the thought of stopping, temporarily or completely, goes through your head. But you don’t, because you’re stubborn – deep down you keep going because you want to.
And let’s face it, I wasn’t exactly crossing a desert carrying my life’s possessions in flight from danger – my life wasn’t at stake by any means. If I’d really hurt myself, help was just a cell phone away. Still, it was hard for me, there was a lot of effort to it, and if a younger, fitter person could have done it more easily, that’s not the point. In a world of convenience, where everything can be ordered in, deliberately doing something that’s hard, because it’s hard, can be liberating. I met no one’s goals but my own, because I’ve reached that point in my life where measuring myself by someone else’s yardstick is soooo yesterday.
That achievement was part of the satisfaction. Another part was the pleasure I’ve always taken from the execution of a plan. Even as a kid, I was a planner. I’d map out adventures in my head – what if I was the only survivor of a plane crash in the northern woods? – and I’d make lists of the things I might need to survive and how I could use them. I read Robinson Crusoe and Lost in the Barrens and told myself I could do at least as well as the characters in those books. My bucket list walks are me 50 years later still making lists and plans.
There’s a saying that there’s a little boy in every man. Scrambling over rocks along the Bruce Trail, there was a little boy in my head that delighted in how my list making and planning had come together – my walking poles, my shoes, my pack, my first aid kit with the blister kit, and so on.
Of course there’s an adult in the room too, and the mature me drew satisfaction from the fact that I’m healthy enough to do it, financially secure enough to afford it, and prepared enough to plan it. It’s like a puzzle, where the pieces come together to reveal the whole picture.
My mom had asked me if I got lonely walking by myself. The short answer is no, I’ve always liked to have time to myself. The longer answer is that walking by myself is a journey with my thoughts, with the people I meet, and the scenes I absorb to savour in my mind’s eye. It’s the sounds, the smells, and the sweat. It’s the accumulation of stages towards the end goal. And it’s also a shared journey. I’m lucky enough to be married to my best friend who’s always with me wherever I am. Thanks Love.
Length – about 98 km total, including about 93 km on the trail itself and another 5 km or so getting to/from the trail when I left it each day and rejoined it the next.
Height – according to my fitness tracker, I climbed the equivalent of about 550 flights of stairs over the 3 days – that’s probably around 2000 m of climbing so hey guess what, I did over 20% of Mount Everest!
Weather – first full week of autumn, cloudy with rain on Day 1, then sunny and breezy on Days 2-3; warm temps for early autumn – mid-20’s mostly
Route: About 35k on Day 1, from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Queenston Heights via the Niagara River Recreational Trail. Then along the Niagara Section of the Bruce Trail, starting from the famous cairn marking the start of the trail at Queenston Heights, and continuing along it to Glendale Avenue in Thorold to complete Day 1. About 33k on Day 2, rejoining the trail at Glendale and following it through Short Hills Provincial Park, Rockaway Conservation Area, and Louth Conservation Area to exit the trail on Glen Road near Jordan. Finally, about 24.5k on Day 3, rejoining the trail and following it through Balls Falls Conservation Area, Cave Springs Conservation Area, Mountainview Conservation Area, and 30 Mile Creek Conservation Area to exit the trail at Ridge Road near Grimsby.
In earlier posts, I’ve talked about my bucket list of walks, which includes the walk between Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. I wanted to do this because I reckoned it was a good intro to long distance walking – it’s in my own backyard, I could cover part of the Bruce Trail, and I could learn from it to decide how to approach other bucket list walks, such as the Camino de Santiago.
I didn’t know what to expect, or even if I could finish it. I knew it would be hard, at least for me, as a somewhat overweight, moderately in-shape, mid-50’s guy. I wasn’t going to push myself to the breaking point, but I did want to see how far I could go.
But to find out I had to do it, and that meant starting with the Bruce Trail. My wife and I drove down to Niagara-on-the-Lake on a Sunday, the last official day of summer. We had a lovely evening, enjoying a great meal with some very good local wines, and a gentle stroll about town.
Leaving on Monday morning, I wanted to start at Fort George, because then I could finish in Toronto at Fort York and that appealed to the history buff in me. Besides, my family, the Bradt’s, emigrated from Europe in the 1640’s to then New Amsterdam / now upper New York state, and from there moved to the Niagara region as United Empire Loyalists in the 1790’s, where distant relatives served in the Canadian Militia units attached to the British Army (Butler’s Rangers) during the War of 1812 when Forts George and York played important roles. Basically, from way, way back I have roots in the area.
There was some rain that morning, but I had been keyed up to start, so I was ready to leave as soon as I woke up. I put the rain cover on my pack, clicked together my walking poles, and headed off down the Niagara River Recreational Trail.
The Niagara River Rec Trail is a great little walk in its own right. It follows the river quite closely so you get great views over the gorge, and it’s lined by wineries, orchards, and fruit stands. My wife and I have walked part of it a few times when we’ve been in Niagara-on-the-Lake and having stopped at various wineries to sample and buy, we return later with the car to pick up our trophies.
On this day, of course, my focus was ahead of me. I kept looking down the road where the Niagara Escarpment loomed larger and higher as I got closer. I knew that it’s about 100m high in most places, but it seemed higher because it just jumps up from flat ground.
As I walked, I was constantly jolted by something that seemed appropriate given my start at Fort George – the constant banging and thumping of air cannons. It was harvest time in the fruit basket of Ontario, and every orchard, vineyard, and field seemed to have at least one of these cannons firing away to scare off birds. The almost military cannonade called to mind the sound track from films of World War 1, and the rumble of the guns would accompany me all the way to Grimsby after I’d left the Bruce.
Coming into Queenston, the Recreational Trail takes you up into the Queenston Heights park. It also takes you past the Sir Isaac Brock Monument – a reminder of the historical importance of the area to what eventually became Canada.
After a quick look at the monument, I turned and saw that over the river, a number of turkey vultures and hawks were circling in the breeze, just a few meters from the roadway – I stood there mesmerized for several minutes, though they moved so fast it was hard to get a good photo.
From there, it was time to climb some more and find the cairn that marks the official start of the Bruce Trail.
Looking opposite the cairn, I could see a line of trees marching across the park, each marked with the white painted blaze that I would follow for the next 3 days.
After a quick break to fill water bottles and have a bite, I set off on the Trail. It was a weird feeling. I had been anticipating a rugged trail and yet as you cross Queenston Heights Park following the markers, you’re walking on mowed grass with very little that looks like a trail. Gradually you get closer to a line of trees with no apparent opening, though one eventually appears. The Trail looks easy here, but I would learn that it’s a deceptive entry.
Not long after I joined the Trail, the looming grey skies opened up and the rain stayed with me for another hour or so. Soon I was skidding on mud and blessing my walking poles as I descended the escarpment, in some places very steeply, and then climbed back up again; dipping down gullies and scrambling back out; up and down, up and down, all on muddy ground and broken rock.
I kept looking for a place to take a break, but another lesson of the Trail is that there are few places to stretch your legs unless you want to get wet. I eventually found a downed tree that served the purpose, at the cost of a soaked seat to my shorts.
The first 20 km of Trail takes some interesting twists. At one point, coming out of the Woodend Conservation Area, I followed the Trail across the Royal Niagara Golf Course where I ran into a guy searching for his ball and we shared a hello. In another section, I crossed a meadow along a narrow grassy path that was littered with snails – I tried to avoid stepping on them but couldn’t help crunching my way for several hundred meters, feeling guilty for my clumsy human feet.
Later, the trail follows the 3rd Welland Canal, the one from the 1880’s – the sun had come out again by then, and I stopped several times to admire the view of the old locks cut into the escarpment.
It was a grind to finish the Trail that day. I was tired and running short of water, so it was with great relief that I came off the Trail at Glendale Avenue, in the Merriton neighbourhood of St. Catherines. I was below the escarpment at this point, and I knew that the next day I would have to climb it once more. With that thought, I checked into my hotel and enjoyed a hot shower and a welcome glass of wine. Day 1 done.
In the morning, I thought that I’d feel stiff as a board, but to my relief it wasn’t too hard to get going. After walking back to where I’d left the Trail the day before, I followed it along Glendale Avenue and then climbed the escarpment up Tremont Drive. Here you’re walking through a residential neighbourhood, but very soon you step into forests again as you reach the top – in fact you’ve entered the grounds of Brock University. The walking is easy here – the forest is old with open ground under the trees and it’s easy to follow the markings.
Winding through the campus, I popped out passing by the Brock University athletic facilities, where I took a quick pic for my wife, a Brock Alumnus.
As you leave the campus, the trail takes you into the Short Hills Provincial Park. It’s mixed ground here, with some open meadows skirting fields, as well as laneways through the forest. The ever-present air cannonade still dominated the soundscape, but the open spaces teemed with the buzz and chirp of crickets, grasshoppers, and cicadas.
It was a gorgeous day, welcome after the rain the day before, and I made what I thought was pretty good time. When I took a break, however, and checked my fitness tracker and then the map, I was shocked to discover that after several hours of walking, I still had 15 km to go. I was doing a lot of walking but a lot of it was up and down, not forward towards my goal, so while the fitness tracker clocked kms I wasn’t advancing on the map. My strategy became short breaks and motoring on.
Here the Trail continues through several more conservation areas, and you keep climbing and descending, up and down gullies and sometimes up and down the whole escarpment. The terrain gets harder too – by the time I got to Rockaway Conservation Area, I ran into several km of broken rock underfoot. Each step took concentration to avoid a slip or worse, and several times I lost the trail and had to back track – in looking down at your feet you lose track of the markers. Even when it wasn’t rocky underfoot, it was narrow and twisty. Despite my best efforts I knew I was only covering about 3 km per hour, well under my planned pace.
Eventually, the Trail emerges from trees to follow a couple of country roads, and looking down one of them I had a perfect view of Toronto on the horizon. It was probably 50 km across the lake, and I knew there were at least 100 km to reach it.
There were more twists and climbs yet on the Trail that day. Near the end of the day, I came across a photographer set up in a gully, with a camera on a tripod aimed at single tree. He said he’d been photographing it for the past year, and was waiting for the perfect shaft of autumn sunlight to light up the leaves. While we chatted, just such a gleam appeared, and he happily fired off several exposures.
Leaving him behind, I followed what seemed like a hundred km of broken rock trail, and I was tired, sweaty, thirsty, and sore by the time I reached my Trail exit near Jordan. I reckoned I earned my beverage of choice that day.
On Day 3, I awoke still feeling pretty good – a bit stiff but otherwise ready for the day ahead. On paper, it looked easier – this was was going to be my shortest planned day, only around 25 km, and I thought I could knock it off in 7 hours or so.
I soon changed my mind when I rejoined the trail outside Jordan and entered the Balls Falls Conservation Area. You descend here, and along the bottom of the escarpment you follow the Twenty Mile Creek upriver. There’s a lovely little rock pool and with the sun shining, the water burbling, and the breeze tickling the leaves I couldn’t help but smile.
And then I came to the Stairs.
They stretch more or less straight up the escarpment, 120 steps in all, with another few meters of trail climb at the top. I was gassed by the time I got there, dripping with sweat and huffing and puffing. A kind soul has put a log in place so you can sit and catch your breath, and I took full advantage of it to recover.
From here you walk through the upper part of the Balls Falls area, and it’s gorgeous. The trail is friendly here, wide and level, with lots of open spaces to view the gorge of the Twenty Creek.
A couple of wild turkeys trotted along in front of me for a bit, and other than them and a few dog walkers, I had the trail to myself.
Those few km after the Stairs lulled me into a false sense of security, thinking that this was going to be an easy walk. That changed as I left the Balls Falls Conservation Area. The trail follows the escarpment quite closely, and I descended it to spend several km scrambling along the bottom over broken rock. I tripped here and fell, the only time I did so on the Trail, and then at the Cave Spring Conservation Area I climbed again back to the top of the escarpment. It was a slog on an increasingly hot day, but the view from the top was worth it.
I wasn’t the only one enjoying the view. I came across a through-hiker who had the foresight to carry a small camp chair and a portable set of watercolours. He was sitting, focused, a palette attached to one hand and a small canvas on his knee. I didn’t want to disturb him, and after a quick sneak peak at what looked like a pretty good landscape, I left him to his labours and continued along.
Past Cave Springs, there’s a small park with welcome benches where I could sit, take off my shoes, and have a bite. I had developed a blister on one toe, the first of the journey, and it a few minutes to treat that. After what ended up as a longer break than I wanted, I was shocked to check the Trail map and realize I still had 10+ km to go, and it was already around 2:00 pm – that meant 3 hours of walking so time to start chugging.
The Trail takes you through the Mountainview Conservation Area, and then the Thirty Mile Creek woods, with a lot of broken rock, gullies, muddy sloughs, and few breaks of open forest. There are a couple of stretches following roads where you can catch your breath, but otherwise it just keeps leading you up and down the slope of the escarpment. I could feel my pulse pounding and the blister on my toe was starting to bug me too. I was exhausted but relieved to pop out onto a road a couple of km from Grimsby to find the B&B I’d booked for the night right there in front of me. I was so tired that I abandoned thoughts of finishing the last 2.5 km of trail that would complete the Niagara section, instead checking in for the night. Day 3 was done, I was done, and also done, as it turned out, was my journey along the Niagara section of the Bruce Trail.
It rained overnight, and the next morning it was still damp and grey with a bit of misty rain in the air. I thought of polishing off the remaining bit of Trail, but I knew that it would be wet and muddy, and the map showed a steep descent and then a climb over that remaining couple of km, which I knew would be tough. Reluctantly, I decided to skip this last short section of the Trail. Officially I did all but 2.5 km of the Niagara section of the Bruce trail, but I’ll pick it up from there one day when I do the next section of the Bruce.
So what did I learn? Firstly, that I could actually do it even though it was tough going in many places. Ironically, I was travelling through fabulously scenic countryside and yet I didn’t actually see that much. I spent most of my time looking down for roots and rocks. At most I’d glance up every 5-10 seconds to catch the next blaze, and otherwise I kept my head down. Even so I must have tripped or slipped a few dozen times a day despite my best concentration – the Trail is not for the wandering mind.
I was also sobered to think that if the Niagara section is one of the easier stretches of the Bruce, then the toughest parts would take a lot more planning and prep. For this journey I had planned to do around 30 km a day but knowing what I know now, I think 20-25 km is more realistic.
As well, I carried a relatively light pack since I was staying at hotels along the way. Even so, that 11 kg felt pretty heavy near the end of each day so in future I’ll have to build in more training walks carrying at least that much weight, so I’m better acclimated.
I also learned that there are few areas on the Bruce for just sitting, and very few places to refill with potable water from a tap. On the more remote sections, I’ll need to plan to filter and treat water along the trail from streams and springs.
Finally, as beautiful as it is, and as famous as it is in the hiking community, I thought the Bruce was surprisingly lightly travelled. I only met 2 other through-hikers and just a handful of day walkers over 3 days on one of the busiest sections of the Trail. Granted it was a bit late in the season, but the weather was generally good. I was conditioned by my walks along Toronto trails to expect to meet people at least a few times an hour.
Several people have asked me what I do when I’m walking – do I listen to music, do I get bored, do I feel lonely walking by myself. No. The beauty of the Bruce, for me, is the peace and quiet. I loved it.