Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto
One of the streets I wanted to walk in criss-crossing Toronto is Spadina Avenue. It’s interesting for several reasons. For one thing, it was laid out as one of the grand boulevards downtown, where it’s about 60-70 m wide. For another, it’s been a draw for immigrants from around the world for more than 100 years, again especially downtown, where successive waves of newcomers to Toronto have left their mark. And finally, selfishly, it ends close to my home in mid-town, so in walking the length of it from the Lake I am basically walking home.
It starts right down at the Harbour, at Queens Quay, and on a January day it was pretty chilly down there. Come back in June and there will be people everywhere enjoying the sun, but on this day it just looked a bit bleak.
Looking north, the view is even less inspiring, since you are staring at the Gardiner Expressway, which Spadina has to cross under.
Going under the Gardiner, there’s a sense of a lost opportunity – all that land hidden away and under-utilized in a city that needs more housing, more parks, more green-space, more bike infrastructure, more community space. There are plans to do something with this – further west near Fort York there’s a cool new park area – and it will be interesting to see how this evolves given all the priorities the city faces.
From the gloom under the Gardiner, you emerge onto the bridge over the train tracks – quite a lot of them in fact, with many commuter lines leading in and out of Union Station. These railway lands were originally along Toronto’s waterfront, and development over the past 100 years has moved the water’s edge south. We’ve compounded that by allowing a wall of condo towers on the south side of the tracks, so that we’ve cut off our old downtown from the lake. There are ambitious and expense plans to build over the train tracks and create a park connecting the condos to the core – all part of the evolution of the city I suppose.
Finally, north of these barriers past Front Street, you feel like you’re in an actual busy, humming, urban neighbourhood. The area from Front Street north to 1 Spadina Circle near College is packed with shops, bars, restaurants, markets, people, streetcars, bikes, scooters, buskers, hipsters, students, and hawkers. There’s a lot of energy here, whatever the weather.
There are also some interesting little nods to history. Up until about 30 years ago, the area between King and Queen was Toronto’s Garment District, and it’s still known by that name and is commemorated by a giant thimble sculpture at the corner of Richmond and Spadina.
Between Queen and Dundas, you walk through what is still sometimes referred to as Chinatown, though these days it’s a more eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. Further past that, north of Dundas, you pass Kensington Market. This stretch, between Queen and College, is a great place to explore at leisure – it’s often said you can dine around the world in these few blocks. It was inner-city working class for a long time, and over the past 40-50 years has become first seedy, then bohemian, and now more hipster. The venerable old El Mocambo club is still there, and is soon to re-open. When the El Mo gets gentrified, you know the whole area is going that way.
As I was walking through here, I thought of a tune from the 80’s by a group called the Shuffle Demons – check out Spadina Bus and tell me you don’t think it’s catchy.
Continuing north, if you stand in the middle of Spadina at one of the streetcar stops, you get a great view south back towards the lake,
North of Spadina Circle, coming up towards Bloor, you are on the west edge of the U of T campus, where some of the residences present a bold look.
Past Bloor, you keep climbing, subtly at first and then, when you get to the Baldwin Steps, quite steeply. The steps look pretty daunting – I was walking through here one summer day when I passed a bored personal trainer who was working out a poor slob (i.e. a middle aged overweight guy like me), making him do reps up and down the stairs. I thought of that as I slogged up on this day.
But, the view you get looking back south over the city from the top of the stairs is great, one of the best in the city. You can tell yourself when you are standing here that, 20,000 years ago you’d be on the beach overlooking Lake Iroquois which extended to this point – the Baldwin Steps are basically climbing to the ancient shoreline.
And of course, when you get to the top, you’re right next to one of Toronto’s most famous landmarks, Casa Loma. This ornate pile is now owned by the City, and is also home to a schwanky restaurant as well as lots of free events throughout the year. Whenever I go past, there’s always a swarm of tourists taking selfies.
Spadina keeps going north past Casa Loma, and you soon come to the bridge over the Nordheimer Ravine, part of the park/trail system that is today where the infamous Spadina Expressway would have been had it been built. I’m so glad that never happened.
On the other side of the ravine, you come to St. Clair Avenue. This is a residential area, and the gateway to Forest Hill, one of the more upscale neighbourhoods in Toronto. That said, the area around Spadina and Lonsdale is home to Forest Hill Village, a cozy little shopping area that’s just “the village” to those in the hood.
Spadina keeps climbing through here, and the village gives way to more houses and blocks of flats as you progress towards Eglinton. When you get to Eg, it looks like Spadina ends at a T-junction, and a pretty ugly junction at that, what with the Eglinton Crosstown construction underway and an auto repair shop on the corner. But, if you keep going east about 100 meters to Chaplin, you can turn north, cross Chaplin, and find the remaining few hundred meters of Spadina.
The Avenue here finishes its journey with houses on one side and Memorial Park on the west side.
My son played baseball here when he was in little league, and that image stuck in my mind despite the snow over the diamond.
Many times, walking Toronto’s streets is a journey through time for me, and Spadina captures that perfectly. The shops and markets, the Garment District, U of T, Casa Loma, and Memorial Park at the end are all reminders of different eras, personal and civic.
I like Spadina for what it is today as well as what it has meant to our city. It’s a timeline and a time tunnel, and a time-saver for getting down town. Walk it and see.
Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto
Back in the 80’s, Yonge and Eglinton was known derisively as Young and Eligible, and I was then young, somewhat eligible, and lived in the neighbourhood. I also worked a couple of km ways east along Eglinton, just off of Laird Drive, so I travelled back and forth along it every day. It all means that I have a somewhat nostalgic attachment to Eg, so it was natural that I’d include this one in my tour of TO streets. And in case you’re wondering, many Torontonians know it as “Eg” more than “Eglinton”.
There is also the fact (and I didn’t know this until I looked it up) that Eg is the only major street in today’s City of Toronto that takes you through all 6 of the former boroughs of Metro Toronto – Scarborough, East York, Toronto, North York, York, and Etobicoke. By walking it, I’d get a chance to explore Toronto’s history as well as its present, and that’s the whole point of this TO Streets exercise.
So all that said, I decided to do the walk in 2 halves, travelling out to the east and west ends of Eg and walking back towards mid-town. That way I’d be travelling against the commuter rush in the morning and walking towards home.
I decided to start on the eastern end, and that is at the intersection of Kingston Road and Eglinton, well out into Scarborough.
Since the Eglinton Go Train station is near that intersection, I travelled out to it to start off, but to avoid retracing my steps along Eg, I left the station heading a bit south and east, so that I walked through what is the old heart of Scarborough village and up along Kingston Road to get to the start of my walk. There isn’t, to be honest, very much to look at as you stare west along Eg from Kingston Road.
Still, it was a nice sunny day, so the walk was pleasant. Heading west, I kept thinking of the punch lines to a running joke – you know you are in Scarborough when …. there are more Chevies than Bentley’s; there are more Tim’s than Starbucks; there are more payday loan shops than bank branches; there are more “ethnic” restaurants than “Canadian” ones; and on and on.
You get the point. It’s a place of newcomers and of working class people building a life. Downtown Torontonians tend to look down on the suburbs, and Scarborough is that writ large. It’s easy to turn up your nose at the endless strip malls, but you have to admit that these suburbs are where the majority of Toronto’s population actually lives.
One thing that is absolutely apparent is that it’s a car’s world. The street is wide because cars are how people get around. At the eastern and western ends of Eglinton, the only public transit is by bus. For long stretches, until I was within 2 km of Yonge from the east and about 3 km of Yonge from the west, I was the only pedestrian. This isn’t a place where people walk around, or bike for that matter. It’s mostly open and unshaded, the wind whips and bites (or the sun bakes in summer), and if it had been raining it would have been very unpleasant. As it was, the dust and grit off the road as the traffic flowed steadily, not to mention the mess from the Eglinton Crosstown construction, clogged my sinuses and left me with a brutal headache when I got home. What idiot walks 40km across Eglinton?
After a steady hour plus of walking, I came to the east end of the giant construction project that is the current state of the Eglinton Crosstown. It will provide almost 20km of light rail transit, from Mount Dennis in the west to Kennedy Road in the east, and after living through the first 3 years of the project, I’ll be very glad to see it finish (fingers crossed) in 2021.
It’s necessary of course, it will be great when it’s done, and there’s no way to build something on this scale without mess and disruption. Still, everyone who lives near Eg is getting tired of it.
It also made my walk from the east problematic between Victoria Park and Brentcliffe. In this section, pedestrians are even more of an afterthought than elsewhere – sidewalks on one side or other of the road were closed, and for one 500 meter stretch just west of Don Mills Road, there wasn’t any sidewalk or foot path at all.
I trudged through thick mud along the lane used by the construction equipment in order to keep going, attracting stares from the workers and preparing to jump out of the way if a lorry came by.
Still, there is culture along Eglinton. At Wynford Drive, on the north side of the road, there is the Aga Khan Park surrounding the Aga Khan Museum with its asymmetrical and distinctive glass pyramid roof.
OK, the construction meant that I couldn’t easily detour to get there, and even if there hadn’t been construction there is no easy walking path to it off of Eglinton (all hail the car!), but it is a wonderful place and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
One other cultural feature of both east and west Eglinton, and one that reinforces the downtown hipster stereotypes about the suburbs – the only 2 bowling alleys I can think of in Toronto were the two I passed along Eg in Scarborough and in Etobicoke. Surrounded by parking lots and fast food joints, they are exactly what hipsters find so amusing about these areas.
I finished my walk from the east coming through the Yonge & Eg mid town intersection. With the sun pouring down on a January day, it was quite pleasant in a noisy, messy way. It’s like when your child destroys the house when they are playing – you know it’s healthy for them to play, you love it when they laugh, so you put up with the mess and join in rolling on the floor.
A couple of days after walking Eglinton East, it was time to do Eglinton West. At this end of the city, my starting point was Centennial Park at the City boundary at Etobicoke Creek. While this is the official western edge of Toronto, Eglinton keeps going west from here deep into Mississauga.
My wife was kind and drove me out to the park, saving me an hour on the bus, but it was a grey day for a long walk. There had been a little dusting of snow overnight, and walking through the park was quite pretty, with just a few squirrels skittering through dried leaves.
I came out of the park onto Eglinton at Etobicoke Creek. Looking south, over the creek and the park, you’d never guess you were next to Canada’s busiest airport and busiest roads.
But looking back east, toward Yonge, was a bit daunting – the road rises out of the creek valley, and just keeps going and going.
As I set off, I was startled to see that I was at about 5500 Eglinton West. Since Eg East ends at 3500 and that had taken me 3+ hours to walk, I realized that I had a long way to go from this end. And for the first 2 hours, that’s what it seemed like. There is a bike path along Eg at this end, but there was very little foot or bike traffic – just me and the cars.
Years ago, in the early 90’s, we had lived near Runnymede and Annette in the Bloor West neighbourhood. I had a consulting gig then which took me to Montreal a lot, and the quickest drive to the airport was up Scarlett Road and then west along Eglinton. I thought of that as I was walking, because Centennial Park is actually a bit west of the airport, and I always think of the airport as being west outside the city, yet here I was still in Toronto. It reinforced the fact that Toronto covers a lot of area – 800+ square km.
I was also struck by how much this area had changed. 30 years ago, Eg West took you through open fields and meadows. Now, it’s lined with townhouses and condo towers. The old Plant City nursery near Jane is now closed, soon to become more condo’s I assume.
And meanwhile Eg goes on and on. There isn’t a lot of scenery out here – it was just houses, condos, apartments, and the occasional strip mall.
There was a little scenic break when I crossed the Humber River near Scarlett Road, and that reminded me that this is where I had stopped when I walked up the river in the autumn. I need to come back to this spot and keep going north, sometime this spring.
East of the river, as you climb towards the Mount Dennis neighbourhood, you come to the construction site at the west end of the Eg Crosstown.
There are some hills to climb here – and by the way, walking the length of Eg across the city means you traverse the valleys of the Don, the Humber, and Black Creek, so you are climbing a lot. According to my fitness tracker, I did the equivalent of 160+ flights of stairs over the 2 days.
The climb up the hill to Mount Dennis is also the exit from the residential stretch of Eglinton West – from there to Yonge, the street becomes narrower and more densely packed, with with actual shops rather than strip malls and stretches of houses amongst the condos and apartments.
I kept trudging through here, because soon I passed the Allen Expressway exit, and was into the home stretch through the Upper Village. This is my ‘hood, and I know the area well. Eg is busy here, both with the everyday commerce of any big city as well as with the ongoing construction, so that the walk back to Yonge and Eg requires a back and forth shuttle from one side of the street to the other given closed footpaths.
I finished up at back at Avenue Road, with a little bit of snow just starting to fall. The day was starting to wind down, having taken 4+ hours to walk Eglinton West, and I was glad to get home and reflect on the walk.
One strong impression was that it’s a long way across Toronto, 40 km or so. It’s also a long way across the history of Toronto. Eglinton East in Scarborough calls the 1950s and ’60s to mind, the worship of the car, the development of strip malls and the Golden Mile, and low density housing spread out over wide areas. A big old 1962 Caddie with tail fins still wouldn’t look out of place here.
Eg West is a bit newer – the condos are only 10-20 years old, so it’s more of a ’90’s and ’00s kind of place that calls a Humvee to mind. It’s still about cars with its multiple lanes of traffic, and there’s a feeling of begrudgement in conceding some small sliver of space for pedestrians – “oh I guess we have to build a side walk but hey who’s going be dumb enough to walk out here!”
What’s more subtle and yet for me stronger, is the sense of Eglinton as a cross cultural slice of Toronto’s diversity. All those apartment blocks and condo towers are full of 1st and 2nd generation Canadians. They want their tastes of home and so there’s Jamaican, and Bengali, and Mandarin, and Persian, and Afghan, and Syrian, and lots of other “ethnic” restaurants (and by the way, what’s an “ethnic” restaurant anymore? Is that even an appropriate term? Maybe I’m dating myself with that term, perhaps a culturally-specific restaurant is what I mean.)
And then there are thrift shops and money transfer outlets, used car lots, bus shelters, Tim Hortons, and community centres. There’s energy and multi-generational families and playgrounds along with gas stations. There’s new development, renewal, and regeneration. There’s investment and the sense that these were in the 1960’s and 70’s and now are again “up and coming” neighbourhoods. You can’t help but feel that they represent what Toronto is, as much or even more so than the glass towers downtown.
The neighbourhoods strung along Eg – Mount Dennis, Fairbank, Oakwood, the Upper Village, Leaside, Don Mills, the Golden Mile, and Scarborough Village – are for me some of the jewels in Toronto’s necklace. They represent what I’m most proud of in my country – the opportunity we provide to start a new and better life.
Yes, Eglinton also illustrates some of the things that I am not proud of – the traffic and pollution and over-consumption, the racism, the poverty – but I keep seeing the gleam under the grit, the hope in the toil, and the future emerging from our past.
I like Eg. It’s Toronto. And that makes it fun, even if my sinuses are clogged with the dust of this walk.
Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto
If I am going to write a series of posts about walking the main streets of Toronto, of course I have to start with Yonge Street. My centre point for these walks is the intersection of Yonge & Eglinton, and there’s a certain anchoring that Yonge provides to Torontonians – you’re either an East-of-Yonge or a West-of-Yonge person. And then again, there’s a personal attachment to the street, having lived in a condo with a Yonge Street address, worked at an office on Yonge, and walked parts of it many, many times over the past 40 years.
Back in 1970, a film called Goin’ Down the Road was released, and it’s become an iconic statement of, in part, how the rest of the country sees Toronto. Back in the early 1980’s, SCTV did a spoof of the film (“We’re going to Yonge Street!”), and it’s still funny today – wow do John Candy & Joe Flaherty look young! – and I couldn’t help but recall it as I started out on my walk.
The street starts at Queens Quay at Toronto Harbour, and on a cold January day there was ice to remind me that there’d be a wind-chill as I walked north. It was grey overhead, and hardly more inviting as I stared north towards the underpass below the Gardiner Expressway.
Walking north along Yonge from the lake isn’t really a pleasant walk, given the traffic, the gloomy underpasses, the noise, and on this day the mud and slush. It’s uphill of course, as the city rises away from the lake. In fact over the length of my walk, I climbed from about 76m above Mean Sea Level at Yonge and Queens Quay to almost 200m MSL at Yonge and Steeles.
That led me to think that for Torontonians, “downtown” literally means “down” town. If you ask the average person, they’ll probably say that Downtown is between Front and Bloor. MidTown is roughly around St. Clair up to Eglinton. Uptown is more variable – to me anything north of Sheppard is above the tree line, but if you live up at Cummer then Sheppard is probably like your downtown. And all of this is measured, for the most part, based on where you are along Yonge. You can be on King Street, for example, but if you’re more than about 500 m east or west of Yonge, then you’re not “Downtown” – you’re in the Entertainment District maybe or Corktown, but that distance from Yonge is the key.
One of the things you notice as you walk north is that, downtown, the subway stations are only about 5-6 minutes walk apart (King to Queen, Queen to Dundas), but as you go north they get farther and farther apart, so that by the time you are at Lawrence, you’re a good 30 minutes walk to get to York Mills. That compression of distance is, I suppose, appropriate – it’s more densely packed and there’s that big-city-downtown feel you get.
I couldn’t help but notice how much is changing along Yonge. We have a thing in Toronto for faux preservation, where new buildings retain a portion of an old one as a facade, to give the illusion of preservation. At Yonge and Alexander there’s a good example, where the venerable clock tower of an 1870’s fire station will be incorporated into a new condo.
I noticed, as I continued along, that one of the things that contributed to that gloomy feel, besides the grey skies and slushy streets, was the fact that most people seemed to be walking with their eyes cast downwards. For every person looking straight ahead and catching your eye with a twinkle, there would be several either looking at their feet or looking at their phones. In any big city, people scurry about lost in their thoughts, but when the sun is out and there’s a warmth in the air, people seem to look up more. They’re more engaged in their surroundings then. On this day, the gloomy skies equalled gloomy expressions. Oh, for spring to arrive.
Another thing I noticed is the street numbers. I started at #1 Yonge Street, and walking north, the climbing numbers mounted with my steps. In fact, if you pay attention moving about the city, over time you’ll get to know roughly how far north along Yonge an address is based on the numbers. Anything below 1000 is south of Bloor. St. Clair is at about 1600 Yonge, Eglinton is at about 2400, Sheppard is around 4000, and all the way up at Steeles you’re at about 6400. The numbers keep climbing north of Toronto, and go up into the 12,000’s by the time you get up to Richmond Hill. As you’re walking up Yonge, if a cold north wind is in your face then it feels like the numbers equal the icy heights you’re ascending.
Walking north, while you are mostly climbing the whole way, there are some dips as well. Between St. Clair and Eglinton, then Eglinton and Lawrence, and finally between Yonge Boulevard and Sheppard, you cross the ravines of Mud Creek, Burke’s Brook, and the West Don River. The latter is especially steep,
descending almost a 100m into Hoggs Hollow as you cross the Don,
and then climbing fairly steeply towards Sheppard.
I’ve walked lower Yonge before, between the lake and Eglinton, and living in mid town means I’ve ranged up as far as York Mills. I’ve never done the upper part of Yonge however, north of York Mills, so it was new to me to walk through here. I was surprised to find, at about Cummer, that there is a small cemetery on the east side of Yonge, that dates back to the mid 1800’s.
When I looked it up after my walk, I learned that this was established by the Cummer family, who settled in this area in the 1820’s. It was a reminder of how this area was the market garden that fed Toronto, right up into the 1940’s, back when it was known as Willowdale.
Today, however, it’s about as far from a pastoral setting as can be – it’s just a wide canyon of condo towers, designed for cars and packed with fast food restaurants.
That said, it’s interesting to see Toronto’s melting pot expressed in those fast food restaurants. I passed Italian, French, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian, Persian, Indian, American, and of course the uber-Canadian Tim Horton’s along the way. As you go north, the residents change from multiple-generations-in-Canada near Rosedale to just-arrived-and-sinking-roots above Sheppard.
When you do get to Steeles, there’s a bit of an anticlimactic feeling, because it doesn’t look any different on the north side of Steeles, in Markham, as it does on the south side, still in Toronto.
It’s a car’s world up here. There are some people walking around, but mainly this is laid out for cars. How it will evolve over the next 20-30 years will be interesting. I’d love to see the sidewalks widened, bike lanes expanded, street furniture and trees installed, and an actual pedestrian feel introduced. Whether we get there soon or not is up in the air. This area is, like it or not, more representative of Toronto than, say, Dundas Square. Turning the downtown into a walker-centric space is one thing, but I’m not holding my breath that areas like Yonge & Steeles will look like that any time soon.
Still, breathing in scents of auto exhaust mingled with BBQ duck, flavoured vape, and frying onions; reading shop signs written in Korean, Mandarin, Persian, and Hindi; overhearing snatches of conversation in a dozen languages; feeling the energy – it’s what makes Toronto dynamic. We are a melting pot, and people still want to go down the road to Yonge Street. We look different today than in the 1970’s, let alone the 1870’s, and in 50 years time the 2070’s will probably still see the energy of Toronto expressed along Yonge.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to keep my walking boots busy over the winter while at the same time avoiding the same-old, same-old paths I’ve walked many times already. It came to me, as I was out for a walk (of course), that the thing to do was walk the streets of Toronto.
That sounds perhaps a bit of a cliche, walking the mean streets of the Big Smoke, but that’s not what I had in mind. As I thought about, my mind revolved around the idea of some of the major streets in Toronto, and doing it in a way that could fit into some sort of pattern. Instead of random walking here and there, I wanted to find a way to organize my walks, and I realized that Toronto’s east/west grid system lends itself perfectly to my plan.
As it happens, I live pretty close the middle of Toronto. The intersection of Eglinton Avenue and Yonge Street, is only about a km from home, so I can use that as a starting point to anchor my walks while I explore the major streets of Toronto.
So, that’s my cunning plan to make my winter walking more interesting. I can walk Yonge Street, from the Lake to Steeles, and Eglinton from mid-town to its east and west end points. And I can use Yonge & Eg as a transit jump-off, and head to other streets like Dundas, or Finch, or Bathurst, or Lakeshore. By following these, I’ll criss-cross Toronto and wander through the many neighbourhoods that make up the city, and along the way get exposure to the diversity of cultures in our mosaic.
I reckon winter and spring are good times to do this, since it would be baking hot in July. I’ll pick decent weather days and chunks of the city that will keep me occupied all day. I have about 3 months till April, and then we’ll see what the weather looks like for trail hikes outside Toronto.
I’m going to call this project my TOStreets plan, and as I complete each section I’ll update a map to show where I’ve been.
On a cold, blustery, snowy, sleety, grey, and miserably wintery day, the thought of getting out for a walk is less than appealing. I know I should go out, but it looks nasty and it’s hard to muster the energy to put on the layers and winter gear.
So instead, I’m lingering inside over coffee and thinking about walks – armchair trekking if you will.
There’s the local walks around the city I could do over the winter – perhaps the Rouge River trails, or the upper Humber. And there are neighbourhood walks that are fun, like Bloor West and around High Park. Then again, I can revisit old favs, like the Don Valley, the Brickworks, and Wilket Creek/Sunnybrook Park. All that can keep me busy, but it doesn’t really need a lot of armchair planning.
So what about the long walks I want to do in the summer – perhaps another section or 2 of the Bruce Trail, or some parts of the Great Trail or the Waterfront Trail? There are lots of trails on my bucket list that I’d like to get to. I’m poring over maps looking at the trail and figuring out distances between accommodation. That will keep me occupied for a bit.
I like doing that, what might be termed map planning or “maplanning” – opening up All Trails or Google Maps and exploring different places where I’d like to take a long walk, like the Chemins de Grandes Randonnées in France, or the National Trails of England, or the Te Aroroa Trail in New Zealand.
Of course, you aren’t armchair walking if you’re not gear-dreaming too – what will I need if I take a particular trail? Is there enough accommodation available that I can skip a tent? How rugged is the trail so what foot gear is best? What about clothes – is it wet or dry, cool or hot? What percentage of time will I need to be in a tent versus a warm, dry bed? How big of a pack will I need? What’s the mean length of time between hot showers likely to be?
And logistics – how long will it take? How many days do I plan for? How do I get to and from the start and end points? How much does it cost to fly to that country in the first place? What sort of budget will I need? What time of year is best for that trail, in terms of weather, accommodation, and avoiding the tourist hordes?
Of course I’d like to actually be out on the trails actually walking carrying actual gear. Armchair walking is fun for an afternoon, but sooner or later you need to get to it. Soon … when the snow stops.
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.
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.
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.
As you may recall, back in June I was planning to take one of the Big Walks on my bucket list, and travel from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake, something I called my TONotL walk.
Unfortunately, plans had to change when we travelled to Ireland for my wife’s Aunt Norah’s funeral.
Now that summer is ending, it’s time to put that plan back on the front burner. Starting next week, I’ll be setting off on my journey.
My original plan had been to walk from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake, hence TONotL, but I’ve since decided to reverse it. I like the idea of walking towards home, instead of away from it. Plus, this way I get the Niagara section of the Bruce Trail done in the first 3 days of my trek when I am fresher and if that kills my knees then at least I’ll have completed one section of the Bruce. It’s also pretty much flat walking along the Waterfront Trail for the last 3 days following the lake, so hopefully I just have to deal with tired feet at the end.
I have to confess I’m nervous about kicking this off. My recent long hikes have gone ok though my feet have been tired the next day and after 3 days crossing Toronto my knees were feeling the stress, so I’m wondering how I am going to do this 6 days in a row. I’ve done 30+ km in a day many times, but I’ve never done 30+ km 6 days in a row, while carrying a pack. Hmmm.
Also the new boots I bought back in the spring, while sturdy and very supportive, fit so snugly that I can’t get my custom orthotics into them plus they make my feet overheat. Instead I’m debating between using my old broken-in boots versus a pair of walking shoes versus a part of cross-country running shoes.
The walking and running shoes work better with my custom orthotics, but I have to watch for blisters, especially with the new walking pair that fit the best with the insoles. On the other hand the old hiking boots and the cross-country running shoes are pretty comfortable and don’t cause blisters, but one foot gets tired because the orthotic doesn’t quite fit properly into the right one.
After some test walks this past week, I’ve decided on the new walking shoes. About 60% of the walk is on roads and sidewalks suited to running shoes, and the rest is along the Bruce Trail where it could be muddy or rocky, and the Goretex construction and treaded soles should work well there. After getting blisters during an early test walk, I’ve found a combination of socks and anti-chafing cream that seems to control that. I don’t want to afford the weight of taking 2 pairs of footwear, so it’s cross fingers and hope I made the right choice.
The weather looks pretty good, not too much rain forecast and comfortable temps. Even so, I need to think about staying hydrated. Should I carry an extra water bottle? What about water stops along the Bruce? How much water should I carry? I’ve decided on 2 litres, which will add 2 kg to my carrying weight at the start of the day but I’d rather not be caught without water on a back trail somewhere. And what about food? – no Tim Hortons along the Trail so what do I pack? Where are the grocery stores to stock up each morning? I’ll have to have a good breakfast each day and then carry light high-energy foods like dried fruit, energy bars, hard sausages, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
For my accommodation, I’m sorted. I had originally planned to day-hike part of the trek, by using the GO stations at Port Credit and Burlington to come home for 2 of the nights and then return the next morning. That’s changed, I guess because deep down it feels like cheating. It means I’m carrying a full pack of clothes, food, and rain gear each day. I’ve booked hotels or B&Bs for each night, so I have a destination locked in for each day’s walking. It means I’m looking at 7-8 hours per day including rest stops to cover the 30 km or so that I’ll need to cover.
I’ve also spent time pouring over Google Maps in detail, and I’ve downloaded the Bruce Trail app onto my phone. I’ve scouted for likely places to get water, to use the restroom facilities, to grab some lunch, and to take a break.
And of course I’ve gone over my packing list, and checked my gear, and I’ve done a full dress-rehearsal pack for a 3 hour hike, so I’m ready on that front. I’ve got my hiking socks, hiking clothes, rain gear, blister kits, sewing kit, first aid kit, food kit, and walking poles all sorted out. It adds up to just over 10 kg with water and food, so not too bad. My pack is fitted and adjusted. I’ve done just about everything I can to be ready.
Gear – check
Weather – check
Accommodation – check
Checklists – check, check, check
It’s just nerves, this overthinking. Time to get walking and let the rhythm sort it out. Check.