The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. (John Muir)
There is a band of cliffs that runs through Ontario from Queenston Heights to Tobermory that looks like a fault line between two tectonic plates. It isn’t though. It’s an escarpment, and it was created by the erosion of the softer shale beneath a harder dolomitic limestone surface, more obviously seen at Niagara Falls, where the water has eroded the underlying shale at a much faster rate than the surrounding area. This prominent feature is called the Niagara Escarpment.
And along the Niagara Escarpment lies a 900-kilometer path called the Bruce Trail, Canada’s oldest and longest-marked hiking trail.
The idea for the trail was conceived by Ray Lowes, who shared it at a meeting of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists with friend Robert Bateman in 1959. From idea conception to completed path took only four years, and on March 13, 1963, the Bruce Trail Association was incorporated.
I was four months old at the time and I’m sure I already wanted to hike it.
The Bruce Trail is divided into nine sections (or clubs), from the Niagara section in the south to the Peninsula section in the north. All are of varying lengths. The Sydenham section is the longest at 168.4 kilometers and the Toronto section is the shortest at 49.5 kilometers.
As a boy, my Dad would take us out to the trail once in a while to explore the cracks and grottos of the escarpment.
They were a young explorer’s dream, one which never left me all these years. But a permanent move out of province as an adult, work, family, middle-class lifestyle and all that went with it never gave me the month or so free time it would take to hike this trail.
But early retirement rekindled the dream, and with trepidation, I posed for a photo at the northern terminus of the Bruce Trail, and stepped out alone onto the footpath in Tobermory on August 15, 2016.
I opted to start at the northern terminus for two reasons. First, for logistical reasons, I could start a day earlier than if I started in the south. And second, the Peninsula Section was advertised as being the most difficult, so I wanted to get it over with first.
For 25 days of hiking, the white-blazed trail took me over rocky paths, through peaceful forests, up and down difficult hills, around farmers’ fields, through chest-high grass and weeds, over boardwalks through mosquito-infested swamps, down country lanes, past Niagara vineyards, through rainy days, black fly clouds, deer fly hordes, and even through an Ontario heat wave.
Because the trail frequently ran along the top of the escarpment, the views were fabulous. And where there were no views, there was the rock itself. Always present was the rock of the escarpment, weather-worn and beautiful in its shapes and configurations, difficult at times to navigate, soothing in its strength and familiarity.
The trail was quickly to become my friend, but also my nemesis. She would be easy on me at times with her flat cushiony sections that were ecstasy for sore feet, and then she would punish my blistered feet with a long section of boulder-strewn, hilly wretchedness that would leave me gasping and my feet cringing with every step.
But I grew to love the Bruce Trail. At times, I yelled at her in anger, and other times, I would thank her for taking me through such beautiful places. She brought out the worst in me, but also the best.
I had mixed emotions when I arrived at the southern terminus at Queenston Heights. I was happy to have completed this long hike, but sad that I would be leaving behind a new friend.
Statistics and Details of My Bruce Trail Hike
• Dates: August 15 – September 12, 2016
• Distance – 893.5 kilometers
• # of days off – 4 (three planned for family events and one unplanned to deal with blisters)
• # of hiking days – 25
• Average distance per hiking day – 35.74 kilometers
• Longest day – 46.5 kilometers
• Shortest day – 18.3 kilometers
• Longest period between resupply – 10 days
• Maps used – The Bruce Trail Reference Maps and Trail Guide, Edition 28. (They can normally be purchased at the Bruce Trail Conservancy through their website. They were sold out when I was ready for them, so I picked up my set at Mountain Equipment Co-op. Although the trail could be done without maps, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s easy to lose the trail and the maps help to keep you on track. They also give you the exact distances between points on the trail.)
• Total weight lost – 16 pounds
• # of thru-hikers I met heading north – 3
• # of times I camped in a proper campground – 2
• # of times I had to stealth camp – 23
• # of times I was caught stealth camping – 0
• Longest period of time without speaking to another human – 62 hours 15 minutes
• # of people who were rude to me on the trail – 0
• # of black fly carcasses removed from my eyes – 5 (They seem to be attracted to the moisture in there. Bug repellent didn’t help, but once I started wearing my sunglasses, I didn’t have any further problem.)
• # of cobwebs cleared from the trail with my sweaty unshaven face – 335 (I passed a gentleman on the trail who said, “This is your lucky day. I just cleared out twenty cobwebs with my face along your path. Did you do the same for me?” I pulled some cobwebs from my hair and showed them to him. “You bet,” I said.)
• # of times I lost the trail – 81 (this is surprisingly easy, especially when you are looking down trying to negotiate the path and miss the trail blazes that indicate a turn down a new path)
• # of times I got completely turned around on the trail and walked the wrong way – 3 (also surprisingly easy, especially after you have lost the trail and are looking for the white blazes)
• # of times I left something behind on the trail and had to hike back for it – 2 (once for my sunglasses, and once for my knife)
• Extra distance hiked as a result of the last three stats – 16 kilometers
• # of times I called Mother Nature a nasty name – 1
• # of times Mother Nature retaliated with hordes of deer flies – 1
• # of times I told Mother Nature she is beautiful – 291
• # of non-venomous snakes seen – 24
• # of Mississauga Rattlesnakes seen – 0
• # of times I stepped in poison ivy – 1 (right after, I wiped down my legs with a soapy wet napkin and then when I got to water, I waded in and washed everything from my thighs down with sand and water)
• # of poison ivy rashes received – 0 (whew!)
• Most consecutive days without a shave or shower – 12
• # of times I slipped on wet rock – 121
• # of times I fell down after slipping on wet rock – 1
• # of times I dragged myself back up again after falling – 1
• # of watermelons received by Trail Angels – 1
• Primary food cravings – ju jubes, salt and vinegar chips
• What I thought about most on the trail – water (when, where I could get more, especially during the heat wave)
• Liters of water carried – 2 liters for the three northern sections, 3 liters for the six southern sections
• # of times I had to knock on a door to ask for water – 2 (Both times, they were happy to help. I was very grateful.)
• # of painful blisters received – 12
• # of times I felt lonely – 0
• # of times I wanted to quit – 0
• # of times I was caught peeing at the side of the trail – 0
• # of times I thought I couldn’t choke down even one more protein and vitamin drink but did anyway – 18
• Wildlife seen – deer, a fisher, raccoons, porcupines, chipmunks, squirrels, snakes, thousands of frogs, newts, snails, and every kind of insect. No bears and no Mississauga Rattlesnakes.