Around the Head of Lake Ontario: Part 11

Go back to Part 10

From Dundas Valley Trail Centre to Davidson Boulevard Side Trail

Date: 21 August 2021
Start Point: Dundas Valley Trail Centre, Dundas
End Point: Davidson Boulevard Side Trail, Davidson Boulevard, Dundas
Distance Covered: 3.3 km*
Total Distance Covered: 50.3 km

*plus 400 metres from DVCA P to DV Trail Centre; plus 4.2 km via optional return loop.

Maps © OpenStreetMap contributors

215. Today’s main hike, marked by the bigger red dots on the maps above, is a short 3.3 km if you bring two cars. You park one of them in the main P of the Dundas Valley Conservation Area (DVCA), which you access off Governors Road. (Note: entry to the DVCA will cost you $11 unless you are a card-carrying member of the Hamilton Conservation Authority.) The other car you park for nothing on Davidson Boulevard in suburban Dundas, by the south end of the short Davidson Boulevard Side Trail. This side trail, because of a temporary reroute due to construction on Highway 8, is currently serving as part of the main Bruce Trail. You then follow the white blazes of the Bruce Trail between these two points. You cross the Dundas Valley floor longitudinally, so there’ll be plenty of changes of altitude thanks to the post-glacial terrain: low but steep rolling hills.

However, if there was ever a hike in which one car was better than two, this is it. That’s because the return loop, marked by smaller red dots, is full of scenic interest. Better still, if you leave your one car on Davidson Boulevard, you won’t have to pay anything to park, though you’ll do the hike in a different order: jump to #227 below.

The top map shows the whole main hike plus return loop; the bottom map shows the area around the Davidson Boulevard Side Trail in detail. If you do the full there-and-back you’ll hike about 7.9 km.

You can access this hike easily by public transit. You take the #52 Dundas bus from downtown Hamilton to its terminus at Governors Road and Pirie Drive. (Don’t take the Dundas bus marked Head Street unless you crave even more exercise.) Then join the loop where it crosses Governors Road. Having completed the loop you return to the same stop for the bus to downtown Hamilton, which will now probably be marked #5E Quigley at Greenhill.

216. This is the start of the hike near the DVCA Trail Centre. On the tree at right is the “straight ahead” white Bruce Trail blaze. The waymark post at centre says “McCormack Trail,” which shares the Bruce from this point. Today’s return loop features more of this trail. I have been unable to find out who McCormack was. The plaque on the boulder at back is dedicated to Agnes G. McCulloch, “in memory of her many years of service 1964-1978 to the Iroquoia Bruce Trail Club.” Aside from this, information about McCulloch is scanty. Dear Hamilton Conservation Authority and Bruce Trail Conservancy: Please provide some biographical information about McCormack and McCulloch, so we have a fuller appreciation of those responsible for the legacy of wonderful trails in the Dundas Valley.

217. A patch of spotted Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) in bloom in an area of marshy ground. This is a native plant beloved of pollinators, and speculations about the origin of its unusual name have given rise to a number of popular legends. A recent scholarly article by Richard B. Pearce of Galena, IL and James S. Pringle of Ontario’s Royal Botanical Gardens in The Great Lakes Botanist (56.3-4, 2017, pp. 177-200), has almost certainly uncovered the interesting truth behind those legends. Their conclusion: “Our investigation has indicated that this plant name is from the cognomen of Joseph Shauquethqueat, an 18th- and early 19th-century Mohican sachem, who lived successively in the Mohican communities at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and New Stockbridge, New York,” and who was known among his white neighbours as Joe Pye. The article also deals with traditional medicinal claims for Joe-Pye weed.

218. In a damp place near one of the headwaters of Spring Creek, a crowded raceme* thrusts itself up, the lower flowers in bloom, those on the hairy upper spike still to come. This is the great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), a native wildflower that attracts hummingbirds and bees; the latter use the three fused lower petals in each bloom as landing pads. Siphilitica, the second part of its Latin name, indicates that extracts from it were once thought to be effective against syphilis. In fact, all parts of this plant are toxic to humans.

Lobelia, incidentally, is named for Matthias de l’Obel, a.k.a. Lobelius (1538-1616), a Flemish botanist who in 1607 became the personal physician and Botanist Royal to King James I of England. Lobelius was the first to recognize the difference between monocotyledons and dicotyledons, a primary division of flowering plants based on whether their seeds contain one or two embryonic leaves.

*a cluster of flowers attached by short stalks at equal distances along a central stem.

219. Here the Bruce/McCormack Trail meets Governors Road. This unassuming two-lane road is the most historic thoroughfare in the area. “With its eastern and western extensions, it became the spinal cord which supported the settlement of southern Ontario” write Mary Byers and Margaret McBurney in The Governor’s Road (1982), p. 3. Its official name was Dundas Street, and it was cut by the Queen’s Rangers by order of Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe from 1793. In that same year Simcoe moved the capital of Upper Canada from Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) “temporarily” to York (now Toronto). He feared that Newark was too close to the United States and thus too vulnerable to invasion. (His apprehension was fully justified in 1812.) Simcoe planned to establish a permanent capital at what is now London, at the western end of the completed Dundas Street. But by 1797, when Simcoe returned to England, no move west had occurred and York had become almost by default the capital of Upper Canada.

In 1793, journeys by water in Upper Canada were easier than those by land. Simcoe’s plan was for a military road connecting the Head of the Lake with the Grand River (thus linking Lakes Ontario and Erie) and then with the Thames River (linking Lakes Ontario and St. Clair). The western end of Cootes Paradise was the last navigable point at the Head of the Lake, so Dundas Street was begun there. A rectangular townplot called “Cootes Paradise” was laid out around the eastern end of Dundas Street, though this plot was badly conceived from the start.*

There were only about 45 people in the vicinity of what is now Dundas at the end of the 18th century. But around 1800 Edward Peers built “Dundas Mills” on the banks of Spencer Creek, the largest stream in the area, and soon more mills followed. By 1814 the village of Cootes Paradise had been absorbed by the growing town just to the west that, like Dundas Mills, took its name from the Street it was on. Presumably to avoid repetition, Dundas Street through the town of Dundas became “The Governor’s Road,”** the definite article and apostrophe later falling by the wayside.

“Dundas Street” had been named by Simcoe for Henry Dundas (1740-1811), who in 1793 was Home Secretary in the Tory cabinet of William Pitt. Dundas, a Scottish political boss, had an unsavory reputation even in his own time and had no connection with Canada to boot. So there is currently a plan afoot to rename the most notable Dundas Street in the province, namely the one that crosses the city of Toronto. More to come!

Meanwhile, turn right here, following those cars towards Dundas but preferably facing the oncoming traffic, as there is no sidewalk. In 160 metres, you’ll turn left (north).

*Whoever designed it had surely never visited the area, as even today both Spencer Creek and a steep bank north of it divide the plot, so its northern and southern halves are poorly connected. An eastern neighbourhood of Dundas is still called “Cootes Paradise.”

**But where it went through the village of Cootes Paradise, it remained “Dundas Street” … and still does.

220. There’s still a month of summer to go, but Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is impatient: its brilliant hues are already signalling that fall is on its way.

221. Just after you turn north off Governors Road, you pass the driveway to Valley Farm. With its idyllically pastoral location and photogenic bank barn,* it’s a place where horses are boarded by riders who like to take advantage of the bridle paths in the DVCA. Valley Farm boasts that it allows each horse two acres of roaming space. Its website includes a recipe for Christmas cookies … for horses! You’ll meet two boarders at #235 below.

*A bank barn is one built on a slope so there are entrances on two different levels.

222. You’ll almost certainly want to pause for reflection at placid McCormack Pond, just to the left of the trail. Perhaps you’ll compare your thoughts with Thoreau’s as he gazed into the depths of his somewhat larger pond near Concord, Massachusetts:
“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows…. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth. Sky water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it. It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs.” – Henry David Thoreau, from “The Ponds” in Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854).

223. In summer, the Bruce/McCormack Trail is dry, but at other seasons be prepared for mud, as this hummocky area is not well drained. This section of trail is now very quiet at all times of the year, as parking along the shoulder of Governors Road has recently been banned. The Conservation Authority expect you to pay them for your exercise!

224. The Bruce Trail has been running almost dead straight and due north, the McCormack having diverged from it before you come to this short boardwalk. But now the Bruce drifts to the east as it comes up against, not only an active CN rail line, but also the foot of the northern limb of the Escarpment, though both are likely to be obscured by dense vegetation in summer. In the larger scheme of things, this is where the Bruce reverses the westerly course that it has been following since it first set out from the Niagara River.

225. The trail now twists and turns through dense forest, and only when this marsh appears on the right are you allowed any broader perspective. You could be a million miles from civilization …

226. … except you’re not. Finding the main Bruce closed, you turn right down the Davidson Boulevard Side Trail and emerge suddenly from what seems like a jungle into a recently built suburb at the western end of the Dundas Valley Golf Club. Usually the Bruce continues on a thin strip of Conservation Land along the northern edge of the golf course until it meets Woodley’s Lane. But Highway 8 between Dundas and Greensville is closed for reconstruction (it’s another of those steep Mountain Access roads that are constantly slipping as a result of erosion), so the main Bruce is currently rerouted through Dundas suburbia.

It’s time either to pick up your second car on Davidson Boulevard, or …

Return Loop

227. … if it’s your only car and you just parked it, to begin the full loop of today’s hike. Head south along Newcombe Road until you come to a ravine on the right opposite Delottinville Park. Take the rough path into the ravine alongside the fence of 74 Newcombe Road, follow this fence around the back edge of the property, then go through a thicket until you meet a broader path. This is the McCormack Trail, and you should turn left along it and climb steeply up to the top of a hillock, where you’ll find this Janus bench, i.e., one facing in opposite directions simultaneously. You may need to sit on it for a while to catch your breath! But that’s OK, as it offers spectacular views all around, and especially to the east where – isn’t that the Skyway on the horizon just to the right of the bench? – you have an unobstructed view of almost the entire Head of the Lake. No, you’re not on top of the Escarpment. This is merely one of the higher points of the rolling hills on the floor of the Dundas Valley.

In their splendid photographic study The Dundas Valley: Visions of Beauty (2007), Richard and Eleanore Kosydar note: “Visually, summer is the quietest season of the year due to the predominance of greens and the less visible lines of the land when trees and shrubs are in full leaf; hence the predominance of autumn, winter and spring images in landscape photography” (p. 60). So, most of the subsequent images of the landscape on the return loop were taken in fall, when the colours of the surrounding Carolinian forest are at their most varied.

228. To the north of the viewpoint, a freight train at least a kilometre long trundles eastward along the side of the Escarpment. The train, headed for either Toronto or Hamilton, is on the double-tracked CN Dundas Subdivision between London and Burlington Heights. This line was originally constructed by the Great Western Railway in 1853. Dundas itself had a passenger station on it from 1864, and was later served by VIA Rail until 1984, when the station was destroyed by fire and never replaced. No trains, freight or passenger, stop in Dundas any longer.

229. The view to the northwest is dominated by Dundas Peak, a high point on the steep northern limb of the Escarpment that overlooks the town. We’ll take a side trip up there on the next hike. The roofs in the foreground are of the suburb centred on Davidson Boulevard. At present these roofs seem jarringly intrusive, and one hopes that eventually they will be swathed by foliage like the older parts of Dundas.

230. Far to the east, an even more jarring sight: the stacks of the steelworks on Hamilton Harbour. The poets Milton and Blake would have been struck by the contrast between the “sylvan scene” in the foreground and the “dark satanic mills” in the rear.

Sitting on that bench, imagine yourself as Adam or Eve in Milton’s Garden of Eden …

“Insuperable height of loftiest shade,
Cedar, and pine, and fir, and branching palm,
A sylvan scene, and, as the ranks ascend,
Shade above shade, a woody theatre
Of stateliest view. Yet higher than their tops
The verdurous wall of Paradise upsprung;
Which to our general sire gave prospect large
Into his nether empire neighbouring round.
And higher than that wall a circling row
Of goodliest trees, loaden with fairest fruit,
Blossoms and fruits at once of golden hue,
Appeared, with gay enamelled colours mixed:
On which the sun more glad impressed his beams
Than in fair evening cloud, or humid bow,
When God hath showered the earth; so lovely seemed
That landscape.” (Paradise Lost, IV.8-23).

… observing distant Pandaemonium from your vantage point in Paradise:

“At once, as far as Angels ken, he views
The dismal situation waste and wild.
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.
Such place Eternal Justice has prepared
For those rebellious; here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set,
As far removed from God and light of Heaven
As from the centre thrice to th’ utmost pole.” (Paradise Lost, I.59-74)

231. East of Eden, the Head of the Lake! Though as you are probably starting to realize, HOLO is a slippery concept. Is it Cootes Paradise, separated from Hamilton Harbour by wooded Burlington Heights and the high-level bridge that spans the Desjardins Canal? Or is it Hamilton Harbour, separated from the main lake by the Beach Strip along which you walked nine hikes ago, where the Burlington Canal is spanned by the Skyway and the adjacent lift bridge? Or is it the western tip of distant Lake Ontario itself, lapping the shore at Burlington Beach? And there’s yet another alternative …

232. … for, looking due west, what you see is the head of the Dundas Valley, which was, in prehistoric times, also the Head of the Lake. That’s because 13,000 years ago Lake Iroquois, the glacial ancestor of Lake Ontario, filled the entire Dundas Valley. These days the Escarpment at the U-shaped head of the Valley is not steep, like it is at the sides, but half buried under glacial till, upon which grows a crown of dense forest.

Those are rainclouds massing on the horizon. Time to leave the bench and conclude your hike.

233. You rejoin the Bruce/McCormack Trail and briefly head north, before turning west (left) just before the boardwalk at #224 above. You climb through a beautiful forest, then emerge into an open area of rolling hills. This is the view in the fall over the forest you have just come through …

234. … and this is the kame-and-kettle landscape of the mid-Valley in winter, when the lay of land is most visible. A kame is a hummock of sand of gravel left by a retreating glacier; a kettle is a depression caused by an isolated iceblock from a glacier that has melted. These glacial features sit almost 200 metres over the bedrock, concealing the fact that, before the last Ice Age, the Dundas Valley was a deep canyon, possibly under water.

235. Chances are that some of the horses of Valley Farm will be browsing contentedly in the meadow on your right.

Now you rejoin the Bruce Trail and head down to Governors Road. There you turn left and, facing oncoming traffic, walk the 300 metres or so …

236. … to the main entrance to the DVCA. To drive a car or ride a horse in here will cost you an arm and a leg, but you can walk or bike in for nothing … for the moment. Follow the road in.

237. There are bull thistles blooming in the field at the entrance of the DVCA, with insects on them happily prepared to pose for the camera. (We’re back in summer, not great for landscape photography certainly, but the best season for entomological close-ups.) The brown butterfly is a great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), while the bee is … totally into that thistle.

Go to Part 12: Davidson Boulevard Side Trail to Livingstone Drive