Around the Head of Lake Ontario: Part 16

Go back to Part 15

From Snake Road to Smokey Hollow

Date: 2 September 2021
Start Point: Snake Road, Burlington
End Point: Smokey Hollow, Mill Street South, Waterdown
Distance Covered: 3.4 km*
Total Distance Covered: 68.8 km

*plus optional 3.4 km return.

All Maps © OpenStreetMap contributors

329. Today’s hike is 3.4 km one way. With two cars, park your start car at the side of Snake Road as on the previous hike. Park your end car in the small free P at Smokey Hollow on Mill Street South in Waterdown. Note: parking is very limited at this popular spot (see #340 below). If the Smokey Hollow lot is full (as it almost certainly will be on weekends), you’ll have to park your end car somewhere in Waterdown Village and walk up Mill Street South from the end of the hike to reach it. Be careful to face oncoming traffic as you do so, as there is no adequate sidewalk where Mill Street narrows under the rail bridge.

If you have only one car, park it at either end and hike there and back. This hike is beautiful and fairly challenging, and a total of 6.8 km hiked in both directions will be excellent exercise. There is a maze of trails intended for mountain bikers in the Grindstone Valley that seem to offer a different way of returning, but I’d avoid them as the Bruce Trail takes the best route and it’s definitely worth hiking this section in both directions.

This hike is just about doable by public transit. Until recently there was an HSR #18 (Waterdown) bus connecting Aldershot GO Station and the Burlington Transit system along Plains Road with Waterdown Village via Waterdown Road. But this scheduled bus has now been replaced by an on-demand service called myRise Transit that has to be booked in advance. You’d get off the bus at Smokey Hollow and do this hike north to south (and then back again, as there’s no transit at the other end). Whether myRise is the improvement that HSR claims remains to be seen. There is no Sunday or holiday service on this route.

There is an optional side trip to Waterdown Village from the Smokey Hollow end of this hike, which will interest you if you are fond of old stone buildings or if you have ever pondered the meaning of the French phrase le violon d’Ingres.

330. Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) is a Japanese phrase that means, literally, “forest-bath.” It may sound like an ancient meditative practice but it was actually invented in 1982 by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture to encourage the highly urbanized Japanese to lower their stress levels by going out into nature. 80% of Japanese live in urban areas, roughly the same percentage as in Canada.

The simple idea behind shinrin-yoku is that most of us live our lives almost entirely divorced from the natural world. On occasion, we need to reconnect for the sake of our mental and physical health, and this involves turning off our cell phones and entering a forest.

Once there, we don’t have to do formal meditation or T’ai chi or hug a tree, but we do have to observe our surroundings and allow the forest to penetrate our senses. They say that you can do shinrin-yoku in urban parks, but in my view it’s best if you are totally surrounded by trees … and preferably alone, though if you have a sympathetic companion that should work too. As we have seen, this HOLO loop is rarely far from the surrounding urbanization. This hike is the woodsiest of all, so at some point maybe you can go a little off-trail … not too far, as you don’t want to get lost … and then just stand still …

331. … and take in the sight of this mature, largely deciduous forest of red oak, sugar maple, and shagbark hickory. Listen attentively and you’ll probably hear woodpeckers tapping away.

Perhaps the purpose
of leaves is to conceal
the verticality
of trees
which we notice
in December
as if for the first time:
row after row
of dark forms
yearning upwards.
And since we will be
horizontal ourselves
for so long,
let us now honor
the gods
of the vertical …

— from “Vertical” by Linda Pastan (b. 1932)

332. Soon you come to this footbridge over Grindstone Creek.

333. This steep bank, downstream from the bridge above, is constituted of Queenston shale, whose reddish colour is due to the presence of iron (in the form of hematite). In this area the red shale was once quarried for brick-making (see #117 above). Queenston shale consistently forms the lowest level of the Niagara Escarpment. It’s the remnant of a gigantic muddy river delta formed about 420 million years ago. The shale lines the shore of Lake Ontario between Hamilton and St. Catherines. Its best-known local exposure is in the Cheltenham Badlands in Caledon about 63 km north of here.

334. This patch of green spiky stuff is Equisetum hyemale, commonly known as scouring rush or rough horsetail. It grows in moist places and is evergreen. A spore-producing pteridophyte related to ferns, scouring rush is a plant of very ancient origin, possibly dating as far back as the Carboniferous Period 350 million years ago. The stems, which contain a high proportion of silica, were once used to scour pots and pans.

335. Farther upstream, there’s an extraordinary creekside installation. A traditional inukshuk (plural inuksuit) is a pile or cairn of flattish stones constructed as part of Inuit culture. The word comes from the Inuktitut language (ᐃᓄᒃᓱᒃ) and means something like, “that which acts in the capacity of a human.” In the Arctic they have been built for generations, often as signposts for hunters, navigational aids, or pointers to sacred sites, and take a variety of forms depending on the message they communicate. The one in the lower image resembles a human figure, for which there is a special word, inunnguaq, meaning “in the likeness of a human.”

All these inuksuit by Grindstone Creek are of recent construction. They may be the result of a inukshuk-building movement initiated by local First Nations women and first reported in November 2015. The movement aimed to draw public attention to the failure of law enforcement to investigate adequately the Canada-wide disappearance or murder of indigenous people, women in particular.

336. Grindstone Creek arises in Lake Medad in Burlington, flows through Waterdown, descends the Escarpment at the Great Falls (#339 below), flows through the Royal Botanical Gardens’ Hendrie Valley, and empties into Hamilton Harbour. The trail is now following its east bank closely. Prepare yourself for an elevation gain of about 87 metres as you climb to the brow of the Escarpment.

337. The lower two-thirds of this massive overhang right by the trail is of Whirlpool sandstone. The boundary between it and the underlying Queenston shale (see #333 above) marks a massive extinction event in the planet’s history. This took place about 445 million years ago, and forms the transition between the Ordovician and Silurian geological periods. Up to 60% of biological species, almost all of which were sea-dwelling, were wiped out. The cause was possibly an ice age lasting half a million years, followed by intense oxygen depletion when warming took place. It took 5 million years for Earth’s biological diversity to recover.

Whirlpool sandstone, here about 3 metres thick, is named for the Whirlpool in the Niagara River Gorge. It makes good building stone as it can be cut into smooth dimensional blocks (ashlar) and is resistant to weathering. Many of the stone buildings built before 1851 in the area were made of Whirlpool, but thereafter most of the local quarries in Hamilton and Dundas were worked out.

The upper layer of rock in the image above is Manitoulin dolostone, a kind of magnesium-hardened limestone formed during the Silurian Period.

338. The last leg of the ascent to the brow of the Escarpment is via this switchback stairs. If you plan to hike this trail in winter, cleats are essential.

339. The last waterfall you’ll encounter on the HOLO loop, the Great Falls of Grindstone Creek at Smokey Hollow, is rather difficult to see fully when the leaves are out. The water power this 10-metre terraced ribbon falls provided was Waterdown’s raison d’être. There were as many as 28 industrial establishments clustered around Smokey Hollow from 1827 until the early 20th century, hence the “smokey.” Few traces of any of them remain. Waterdown’s name itself may derive from the falls: it was where the water of Grindstone Creek went down the Escarpment. However, as Waterdown’s founder (see #341 below) was a Methodist teetotaller, his preference for water over whisky may also have factored into how the village got its name.

340. The small free P is entirely inadequate for the number of visitors to Smokey Hollow, especially on summer weekends. If you do plan to park here, you’d best do so at an unconventional time in an unpopular season.

The parking problem cannot be fixed by increasing the size of the P, as there’d be too much environmental damage. It’ll involve providing a large paid P in Waterdown Village with a shuttle to Smokey Hollow during peak times. And there should be a safe pedestrian and cycling route from the Village, as well as scheduled public transit from the Village along Waterdown Road to Aldershot GO station on all days of the week. All this requires that the City of Hamilton show some vision. So far that vision has involved reducing transit service, placing No Parking signs on the streets in the vicinity, and handing out lots of parking tickets.

Side Trip: Waterdown Village

341. Ebenezer Culver Griffin (1800-47), the so-called father of Waterdown, arrived in 1823 and purchased half of the property owned by Alexander Brown, who had built the first sawmill on Grindstone Creek in 1805. Brown subsequently established Brown’s Wharf on Lake Ontario (see #3 above). Griffin built a store and two mills and in 1831-32 cleared the land for the settlement of what became Waterdown.

The village, formerly in East Flamborough Township, was at the intersection of Simcoe’s Dundas Street (the main highway to York/Toronto from the west), and First Nations trails to the south that offered a reasonably gentle descent of the Escarpment. One of these trails became Mill Street South/Waterdown Road, and provided access to Brown’s Wharf, the local shipping hub.

In 2001, Waterdown was absorbed by the amalgamated City of Hamilton, perhaps anomalously, as it’s much closer to Aldershot in Burlington, with which it has historic links. As Waterdown is well placed for commuting routes by road and rail into Toronto, it has expanded rapidly over the past twenty years, and the “Victorian Village” that appears on downtown road signs is in danger of being overwhelmed by traffic and suburban sprawl. Its current population, growing fast as a result of major developments along Highway 5 (Dundas Street East), is about 25,000, and is expected to swell to about 40,000 by 2031.

Flamborough Archives and Heritage Society offers several online walking tours that cover most of the historic sites in the Village. I’ll just offer a small taste of what you might see.

342. Independent stores on Mill Street South.

343. The Griffin Stone Cottage at 24 Griffin Street, built ca. 1845 in Regency style, is the oldest unaltered domestic building in the village. In spite of its name there’s no evidence that it was built by or for the Griffin family.

“Lost Spectacles”, a limited edition serigraph by Leonard Cohen
“WHOT $50,” a limited edition lithograph by Ringo Starr

344. “Le violon d’Ingres,” as well as being the title of a famous nude photograph by Man Ray, is a French expression meaning a second skill aside from the one the person is famous for. The phrase derives from the fact that the great French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was also quite handy on his fiddle.

The True North Gallery, a.k.a. The Music Gallery of Fine Art, at 23 Griffin Street, inverts that art/music relation: it specializes in paintings and other graphic work by rock and jazz musicians, including many of the most famous ones. At the moment there are works on show by Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Graham Nash, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Miles Davis, and many others. Most are for sale.

True North was the first, and perhaps remains the only, gallery of its kind. It was founded by Geoffrey and Mabruka (Brooke) Zoso Kulawick, and shares the building with True North Records, the independent record label headed by Geoff.

The True North Gallery is open Monday through Saturday, normally by appointment. Admission is free. The True North Gallery is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Waterdown.

I’m very grateful to Karina Kulawick for this information and for her delightful guided tour of the current exhibition.

345. 11-13 Union Street is an unusual example of a stone two-storey semidetached house. It was built in 1852.

346. The Old Jam Factory on Mill Street North is believed to have been built in 1867. Its walls are of rubble stone — pieces of varying sizes mortared together by experienced stonemasons — that are three feet thick at ground level. Originally constructed as a store and attached living quarters, it has served many functions over the years: feed mill, wooden toy factory, veterans’ hospital during World War I, and dance hall. It became a jam factory in 1923 and continued as such until the 1980s. Now it houses a number of small commercial operations.

However, it and the large lot it sits on are currently on the market for $15.8 million. The sales listing notes, “These prime lots in the heart of downtown Waterdown can potentially be developed into townhomes or mid-rise live and work apartments.” There is no mention in the listing of the designated heritage status of this building. Let’s hope the situation Ancaster has found itself in (see #191 above) can be avoided here.

347. A great place for refreshment after your hike is The Royal Coachman on the northwest corner of Mill and Dundas Streets. This hostelry was first called the Right House, then the Kirk House Hotel, where in 1896 a room cost $1.50 per night and whisky was 3 cents a glass. It became a British-style pub in 1995 and has a delightful open-air patio on its west side.

Go to Part 17: Smokey Hollow to Bayview Park