Part 1: Queenston to Woodend
Date: Monday 2 April 2018
Start: Bruce Trail Southern Terminus, Queenston Heights
End: Woodend Conservation Area
Distance covered: 12.5 km
Total distance covered: 12.5 km
1. The Bruce Trail is low-key: it keeps its head down as if it didn’t want to attract attention. The modest stone cairn marking the southern terminus sits unheralded at the edge of a parking lot. Ironically, when you face the cairn to photograph it, the broad arrow representing the Trail points in the wrong direction, towards the Niagara River and the US border. And you’re so close to that border (no more than 500 metres as the crow flies), that your Canadian cell phone may welcome you to the USA and inform you that you are now incurring roaming charges!
2. Almost as soon as you are out of the landscaped park, the Bruce Trail starts in earnest. Here it hugs the top edge of the Escarpment about 100 metres above the plain below, and the terrain is steep, rocky, and riddled with tree roots. The truth is, the Bruce Trail is in no way “accessible to all” and cannot be made so. You have to watch your feet every step of the way, but not so closely that you forget just how close you are to that unfenced precipice!
3. In early April, after a sustained spell of cold weather, there’s plenty of ice hanging around in sheltered spots to add slipperiness to rocks, roots, and mud. We didn’t see another hiker on this leg of the Trail. Yes, hiking the Bruce could never be a popular pursuit. But it is a real challenge, the kind that Mike and Nick were looking for.
4. This is wilderness hiking, but separated from civilization by a membrane sometimes as thin as 100 metres. That’s especially true here in the Golden Horseshoe, i.e., the western tip of Lake Ontario between Niagara Falls and Toronto, the most densely populated part of Canada. And as you gaze through the still leafless trees, you are met by scenes like this: a new survey of huge suburban villas huddled at the foot of the Escarpment. The only reason the Escarpment continues to exist in its natural form is that its scarp face is too steep to build on. And the Bruce Trail exists for this reason too. So the fates of the 58-year-old Trail (founded in 1960) and the 450-million-year-old Escarpment (formed in the Ordovician Period) are intertwined.
5. Hikers on parts of the Trail close to properties on the top edge of the Escarpment have a close-up view of the assortment of debris sent tumbling from back yards down the slope of the Escarpment. Out of sight, out of mind! The best that can be said for this pile of scrap metal is that it looks like an abstract expressionist sculpture.
6. The low-key, under-the-radar quality of the Bruce Trail becomes obvious when it meets one of the branded, heavily sponsored local tourist trails. Laura Secord (1775-1868) is the Canadian heroine of the War of 1812, having walked 20 miles to warn the British of an American attack in 1813. (All-Canadian Laura was actually born in Massachusetts. Nowadays “Laura Secord” is best-known as a brand of chocolate.)
7. Here the Trail crosses the Queen Elizabeth Way, the main highway linking the US border at Fort Erie to Toronto. It’s a nice pedestrian bridge, but its designers went overboard to make it difficult for hikers to throw things, or themselves, down onto the traffic below.
8. Then the Trail plunges underneath a CN railroad line and through what’s known locally as the “Screaming Tunnel.” At this time of year, the Trail here is a shallow stream bed. And the camera’s flash reveals that every inch of the walls of the tunnel is covered with graffiti. I have no objection to this sort of decoration: people have been painting the insides of caves for thousands of years. It’s from art like this that anthropologists of the far future will try to piece together an understanding of our civilization.
9. We’re at the foot of the Escarpment now, and entering the heart of Niagara wine country. This mansion, surrounded by vineyards, boasts blue polycrystalline solar roof panels to reduce energy bills.
10. Visible animal life in this wealthy agricultural area is chiefly of the domestic variety. Hikers are rare at this time of year. This goat watches us warily, flanked by his security guards.
11. A sign of spring: this rather Gothic willow tree is just starting to green up.
12. And then, by the roadside, one of those trees with pairs of shoes attached. This is a custom that has been around for a long time. No one knows its origin, but there are several theories. One has kind folk leaving shoes that no longer fit in a prominent place where the poor can pick them up for free. But that doesn’t explain why these shoes are nailed in place! My guess is that this shoe tree is a shrine decorated by locals seeking to appease with an offering the malevolent spirits associated with this spot.
13. The Trail frequently crosses private land, and on behalf of all Bruce hikers, Mike and Nick thank those landowners who allow us to cross their property. Here we tiptoed through the magnificent back yard of a mansion before re-entering the forest at Woodend Conservation Area, the end of our first stage. As we didn’t nail any shoes to the tree, we kept our fingers crossed that the car was still where we left it!