words & photos :: Kristin Schnelten.
A few steps into our first day on the trail, my daughter and I descend into a dark, windless ravine. It’s humid. Close. There’s a faint hum in the distance. Then, in a blink, we’re surrounded. The hellhole of a mosquito blitzkrieg is upon us, and we run. The swarm follows, and I imagine a long, thin cloud of tiny dots trailing behind our heads, squealing a chorus of glee. In a torrent of curses, screams and continuous swats and swipes, we sprint until we emerge into the sun and breeze of the next sideroad, panting and laughing, momentarily free.
I take notes after this debacle: Wear long sleeves. Bring bug dope. Start early. The final entry: Maddening mosquitos are dreamy relief from a constant news cycle. Breaks are necessary from time to time.
We’re now into our third month of lockdown, and most of us are losing our marbles. We’ve binged all the shows, baked all the sourdough. The political climate south of the border provides a continual feast for the media, enabling endless doom-scrolling, shuttered away in our living rooms.
So we hike. We escape.
The Beaver Valley section of the Bruce Trail is, end-to-end, roughly 120 km. (With periodic closures, reroutes and additions, the distance isn’t set in stone.) Every step of it is within our health unit, and the farthest point is a half-hour drive from our house. My daughter is up for the adventure, but has a limited attention span. We plan to complete it in small chunks, west to east, hopefully by summer’s end.
On the trail, closing in now on Talisman, we add to our list of lessons: Everything is better with friends. With a buddy this time, my daughter hikes farther and faster. Reconnecting after so many months of isolation, we scramble through crevice caves, marvel at vistas and discover fresh bear scratches on the trunk of a beech tree.
Laughable lack of bug-preparation aside, we’re really no strangers to this trail. I took my first steps along the escarpment in the late ‘80s, walking from Tobermory to Lion’s Head, mailing letters and actual printed photos to friends: You won’t believe these cliffs! This water! This hike! Making our home now at the mouth of the Beaver River, we’re spoiled—privileged, yes—to be surrounded by this winding path, popping onto the nearest trailhead anytime we fancy a walk in the woods.
This simple act of taking a trail through the forest is reflected in the Bruce Trail Conservancy (BTC) mission statement: Preserving a ribbon of wilderness, for everyone, forever. First envisioned around 1960 and completed in 1967, the public footpath spans a broad swath of the Niagara Escarpment, from Niagara to Tobermory. Through a patchwork grid of publicly owned lands, private properties and BTC holdings, the board of directors and employees work with more than 1,400 volunteers to maintain every switchback, staircase, stile, boardwalk and bridge of the 900-km trail.
Managing the longest marked trail in Canada is not without its headaches, and here in the Beaver Valley the pandemic year presents its fair share. With tourism numbers to the region increasing and visitors at a loss for entertainment, new hikers discover trailheads in droves—leaving in their wake a host of maladies.
Supersaturated parking lots lead to overcrowded sideroads; with vehicles eking out space on opposing narrow shoulders, some roadways are choked down to a single, perilous lane. Large parties walk three-, four- and five-abreast on the trail while others veer off entirely, trampling the delicate ecosystem on either side of an intentionally narrow path. Off-leash dogs wreak havoc on livestock and owners leave behind their festering poop bags. Users ignore signage, riding bikes where they aren’t permitted. Granola bar wrappers, disposable masks, orange peels and unmentionables litter the trails and parking areas.
Parking tickets abound. Regular trail users and volunteers are disheartened. Landowners are at their wit’s end.
The BTC, tourism organizations and local authorities work to tackle what appears to be the root of the problem: knowledge. What’s common sense to some is a mystery to others, so getting the word out is key. If a parking area is full, choose another trailhead. Hike mid-week, at off-peak times. Pick up your trash (yup, toilet paper and hand wipes need to be packed out, too). Walk single file. Only bring dogs where permitted; keep them leashed and pack out their poop. Bike paths are plentiful in the area; please ride those instead.
Local scuttlebutt of the many woes makes meaty fodder for chatter as we meander through the more popular legs of the trail—Hoggs Falls, Eugenia Falls, Metcalfe Rock—but we manage to steer clear of crowds, passing only a handful of hikers each day.
Our proximity to the trail makes adherence to the rules simple. My husband shuttles us to and from trailheads, making less-travelled sections easily accessible. We leave our dogs at home, knowing they’ll be happier with an evening play session than straining at the end of a leash for hours. And those iconic white blazes are part of our everyday—keeping them in view, sticking to the trail, is second nature.
Overnight camping is only permitted at a handful of designated sites, none of them in the Beaver Valley section, but we manage to squeeze in a quasi-backpacking event in late summer, stopping at a friend’s property. Cooking our freeze-dried dinner in the kitchen while drinking delivered beer isn’t exactly a backcountry event, but the hike-tent-hike energy remains, and the next day on the trail is one of our longest.
Hike days develop a rhythm. Find a friend, organize a ride. Pack sandwiches and treats, fill water bottles. Depending on just how beautiful the snack spot is, we’re out in the woods for three or four hours. Six to eight kilometres is perfect.
Summertime conversations circle around bubbles and restrictions, fading into ever-present worry about school. Who’s going back? Who’s staying home? Already subscribers to the latter option, we celebrate our expanded group of daytime hiking companions and make our way up the eastern edge of the valley in full autumn colour, one day and one family at a time.
In November the ever-present election news cycle finally ends, and the world breathes a guarded sigh of relief. Pandemic numbers still frighten, and we eventually find ourselves where we began: in another lockdown. Winter brings bewildering shutdowns, a ski season nearly lost. And we hibernate.
Spring arrives, and my daughter’s non-stop chatter—which echoes from the walls of our tiny house, becoming an almost ignorable din—is again sweet and insightful in the woods. Her feet have grown, but not too much, and we lace back into our boots and pick up where we left off. On a long stretch of road, one of the few sections without landowner access, she finds wonder in a wriggling snake, relays tales from books and keeps me abreast of her every thought. “Do you remember your routine as a child? What was it? Will I remember this hike when I’m grown up? It’s such a fun feeling to crunch over pine cones. Remember the sound Captain Holt made when he ate the marshmallow?”
The trail is a saviour, as much as the vaccines on the horizon—the scheduled date and brand received the only language adults now speak. Where did you find an appointment? And give us the play-by-play of your reaction. The end of this thing is near. We can feel it.
Summer weather and low case counts bring a burst of freedom and an ease of restrictions. My father, once a constant figure here, arrives from an easy border crossing for his first visit in 20 months. For him we’ve saved the final leg of the hike—a quick 6 km jaunt from Loree to Blue.
Rusty from a long break and cranky without friends, my daughter struggles with the multiple slippery descents and climbs, each the full elevation of the escarpment. To right her sinking ship, I rely on lessons learned: Slow down. Engage with one another. Have a sweet snack. Wonder at the view.
Catastrophe averted, we complete the day’s hike earlier than expected, all grins. With barely time for a finish-line selfie, we pile into our waiting shuttle and head to the next adventure. The bike park is calling, friends are waiting. The Bruce Trail continues in front of us, on to Niagara. But after twelve months of periodic hikes—treks that marked the path from pandemic isolation to reconnection—it’s time for a break. Our end-to-end complete, we step off the trail for now, back to this life that keeps charging, endlessly forward.
To learn more about the Bruce Trail Conservancy and their work to protect this ribbon of land for all, to get involved as a member or volunteer, or to download maps and read about upcoming events, visit brucetrail.org.
And I do have a favourite section—a rarely visited stretch with particularly cataclysmic formations, deep crevices and gasping views. Ask me about it sometime. You’ll find me at the pub, with new friends, celebrating our next adventure.