Extreme Cold Warning
When I announced my intention to end-to-end hike The Bruce Trail in stages, I have to admit that a few of the positive responses that I have received on this site and on social media have helped to spur me on a little. I had some spare time on “Blue Monday”, supposedly the saddest day of the year, and so I decided to try to “find my happy” by heading back down to The Niagara region. This happened to be on the same day that The Government of Canada issued an “Extreme Cold Weather Warning”. It could reach -35°C with the windchill, they said.
If you read about my hike through Bruce Trail Map 01, you’ll know that I slugged my way from Queenston Heights to just beyond “Fireman’s Park”, noting how unfit I had become in the last few months. Having done nothing to improve the situation, I repeated the car journey along “North America’s busiest stretch of highway”, The 401, then briefly onto The 427, then The Queen Elizabeth Highway (QEW) which was named to coincide with a visit to Canada from George VI and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1937.
You get a good view of the western edge of Lake Ontario as you pass over The Burlington Skyway, continuing to just before St. Catharines and the replica ship of La Grande Hermine that sits forlornly in Jordan’s Harbour. Such a strange effect was taking place during this frigid morning as low cloud hung over the lake and hundreds of arms of mist reached towards the sky like Poseidon grasping for the heavens.
Although I don’t think it ever really dipped as low as -35°C, it was cold enough that my breath would blow back at me, condensate in my facial hair, before freezing into pieces of ice. Despite this, my coat ensured that the rest of me never felt too cold.
Things didn’t start so well. Upon arrival, it appeared that the parking lot had not been ploughed, but I decided to drive forwards to get a closer look. My car got stuck in a snow-filled dip at the entrance and took a few minutes to free again. I parked on the side of the road and hoped not to annoy anyone.
Next up, I managed to go the wrong way! This was hugely frustrating, but my own fault. I took a different trail by mistake as a result of not preparing myself by…. you know… checking the map before I started. The side trail that I took by mistake was deep with snow and was an absolute killer on the steep terrain. After slipping and sliding my way up to the top of a ridge, I was gasping for breath. This is where I realised my mistake and I wondered just how far I would now be able to get with my energy depleted.
When I got back to the car, I still had trouble orientating myself. To save you from reading any more about this ridiculous situation, I think there were some old white blazes – the markings on trees and signposts that you follow. Plus I am easily confused as I age.
About 30 minutes later, the time already 11 am, I finally figured out where to pick up the trail from last time I was here, parallel to some Canadian National Railway tracks. I got a real thrill when one of CN Rail’s huge, powerful, long trains blustered through, billowing clouds of snow all over the place.
Progress along the trail began easily enough (considering the weather conditions) because someone had already been through with an all-terrain vehicle. I was able to tread in the tyre tracks that were left behind. After weaving up and down a couple of hills, the trail returned to the same old railway bed that it had also followed back near Queenston. This stretch of trail was even easier because the snow had been cleared almost entirely by a plough.
Continuing through a crop of young trees, suddenly the snow was back to being as deep as my shins and it was completely untouched – except for some deer tracks. I could hear rustling the rustling of the shy creatures just out of sight. The hiking became difficult at this point. I had to kick and drag my feet through the snow.
Somehow life hangs on through the harsh Canadian winter. At first glance, it can appear that the only living things in the snow-covered scene are the Cattails protruding from the surrounding frozen lagoons. But there are also flashes of the red
of StaghornSumac. A small number of birds flitted amongst them. Throughout today’s hike, I also saw many Dark-eyed Juncos, Blue Jays, several pairs of Cardinals and a very vocal Downy woodpecker that I heard before I saw it. His calling “ pik” sound is somewhat similar to that of the Northern Cardinal, but less metallic sounding, of a lower pitch and the note is held for longer.
Large parts of this section of trail are also shared with The Laura Secord Friendship trail (as well as the Trans-Canada trail, recently renamed “The Great Trail”, which traverses the length of Canada). Despite being the daughter of a patriot, Laura Secord married a loyalist named James who served under General Brock at The Battle of Queenston Heights. Although his militia enjoyed victory in Queenston, James was seriously wounded. Through 1813, he would be nursed back to health by Laura.
By the summer, The Americans had successfully invaded the Niagara region and soldiers were billeted in the Secord home. Legend has it that, as the soldiers ate their dinner, Laura Secord overheard talks of an American attack on the British position at Beaver Dams. The next day, she hiked 27km from just north of Queenston Heights (where I began my journey), to just south of St. Catharines. There, she met with a camp of Mohawk warriors who were allied to The British. They escorted her another 5km to Lieutenant James FitzGibbon so that she could impart her information. The Laura Secord Trail approximately follows her journey – a journey that is more than double the distance I have achieved so far.
During The Battle of Beaver Dams, native warriors closed in on the flanks of the 500 Americans and launched a surprise attack. British regulars joined later and agreed to call off the Mohawk warriors only if The Americans surrendered. Thanks to the information shared by Laura Secord, The Americans were out-manoeuvred and they duly surrendered. Laura Secord lived the rest of her life destitute, particularly after the death of her husband. She was not recognised during her lifetime, aside from a belated award of £100 from Edward VII (at the time he was The Prince of Wales) during a visit to what would have been “The Province of Canada” in 1860. The prince was told of Laura’s story, her contribution, and her current unfortunate financial state. These days, Laura Secord is a woman of great legend and a Canadian heroine.
As I had waded through more and more snow – a never-ending supply of snow – it became apparent that I was not going to cover a great distance today. I examined the map for the next parking area to make it easier to pick up the trail next time. There were three parking options all grouped together about 3km away, but I was exhausted. Even 3km seemed difficult. I was about 1km-2km away from a supposedly haunted tunnel (aptly named “The Screaming Tunnel”). Surely anything less than making it that far would be
There were slippery stone steps hidden beneath the snow. There were bits of trail that had been boggy, but were now frozen over with thin ice, also hidden by a layer of snow. Sometimes I would step on these hidden traps, the ice would collapse, and I would fall literally knee-deep into the water, winded by the impact. It was a hell of an effort to climb back to my feet after this happened for the third time. It was hazardous. I came across a drain whose cover had wide enough grates that you could easily lose a leg through it. It was only partly visible under the show.
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At this point, let’s take a little breather so that you get a break from what may sound like incessant complaining. I’m not complaining. It just happens to sound an awful lot like complaining. This was an arduous hike, but it was enjoyable in its own way. And I’ll get fitter. Right? RIGHT?!
A large pedestrian bridge crosses a stretch of The QEW highway that I would have driven under an hour or two ago. This bridge marks 10km from the beginning of The Bruce Trail and about 3km of progress made today. The bridge was free of snow, perhaps from the rising heat of passing vehicles or from the lateral direction of blowing wind. It felt so good to be out of the snow. My legs felt like they were floating on air.
A short distance later the trail turns to the right, through The Screaming Tunnel. A number of different interpretations of a ghost story surround the local name for this tunnel, which allows you to cross beneath The CN railway tracks. Some say that a young girl was set alight and ran for these tunnels screaming before her death. Another story tells of an unhinged woman who was hated by neighbours. After frequent quarrels and fights, she would travel to the tunnel at night to scream in her madness. If you stand in the tunnel at night and strike a match, the screams of the ghost will fill the air and a whoosh of wind will extinguish the flame.
The Bruce Guide warns that the tunnel is often filled with ice during winter, and it sure was! The culvert pictured ejects water that runs into the tunnel which was completely frozen in these sub-zero temperatures. It was uneven and had a sprinkling of snow which afforded me enough grip to make it through unscathed. At the other end of the tunnel, I turned left onto Warner Road.
After around 1.5km, the trail turns right off Warner Road onto the edge of some property. It then enters
WoodendConservation Area. That will have to wait until next time. For today, I found a fence to sit on and I ate some lunch. I am now 11.8km along The Bruce Trail. In two days, I have still only hiked about 1/3 the distance that Laura Secord completed! Not including the time I spent walking in circles when I first arrived, I travelled 5km. That doesn’t sound so great, but the conditions were pretty rough. That is my excuse.
Sitting still for a while felt good, but it did allow the cold to take hold for the first time, so I didn’t stay long. Walking back was very slow going and I was pretty much dragging my left leg by the time I got back to the car. I didn’t pass a single person on this section of trail, although there were several more cars parked on the side of the road once I had returned. Most people were in Firemen’s Park sledging or snowboarding down the slopes.
It will be a disaster if I don’t get to The Welland Canal next time!
I’m not sure when I will get back out here because of some potentially good news for the first time in a long time. Stay tuned.
I dropped my wife off at work in Markham and assured her I would be back to pick her up at her finish time of 6 pm. No, no, I won’t be late. Yes, yes, I’m sure. The previous night I had prepared for this hike. I had packed The Bruce Trail Reference Guide, I had charged my DSLR camera, my mobile phone, and my backup battery. More importantly, I had dug out the long-johns that were bought for me as a parting gift from my mother back in 2007 during her blind panic that I was emigrating from England to Canada – a frozen land of igloos still to be tamed by the pioneers.
It took about two hours to arrive at Queenston Heights, not far from The Niagara River on another unseasonably warm day that has been typical of our 2018-2019 winter. This end of The Bruce Trail is marked with the “Southern Terminus Cairn” in Queenston Heights Park. I have marked the parking with a hastily drawn dark blue ‘X’ on the map. It is handily close to public washrooms, which I made good use of after downing a Tim Hortons Double-Double along the commute. The parking was almost empty on this December weekday, but I’m sure I would have been pulling teeth trying to find a spot during the summer.
The War of 1812
The Bruce Trail begins at the cairn shown as a red pin on the map and photographed in the image above. The trail initially works its way through the park. During The War of 1812, this was the scene of The Battle of Queenston Heights. Perched upon the top of an imposing 185ft column is the statue of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, built on the crest of a hill so that he can continue his watch for invading American forces some 200 years after his death. This British general, so widely regarded in this part of the world, was shot in the chest and killed here, but his forces were still victorious, forcing an American surrender. Brock had earlier captured Detroit with the help of his ally, the Native American Warrior Chief Tecumseh.
The War of 1812 has captured my imagination since I emigrated to Canada. What I find particularly interesting are the different interpretations that people have.
- Many Brits have never heard of it. It is considered a series of battles in which Britain was mostly victorious, that form a minor part of The Napoleonic Wars.
- Although Upper Canada was a British colony at the time, Canadians see this conflict as Canada’s war and their own victory over The United States. It forms part of the Nation’s identity, especially in Southern Ontario.
- Strangely, the widely held view of Americans is that they were victors of a war they started, lost more troops in, and in which resulted in a state of status quo ante bellum (territory was returned to each country).
Once I had navigated the manicured grass, playground, and the closed-for-the-season cafe, the trail turned into woodland and traced the edge of what would have been a bluff along the shore of Lake Iroquois. I have talked about this great, ancient lake that was a forerunner to Lake Ontario, in my now rather dated documentary videos that you can probably still find on Youtube (if you must). Were Lake Iroquois still here today, half of Toronto would be underwater. Northwards and to my right, the terrain dropped off around 200 feet to where the shore of Lake Iroquois would have been, but instead of ancient waters, today there were lightly snow-dusted farmland, golf courses, and one of the many vineyards that the Niagara region has become known for. As I walked over the hard frozen ground, I thought to myself about the workers who are often woken during the early hours of the year’s first frost to urgently pick the sweet Niagara grapes, a crucial moment in time for the successful production of Ice Wine.
The Bruce Trail Reference Guide breaks the colossal Bruce Trail into 42 maps or sections, and when I had set off on this journey I had hoped that one map per hike would be reasonable. I was keen to not have to drive too many journeys to and from the trail as it is quite far from my home and thus expensive in gas. However, it was becoming apparent quite early on that this was laughably optimistic. I had set out to film myself completing this hike with the idea of uploading an episode-by-episode documentary. There was no way I could follow through on this. Recording slowed me down far too much. I also brought my dSLR camera, but even this felt like a burden. On future hikes, I would have to travel much lighter to make better progress and suffer less from equipment weight. The other problem with an end-to-end hike is that I have to park my car, walk the trail…. but then double-back to return to my car, effectively doubling the length of the trail.
I pushed on. To the south, a huge crater in the earth revealed itself to be an abandoned quarry. I have read about an old mine hidden around here that is explored by people far braver than I am. Also of interest, just before reaching the quarry, there is a large rusted iron structure which I initially assumed might be mining equipment, but further research suggests that this is a Cold War-era antenna tower built in the 1950s and used as part of the Distant Early Warning system.
A side trail branched off to the left and passed through huge cliff-like boulders. This seemed like a good spot to rest and take lunch. I ate a sandwich, some fruit, and a granola bar. I quenched my thirst with some water while I again examined the guide map. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I had hoped to make it as far as the Welland Canal today. Maybe with less faffing around and early-morning traffic. Plus I needed to get back to Markham on-time, remember? Time for a new goal. It would make sense to stop somewhere with parking to make it easier to pick up the trail next time around. Therefore, I decided to aim for “Fireman’s Park”.
After 3-4km, the trail drops very steeply in a zig-zagging pattern straight down The Escarpment. With the ice and snow, I considered the possibility that I might have to scoot down the rockier sections of the descent on my backside. The idea of having to come back this way did not fill me with joy. At the bottom of the slope, the trail turned left and followed the route taken by what used to be the New York Central Railroad, though the sleepers and rails are long gone. At this point, I had made it to where maps one and two of The Bruce Trail Reference Guide overlap. A moment of celebration, I suppose. Although I think the first map is probably the shortest of all the sections!
My Alan Patridge Moment
For my Canadian readers, I’m Alan Patridge is a British comedy series about a cheesy washed-up television presenter teetering on the edge of mental collapse. In one episode, out of lonely desperation, Alan decides to walk rather than drive along an inappropriately busy road, traffic whooshing past, to get to a gas station to buy some pointless supplies. For no right-minded reason, he completes this journey whilst singing the theme tune to the James Bond film Goldfinger.
And so, while the trail was interrupted for a few hundred yards by Niagara Regional Road 100, I too found myself murdering the theme tune to Goldfinger, nonchalantly skipping along trying to ignore the cars whooshing past me. This may have been a tribute to one of my comedy favourites. Or it may have been a man teetering on the edge of mental collapse!
The trail turned right into more woodland, muddy in parts, with a couple of more difficult climbs. There was a lot of weaving around and I think there may have been some re-routing as I had to reorient myself a lot, but the trail ultimately emerged onto Dorchester Road near some railway tracks. I walked on a few more meters to just past where “Fireman’s Park Side Trail” splits off. To continue from here in the future, I would be parking a few hundred meters along from this side trail. I stopped for something more to eat and to contemplate.
When I was driving into Niagara from Toronto, I passed roadsigns for locations that I knew I would hike through along The Bruce Trail. I passed a road sign for Ball’s Falls Conservation Area as I drove along the Queen Elizabeth Highway on the way to starting this adventure. When driving, it seemed SO close to Queenston Heights. But I had barely managed to scratch off map one. Ball’s Falls Conservation Area isn’t until map four. What have I let myself in for?!
I finished eating and began the long journey back to my car. By the time I reached Niagara Regional Road 100 and my Alan Patridge moment, I had a desperate, burning desire to google taxi firms or to hail an Uber for the first time (perhaps not a bad idea for the future when I have an income!). By the time I reached the horrible climb back up the escarpment, I thought that perhaps my future would be spent living in these woods. The Quarry had trebled in size from when I had passed it the first time. The Cold War iron structure was a Tyrannosaurus Rex from which I could not outrun.
I enjoy hiking, but I have lost some fitness over the last few years. I will need to quickly get used to longer distances than this. As mentioned, I’d be bringing much less with me in future (I had a pain in my shoulder from the straps of my bag which lasted for three days). As I emerged back in Queenston Heights Park, I spied General Brock long after he would have spied me. I enjoy the affinity I feel for this “Loyalist” part of the world.
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Driving back to Markham through Toronto in the afternoon was a bigger nightmare than I had imagined due to the awful traffic through the city. And as for my earlier guarantee of being back on time? My wife was delighted that I was somehow 40 minutes late (kidding – she was quite good about it).
The next leg of this epic journey will take place where I left off at Fireman’s Park and I will pass through a haunted tunnel.
I also welcome any feedback on this article. I know it is longer than those I normally write. Too long? I would love to hear from you in the comments below. Thank you for reading if you made it this far!