A Crazy Idea…
I had just finished hiking the Limehouse section of The Bruce Trail a couple of weeks ago and was buzzing with excitement. I began thinking about what the next challenge might be and I had a crazy idea, but I have felt conflicted and confused about how to present the results online. Allow me to explain as briefly as I can.
The Crazy Idea: Hike The Entire Bruce Trail (over a year or so) and Film The Endeavour for my YouTube Channel
You may or may not be aware that this whole BritHikesOntario thing started off as a YouTube video series, so the idea of filming such an epic journey like The Bruce had my mouth frothing with excitement.
But I underestimated things.
Issue number one: The cost of driving to and from the Bruce Trail for at least 50 trips is formidable. Unfortunately, in my current circumstances, I can only visit once in a while. And making videos sporadically doesn’t really work. I considered using Patreon (so viewers could sponsor me), but I don’t think that people would be particularly sympathetic to helping me to undertake something that I already want to do.
Issue number two: Filming means it takes three or four times longer to complete a trail than just hiking normally.
I’m still going to attempt an end-to-end of The Bruce Trail
It’s just going to take a lot longer and you will have to make do with me writing about it and photographing it with maybe the occasional highlight video thrown in.
One last thing before I talk about the trail: I did actually film this hike before I had come to terms with the futility of the exercise. Sadly, my focus on filming means that I didn’t use my DSLR camera and stuck to using my mobile phone. The photography in this article is not up to my usual standard, but it will improve with future hikes.
Get On With It!
The Bruce Trail is about 895km in length, running from Niagara up to Tobermory through some very pretty parts of Ontario, including conservation areas and parks. For my British readers with difficulty conceptualising the greater distances that are more commonly faced in Canada – that is like hiking from Central London to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. And then back again.
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. I most certainly would not be late. The previous night I had prepared for this hike. I had packed The Bruce Trail Reference Guide leant by my bookseller friend Penny, 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 to a frozen, igloo covered country that was yet 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 winter (so far). Googling “Bruce Trail Southern Terminus Cairn” will help you to locate the southern end of the trail, and you can park outside 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, in case you have a gnat’s bladder, like me. The parking was almost empty on this December weekday, but the Niagara area is extremely busy during the summer and I imagine parking is more difficult on these occasions.
The War of 1812
The Bruce Trail begins at the cairn shown as a red pin in the map above 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 is 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.
- The most bizarre perspective, as is often the case, comes from the Americans who see this as a victory. America had greater casualties, lost thousands of slaves to freedom, lost territory that was later returned and had The White House set alight, but their focus is on not losing the handful of battles that went their way that would otherwise have been disastrous. Or to put it another way, “Fake News”.
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 Scarborough Bluffs Video. 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 was 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, lest they are spoiled for the production of Ice Wine.
Numerous moss covered rocks and boulders can be seen beside the trail, poking out from the plants that have grown around them. Those rocks carried and dropped here during the ice age are known as “glacial anomalies”.
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. Or perhaps a little more than that for my first few hikes, to get a headstart. That way I wouldn’t have to drive down to Niagara too often, each time I wanted to continue the journey. However it was becoming apparent quite early on that this was laughably optimistic. The Queenston Heights section seems to be the shortest piece of the trail by quite some distance, but because I was still filming at this stage, it was going to take me all day. A big annoyance that I had on this hike was with technology. I like using my GPS unit. Not to prevent getting lost (although it has helped to orient me in the past) but to record my “tracks”. This is useful for creating maps and also to prove you complete the trail (you can get a badge for doing so!). But GPS receivers are notorious for eating through batteries. It died halfway through the hike. My Fitbit also decided to stop recording seemingly at random. I did manage to record the return journey, so not all was lost. Meanwhile, I wasn’t really using my DSLR, but boy was the strap on my camera bag digging into my shoulder.
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. Perhaps if I had started first thing in the morning and didn’t have to get back to Toronto, but traffic had put paid to that. Time for a new goal. It would make sense to stop at a parking area to make it easier to pick up the trail the next time. Therefore, I decided to aim for a parking lot near “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.
My Alan Patridge Moment
For my Canadian readers, I’m Alan Patridge is a British comedy series about a cheesy washed-up television presenter who has been relegated to working on a small town local radio station at four-in-the-morning. He is living in a suburban “travel tavern” motel which has decided to undergo refurbishment during his stay because the staff don’t consider him important enough to delay it. By the fourth episode, named “Basic Alan”, he is going well into his mid-life crisis and at one point, for want of anything better to do, he decides to walk along an inappropriately busy road, traffic whooshing past, in order to get to a gas station to buy some random supplies. He does so while singing Goldfinger by Shirley Bassey from the James Bond film of the same name.
And so, while the trail was interrupted for a few hundred yards by Niagara Regional Road 100, I found myself “doing an Alan”, singing Goldfinger and skipping along trying to ignore the cars whooshing past me. For Alan Partidge, this moment was one of a catalogue of depictions of a lonely, isolated man tinged with sadness. Although I was living out a similar scene, I was doing so ironically, of course.
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 check the map on my phone a couple of times, 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 in to Niagara from Toronto, I was passing certain locations that I knew The Bruce Trail would eventually pass through. I have been in Canada for more than ten years, but I still get thrown off by the scale of things as if I were a freshly landed Brit. I passed a road sign for Ball’s Falls Conservation Area as I drove along the Queen Elizabeth Highway to begin this adventure. From there it seemed to take almost no time to arrive in Queenston Heights. But I had barely managed to scratch off map one. And map one is much shorter than most other maps. Ball’s Falls isn’t until map four.
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 and I will need to get used to longer distances than this. By now, I also had acute pain in my shoulder from my ill-fitting camera bag (this lasted for three days). In future, I will also need to lose some equipment on these treks. Probably no tripod. Only one or two lenses. As I emerged back in Queenston Heights Park, I spied General Brock long after he probably would have spied me, while he was still in his prime. It’s probably misplaced colonial privilege or something, but I enjoy the affinity I feel for this “Loyalist” part of the world.
(continues below image)
Driving back to Markham through Toronto in the afternoon was a bigger nightmare than I had imagined. Driving in this city is awful. And as for my earlier guarantee of being back on time? I was somehow 40 minutes late.
The next leg of this epic journey will take place where I left off at Fireman’s Park. It will pass a haunted tunnel and take in The Welland Canal and hopefully more, if I can make it through a map that’s more than twice as long?!
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!