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!