Bruce Trail St. Catharines Brithikesontario
Bruce Trail,  Hiking

Bruce Trail 02a – St. Catharines

Extreme Cold Warning
The percentage above is automatically updated based on the most recent hike and might not match the progress outlined in this article

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.

Snow Joke

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 Staghorn Sumac. 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.

Laura Secord

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.

Screaming Tunnel

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 embarrasing?

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 Woodend Conservation 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.

Next Time!

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.

Index | Part 2b

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