Year’s End Hike
It’s been a delightful autumn for hiking. Cool temperatures and lack of snow made for great trail conditions. Mostly firm packed dirt with little mud and little rain.
Shortly after the Winter Solstice, luck ran out. Although I day-hiked for four days straight during the Christmas Holidays, Monday December 28th was by far today would be most enjoyable.
Morning came on December 28th to find the ground covered in a new blanket of shimmering white snow. The temperature was cold at -3C and blowing a gale across the peninsula.
My friend Chuck arrived early in his black sunfire, which stood out sharply against the glimmering background of white which surrounded my country home. After exchanging greetings as it had been some time since our last adventure. Chuck and I piled into his warm car and hit the road.
Our plan was to hike to a series of old mines in Queenston, Ontario about a 20 minute drive from my home. Sadly upon arrival the area had a sign up that someone, obviously disturbed, had been deliberately poisoning dogs in the area. Another area had to be chosen for Luka, my 3yr old Siberian Huskies safety.
Chuck and I settled on Rockway Falls, a large waterfall in the Pelham region of Ontario Canada about an hours drive from Queenston.
Not surprisingly, upon our arrival the parking lot of the Rockway Community Center had no tyre tracks in the parking lot on the glistening white snow. The nearby waterfall could be heard thundering as it was a quiet day.
Gearing up with my hob-nailed hiking boots, gaiters, base layer, outer shell, ski-mask, goggles, gloves, and backpack took some time. Winter hiking is always challenging as it requires a significant amount of equipment to keep warm and safe. Luka, ran around and played impatiently as I geared up. The snow was ankle deep and the cold wind cut through my base layers until I managed to get on my outer shell.
Locking the car and heading out onto the trails, Chuck and I came near the edge of the thundering waterfall. Looking over the edge of the large gorge carved over thousands of years by the waterfall was mystifying. The haze from the waterfall slowly rose out of the flowing chocolate milk coloured water, and covered the area in ice. The ice formations around the base of the falls made the water look like it was pouring over giant crystals with light shimmering off them.
Walking along the fenceline through hibernating trees and vines, stiff from the cold and missing their leaves was challenging. The frozen leafless branches and vines were stiff and took some effort to push through. The path was narrow with a chain link fence on one side, and a steep drop off into the gorge on the other.
Using my hiking poles, often referred to as “sissy sticks” I plodded my way through the snow feeling ahead of me for crevices covered in snow which could lead to a fall. The area, when not covered in snow is very rocky. After the last ice age glaciers receded in the area. All the soil and sand was ripped off the rocks, leaving them to stand lifeless and hope to collect soil and seed over the millennia.
Reaching the edge of a rocky section, a steep climb down to another steep hill lay before me. I had to convince Luka to jump over a couple of small crevices. This convincing included a short chase as Luka decided to abandon the hike for a short period of time and attempt to return to the safety of the car.
From the large rocky ledge, some of the Niagara Region was visible. Before me lay a large expanse of trees slowly dropping off tier by tier into the valley below. The sleeping brown trees, crowned with a layer of fresh snow made them beautiful to behold. In the distance large rectangular shaped farms could be seen leading out to a hazy Lake Ontario far off in the distance.
Descending a steep snow covered hill, partially on my bottom, and partially on foot led to a large treed plateau with a path to the fast flowing river below. Chuck suggested exploring some of the eastern sections of the park to which neither of us had been. I agreed and set out with Luka to blaze new tracks into the faint trail in the snow. Tall trees towered overhead and dropped snow onto me like a child playing a game.
The barely visible trail came to an open area where a beige rubbish bin was sitting upright near a tree. Nearby a small, light blue rectangle could be seen. “A Bruce Trail Side Trail” I announced to Chuck. Approaching the blue rectangle, a small sign stated that I had come upon a 1.9km loop and warned not to cross the river at high flow. This time of year, there was a significant flow in the river from run-off.
Following the trail through a series of pointless ups and downs (better known as “PUD”) the trail came to the riverside. “I guess this is what they were talking about” Chuck said as I looked across the river to see a blue blaze on the other side of the river. There was no way to cross the river safely at this point. “We can take our shoes and socks off, hike up our pants and make the crossing if you really want to” I said to Chuck. “Not likely” he replied.
In the distance I spotted a man crossing the river in tall rubber boots with his black dog. Chuck and I approached the man who said would be difficult to cross the river without waterproof boots. It was possible to follow some paths along the riverside. The mans dog was quite happy to see Luka and ran around being playful.
The riverside trail led to an old, dilapidated dam which may have been able to be crossed. A large 2m long section of the dam was missing, preventing a safe crossing.
While examining the area, an athletic woman in skin tight black pants came running up with her young son and said that there are more snow-covered trails running beside the river and off into the woods. I thanked the woman and she ran off with her son. I advised Luka to come with us, as she had started to run off with the woman into the distance.
A small hill following the river had a tree on it which caught my attention. At the base of the tree laid a good sized honeycomb. It must have fallen from the tree in autumn. It was very unusual and a striking orange colour.
Continuing through the tall trees and a bit more PUD the trail seemed to hook again towards the river. “Looks like the remnants of an old farm silo” Chuck said as he pointed to a large circle of rocks. “There’s a fire pit inside” I said.
Chuck asked me to search his backpack and dig out some firestarters he had packed. The firestarter was a small brown brick. The brick was made out of sawdust, twigs, and glue then soaked in kerosene to make them ignite. They are available at most outdoor stores.
No longer being within the park boundary, Chuck collected some twigs and sticks and I set-up to make a fire. I cleared some snow out of the fire pit and set up the twigs into a tee-pee style. I took some toilet paper from my pack and balled it up and stuffed it into the tee-pee with the firestarter.
A single match later, the small fire came to life!
“Fire is like any living thing” I explained. “you have to love it, nurture it. You have to feed it and pay attention to it for it to thrive” I leaned over the small tee-pee and blew gently on the flames to get them to start to ignite the sticks.
“Snap!” “Pop!” I heard, and smiled. The sound of the fire taking hold.
Chuck brought a few more sticks which he broke into small lengths and settled in to relax and enjoy our small fire in the large ring of rocks. Chuck and I both ate an energy bar while enjoying the primitive act of sitting around a fire in the winter. I activated the SPOT unit and completed my journal.
The small fire, only a few centimetres in diameter snapped and hissed with a gentle orange flame emanating from it. A small area of warmth in this vast and seemingly baron, snow blanketed area.
Two young men came by with a backpack and bag of wood. I asked them if they were from the area, and they replied “Yes, I own this property and am happy to see someone using my fire ring!” Chuck suggested that if he had brought some marshmallows to our fire, it would have made for a much better experience. The two men smiled and went off into the distance.
After a while relaxing and enjoying the small fire, all the twigs and sticks had burned down. Chuck and I collected snow and dumped it over the fire to ensure that it was out completely. I took a stick and mixed the snow and ash around to ensure there was no smoke, then added more snow.
Bending over to listen for any hissing or see any smoke, Chuck snapped a photo of me and said it looked like I was doing the “Vulcan Mind Meld” with the fire ring. I laughed and put on my kit to head out for the journey back to the car, parked 5km away.
The journey away from the fire ring was uneventful. The PUD seemed to be steeper on the way back to the car than I had remembered.
While stopping for a rest, a few people passed us by. “See, that’s why people often get hurt and die out here” I pointed out to Chuck. One couple was grossly under-dressed in just thin, cotton pants and thin jackets. The woman had running shoes on. They looked uncomfortable and cold. The other couple with them was elderly, both looked miserable and under-dressed. None had a backpack, water, or any supplies whatsoever. The elderly lady was limping and the wet-spots on her pants indicated she had fallen into the snow at least once. I hoped they would make it safely back to their car. “We’re behind them and will help out if they get in trouble” Chuck replied.
The snow covered hills with towering trees led to the giant hill which I descended a few hours earlier. Chuck decided to take a short cut and took another hill. I followed my earlier tracks with Luka and slowly ascended the steep, snow covered hill. The hob-nails on my boots made for a sure grip and prevented slipping. The hiking poles helped stay upright while ascending the hill.
Reaching the top of the hill, I assisted Luka in climbing a steep rocky section and scrambled up myself. Shortly after I heard a loud whistle in the distance. Chuck was signalling he had successfully made it to the top on his detour.
I waited atop the ridge. The snow now blowing harshly in the cold. The wind cut through my layers easily and it was getting nasty looking. I moved slowly along the trail to a fork in the trail where I heard a second whistle. I returned the whistle again. Luka went running off as she had spotted Chuck sitting at the base of a tree. Chuck stood up and followed me to the parking lot and to his car. There were two pick-up trucks now in the parking lot. One of which was still occupied. A good choice to stay warm and dry in the weather, I thought.
Arriving at the car, I stripped off most of my gear and stowed it in the boot. Chuck helped Luka into the car and headed for home for the day.
It was a great and unusual thing to have a fire on a day hike. The act of sitting around a fire in the woods seems to invoke a primal part of our psyche lost aeons ago. As 2009 comes to a close, it leaves behind 1,000km of hiking I did throughout the year. Hopefully 2010 will have some great trips and stories to come.
Photos from the trip can be found here.
Wolfmaan relaxing by the fire