The Bruce Trail is Canada’s oldest and longest marked footpath, winding for 890 kilometres along the forested Niagara Escarpment. Hanna Lindon from the British Mountaineering Council heads for Ontario to walk the trail’s highlights.
The one thing you don’t really get about Canada until you experience it for yourself is the space. Even those Europe-sized patches of blankness on the maps can’t prepare you for the endless horizons, or the way the landscape rolls by in an unchanging blur as the miles on your odometre tick up. Beyond the city limits of the state capitals, most of the towns here feel like urban squatters – just eking out a scrambling existence until the moment that nature decides to move them roughly on. If you hail from a country that scrunches a world’s worth of scenery into one titchy, mostly harmless island then it’s kind of unnerving.
Walking – or rather hiking – in these supersized surroundings is nothing like the lace-up-and-go affair that we take for granted in the UK. It’s harsher and more epic, with storybook threats like wolves and bears lurking in amongst the maple trees. There are no public footpaths either. The nearest equivalents are national trails, which rely either on permissive access from private landowners or on charitable foundations buying up the land that they run through.
The oldest of all these long-distance paths is the Bruce Trail, an 890-kilometre route that traces the edge of the Niagara Escarpment through thick coniferous forests and past glimmering bays. This venerable LDP recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and I’m here in Ontario to sample its scenic highlights over the course of a seven-day walking trip.
“I hope you enjoy yourself,” says Diane Gregg of adventure operator Hiking Holidays anxiously, as our small group piles onto a minibus at Toronto Airport. “People keep telling me that British people don’t like walking through the woods.”
I mumble a stilted denial, but she’s kind of got a point. Given a choice between huge open vistas and wooded tracks, I always would have gone for the views – that’s until our bus rolls up in Hockley Valley and the surrounding hills explode in a foaming cascade of sylvan colour.
Ontario’s forests are painted in the kind of psychedelic palette usually associated with illegal substances. Zesty lime green beech trees brush branches with fire truck red maples and the trunks of trembling aspen shed a silvery light beneath the canopy. Even though it’s Bruce Trail Day, and the world and it’s dog seem to have turned out for a wander through the woods, there’s still a wild feel to this place that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I’m not surprised when our guides Ted and Sarah tell us that the early colonisers failed in their attempts to tame it.
“Back in the 18th century, settlers were given land in exchange for clearing a road on two sides of their patch,” Ted tells us, as we pass a piece of rusting farm machinery half-hidden in the undergrowth. “None of the forest here is virgin because it all would have been cut down by farmers looking to use the land for agriculture. But the land up here was mostly poor and there was a big problem with erratics – rocks that were carried here by ancient glaciers and rose to the surface every spring. They used to call it the rock harvest, and land was frequently abandoned because it was just too much trouble.”
Faint echoes of those unfortunate farmers still exist in the piles of rocks sat by the side of the trail and the pattern of grid-shaped paths that cuts through the woodland. As the days pass and we head north though, winding slowly towards our final destination on the fringes of Georgian Bay, the evidence of earlier civilisation all but disappears. By day we follow the clear Bruce Trail markers through increasingly rugged scenery, scrambling through the incredible limestone crevices of the Pretty River Valley Park and hiking above the Beaver River’s thundering waterfalls. By night we stay in a succession of remote inns and sooth our aching limbs in hot tubs.
My favourite stop-off point is the Pretty River Valley Country Inn, an organic reindeer farm where the owners hand-bake the breakfasts and the rooms smell comfortingly of wood smoke. From here we head on up to Bognor Marsh and follow floating boardwalks across a swampy black-and-white landscape. Wildlife outnumbers people on this northern part of the Bruce Trail a hundred to one – there are turkey vultures riding the air currents above the escarpment and bear scat strewn across the path. Every now and then, the kaleidoscope colours of the forest give way and leave us gawping at huge views that stretch over the tree-carpeted hills towards a glittering expanse of distant water.
We spend the final two days staying in a cosy clapboarded cottage just outside the town of Lion’s Head and walking along Georgian Bay’s secluded coastline.
There’s no longer any need to choose between forest and views – this idyllic section of the Bruce Peninsula has both in bags. Our very last route of the week wends past echoing limestone caverns, detours briefly to the central point between the Equator and the North Pole, and skirts down the side of a steep cliff to emerge at a wide, stony beach. The final highlight of a superlative-packed trip is the view from the Lion’s Head Lookout: a rocky promontory that juts out above Georgian Bay.
This classic trail might not have high mountain views or huge open skies, but its wild charm will blow you away. I’m almost ready to trade in hill walking for forested hikes…almost, but not quite.
Hanna travelled with Hiking Holidays in the fall of 2014.