Ontario, Canada – July 1999
The Bruce Trail
Survival is the great Canadian theme, says author Margaret Atwood. We Canadians emphasize our ruggedness by perpetuating the myth of our harsh landscape and unforgiving weather.
Most Canadians now live in an urban landscape in close proximity to the United States and not in proximity to true wilderness (though the U.S. could be considered a cultural “wilderness”). The only wildlife I regularly come into contact with are rabid raccoons feasting on our garbage and parks overloaded with Canada Goose shit.
Nonetheless, these myths are in our bones. So when we can, we like to return to nature. Whether this is a cottage in the Muskokas, a canoe trip in Kilarney Provincial Park, or even a beer-fest weekend at the local conservation area, Ontarians are inseparable from the outdoors from Spring to Fall. (After which we go into serious hibernation.)
My favourite way to get in touch with my “Canadianness” is by hiking the Bruce Trail. The Bruce Trail, an 800 km linear hiking trail, follows the Niagara Escarpment (basically a very long cliff). The Escarpment itself starts near Rochester, New York, dissects southern Ontario, then up the Bruce Peninsula, goes underwater into Lake Huron, emerging as Manitoulin Island, submerging and emerging again until petering out in Wisconsin.
The Bruce Trail runs on private and public land and embraces over 100 parks. There are also 300 km. of side trails.
Some of the trees on the escarpment date over 1000 years. This is remarkable since the average age of forests in Ontario is sixty years, due to repeated clearcutting. This makes these trees the oldest in Northeastern North America.
Our evil right-wing provincial leader, Mike Harris, okayed logging it, as he did previously with Algonquin Provincial Park. Fortunately, just before the axes were set to swing, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the area a “Biosphere” and logging was halted. It is the unique combination of cultural and biological assets that merits this designation.
One guidebook refers to the trail as packed with “white-tailed deer, coyotes, black bear, foxes, turkey vultures, Massasauga rattlesnake, and many other species of bird and animals”. The animals you are most apt to see are: chipmunks, raccoons, mosquitoes, blackflies, seagulls, and pet dogs. I did, however, see a coyote at Bruce National Park. I thought it was a dingo. Then I became frightened for my baby – until I realized that I neither had a baby, nor was I in Australia. I was therefore able to continue on my way unmolested.
This trail is no footpath. It is frequently rocky, arduous, and may entail minor scaling. Fires and overnight camping are not permitted on the trail and finding campgrounds can be a problem. You can also go a long way before you encounter supply stations, so plan accordingly.
That aside, you will see some of the most beautiful geography Ontario has to offer: primeval forest, unique flora and fauna, vivid scenery and an interesting cross-section of cultural life.
What follows is by no means a definitive guide to the Bruce Trail. Just some tips from sections and nearby attractions that I have experienced.
South Section: Niagara to Hamilton
The trail starts at the foot of the Brock Monument in Queenston. Major-General Brock was killed here preventing the Americans from invading. You can climb his statue, which affords a wonderful view of the gorgeous Niagara Gorge and the United States. While in this area, take time to contemplate how Canada (with minimal help from Britain) defeated the United States in the War of 1812 – the only war the U.S. has ever lost.
Some of the finest wine in Canada (yes we make wine, some of which even wins international competitions) is grown here and much of Ontario’s fruit. Hence the names of the places you’ll pass through: Vineland and Fruitland. I know someone who lives in Fruitland. I just can’t say Fruitland without a naughty snicker. It is the subject of frequent taunts.
Near St. Catharines, you’ll pass over all four of the Welland Canals, a major engineering feat that allowed oceangoing vessels to travel the Great Lakes. The alternative was to go over Niagara Falls. This is still a busy shipping route and ocean-liners can be seen crossing it.
As you come to St. Catharines, avoid it as it lacks any character. Similarly avoid the next big city: Hamilton. Hamilton does have character, but mostly it is bad and smelly.
In Burlington, the trail passes through the Royal Botanical Gardens. Whether you are into gardens or not, it is well worth a visit. From sculpted exotic gardens to more natural arboretums, it is quite picturesque. It is also here that the headquarters of the Bruce Trail Association is located, at Raspberry House. The Association is responsible for the formation and upkeep of the Trail.
There are some beautiful waterfalls along this section: Balls Falls (another naughty snicker), Webster’s Falls, and Tews Falls (41m. high – the same as Niagara Falls).
Mount Nemo and the nearby sidetrail of Rattlesnake Point are among the most popular areas in the province for rockclimbing and also offer beautiful views of the landscape. Don’t let the name Rattlesnake Point intimidate you. I have never encountered a rattlesnake on the Trail.
Middle Section: Dundas to Meaford
This part of the trail encompasses the Caledon Hills and Credit Valley. It is beautiful and quite hilly. Caledon is home to rich Toronto money and perhaps more than one Mafia boss’ mansion. The village of Cataract is home to – guess – a cataract (a.k.a. waterfall) and the ruins of an old mill. There are a lot of hardwood trees in this part so the autumn colours are absolutely stunning.
Blue Mountain (near Collingwood) at 1,770 feet is the highest point in Southern Ontario is famous for its ski slopes. However, Blue Mountain is most famous (infamous) for its blue pottery that is omnipresent in Ontarian homes. This is the classic “swan”, the pride and joy of all Ontario’s happy-homemakers.
North Section: Owen Sound to Tobermory
Now you are entering undoubtedly the best section, the Bruce Peninsula – it puts the Bruce in Bruce Trail. On one side is the dramatic Niagara Escarpment forming jagged cliffs and prominent “lookouts”, and on the other side is the azure blue of Georgian Bay. It is one of the most naturally beautiful areas I’ve encountered in the world.
The first city you’ll encounter is Owen Sound, hometown of Tom Thomson, the most famous Canadian artist. They have a fairly good art gallery named after him with a good collection of Group of Seven paintings. Inglis Falls nearby is a stunning 100 ft. drop over terraced rocks.
You’ll also pass through Wiarton, home to the late, great weather prognosticator, Wiarton Willie (see April article), and Lion’s Head. The latter was named for a rock formation that supposedly looks like a lion. I sat in a tavern beholding this formation and could not remotely see a lion, even after some beers. The nachos, however, were exemplary.(Hey, after a day of hiking, you’ll appreciate quality grease.)
Devil’s Pulpit, (a.k.a. Devil’s Monument) is an earthbound flowerpot. There seems to be a satanic theme to the Bruce Trail as another section is called Devil’s Glen. I guess that’s due to the twisted ankles one gets hiking over all the rocks trying to see these damned things.
Now the best part, Bruce National Park!!!! It is made of three parts:
Fathom Five in Lake Huron is an underwater park, perfect for scuba divers due to the unique geology (the Escarpment is now underwater) and the plethora of shipwrecks. Flowerpot Island has two flowerpots (basically a large “rock column”) and a million tourists, but honestly it’s worth the boat ride to the small island. Take a look at the cool flowerpots. Then hike the circumference of the island, which is ruggedly scenic and more private.
Cypress Lake is on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, near Tobermory. There is lots of good hiking here. Trails take you through wetlands, forests and lakes, dramatic cliffs next to Georgian Bay, and to the popular Grotto. The camping there is very good, as sites are spacious and quite natural. The park is renowned for its orchids. Normally, I don’t get excited about wildflowers, but they really are spectacular – all the more beautiful knowing that nature created it and not some freak with tons of chemical fertilizer and pesticides.
The town of Tobermory is pleasant enough. It is a bit touristy, with some good arts and crafts stores surrounding its Little Tub harbour. It is most famous for the debarkation point for the Chi-cheemaun
Ferry that takes one to Manitoulin Island, a popular yet disappointing, destination. Manitoulin is the world’s largest freshwater island.
If you have hiked the entire trail then you’ll certainly appreciate that survival is more than a theme. Update: Survival can’t be too much of an issue for Canadians as the United Nations just voted us the best country to live in for the sixth consecutive year! Kickass!!!
Ontario is huge! I’ve been travelling in the province all my life and there are still places I’ve never seen. Northern Ontario, for instance, is really the wilds with access only by plane.
Whether it is the Great Lakes or some of the smaller streams and rivers, one sixth of Ontario is covered by water (though most of it is perpetually cold).
Southern Ontario is the most populous area of Canada. Most of the cultural life of the province (even the country) is in this region.
Toronto, the provincial capital, is the forth largest city in North America considered the world’s most multicultural city with over 100 different ethnic groups.
The summer is really the time to come to Ontario. Almost every city, town, or village has some sort of festival going on. There is so much happening I had to be very selective in deciding what to recommend.
Blyth Drama Festival – The Stratford and Shaw Festivals (see May article) offer the works of Shakespeare and Shaw & his contemporaries respectively.It is rare to see Canadian plays, but the Blyth Festival is the ultimate all-Canadian drama festival. (June 22 to Sept. 11)
Orillia Casino Rama Concert Series – Lounge singers of Vegas finally have a venue tacky/pathetic enough for them in Ontario: Casino Rama. Their “big time entertainment” kicks off with Neil Sedaka (July 7), then Engelbert Humperdink (July 21), Dionne Warwick (July 28), then the great Wayne Newton (Aug. 11) – amen! Canada is well-represented in this dubious group by Anne Murray (Aug. 18).
Elora Music Festival – Classical music and some superb choral work. Some of the concerts are performed on a barge while patrons sit on the shore at the Elora quarry. (July 9-31)
Parry Sound Festival of the Sound – Top Canadian and international classical musicians make this one of the most popular music festivals in Ontario. (July 16 – Aug. 8)
Collingwood Elvis Festival – The largest Elvis event outside Memphis! There’s an Elvis impersonator contest, Elvis memorabilia, a street dance, midway, and get this, the “World’s Largest Elvis Parade”. You’ll see me in line at the fried peanut butter & banana sandwich booth. (July 23-26)
Guelph Hillside Festival – Bohemian style alternative music fest. In my youth I snuck into this for free, which involved wading knee high through muck. This was no doubt a large part of my enjoyment. (July 23-25)
St.Catharines Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. The largest rowing competition of its kind, attracting over 100 rowing teams from around the world. (July 28 – Aug. 1)
Since there’s so much happening this month, I’ll only go into Toronto events in brief:
Street Fair A celebration without a specific reason. If only Toronto would legalize mass consumption of liquor on the street like in New Orleans, then there’d really be a party. (July 9-11)
Molson Indy Lots of race cars speeding through the downtown streets. (July16-18)
Beaches Jazz Fest Free outdoor, overcrowded jazz concerts. Good lineup. (July 22-24)
Caribana Largest North American cultural celebration, has Caribbean Carnival culture infusing the streets of Toronto. The costumes, floats and bands are incredible. (July 29- Aug. 2)
Ontarians obsess over the weather, come share our obsession and find out the climate of places like Wawa and Moosonee.
I suffer from a fatal case of wanderlust. After trying the real world for a few years, I decided to return to school to study the Internet. I currently live in Toronto, but I am from Guelph, ON. I have also lived in Ottawa, Key West, Florida, and Stuttgart, Germany.
Thanks to my fiancée, Jennifer, for helping me out with this and putting up with me.