Sunday, May 31, 2020

Smiths Falls to Little Lake (ish), onto the Cataraqui Trail

When we headed out onto the trail this morning it felt like a different world than the one we hiked through a few days ago. Our summer gear caught up with us, and with it came our new Radical Design cart, to help us reduce the weight in our packs. So, our expedition has been joined by third member, which effectively turns one of us into a centaur at any given time. The other change was that it was 4°C last night, and only reached a high of 14°C at midday, a full 20°C cooler than it was a few days ago. Pretty much the perfect hiking temperature!


We left Smiths Falls on the Cataraqui Trail, and soon discovered that it is a wonderful trail to hike! It began as a gravel dust trail, and over the course of the day became a grassy two-lane track, and a flat grassy pathway. Most of it was shaded, there were wooden posts with kilometer markers, it was extremely well maintained, and there was no litter anywhere. A pleasure to walk, and there was so much wildlife!

When we headed out of town we passed a golf course, and the trail actually took us through the middle of a fairway. As we rounded a corner a man was coming towards us, and his golf bag was merrily rolling down the trail in front of him. It turned out to be battery powered and run by remote control! It seems that each time we change our equipment to something better, something new rolls on by.  Suddenly our new cart had an inferiority complex.


A little farther down the trail we came to a sign describing the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and inviting us to take the HikeCRCA Challenge. The challenge took place in 2019, but it consisted of hiking various trails in the region and finding the different challenge signs to win prizes. The sign we found had a muncie that took us to the All About Birds website, which is a fantastic resource for anyone wanting to learn about North America's birds. What a great way to engage families and youth in the nature and encourage them to explore the trails in their own community!

As we hiked through a lush forested section of trail we met a man riding a tall, chestnut brown horse. He stopped for a chat, and we learned that he was training for a long-distance ride - he competes in events that involve riding 50 miles and 100 miles in a given amount of time.

Much of the trail today took us through beautiful maple, beech, oak, and aspen stands. At the sides of the trail lilac and honeysuckle bushes were blooming, giving the air a soft, sweet scent. Large bees were busily visiting the blooms, as did a Ruby-throated Hummingbird! The shrubs were also alive with other birds. At one point we heard two female Ovenbirds twittering excitedly in the undergrowth, while a male belted out his song from a perch above. American Robins, Common Grackles, and Blue Jays moved purposefully through the leaves, delivering large beakfuls of food to their nestlings or fledglings. Wood Thrushes, American Redstarts, Yellow Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, and Black-throated Green Warblers lent their voices to the fray. A particular highlight was seeing a Scarlet Tanager!


Other sections of the trail took us through wetlands, which were equally entertaining. The rain we've had over the last few days has caused the cattails to grow about a foot, mixing with the dry, blond, cattails of last year. Thankfully the mosquitos weren't too bad, even in the marshy areas, and we were able to stop and enjoy the cool, earthy smelling wetlands.


In one marshy section we stopped to watch a pair of Common Yellowthroats build a nest in the low willow shrubs at the edge of the trail. The female was collecting strands of hair, lining the individual strands up in her bill as she went. Above them a pair of Yellow Warblers was busily flying in and out of the same bush, while a pair of Tree Swallows zipped by overhead. On the opposite side of the trail a Brown Thrasher sat on a low tree branch before moving on, and a Black-billed Cuckoo gave its distinctive call. So much activity!


As Sean was photographing the Cuckoo a small American Red Squirrel bounded onto the trail and then sat there, nibbling on a morsel it held delicately in its paws. Its white eye-rings, rounded ears, and large paws gave it a particularly endearing look.

As the afternoon wore on we found ourselves weaving through fields and agricultural areas. At one point a female Wild Turkey came running down the trail towards us on her long legs, although she quickly ducked into the bushes when she saw us coming. As the trail opened up into farms we watched a hawk swoop down and grab a Rock Dove from a farmyard, carrying it off while it was still alive. A little farther on a kettle of Turkey Vultures circled low overhead.

One thing we hadn't expected was the interesting geology of the trail. In places we found ourselves walking between stone walls that looked like the limestone escarpment that is visible along the Bruce Trail. In other places we found ourselves walking beside walls of solid, dark grey and pink Canadian Shield, and in a few places beautiful golden rocks poked up out of the earth.


A few kilometers before we stopped for the day, just as we were passing Portland, we crossed an open power corridor. There were Osprey nests on three of the power towers, and one was huge - essentially a stack of three nests. Two of the nests were active, and as we watched, an Osprey brought what looked like a large chunk of wood to one of the nests.


As we watched the Ospreys a family of Eastern Cottontail Rabbits chased each other in circles around the spot where we were standing. They would disappear into the grasses at on spot, then reappear farther down the trail, dive into the undergrowth, then pop out onto the trail beside us again. You could see how they earned the nickname 'cottontail' - they looked like they had cottonballs for tails.

In the late afternoon we were sprinkled by a few spring showers, and puffy grey clouds lent a dramatic flair to the sky. However, it was mostly a lovely day to be out hiking.

When we stopped for the day we had hiked just over 35 km. We found a delightful spot to camp in a stand of white pines on the edge of a river, a little ways off the trail. Huge fish were splashing in the water, a frog was croaking loudly, and a Wood Thrush was singing overhead. As we fall asleep we can hear the sound of a Screech Owl across the water, and the howling of coyotes in the distance.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Exploring Smiths Falls

We are spending the next couple days here in Smiths Falls, giving a couple online presentations, recuperating, waiting to switch out our winter gear, and replacing our charge cable. It feels a bit like a step backwards to make a stop so early in this year's hike, but we feel it is necessary. When we got in yesterday evening and reconnected to the internet we discovered that the area is under a heat alert, with a humidex of 37°C. Even apart from our other logistical challenges, now is definitely not the time to be hiking hot country roads with heavy winter gear, risking heat stroke.


The main street in Smiths Falls is currently under construction, but it is nonetheless easy to see that this is a town with a rich history and a beautiful waterfront. It is situated on the Rideau Canal, within the town there are four sets of locks in three different locations. Together these locks provide a total of 15 meters of lift for watercraft travelling the canal.

Much of the land bordering the Rideau Canal is a grassy park with pathways, gazebos, fountains, artwork, monuments, and maples that provide beautiful shade. It seems the local kids come down to the Canal to jump off the locks and go for a swim, and adults spend their evenings fishing off the sides.

The waterfront isn't busy, and we were able to sit by ourselves under the cool shade of a tree and watch the Mute Swans and a family of Mallards lazily paddling around in the water. Iridescent European Starlings and an Eastern Kingbird also provided entertainment as they took splashy baths among the rocks at the water's edge.

Sadly, as we sat enjoying the afternoon we were reminded of how important the lessons are that we teach our children. There was a grandfather out fishing with his daughter and grandson on the opposite shore, and he suddenly took his lawn chair and began repeatedly slamming it down in the water, killing a large and beautifully coloured Northern Watersnake.   Afterwards the older gentleman seemed to take a great deal of pride in telling everyone who passed by that he had killed a snake.  He held it up, swung it around, had people take pictures of him with it, and eventually just dropped the body in the water again.  The young boy who was with him seemed torn between being 'proud' that his grandfather had done something 'seemingly great' and being very upset that the snake was dead.  He ran around the park trying to talk to people, and whether because of social distancing or being unsure of what to say or do, most families walked away.  Regardless, I'm sure the behaviour will stay with the young boy.

As we walked out of the park, the grandfather was on his cell phone telling city officials that they 'had to clean up the snakes in the region' and kept yelling to people in the park to 'stay away because 'there were snakes that could kill people in the area'.  While I doubt that the city did in fact tell this individual to kill more snakes, it is nonetheless a sad understanding of species and their contributions to our world and communities. As a point of fact, nine of Ontario's seventeen snake species are found in this region, and none of them are harmful to humans. They are a valuable part of our ecosystems, and all of them are suffering from loss of habitat, road mortality, and persecution from humans. It was very sad to see this last threat in action.

With all of that said, I do also have to relate that upon being informed of this incident the local Municipal officials expressed their concern and have begun to discussing ways in which they might address the matter including the possibility of putting out information plaques (featuring the photographs of local photographers) detailing the diversity of the region's natural wonders!  A great means to transform an unfortunate matter into a forward thinking development. 

The Rideau Canal was not the only geographical feature that made Smiths Falls an important transportation hub in the late 1800's and early 1900's. It also sits at the crux of several major railway lines, giving it direct rail access to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Brockville, Napanee, and Arnprior.

During World War II, Axis prisoners were transported by train through Smiths Falls to POW camps across the country. A German soldier, Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, jumped the train near Smiths Falls and was apparently the only POW to successfully escape in North America and return to his homeland. His story was made famous in the book and movie 'The One That Got Away.'


The history of the railway can be seen in murals around town and in the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario, which is located on the Great Trail, in the old CN rail station. Sadly, it closed at the moment. The railway station and the nearby railway Bascule bridge are both National Historic Sites of Canada.

A bascule bridge, more commonly known as a drawbridge or lift bridge, is a bridge with a moveable span that is operated using a counterweight. TheScherzer Rolling Lift bascule bridge in Smiths Falls, which was designed by the American engineer William Scherzer, combines the traditional counterweight of a bascule bridge with a unique rolling lift motion that eliminates friction. It was but in 1912-1913 to carry the Canadian Northern Railway main line across the Rideau Canal.

It is an area rich in history. As we sit in the evening air, watching the Tree Swallows catching flies over the canal, a thin crescent moon rise, and the sun set in a beautiful, soft, pink sky we try to imagine what it was once like in its heyday. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Lost in Lanark: Pt 2 - Somewhere in Lanark County to Smiths Falls

We awoke to the sounds of American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Song Sparrows singing in the surrounding trees at first light. In the tent it was was already hot, and a look outside the tent confirmed a cloudless sky. We packed up as quickly as possible (which isn't nearly as efficient as it could be yet), and decided to head out early to make as much progress as we could before the heat really set in.

Armed with new energy and determination we headed in what we hoped was the direction of Perth, where we would try to rejoin the Great Trail. The rising heat and complete lack of shade on the country roads made it tough going from the start, but we soon discovered it was turtle hatching day!


In a very short space of time we found two hatchling turtles! Each one was about the size of a townie, but we think they were two different species - a baby Snapping Turtle and a baby Midland Painted Turtle. We happy to report that both hatchlings were rescued from the backing roadway and moved out of harm's way well onto the shoulder in the direction that they were heading.


Around mid-morning we passed a lady who was out jogging, and from a safe distance asked her for directions. She told us we were now closer to Smiths Falls than to Perth, and then very kindly and patiently gave us directions - which Sean promised he understood and then promptly forgot. It was so hot by then we decided to give up looking for the official Great Trail, which follows these country roads anyway, and simply head, as best as we could for Smith's Falls.

We hiked past fields with split rail fences, as well as old fields and small woodlots. The flute-like melodies of Wood Thrush, the loud 'teacher-teacher-teacher' call of Ovenbirds, the musical notes of Black-throated Green Warblers, and the buzzy sounds of Black-throated Blue Warblers floated out of the cool, shady, deciduous woods we passed. It was very tempting to join them under the cooling shade of the canopy.

Other sections of roadway were lined with eastern white cedars, and punctuated with beautiful cattail marshes. The light reeds with their fluffy tops were reflected in the still, dark water of the small pools. In these areas the calls of Common Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers, Great Crested Flycatchers, and Red-winged Blackbirds filled the air. Common Grackles were frantically flying back and forth with large beakfulls of insects for the nestlings. A few frogs occasionally called.


Our birding highlight for the day came at one of these roadside cattail marshes. A Wilson's Snipe, sitting atop a small snag, emitting its loud, persistent cries! These endearing, plump, long-billed birds are among the most widespread shorebirds in North America. They can be found in wet, marshy areas, including bogs, fens, alder and willow swamps, wet meadows, and along rivers and ponds. Wilson's Snipes use their flexible bills to probe for invertebrate prey deep in the soil, and can swallow smaller morsels without having to pull their bills up. Snipes emit a unique "winnowing" sound when they fly which is produced by their tail feathers. The Wilson's Snipe we met on the edge of the marsh came right up to us, calling, and shuffling down into the gravel. It was a very exciting encounter.

By mid-afternoon the heat was pretty oppressive, especially walking along the side of paved and gravel roads in the full and blinding sun.  Owing to the heat and humidity we took a break for several hours in the shade of the single tree that we could find until later in the afternoon.  Then around 4 or 5 pm, about the time we would normally be slowing down to find a place to camp for the evening, we continued on. Ultimately we got to Smith Falls around 9pm after hiking for just over 40 km and just as the sun was setting.

We were very glad to make it into Smiths Falls to take a much needed break. We have three online presentations scheduled for the coming days which will require a WiFi connection, and we need to find a way to replace our charge cable, so we will be spending a few days here in Smiths Falls to rest and recover. We are also taking the opportunity to switch out some of our winter gear which is heavy, hot, and clearly unnecessary at this point.   The possibility also exists for us to switch to our "prairie plan" and simply switch our backpacks for the hiking cart which we have purchased for trekking with more gear across the central sections of Canada.