Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Crossing Brantford

This morning began around 4:30 am with the melodic and flute-like notes of a Wood Thrush above our tent. It was so persistent that Sean thought I was using call paybacks as an alarm clock to wake him up. As the sun began to rise the Thrush was soon joined by an American Robin, an Eastern Wood-pewee, a Red-eyed Vireo, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.


As we emerged onto the trail around 7:30 am the green corridor was flooded with soft sunlight, the humidity giving everything a dream-like quality. It was already very hot, and the sky looked white from the heat haze.  Even in our pictures the blue of the sky is gone, replaced instead with the white humidity.


A few kilometers into our hike we came to a large property with a huge mown lawn, an artificial pond, and several large weeping willows. In my head I was criticizing the landscaping choices as ones that wouldn't support any biodiversity. Just then we heard and then saw a family of six Killdeers on the edge of the pond. A group of Canada Geese meandered under the willow. Three Red-winged Blackbirds, a group of Common Grackles, and several American Robins were foraging on the lawn. There was also a Midland Painted Turtle basking on the edge of the pond. Nature really is everywhere.

As we made our way through a stretch of trail that was sheltered below a canopy of very tall trees we were passed by a steady stream of cyclists, and a few intrepid souls out jogging. We found ourselves walking beside a small stream. The roar of hwy 403 grew steadily louder until we passed under it in a long, cool tunnel.

Shortly after this the trail brought us to the edges of Fairchild Creek. Its slow moving, meandering, opaque waters were overhung with trees and shrubs, keeping the waters cool. As we crossed the long, wooden Papple Bridge, we could just make out two large fish swimming in the waters below.


As we crossed Papple Rd. we watched a very kind man placing sunflower seeds on the tops of the posts at the trail crossing, and filling several feeders along the trail. A group of Blue Jays was waiting for him and immediately swooped in to sample the offerings. It was heartwarming to see such support for birds along the trail.


A real treat was watching a pair of Cliff Swallows building a cup nest of mud on the concrete underside of the overpass for highway 18. The nest was in the very early stages of completion, and it was incredible to see the pair fly up with huge wodges of mud in their beaks and then spend a few minutes carefully packing it into place. While doing this they perched on lumps of mud they'd placed below the main nest.


As we trekked into Brantford we were stunned by the shear number of signs indicating the varying conditions of the trail.   At one point we were uncertain as to whether the trail was open or whether it was simply subject to random and continuous disasters.   With that said however, we found little evidence of danger or damage to the pathway on our trek. 


The next section of trail took us along the top of an old dike. As the dike curved around and into a residential section we found ourselves passing Kanata, a 17th Century Iroquoian Village. This interpretive and education center teaches students and people about the history and culture of the Six Nations. It is located on Six Nations land, in Reserve 40b.

The Six Nations of the Grand River is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada, with over 27,000 members. It is the only Reserve in North America that has representatives from all six Iroquois
Nations, the Mowhawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora all living together. Part of our hike today was on Six Nations land.

The Six Nations built Mohawk Village on the Grand River when they first settled there in 1784. The land on either side of the river was 'given' to them by the British Crown after the American War of Independence. Under their leader, Captain Joseph Brant, 'Thayendanegea' they fought with the British against the revolutionary forces.

Captain Brant is buried in the cemetery of Her Majesty's Royal Chapel of the Mohawks, which we walked past in the late morning. This small white chapel was the first Protestant Church in Upper Canada, and is now the oldest surviving church in Ontario. It was built in 1785, and is the only Royal Chapel in the world belonging to Native people. It is also the only surviving building in the Mohawk Village. Although it was closed today due to Covid 19, it is usually open for tours, and provides another opportunity to learn about the history and culture of the Six Nations. We have included a photo from a previous visit we made to the Chapel.

As we continued along the dike, one side was a flood plain, and on the other was a neighborhood. We passed a soy field, then a large recreational park with multiple soccer fields, and then the floodplain became an open meadow. In a flash of black-and-white a Bobolink darted across the trail into someone's backyard. A few meters later the buzzy call of an Eastern Meadowlark broke the hot morning air. We spotted the male perched up in a tree, and then to our delight the Meadowlark landed on the mown lawn not far from us and began foraging, successfully, for earthworms.


It was a long hot walk into downtown Brantford, but the trail itself was beautiful. From the dike we crossed into a residential neighborhood. As we paused at a bridge to try to figure out which way to go a man walking his dog gave us very detailed and sound directions. Much of this section was thankfully shaded, providing relief from the long sunny trek before hand.

When we reached the downtown area we found ourselves at Brant's Crossing Park. This park commemorates the place where Brant's people crossed the Grand River to settle the land they had received from the British. There is some debate as to whether the crossing actually occurred at this spot however, or whether the proximity to Brantford's Casino and downtown made it a good spot for a memorial. Today the park marks the place where three branches of the Great Trail come together, which is known as the Hub of Trails. There is a Pavilion in the beautifully landscaped riverside park, as well as an artistically designed observation tower.


We had been hoping to meet Kayla today somewhere around this point. She had taken a day off work and cycled down from Paris to meet us, but unfortunately we missed her. This morning the Great Trail App was down, leaving us to guess where the trail would take us in town, and how long it would take us to get there. Brantford has a wonderful network of trails, and we underestimated the circuitous route the Great Trail would take, thinking we would reach Brant's Crossing about an hour and a half before we did. Without the ability to measure trail distance on the go we have frequently miscalculated things this year, and it matters most when we are trying to meet someone else. Hopefully we can try again tomorrow in Paris.

We walked up into town to grab a cold drink and cookie at Coffee Culture before heading back to the trail. On the way back we passed Brantford's impressive and humbling monument to War Veterans.

As we hiked out of Brantford we found ourselves on a paved, elevated trail with no shade. It followed the wide, shallow, meandering ribbon the Grand River with its many gravel bars and small islands. Quite a few families were out swimming or paddling in the shallow waters. In the hot afternoon temperatures we were tempted to join them!


After following the trail around the first large river meander we came to Wilke's Dam. We paused to watch the thin vale of water cascading over the shallow curving step for a moment, before climbing the steep road up to the roadside trail.

For most of the remainder of the afternoon we walked through a hilly landscape that included lush green forests and prairie habitats. Being surrounded by nature was very peaceful, even in the hot and relatively quiet afternoon. Perfection would have occurred if the trail had offered a few more shade trees.


Just before we ended for the day we came to a very hilly section of trail. Suddenly the grassy slopes were replaced with construction. A huge area had been cleared, the top layer of vegetation being completely removed and leaving only dry soil behind. A constant stream of trucks was being filled and transporting earth away. As fast as the full trucks were leaving new ones were arriving to be filled. Yraffic was so busy a crossing guard had been posted on the trail. Huge clouds of dust and dirt were pluming in the hot air, even though a water truck was busily at work, wetting the soil. This must be what progress and economic development looks like, but from where we were standing it looked more like unnecessary destruction.


We ended the day with an unexpected treat. We were given the gift of a hotel room for the night, to help us recoup from the heat. We booked an inexpensive room at the Hampton Inn, but ended up in the Marriot next door due to new measures in place for covid 19. The front desk concierge was extremely friendly and enthusiastic about our hike, and upgraded us to a very nice room, complete with complimentary ice tea. We are very fortunate to have so many blessings in one day.

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Hamilton-Brantford Railtrail : Hamilton to Brantford (ish)


Our hike today began with ice cream, which is a pretty good way to begin any day. We didn't get back to the trail until around 2 pm, which was somewhat later than we anticipated, but in the end it worked out well.

The air was still, hot and humid as we set off down the Hamilton to Brantford Rail Trail. We were enormously grateful to find ourselves on a well maintained, gravel dust trail under a beautiful green corridor, sheltered from the sun.  Once again we have to admit that our expectations of crossing the GTA were unfounded.

Although there were lots of cyclists on the trail, and we were still in the city of Hamilton, it didn't feel like it. Occasionally we would hear children playing in a backyard, catch the scent of a delicious smelling BBQ, or hear a radio playing in the distance, but mostly it felt like we were surrounded by trees.

Even in the hot afternoon air we could hear Red-eyed Vireos asking their perpetual questions, Blue Jays launching their raucous complaints, a Chipping Sparrow's shape fast trill , and an American Robin lazily singing in a trailside shrub.  In addition to which we caught site of a Redstart and Catbird on the edge of the pathway.

A few kilometers down the trail we were met by Rob Porter, creator of the Songbirding podcast. This is one of only two Canadian podcasts dedicated to birding, and it was an absolute privilege to do an interview with Rob as we walked the trail. Rob's unique podcast provides listeners with an opportunity to immerse themselves in various soundscapes of Ontario while learning to identify the birdsongs in these environments.


It was fascinating to walk the trail with someone who was so finely attuned to birdsongs, and to learn about his work work with Automatic Recording Units (ARU's). While we were chatting we heard a Palm Warbler, a family of Hairy Woodpeckers, a Blue Jay, and a baby Red-tailed Hawk begging for food, among many other species. In the same area we spotted a molting Indigo Bunting. It took us a moment to recognize what species it was with its unusual plumage and apparently streaked belly.

We walked with Rob as far the Visitor Center in Dundas Valley Conservation Area. This 1,200 hectare Conservation Area supports lush Carolinian forests, colourful meadows, clear, cold streams, and interesting geological features, and it is home to an array of rare plants, birds, and other wildlife. The rich natural environment existing here and along the Niagara Escarpment has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


The Dundas Valley Conservation Area has a network of hiking, cycling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and horseback riding trails. We know from past experience that the 900 km long Bruce Trail, which runs from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Tobermory is one of the trails that crosses through the Conservation Area.

We stopped at the Dundas Valley Trail Center, which is a replica of a Victorian railway station that is located at the hub of the conservation area's network. In normal years it has a food concession, interpretive displays, and maps of the trails. Today only the washrooms were open, but we really couldn't complain about that.

There are a few restored train carriages outside the Trail Center which help illustrate the region's ties to the railway, and as we continued down the trail we passed quite a lot of interpretive signage and a bird feeder observation area. It was nice to see a few families out and about, enjoying a picnic and learning about nature.


As we continued down the forested trail , just past the centre, we stopped to talk to a father and daughter who were out cycling together and curious about our hike. The young lady shared a story about a recent camping trip, and when we said we were trying to encourage youth to play outside more often she told us she went to a school where they had an hour and a half long recess every day, which she spent playing outdoors. It turns out she was a fellow Waldorf student! What a small world.

As we left Dundas Valley behind we were very pleased to discover that the shady, forested trail continued. The surrounding landscape became a little less hilly, and more fields of wheat, corn, and soy began to appear. Much of our surroundings were still forested, or contained small marshes, and there was plenty of wildlife.


We spotted several baby cottontail rabbits darting across the trail and then freezing in the grasses on the edge, one shiny eye fixed on us as they tried to blend in and become invisible. A small snake slithered with surprising speed into a patch of poison ivy at the edge of the trail. Three very large American Toads were startled into action as we pulled off to the side to let cyclists pass. In one section of trail dozens of toads the size of my pinky fingernail were crossing the trail (all in the same direction), and had to be avoided.

Just before we got to the very busy highway 52 we had another wonderful treat. Monica joined us for a few kilometers on the trail, and brought some cold, fresh, watermelon! It was so refreshing in the hot, humid, afternoon.

It was a joy to walk with Monica for a while, learning about favourite birding spots in the area, talking about nature, and gaining some valuable insights into what lay ahead on the trail. Meeting people along the way, and hearing their stories is one of our favourite parts of this journey, and today was a real treat.

As we were walking we passed two interesting Environmentally Significant Areas. Summit Bog is a wetland containing an island of sphagnum moss floating atop a bed of peat. Plants that prefer wet, acidic, and nutrient-poor conditions grow in and around the area. This bog is also an eBirding hotspot. The Summit Muskeg Preserve is a biologically significant bog that contains plants representative of Arctic muskeg vegetation, such as cranberries, pitcher plants, and sundew plants. I had no idea these patches of muskeg existed so far south!


After crossing hwy 52 we came to a small shrubby field in a clearing on the side of a small hill. We heard a bird call we didn't recognize at first, and soon discovered it was a Blue-winged Warbler. While we were watching the colourful warbler, an Indigo Bunting in full iridescent blue plumage alighted beside us. A House Wren was making frequent trips to and from a nest box in the clearing, and a pair of Northern Cardinals was feeding offspring at the base of a dense shrub. The inquisitive burbling of a Gray Catbird could suddenly be heard in the shrubbery beside us, and at almost the same time a Blue Jay arrived, being pursued by three irate American Goldfinches. It was quite an exciting pocket of activity.


As we continued on we spotted some urban wildlife of a different kind. A Siamese cat was lounging nonchalantly in the middle of the trail. It got lazily to its feet as we approached. There was a toll to be paid to pass the feline which involved rubbing its ears and petting it's silky coat. This was clearly a pampered cat, not one of the barn cat variety.

As the landscape opened up to farmland we passed a patch of Sumac that was in full bloom. The red cones produced by Sumac in the fall are more familiar to me than the very light green blossoms of summer, but it seems their flowers attract a host of pollinators. We could hear a low buzzing as we passed the Sumacs at the edge of the trail, and soon discovered it was coming from dozens of bees on the flowers. There was also a very cool looking Virginia Ctenucha Moth on one of the blossoms!


Our next wildlife highlight was stopping to admire a small grey squirrel that was lying stretched out flat on its belly on a branch, its front paws tucked under its chin as if it was lazily watching TV. Just below it was what we first thought was an American Robin, but turned out to be an Eastern Bluebird!

We approached the outskirts of Jerseyville around 7 pm, and were thinking of trying to find a place to camp for the night. We stopped beside a promising looking woodlot, but cycling traffic had really picked up as people went for an after dinner ride. There seemed to be at least three cyclists in view at all times, which made disappearing into the trailside trees difficult.

As we waited, we spotted a tree that was covered in the most amazing looking Northern Pearly-eye Moths. They seemed to be mating, dispersing and then regrouping in a pile on the same tree.


We decided to continue on for a bit, and soon found ourselves in wide open farmland. Fields of wheat and corn extended in both directions, and barns were silhouetted against the horizon. As the sun began to set it turned the sky a brilliant pink and gold.

As if to echo our sentiments we came across a bench with 'Life is Good!' engraved on the back. We couldn't agree more.

We took a short break at a trailside stand beside a bicycle repair station. On the wooden bulletin board was an ad for FarmStays. When we Googled it this seemed to be an AirBnB initiative offering cyclists and others the opportunity to stay at farms, either camping or renting a room. Unfortunately, we couldn't determine if there was a FarmStay location where we were or not, but we will definitely look into this for the future! At the kiosk there was also a very cool piece of art!


Our hopes were raised when we spotted a stand of trees up ahead. It looked like a good place to camp, but as we approached we realized it was already occupied by three cyclists who were also stealth camping. What are the odds?


As the sun set and twilight began to fall we found a secluded spot to pitch the tent. We are under a canopy of trees and at the edge of a meadow. The darkness is now punctuated with hundreds of glow bugs! It is absolutely magical, and it is possible we will just lie here, watching the show until the sun comes up.