Friday, June 12, 2020

Settler's Line to Peterborough (dedicated to the memory of Genna McLinden)

We were woken early by an exuberant Winter Wren singing above our tent. This is one of my favourite birds, because like most wrens it is a tiny round ball with a long stick for a tail, and despite its diminutive size it sings a loud, long, bubbly, complex song. It certainly was a cheerful alarm clock.


We set off down the trail around 7:30 am into a world of sunlight and movement. There was a (dare I say it?) rather chilly wind blowing, but it brought the world to life. Wispy white clouds sailed across the blue sky. Bright new leaves on the trailside bushes and shrubs fluttered and swayed, causing their long shadows to dance on the trail. The layered rows of green and blond cattails in the marshes rustled. Tall grasses in the rolling, unmown hay fields rippled like waves on the ocean.


One of the most beautiful times of day is early morning, because of the soft, golden light. The pastoral landscape of hay bales, orchards, corn fields, and marshes seemed to hold all the promise of a new beginning.


As we were passing a shrubby section of trail we heard a Yellow Warbler, several Red-winged Blackbirds, and a Song Sparrow singing, but they were all but drowned out by the loud and frantic protests of an American Robin. We soon realized this was because there was a fledgling hunkered down on the trail! It had pin feathers and down, but wasn't yet able to fly, so it's best defence was pretending not to exist. This didn't work too well in the middle of the trail bed with a screaming parent overhead.

As we progressed across the pastoral landscape we crossed over several wooden bridges. Tree Swallows were flashing their brilliant blue backs in the sun as they skimmed the rivers below. Bright yellow and black American Goldfinches moved through the bushes and shrubs. The soft, high calls of Cedar Waxwings could just be heard above the breeze.


Around mid morning we passed a small llama farm. There were a few black cows laying in the field next to them, which stared lazily at us as we passed by, but the llamas seemed less interested.

Shortly afterwards we passed a horse farm, with a beautiful red barn up on a hill. The surrounding concessions were lined with very large houses, and several new ones were just being built. Even from out on the trail, it was evident that there is money in the area and more coming in.


A little farther on we spotted a pair of Indigo Buntings!! We have been looking for these improbably bright little birds for some time, so we were over the moon. The pair was copulating on the trail, and with a few call playbacks, we coaxed the male to pose for a few photos. Yay!


As we continued on, it began to feel like a trip down memory lane. We both attended Trent University in the late 1990's and early 2000's. During that time I worked as a field assistant in the Ornithology Lab there with Dr. Erica Nol, and completed my own MSc project looking at the effects of forest fragmentation on migratory songbird, mammal, and insect populations.  Some of my study sites were along the concessions we crossed on our way in to town. I was glad to see that most of the roads I once frequented were still gravel. Some of my happiest and most productive years birding were spent in these forests.


One of the highlights as we approached Peterborough was finding a hatchling Midland Painted Turtle. We nicknamed it the "toonie turtle" because it was nearly the same size as a two dollar coin. We wished it well as we moved it to the side of the trail.


A few steps farther along we spotted a young muskrat on the edge of a marsh, using it's long claws to hold and munch on a sprig of leaves. It dove back into the marsh as we approached.


As we approached the town we began to see more cyclists, joggers, and people out walking their dogs. One couple stopped to ask where we were headed, and told us they'd hiked the Grand Canyon, from the rim to the bottom and back. It sounded like a tough although beautiful hike! Dreams to store away for the future.


As we approached Assumption, on the outskirts of Peterborough, the roar of hwy 7 / hwy 115 steadily grew. We climbed over a small rise and could see the overpass, with a bank of buildings beyond. The wind suddenly carried the smell of paint thinner, burning rubber, and exhaust fumes.


The trail shifted from stone dust to pavement, with a dashed yellow line down the middle to confine us to the correct lane. A sea of signage informed us of what was and wasn't permitted. The transition from rural to urban was a bit jarring to say the least.


As with many cities, we entered through an industrial section. Then we emerged onto Ashburnham Rd. and stopped to catch our breath at the edge of a busy parking lot with a Tim Hortons. We were back in Peterborough, a town we spent over a decade in, and where you might say this entire journey began, just over 20 years ago.  Indeed we have just discovered that our old apartment - on Hunter St. - sits right on the Trans Canada Trail.  We are both stunned to discover that we lived on the trail for over half a decade without ever recognizing what it was, or would mean.

The trail brought us into town through the Green Up Ecology Park, which was a beautiful, shaded, grassy corridor along the river. It had lots of informative signage, as well demonstration gardens, Chimney Swift towers, bat boxes, gazebos, small bridges, and a sandy beach. Many people of all ages were out enjoying the sunshine.


As we passed through we came to a Trans Canada Trail Pavilion, and found the memorial to Genna McLinden. Another connection in the story that links this trail together from coast-to-coast-to-coast.

On our way through the park we had to wait for one of the Parks Canada's Lift Locks to be opened to let two young girls in kayaks through into Little Lake. It is always interesting to watch the locks in operation, because they are still opened and closed by hand.

Finally, a long metal trestle bridge carried us across the Otonabee River and into downtown Peterborough. This was a stark reminder that you can never go back home. This is where we met over a quarter of a century ago, and ultimately where this journey began. Many of the businesses were the same as they were 15 years ago, but the downtown core is much slicker and more modern feeling, and a lot of the creative, alternative atmosphere that called us both here years ago seems to be fading.



We stopped at the Silver Bean, which is a cafe on the river for a delicious Buddha Bowl of salad, quinoa, and fresh veggies. Apparently patios were allowed to open back up today for the first time since the world was rocked by the covid 19 pandemic, and we were able to enjoy our lunch on the sanitized riverside patio.

For the next 500-700 km or so we will be walking through familiar places that we have lived, worked, or visited in years past. It seems this is going to be one strange walk through our own history.  As John Muir would remind us - "going out, I found, was really going in"

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