Grand Birding : Elora to Orton

When we walked the main street of historic Elora this morning it was already stifling at 7:30 am. It wasn't so much the heat, although that was bad enough - it was the humidity that took our breath away and sapped our energy. When you can already feel it at 7:30 am you know it's going to be a tough day.

Elora is a popular tourist destination in the summer months, known both for its 19th century limestone architecture and for the Elora Gorge. Its main street is lined with many small shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants, and art galleries. At the edge of town is the Elora Gorge and the conservation area, which offers canoeing, kayaking, hiking, picnicking, camping, and inner tubing.

 As we headed out of town the Great Trail wove through many neighbourhoods that appeared to be a mix of older houses, newly renovated residences, and large, newly built modern homes. There were also quite a few new condo complexes, suggesting that Elora may be another destination for retirees and commuters from the GTA.

As we walked through the neighborhood we came upon a powerful art exhibit in the front yard of Phil Irish, a talented local artist. It was called 'Racism at Home' and included very beautiful painted portraits of victims of racist acts that occurred here in Canada. The paintings were placed on poles, arranged around the edge of the artist's home, facing out. It was meant to honour the lives of the victims and celebrate their humanity, while making the largely white community, and the artist himself, experience the discomfort of recognizing what happened to them and why. Among the portraits were George Floyd, Dudley George, Abdirahman Abdi, Greg Ritchie, Neil Stonechild, and Regis Korchinski-Paquet.

It was a lot to think about as we continued on.  Irish's art and statement served as a profound counterpoint to our experience with posters we found on the Iron Horse section of the Great Trail in a previous community.

At the edge of town we picked up the Elora Cataract Trail, which is a rail trail that follows the route of the Credit Valley Railway. The main line from Toronto to Orangeville was constructed in 1879, with a spur going to Elora and Fergus. The line was leased to the Canadian Pacific Railway for 999 years in 1884.

It was only a few short kilometers to Fergus, and quite a few people were out cycling and jogging down the shaded trail beneath the sugar maples. On either side were fields, beautifully lit in the morning light. The wheat was already a rich gold colour in many fields, and several hay fields were now dotted with round, shrink wrapped bales.


When we reached Fergus there was a break in the rail trail. Instructions for the Cataract Trail would have sent us weaving through shade-less streets bordered by small warehouses and industrial buildings. The Great Trail App sent us weaving up and down small hills through a middle class neighbourhood. Many of the houses had large trees in their front yards, which provided some shade. Although the main street of Fergus was only two blocks away, it offered no shade, so we decided to stick to the official trail, and once again traverse a town without actually seeing its center.

At the far side of Fergus we picked up the Elora Cataract Trail once again, and that is what we followed for the remainder of today. At the edge of town we were given more food for thought in the form of a series of brightly coloured wooden signs hanging on the trees that encouraged girls and women to feel empowered, strong, and to 'take back the trail.' These are worthwhile sentiments, but it made us wonder if someone had been attacked on that section of trail. If so, this type of support is an encouraging way to try to begin the healing process.

Upon leaving town we walked in a large arch up and then over to the Belwood Conservation Area, mostly weaving through agricultural land.

It was a beautiful, if scorching morning. Much of the trail was bordered either with forest or with hedgerows, yet very little of it was shaded, which made for slow going. At least it was interesting though. The hedgerows were alive with birds and bees. One of the common trail side shrubs is currently full of bright red berries, and nearly every one of these shrubs was full of busily feasting Cedar Waxwings. We've seen Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, Gray Catbirds, and Blue Jays snacking in these same bushes. As we hiked, the yellow, pink, and purple wildflowers were complimented by the brilliant blues, yellows, reds, and oranges of Indigo Buntings, American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, and Baltimore Orioles.

When we came to the Belwood Conservation Area we crossed the Shand Dam, a huge earthen embankment dam with three large wing gates. The Shand Dam was the first large-scale multi-purpose dam constructed in Canada. It is used for flood control and low flow augmentation on the Grand River, and also has a turbine that generates sufficient power for 50 homes. It is one of seven dams operated by the Grand River Conservation Area on the Grand River.

There were about a dozen people fishing at the base of the dam as we walked across the top. The dam brings cold water from the bottom of the reservoir into the river, creating a first rate tail-water brown trout fishery which anglers come from all over the world to visit. Pike, perch, walleye, carp, and small-mouth bass are other popular species of fish that can be caught in the reservoir.

A Double-crested Cormorant was sitting high atop the dam when we crossed. Several Ring-billed and Herring Gulls were gliding above the dark blue waters of the reservoir, and many families of Canada Geese were hanging out on the grassy shore. The reservoir was surrounded by cottages, and the boat launch in the conservation area was busy. Quite a few people were out enjoying picnics on the shady picnic tables in the grassy park at the edge of the water. As we took a break in the shade, two people came over to chat about the hike.


As we left Belwood the gravel track ran along the edge of a busy road. As we were trudging along in the heat a lady stopped at the edge of the road, jumped out of her car, and came over to say hi. A while ago Michelle had very generously offered to help us on our way through Belwood, and randomly ran into us on the trail. We promised to text her when we reached Belwood, and continued on. Although we didn't end up meeting with her, we still greatly appreciated the offer of help.

We didn't see much of Belwood besides a long bridge over the Grand River, and a cedar lined road with a few cottages on it. As we got to the end of the road we ran into two people who were installing a bench and a Little Free Library at the side of the trail. They stopped to elicit our opinion, and ended up offering to refill our water bottles. More lovely trail magic!

There followed a wonderful section of trail under a tunnel of cedars. We were right beside the Grand River, and there were camping spots right along the water's edge. It was very tempting to stop, even though it was only noon. The shade and cool waters called, especially since we could hear the laughter and screams of kids out enjoying the water.

As we continued on we realized that the sounds of the forest around us have changed. There are a lot of cedars, spruce, and white pine in the forest, suggesting we are heading up into the north woods again. We heard the sweet whistling call of White-throated Sparrows, the flute-like trill of a Swainson's Thrush, the descending notes of a Veery, the toy horn call of a White-breasted Nuthatch, and the companionable chatter of Black-capped Chickadees. It made us look forward to being up north once again!


As the afternoon wore on, and the temperature climbed into the high thirties, our pace slowed to a crawl. Although we were mostly surrounded by trees, there was almost no shade on the trail itself. At one point we stopped to take a break under a clump of willows. As we rested we watched a Black-billed Cuckoo harvest some of the numerous caterpillars from among the leaves. It was fascinating to watch as it manoeuvred the caterpillars in its beak, wrapping them up and organizing them into rows of small pieces for the fledglings. There was also a pair of Common Yellowthroats feeding fledglings in the same tree, and a family of Yellow Warblers squawking and complaining in a shrub down below. Across the trail two House Wrens were frantically feeding their babies. So much activity!


Around 3:30 pm we found a patch of beautiful mature maples which offered abundant opportunities to camp. We were wiped out, and the shade of the tall green canopy was seductive. A Wood Thrush was singing somewhere in the green oasis. An Eastern Wood-pewee was calling plaintively, and the ubiquitous Red-eyed Vireo was singing. For some reason we decided it was too early to stop for the day, and left our shady bench to continue on.


We struggled for a few more kilometers, walking from shade tree to shade tree, but ultimately gave up somewhere around kilometer 29. It was a long day and we managed to get much farther than seemed probable when we set off this morning.

As night falls, and the cooler evening temperatures set in, it feels like everything is waking up. A White-throated Sparrow is giving its 'Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada' call nearby. A Veery's descending trill can be heard behind us. An extremely loud Blue Jay is protesting above us. Somewhere an American Robin is singing. All this and it is already dark.

See you on the trail!

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