As we set off through Barrie we first wove through several neighborhoods in Barrie, then crossed over the busy highway 400, before walking through the Arboretum. This was a lovely, open, grassy park with beautifully landscape flower gardens and a huge variety of different trees planted throughout. One of the highlights of walking through it was spotting a Great Ash Sphinx moth.
The Great Trail is well marked through Barrie, and as we followed our signs we noticed that we were also following the Martyr's Shrine Pilgrimage Route. Many people walk each year from Toronto to the Martyr's Shrine in Midland, and the idea is one day to create a 'Canadian Camino' here. It seems like there are 89 km of off-road trail between Barrie and Midland now in place, but the markers we were following don't match the route map published online, so we think the trail is still a work in progress. Regardless, as we set out (as former Camino walkers) we both have a great hope of following as much of this pilgrimage route as we can over the coming days. As always our shells and Canadian Pilgrim Patches are still on our backpacks and with them - we hope - so too is the spirit of the Camino!
After leaving town we walked several concessions through open countryside. Traffic on the road wasn't too bad, and several cyclists went zipping by in the opposite direction. The fields on either side of us were mostly golden wheat, and in one a flock of European Starlings was rising up, circling in a great mass, and then disappearing down into the wheat again. Although they must be in the early days of practising for their flight south, it gave us the sense that fall is on the way, all too soon.
When we reached Carson Rd we continued walking straight, and picked up the beautiful Simcoe County Loop Trail. It took us through a large tract of mature, deciduous forest. The canopy of sugar maple, white birch, oak, and white pine towered high overhead, leaving space for a healthy understory below. It was mostly quiet as we walked through, except for the occasional lyrical trill of a Wood Thrush, the perpetual song of a Red-eyed Vireo, an Eastern Wood-pewee somewhere off in the distance, and the super enthusiastic bubbly song of a Winter Wren. The forest was woven with cycling trails, and quite a few people were out enjoying them.
After this beautiful green oasis we walked down Snow Valley Road. In this region, as a child I used to go skiing at the Snow Valley Ski Resort with my father and best friend. Today we got to walk past this spot, giving me another happy reminder of childhood, bolstered by memories of learning to ski, cups of hot chocolate and the coziness of warming up in the car ride home.
At first we walked along the edge of the road, through a mostly forested landscape. Occasional houses and businesses lined the road, and between them we could catch glimpses of deep forested valleys and rolling hills. On the wire above one of the businesses a pair of Eastern Bluebirds perched, their brilliant plumage seeming to glow, even on this overcast day. A train line ran parallel with the road, and just as we drew even with the ski resort a freight train roared past.
As we approached the community of Springwater we began following a lovely, winding, flat, stonedust trail that ran between the road and a row of custom built stone and log houses. The trail was lined with eastern white cedars, and several small bridges crossed shallow, winding streams. It felt as if we were walking through a National Park and the business and hustle of Barrie, only a few kilometres away, seemed quite distant.
As we turned off Snow Valley Road we found ourselves on a gravel concession surrounded by lush marsh. In places tall, old, silver maples, white birch, and weeping willows formed a magical canopy. The forest floor was flooded, giving the landscape a Lord of the Rings feel. It was magical, and although the late morning was quiet, it was easy to see that - despite being so late in the season - this was a fantastic birding spot.
As we walked we heard a squeaking, seemingly coming form the sky. We stopped to investigate, and saw a Cooper's Hawk take to the air from a snag, a small mouse clutched tightly in its talons.
A short ways down the road we turned onto a trail, and began a walk through part of the Minesing Wetlands. This is a unique assemblage of bogs, ferns, marshes, and swamps that supports over 200 species of birds, and more than 400 hundred species of plants. It is a Ramsar wetland, and its name comes from the Ojibwa word meaning 'island.'
The wetlands stretch from Barrie up to Georgian Bay, and represent the largest and best example of fen bog in southern Ontario, supporting several species of Boreal and Arctic plants. The Minesing Wetlands provide staging grounds for thousands of migratory waterfowl, and several provincially rare bird species can be seen there as well, including Blue-winged Warblers, Prothonotary Warblers, Cerulean Warblers, Golden-winged Warblers, and Blue-grey Gnatcathcers.
The trail was a grassy track bordered on both sides by waist high grass and dense shrubs. Beyond was a tangle of taller trees and shrubs, with open water is some places and cattails and other marshy vegetation in other spots. The trail was absolutely alive with butterflies that moved ahead of us like a delicate, flickering wave. They seemed drawn to the blue wildflowers bordering the trail.
As we trekked down the trail a group of Blue Jays was creating a huge noisy din, which was joined by the dry, forceful and repeated protests of a pair of Belted Kingfishers. They were soon joined by the angry alarm calls of several irate Red-winged Blackbirds, and even a small group of Cedar Waxwings joined in the protest. We looked to see what the fuss was about, but couldn't make anything out in the dense vegetation apart from a baby duckling paddling through the undergrowth and a Great Blue Heron flying majestically overhead.
As we continued down the trail we heard the loud whining of fledglings in a shrub, and soon a Gray Catbird disappeared among the leaves with a beak full of caterpillars. A little farther on we heard the distinctive call of an Eastern Phoebe, and watched as a Hairy Woodpecker foraged it's way up a snag. Closer to the trail we spotted a flash of yellow as a female American Redstart darted about collecting food, and a male Common Yellowthroat was doing the same in the adjacent willow. Although we didn't spot any rarities, we nonetheless enjoyed seeing and hearing so much activity on an otherwise quiet day.
The North Simcoe Rail Trail continued carrying us northwards, through beautiful forest and marsh. In a Conservation Area managed by the Nottawasaga Conservation Authority we crossed several small creeks over wooden bridges. Here we heard Yellow Warblers and Song Sparrows singing, and paused for a moment to simply enjoy watching the clear water flow by below.
When we reached Horseshoe Valley Rd. in Anten Mills, we found a small trail-side eatery called The Fry Guy. We bought some iced tea and ice cream, but the fries must have been good, because the place was doing a roaring trade.
When we picked up the trail again on the other side of the busy road we soon discovered it was open to ATVs from this point northward. Today was Sunday, so a lot of people were out and about, including ATV riders. We must have been passed by 20 ATVs and dirt bikes in the first 10 minutes on the trail. We were very grateful that they all slowed down and pulled over for us, and they seemed very polite. It was also nice to see that the trail itself was in good condition, despite a lot of motorized vehicle traffic. Regardless, we spent most of our time in this stretch standing on the side of the trail and covered in a veneer of dust.
As we walked up towards Phelpston we were surrounded by agricultural fields. We were amazed to see that the corn here is taller than I am. In the fields of corn we passed three days ago down near Beeton the plants were about knee height, and clearly suffering from drought stress. Either the rain we've had over the last couple days has produced a huge growth spurt, or something in the soil up here agrees with corn!
Just before we entered Phelpston we spotted five deer on the far edge of a field. Their reddish coats contrasted with the dark green of the soy leaves, and the gold of the ripening wheat.
We stopped for a break on a wooden bench beside a set of climbers in a small park in the town. There was no one else out in the grassy, open parkette, and things seemed pretty quiet overall.
When we continued out of town the ATVs no longer had access to the path, but - ironically - the trail conditions deteriorated somewhat. It was still a nice, flat, stone dust trail, but weeds had begun to push through the railbed, the edges were a tangle of vegetation, and the signage was disappearing behind untrimmed shrubs and waist high grasses. It was clear not many people used this section, but this could be because there is break in the pathway here.
When we emerged onto Flos Rd 7 W, we had to box around a farm. This added about 3 km of road walking, first on unpaved roads where the cart sunk into the deep gravel, and then on a very busy paved road. The detour was around 500 m of trail that ran across a farm. We don't know what happened there, but we took it as a reminder to be grateful to every single landowner who grants permission for this 24,000 km trail to cross their property. We also took it as a reminder of the importance of trail users behaving respectfully and adhering to any posted rules so that permission to use the trail isn't revoked.
Although the detour was tough going, it took us past some picturesque barns which Sean particularly enjoyed photographing. Today's walk in general has been a good barn day, offering many beautiful structures to be enjoyed. It also spurred a rewnewal of our regular conversation - debating where to go once we have completed Ontario in 1000 km. Our estimates have us concluding the land trails in the province by mid to late August which means that if provincial borders are open there is plenty of time for us to backtrack and complete Quebec. However the possibility is also there to trek as far and as fast across the prairies as we can throughout September and October in the cooler fall temperatures and start in 2021 in Quebec. Each day our debate leads us to a new answer to this question, and I suspect that we will simply have to wait and see what possibilities are open to us in August.
By the time we came to Elmvale we'd walked just over 35 km, and we were ready for a break. While Elmvale does have a grocery store, Tim Horton's, and several restaurants, none are very conveniently located with respect to the trail. We decided to simply sit in the Elmvale Heritage Park and take a break before continuing on. This park stretches along a small meandering river that was once the site of several flour mills, and contains wonderfully landscaped beds of rhododendrons, hostas, lavender, and other blooming plants under a canopy of tall maples. It also has a small amphitheatre and a large picnic shelter. We sat under the watchful gaze of an old man on a nearby bench, but otherwise we were the only ones in the park.
When we walked out of Elmvale we found the trail rerouted along a rather busy road. We followed the directions on the signs, but when we went to rejoin the trail we found a construction site where someone is building a home right on the end of the trail - indeed on the trailhead itself. Access to the trail is now one concession farther on, and not where the directional signage points. However, all is well that ends well, and we soon found ourselves on the Tiny Trail.
The Tiny Trail was absolutely gorgeous. Although today was cool and overcast with a slight breeze, we nonetheless appreciated the canopy-covered trail. The path was bordered by tall pines on one side and mature maples on the other, and their branches met overhead, forming a wonderful green tunnel which was wedged between houses on one side and the highway on the other. All in all however, it was very beautiful!
For most of the time the trail ran right beside a very busy roadway which was incredibly loud, with fast moving, bumper to bumper traffic. We could only assume this was cottage country traffic as people headed back to the city after a weekend in Midland and Penetanguishene. A highlight of this section was passing a small hobby farm that had horses, goats, chickens, miniature horses, and baby miniature horses!
Finally, around 7:30 pm, after just over 38 km of hiking, we found a patch of forest where we could pitch the tent. It was extremely buggy, and right beside a bridge that clanged every time a car or truck drove over it, but it was a place to call home for the night. We made our dinner of rice and beans, and settled down to write the blog and edit photos. It was a long day, but it feels good to have made the most of the first cooler day we've had in weeks.