Sunday, July 5, 2020

Kissing Bridge Trail to Elora

The tall grasses, wildflowers, and young conifers that lined the stone dust path were glowing in the soft golden light as we set off down the Kissing Bridge Trailway this morning. The cool, refreshing morning air smelled of sweet mowed hay, flowers, horses, and cows. If we closed our eyes we felt like we could have been in the French countryside.

We were enormously blessed to find ourselves in a treed corridor for much of the morning. The trail was bordered by tall sugar maples and other deciduous trees. Beyond this shady corridor, which was busy with cyclists and joggers, were many small farms.


We were walking through the heart of Mennonite country, and we couldn't help but notice that the landscape was alive. Fields were divided by hedgerows, and tall trees bordered many farmyards and shaded the farmhouses. Field edges were left un-mowed, and were covered in milkweed, clover, and a riot of other wildflowers. All these natural spaces were buzzing with activity from butterflies, bees, and birds.

The bright flash of American Goldfinches preceded us down the trail as numerous birds were flushed out of the thistles at the side of the trail. Gray Catbirds sounded like they were giving a highly animated and never ending lecture from the shrubs. Tree and Barn Swallows swooped low over the corn, soy, and wheat fields. Baltimore Orioles, Mourning Doves, and American Robins moved about stealthily in the canopy trees. Song Sparrows perched on dead branches, tilting back their heads and throwing their voices into the air with enormous energy. Until this hike I never realized how many Red-winged Blackbirds inhabit fields! A highlight was watching a Cedar Waxwing hovering in mid air while pulling a spider out of is web.


As we made our way towards Elmira we came to a stretch of trail where a whole line of saplings had been planted at the trail edge. Each sapling had been planted to honour the memory of someone who had passed on, and a plaque accompanied each tree that identified the donor and the recipient. The culmination of this project was a whole grove of planted trees.


In this same section the Lion's Club had created a garden with benches, large stones, and beautiful flowers, that was completely shaded by trees. Once again we were left appreciating how much friendlier this landscape is for people than the spaces created by communities that have a less well-developed relationship with the land. If we spent less time fighting nature in order to get what we want, and more time working with it to achieve healthy, diverse, ecosystems things would be much easier and the world would be much friendly to us.

When we got to the edge of Elmira we took a small break in the shade. As I sat down I squished a bee that was stuck between my scarf and shirt, and it half-stung me. It left a nice, painful welt, but the bee flew away afterwards, so perhaps it was okay. I hope so.

As often happens on this hike, the Great Trail took us along the edge of Elmira, but not into the town itself. Since it was Sunday and everything was closed, and we had a lot of kilometers to cover, we decided against exploring the town again. Perhaps that was a mistake. It is a beautiful small town, with shops selling local baked goods, cheeses, meats, handmade quilts and other crafts.

One of the things Elmira is known for is its Maple Syrup Festival, which has been held every spring since 1965. This family-friendly event features sugar bush tours, vendors selling specialty foods and crafts, a craft show, pancakes and maple syrup, and of course the maple syrup competition. Tens of thousands of people attend every year, and in 2000 it earned the designation of the world's largest single-day maple syrup festival when over 66,000 people participated.


There were a few more open, less treed sections as we continued down the Kissing Bridge Trail, which runs from Guelph to Millbank. Several of the farms we passed had lined the edges of their fields with Eastern Bluebird nest boxes, and many of these were occupied by Bluebirds and Tree Swallows who were still busily feeding nestlings. One farm had installed two Purple Martin hotels right beside their manure pile, and we were delighted to see a large group of Martins using it. What a great method of insect control!



When we got to the tiny community of West Montrose we diverted off the trail and walked through a modern neighborhood down to the Grand River. There we came to an historic General Store, and the 'Kissing Bridge'. The West Montrose Covered Bridge was built in 1881 by John Bear and his brother, Benjamin, to replace an earlier bridge. It is now noted - according to the provincial historical plaque - as the only remaining covered bridge in Ontario.


It felt good to enter the dim, wooden interior of the bridge, shielded from the hot sun and insulated from outside sounds. A few other people were out admiring the beautiful red structure. When we emerged from the far side and looked back we were pleased to see that a thriving colony of Cliff Swallows was living below the bridge.

After taking a short break in a grassy picnic area beside the bridge we continued down on, walking down a winding, paved road beside the river. Across the road was a campground that we thought was still closed, so didn't plan to stay at, but it turned out to be about half full. People were camped in a field right down by the water, and a few were floating in rafts on the slow moving water.


Eventually the quiet, cedar lined drive brought us to a busier road, and then back to the Kissing Bridge Trail once again. The reason for the break in the trail seemed to be a missing bridge. A steep set of steps brought us down from the highway to the trail below, and along the way we got to admire a set of painted abstracts on canvas by a local artist.

What followed were two concessions of relatively shadeless trail. By this point the sun was high overhead, and although we were walking between trees, many of them were tall, thin cedars which didn't shade the trail. There were still a few lovely shaded sections, which we did our best to enjoy as long as possible.

When we came to Weisenberg Rd we left the Kissing Bridge Trail, and instead struck out onto the Cottontail Road Trail. As the name suggests, this 'trail' consisted of 14.5 km of road walking, which ultimately led us to Elora.


At first we walked a few gravel concessions that offered some shade, and whose only traffic consisted of horse-drawn buggies. This was an enjoyable walk, and we paused to watch the breeze playing across a field of grain, tossing the silky, fine, grasses back and forth and causing them to shimmer. We were amazed by how many different textures and subtle colours can be seen in fields of grain.

Another highlight of this section was crossing a small agricultural stream that was bordered by tall weeping willows. The air above the stream, which was next to a field of beef cows, was alive with Tree Swallows. They were wheeling and playing, chattering non-stop. It felt like we were standing in the middle of a dizzying wave of birds!

After the first few kilometers we left the gravel roads and small farms behind and found ourselves walking along an extremely hot paved road between very large fields of corn, soy, and grain. The field edges were mowed right up to the shoulder of the road, leaving only spiky, dry, brown, grass stubble. There was an almost complete absence of insect or bird life, which may have been the point. It didn't feel good.

We continued walking in the rising heat, taking advantage of any trees that happened to be providing shade. Sadly they were few and far between until we got to the Second Line E, which took us through University of Guelph research land. This road was lined with a row of tall, old maples that provided sweet relief from the scorching sun.


The University of Guelph was established in 1964 after the amalgamation of the Ontario Agricultural College, the MacDonald Institute, and the Ontario Veterinary College. Its Veterinary School is now ranked 4th in the world, and it agricultural program is among the best in Canada. I had no idea they had so much research land near Elora. The Dairy Research and Innovation Center, Elora Beef Research Center, and Research Farms were spread over two concessions.

The final approach to the Elora Gorge Conservation Area was on a grassy gravel track with a lovely treed canopy that provided beautiful shade. It was interesting that while we hadn't seen anyone of the road sections of the Cottontail Road Trail we were passed by four or five cyclists and a man walking his dogs the moment we were back on a trail. We've found this to consistently be the case - people prefer trails to roads, even cyclists.

Finally, we emerged at the Elora Gorge Conservation Area. The Elora Goege is one of the most spectacular areas along the Grand River Valley. The river flows through 22 m high canyon walls, creating rapids that white-water kayakers and inner tubers can enjoy. Cedar lined hiking trails follow the lip of the gorge, providing hikers with stunning views down the valley.

Instead of entering the Conservation Area, the Great Trail took us down the road, past the Grand River Raceway. We stopped to enjoy a milkshake from the Spanky's BBQ food truck in the parking lot. As we sat in the shade and watched the heat shimmers rising from the asphalt of the parking lot, the cold drink seemed like a gift. The final few kilometers into Elora, which were on road and ultimately led us to a longish detour around a bridge that was out were tiring. At just over 34 km, today was a long walk in the heat, but as usual, it was filled with many interesting and beautiful sights.

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