Saturday, July 4, 2020

Kitchener to the Kissing Bridge Trail

After taking a day off to recover from the heat, we decided to take today slowly and play it safe. Perhaps because it was a few degrees cooler, only feeling like 33°C today, we managed to cover just over 35 km of trail. We were surprised and pleased by this.

We set off around 6:00 am down the cool, empty streets of Kitchener. After trekking a few short blocks on sidewalks we joined the Iron Horse Trail. This 5.5 km paved, two-lane multi-use trail connects Kitchener to Waterloo. It follows the right-of-way of the abandoned Pacific and Grand Trunk Railways, so it cuts through communities and green spaces along it's own trajectory, crossing many roads along the way.


As we threaded through neighborhoods and walked among modern, futuristic, and well-landscaped condo towers the morning seemed very peaceful. There were a few trees along the trail, and together with the buildings they were casting long shadows across the path in the cool morning air. We passed several bakeries and cafes, enjoying the aroma of fresh baked goods and coffee, but deciding against joining the physically distanced line-ups outside.


Almost right away we spotted exhibits from the Kitchener Industrial Artifact Project. The 100 art installations that are part of this project consist of pieces of industrial machinery that are no longer used, and are meant to celebrate the manufacturing history of the city. Some of the displays are interactive, and allow patrons to access personal stories of industrial workers via their phones.


An ethnically diverse mix of people were out on the trail, going for a morning walk, jog, or cycle. Most people returned our smiles or greetings. Instead of rock art, we saw paper hearts and stars stuck to trees with encouraging messages and help line phone numbers.

In this seemingly harmonious, pleasant, and inclusive atmosphere it was a complete shock to come upon a series of dozens of racist and highly disturbing posters stuck to lampposts, utility boxes, and art installations along the trail. The content of the messages contained hatred, stunning ignorance, and misinformation against Black people and the Black Lives Matter protests. A little farther down the trail there were spray painted messages and additional posters espousing the same kind of hatred and ignorance against Indigenous people. Anyone who has read our previous blog entry will have already heard of these horrid posters.

Our first reaction was to tear down as many of the posters as we could find.

Our second reaction was to spend the rest of the day thinking about what we've learned about racism in Canada over the past year. For anyone still not clear about this - racism is a problem here in Canada, not just in the US. Upon reflection, I think the shocking part of the messages we found today was that they were so direct, loud, rude, and in-your-face. As a white person, I'm not used to seeing that here in Canada.

Until we began hiking across Canada I didn't have an appropriate appreciation of how important it was to encourage diversity in the outdoor community, or even a clear understanding of why it needed to be done. We realized that most hikers, cross-country skiers, cyclists, and birders we saw were older and white. We wanted to change that, because we believe that nature is for everyone, and that our planet needs all the help it can get. We need new ideas and perspectives, not just 'solutions' from those who got us into this mess. We need to move from exploration and ownership to community. Even setting out with this goal in mind, we didn't even begin to realize why the outdoor community was so predominantly white.

As soon as we began saying we were encouraging people of all ages, cultural backgrounds, abilities, genders, orientations, and identities to reconnect with nature, people let us know how important it was to hear those words, and helped us begin to understand why. It helped us to realize that when we meet a person of colour we owe them our respect, because they fight a fight every single day of their lives that we wouldn't survive for a week. Racism to me, as a white person, seems like it is typically a much more subtle thing here in Canada, although no less damaging or destructive. Those were just some of the many thoughts that ran through our heads today.

As we continued through downtown Kitchener we passed more exclusive looking condo towers, and eventually found ourselves walking beside a light rapid transit system track. The trains resembled the slick, streamlined streetcars that now transport people across downtown Toronto.

We passed the old Seagram's Canadian Whisky Distillery, which had been converted into condos, but retained the old brick building in the lower floors. Across the street was the modern looking Clay and Glass Gallery, and the futuristic Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, both located in a park on the edge of Silver Lake.


At the end of the park was a Trans Canada Trail Pavilion, with a very nice stone plaque commemorating the creation of the trail.


After crossing a small wooden footbridge we entered the Central Promenade Trail, which was as grand as the name suggests. It consisted of two parallel paved tracks separated by an island of tasteful landscaping and a line of old fashion streetlamps, giving the impression of a train platform. This took us along the edge of Waterloo Park, which is an urban greenspace that features a large sports field, several picnic areas, a pottery workshop, and the Eby Farmstead. We stopped to admire a group of heritage chickens, an albino peafowl, and a group of llamas on the farmstead.


As we left the park we picked up the Laurel Trail, which is an 8 km multi-purpose hiking and cycling trail that runs from the center of the City of Waterloo, along Laurel Creek and out to the Laurel Creek Conservation Area.


Next we found ourselves weaving through the University of Waterloo campus. The campus contained a conglomeration of buildings from different eras - the brown brick buildings of the seventies and eighties, the square concrete buildings of the nineties, and the modern glass buildings of more recent years. It is strange how Canadian campuses are so easily recognizable, and all seem to feel familiar.

A short walk through a treed and shady disk golf course and around a lake with an abundance of Mallards, Canada Geese, and Killdeer on the muddy shore brought us to the edge of Laurel Creek Conservation Area. This Conservation area offers visitors the chance to visit the beach and go swimming in the Laurel Creek Reservoir, hike, relax, and camp, and it is also a great place to go birding. Unfortunately the camping area is not currently open, so we did not explore further.


Instead we headed into a subdivision and then down a short stretch of heavily treed trail. Being enveloped in the shady tunnel was a relief, and we spotted a Hairy Woodpecker, two American Robins, and a small flock of American Goldfinches.

Since we were still being cautious about overdoing things in the heat, we had decided to book a second night inside, this time at the Holiday Inn beside the St. Jacob's Market. We had hiked just over 15 km when we reached the hotel, but the air was still relatively cool and we were feeling good. Although it was only just 10 am, we decided to see if we could drop off our stuff and keep hiking for another couple hours. To our great joy the very nice and friendly staff let us check in early!

After depositing our backpacks we continued on to the famous St. Jacob's Farmer's Market. This is the largest year-around farmer's market in Canada, and it normally attracts around 1 million visitors per year. It was established in 1975, destroyed by fire in 2013, and has since been reopened in a new facility in 2015. The new building, which is 34,000 square feet, houses as many as 400 vendors during peak season. Since today was Saturday, when we walked through there was a sea of vendors set up outside in tents, and a steady steam of customers filing in to purchase fresh produce, baked goods, meats and cheeses, antiques, Mennonite crafts, and more.

After visiting the St. Jacob's Farmer's Market the trail took us along a narrow footpath running beside the very best highway 85. We passed a Walmart superstore, a new subdivision, then land that had been ripped up for future development and then left, and finally past a Mennonite farm.


The Mennonite culture includes a strong connection to the land through farming and a minimal reliance on motorized vehicles and technology. This way of living was evident in the landscape. As we passed the farm we walked under a row of planted trees that provided shade for the trail. Beside us was a sweet smelling hay field, the edges of which had just been mown. A nearby orchard was alive with bird song. The land was welcoming to people and animals alike, unlike the shadeless, baking hot stretches of sidewalk that pass through industrial areas designed for cars instead of people. We need more places on this earth designed to support life instead of machinery.

When we got to the Conestogo River we found ourselves on a wide stone dust surface trail running along the river. Soft green grass adorned the edges of the river, and a canopy of green leaves provided shade above. Fly fishermen were standing out in the water, testing their luck. Wooden benches were strategically placed to provide views down the slow moving, shallow, murky greenish river. It was peaceful and pleasant in the shade.

A few short kilometers of walking beside the river brought us to the quaint little town of St. Jacobs. The Waterloo region is home to the largest community of Old Order Mennonites in Cananda, particularly around St. Jacobs and Elmira. Settlement in this area began in 1830, but took off in 1850 with a large number of Mennonites from Pennsylvania arriving and beginning to develop a community. It was originally called Jacob's Village, after Jacob Snider, who was a Swiss German settler who had built a saw mill, flour mill, and wool mill by 1852. This helped the community grow. Apparently the 'St.' was added to make the name sound more pleasing.

Today the village is a tourist attraction, offering several restaurants and cafes, a brewery, ans a selection of shops selling crafts, artwork, handcrafted wooden furniture, and antiques.


We stopped at the Eco Cafe to enjoy a raspberry tea, made with real raspberry juice, and an ice-cream. As we enjoyed the treats under the wrap-around porch of the brick shop there was a strong smell of roasting (and maybe slightly burning) hops from the Block Three Brewery across the street.

After leaving the downtown the Great Trail should have joined up with the Mill Race Trail, to continue along the river. However, the path was closed because it was too narrow to allow for proper physical distancing. As a result we made a detour around the closed section. Thanks to advice from a very kind lady who follows our hike on Instagram, we knew the detour was coming, and were expecting the extra kilometers on shadeless roads. By this point it was getting pretty hot.

From St. Jacob's to the beginning of the Kissing Bridge Trail the Great Trail follows country roads. We had decided that we would try to walk this section today, and ultimately we were successful in doing so, although by mid- afternoon it was pretty hot on the roads in the full sun.


We walked through rolling countryside, past many Mennonite farms. We enjoyed seeing the huge, diverse, and neatly planted vegetable gardens and brightly colored flower beds. The farm houses and the animals in the fields were very clean and very well cared for. The air smelled sweet and fresh, and birdsong was often the loudest sound around. Many of the driveways we passed had little kiosks selling fresh produce or bouquets of flowers.


Sean enjoyed photographing any number of picturesque barns, which were set off by a bright blue sky and fields of wheat that were already turning golden brown. The squares of gold were patch-worked with fields of light green grains that were swaying gently in the breeze, and darker patches of newly mown clover.

At one point, as we found ourselves walking near the river again we passed a field of horses that were galloping in a group. They were following a leader, wheeling and turning among the trees. There must have been about 30 horses and foals, and with their manes streaming behind them and their hooves flying below they looked so wild and free. We could just hear the sound of their hooves on the wind. It was amazing to witness such joyous abandon.

A little farther along we crossed a river and watched as a group of Mallards bobbed lazily along. A Common Tern perched on an exposed rocky island, and a Great Blue Heron took fight from the shore. In a large tree a Red-tailed Hawk fledgling begged noisily for food. An adult let out one their iconic screams before landing in the tree to feed the baby.

We stopped in the small community of Hawkesville at the Sunnycrest Home Bakery for an enormous ice cream and some delicious raspberry coconut cookies. It was a welcome stop in what was turning into a very warm afternoon.

By around 3:30 pm we reached the junction with the Kissing Bridge Trail, and called a taxi to take us back to St. Jacob's. By that point I think we were both ready for a serious break from the heat. Tonight we will take it easy again, before making another long push to Elmira tomorrow.

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