Monday, July 27, 2020

One slow step at a time : Nipissing to Callander

After a hot, thirsty, sleepless night in which the tent filled with rainwater and swarms of hungry mosquitos repeatedly, we were spurred into action at 5:30 am (about 1.5 hours after falling asleep) by loud shouts of "Hey ... you there ... hey .... get back here!!" It turned out to be a man down on the road yelling at his dog, but it took us a while to realize that the angry words weren't in fact directed at us.

Amid a cloud of mosquitos and deer flies we unceremoniously dumped all our soaking wet gear and the tent into our packs and set off down the road without attempting breakfast. Even with all the rain last night the temperature never dropped at all, and it felt like we were again walking through a sauna as we set out. The humidity made the damp tree-lined gravel road look like a tropical rainforest, with a thin layer of fog. The musical trill of a Wood Thrush broke the otherwise silent morning air.

We grimly made our way to the end of the road and turned onto Highway 654, heading east, to add insult to injury. There were a lot of pickup trucks hauling trailers, and a lot of dump trucks on the two lane highway, but thankfully it had quite a wide paved shoulder.  Nonetheless it meant that we were splashed with a wave of water by the passing of every vehicle that went by.   The hilly, rolling landscape was partly forested with some open hay fields and marshes, and pieces of granite shield emerging periodically through it all.

The paved road was easy going until we came to our turnoff, which turned out to be a newly graded gravel road with a new layer of deep sand and very sharp pink gravel. Although pulling the cart along this road was tough going, especially with no sleep and very little food, it was a beautiful, forested laneway. We passed many small homes and cottages set back among the trees, as well as several lots that were just being cleared for new development.


As we trucked along it began to rain. As if we weren't wet enough already! It was far too hot for rain gear, so from that point on today, as it continued to rain on and off, we stayed soaking wet. Running in the rain can feel good, when the water helps keep your hot skin cool. Hiking in the rain with a heavy pack that seems to increase in weight with each step rarely feels good in my opinion. Today it certainly did not.


Eventually we joined up with the Callander Trail, which we soon discovered was another snowmobiling trail. We looked with some misgivings at the map, which showed the line of our path going through the middle of numerous marshes and lakes. The last time we saw that, we ended up waist deep in the marsh!

The trail began nicely enough, as a sandy track through beautiful, lush, green hay fields. The grass was weighed down by last night's rain, but a variety of yellow, white, and light purple wildflowers stood tall at the sides of the trail, lending their sweet fragrance to the smell of fresh rain. Grasshoppers and crickets scattered like popcorn as we walked. Overhead the piercing repeated cries of a Merlin could be heard, and American Goldfinches bobbed through the hedgerows.

We followed the track into a stand of spruce and white pine, enjoying how the water increased the contrasting reds of the pine needles and emerald greens of the mosses. In the past few days we've been noticing some cool looking yellow, white, red, and brown mushrooms fruiting. A White-tailed deer bounded across the track in front of us.

We enjoyed the first few kilometers of trail, but then, as we had feared, it began to disappear. It is one of the things that we have noticed in rural and urban trails alike - pathways are often very well maintained for 2-3 km and then just as often let to caprice of nature afterward.  We have begun to wonder if the average regional hiker on trails will hike 2-3 km and then turn back to their car or house making a 6 km loop.  Interestingly (or depressingly depending on your view point) even the trash along trailsides follows this pattern as well.  As a result it often means that pathways that range from 10-20 km in length have great maintenance and access at each end, but receive minimal care or upkeep in the stretch in between.

This region was no different.  About 4 km in, the trail became more and more overgrown, which meant we became drenched ploughing through the tall grasses and cut amid the huge stands of raspberry bushes. At the same time, the swarms of insects came out and it began to rain much harder, making the trail increasingly difficult to follow or even see. There was no time for admiring nature or for taking pictures - we simply put our heads down and pushed forward.  With each step the mud began to suck on our foot gear and twice Sean had one of his shoes pulled off when we went to step forward.  We soon noticed that even the Trans Canada Trail signs had not been posted throughout the region as though the signage itself didn't trust the route either!  At one point we saw a small track leading off to one side, and followed that back out to the gravel backroad - only to arrive and find a Trans Canada Trail sign on the roadway.  Sigh.


Clothes soaked, legs and arms scratched from over zealous raspberry bushes, and shoes full of mud we resumed walking along the regional concession roads.  We spent the next hour walking through a deciduous forest on this road. We passed lots of houses, many with dogs that barked as we went past. At one house an over zealous puppy named Betty came bounding out onto the road after us, and proceeded to follow us until she was leashed and kindly brought back home by her owner.


As we approached the town the road became paved, and we found ourselves in a residential neighborhood. By this point heat and humidity, our lack of sleep, hunger, and wet clothes were beginning to take their toll on us. Exhaustion was threatening to take over.

Soon The Great Trail brought us to the local highway which afforded us the usual odd stares from drivers, swerving vehicles from those trying to get a look at the oddities on the roadway, and blasts of wind from those trucks too busy to slow down or give us some room.

While the surrounding landscapes are beautiful  it is hard to stop and take it in, or enjoy it when you are 3 feet from semi trucks passing by.  Regardless, to his credit, Sean took some amazing pictures determined not to let our condition and situation take away from the moment. 
As our time on the highway came to an end we came across The Fork restaurant, which offered a variety of chip truck type foods including ice cream! The physically distanced line-up of people waiting for their orders suggested their menu was popular. We each got an ice cream, which shockingly came to $34 dollars but we were so hot and tired we needed the boost, exorbitant or not. While eating one of the waitresses came up and offered us $10 dollars back as she might have over charged us.  However that still meant that 2 ice creams cost $24.  At this point it didn't matter we just wanted something cold in us. 

As we ate, a mountain biker came over to chat and ask about our cart. Upon hearing what we were doing, he warned us not to attempt the section of "trail" we'd just done, because it was too muddy to get through, even on a bike, and shouldn't be considered a trail. According to him most of the route was a swamp that was only accessible when it was frozen in the the winter time.  Figures. 

A short walk down a quiet neighborhood brought us to the waterfront along Lake Nipissing. This is the third largest lake entirely within Ontario, and is relatively shallow, with many small islands and sandbars. It was once the traditional territory of the Anishinabek (ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᒃ), Huron-Wendat, and Odawa Peoples.

The French fur trader Étienne Brûlé was the first European to visit the lake in 1610.


As we walked along the shore we came to a beautifully landscaped park with benches, flowerbeds, a memorial, a playground (which was open and being enthusiastically used), a long sandy beach, and a larger than life Adirondack chair.  Recognizing that we were about 3 hours too early into town to check into any hotel we ventured over the to the chair to take a picture.  However when we arrived at the large yellow Adirondack and set our backpacks down on each side of it, a municipal truck drove across the park and the worker yelled for us to 'get away from there, no touching due to Covid'.  And so no images were to be taken and our attempt once again to get some rest was thwarted.

We walked on - after almost two days of hiking across 70 km with almost no sleep, soaked through, and running on 2 ice cream cones - we were working on shear muscle memory.  Wet, mud covered, and smelling fairly bad we were not a welcome sight trudging through the streets, past people's homes or along the side of an upscale golf course.  Intrepid explorers indeed, we were now literally the great unwashed moving through town!

The community of Callander was stretched along the shore, and offered several restaurants, a grocery store, and a pharmacy. Quiet neighborhoods bordered the downtown, including a set of cottages. Lots of people were out and about enjoying the afternoon, playing on the beach, and out on the water in boats or seadoos.

At the edge of Callander we joined the Voyageur Cycling Trail, and on the far edge of town we wove through a modern and up-scale neighborhood on the edge of a golf course. We were passed by several cyclists, and a few people out walking, all making use of the paved bike lanes at the edge of the road. It was a pleasant walk, but we were too tired at that point to appreciate exploring the winding roads of a subdivision.  There are certainly times that the winding pathways of the Trans Canada Trail lead you to places that you would never have explored on your own, and there are other times that you just want to get to your hotel and be done with it.  The extra 4-5 km of subdivision trekking added on to the 70 km of hiking without sleep over the past two days was a challenge in the extreme for us.


Despite our frustration and exhaustion, when we picked up the Kate Pace Way we were in for a real treat. Kate Pace Linsday is a retired Alpine Skiier who was born in North Bay, and who won six World Cup medals and three Canadian downhill championships.

The trail named in her honour was a paved bike path that wove through open shrubby sections, forested green tunnels, and past a beautiful cattail marsh. There was a Great Blue Heron standing out on a beaver lodge in the wetland, preening its powder feathers. A couple Red-winged Blackbirds squawked in the cattails.


In the past few days we've had to come to terms with a shift in the concept of the trail up here. It is no longer a hiker or cyclist centered trail. It is mostly roads, and the sections of 'trail' that provide breaks from the roads are either meant or ATVs or snowmobiles. This means they are not signed for us, and they may well be impassable for us, but we won't know that until we try. For the moment, it felt restorative and relaxing to be back on an established trail again that was meant for cyclists and hikers, and not motorized vehicles. It was a good way to end the day.


We checked into a motel at the edge of town, and spent the evening washing our stuff and drying it out. We had a wonderful meal at the Beef and Brand, which surprisingly offers tasty vegetarian options. As we look ahead to our walk from North Bay to Sudbury, which is supposed to be on the shoulder of the Trans Canada Highway, we noticed a slightly depressing fact. By road, we are now just 357 km west of Ottawa. We have hiked just over 1,556 km of Great Trail over two months to get here. It is taking a surprisingly long time to truly accept that it is the journey that counts, and not the destination. We will keep working on it as we make our way west.  For tonight we are dry and have access to running water!

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