Monday, July 20, 2020

The long walk into the marsh : Bracebridge to Huntsville

We headed onto the trail in Bracebridge this morning with little idea of how challenging the day would turn out to be. Our intention was to camp halfway to Huntsville, but in the end we walked all 44 km to town in one very long day.

 
It was an overcast morning when we set out, walking along the a paved road beside the winding Muskoka River. The road was quiet, although it was lined with homes and cottages on one side. Across the dark, quietly flowing river a wall of dark green cedars rose up, occasionally broken by a home and a small wooden dock.
 
 
 

As we passed Bass Rock Park, which was a small area on the side of the river, sheltered by white pines, and likely used as a fishing spot, we heard the loud call of a White-throated Sparrow. A pair of baby Blue Jays was whining for food in someone's front yard across the way, and in the distance we could hear the 'cronk, cronk' of Common Ravens.
 
 
 
 

When we reached the end of Wilson's Falls road we began our first section of trail for the day. Despite warnings of extreme slopes that shouldn't be attempted when they were slippery or wet, our route turned out to consist of a pleasant boardwalk along the grassy shores of the river, and then a winding footpath through a dense cedar stand. Everything was still wet from the rain last night, and the occasional sun bursts lit up the water droplets like jewels.

 
 
 
We emerged into a small picnic area, and then crossed Wilson's Falls. The water was still pretty high, rushing with lots of energy over the exposed reddish rocks of the shield. At the top of the falls we spotted a young, still fuzzy looking Spotted Sandpiper bobbing along at the edge of the still black water of the pool at the top of the falls.

 

After another short stretch of walking quiet cottage roads, our next highlight was crossing High Falls. A beautiful footpath through a pine, hemlock, spruce, and cedar stand led to a small wooden bridge at the top of the falls. We stopped for a break on the mossy, lichen covered rocks near the top.


 

As we sat there we spotted a Red-eyed Vireo collecting large beak-fulls of caterpillars to feed to fledglings in a nearby shrub. She was moving about among the delicate, layered needles of a hemlock tree, the sun causing her outstretched wings to glow, and setting all the water droplets alight around her.

 


As Sean photographed the beautiful Vireo, a very cheeky chipmunk came right up and tunnelled into his open backpack. I shooed it off, but clearly it was used to getting handouts from people enjoying the falls and the nearby picnic area.





After this enjoyable interlude we started down another trail that began behind the MNRF (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) buildings on High Falls road. It started as a wide sandy track under a lovely mixed canopy of sugar maple, American beech, white pine, and hemlock. The occasional songs of Ovenbirds, Wood Thrush, American Redstarts, and Red-eyed Vireos could be heard above the traffic from highway 11. The sun filtered through the canopy, lighting the many-layered understory below. As we crested a small hill we startled a White-tailed Deer on the trail.
 
 
 

As we progressed the trail became a little more rutted and washed out, and we found ourselves in the middle of a pine plantation, the tall, straight trunks standing in rows and seeming to form a living, breathing, textured wall. En route there were a few signs warning that we were in the middle of an active logging operation, but there was no evidence to suggest these were current operations or the suggestion that our trail would soon disappear.

 
 

Suddenly we emerged into a recently logged area. No work was going on, or likely had been for a while, but the ground was covered by deep, think, rutted mud and slash. There were two Trans Canada Trail signs at the end of the path we'd emerged from, but nothing ahead of us in any direction. A trail continued to our right, south towards highway 11. The mobile trail App indicated we should turn left. With no indication of whether we were on course or not, we made our way across the deep, sticky, mud.

Eventually we picked up what looked like an ATV track. We followed that through steep rolling hills, past small wetlands, forested slopes, and open grassy areas. It was peaceful and beautiful, and there was a cool breeze blowing, rustling the trees and making the aspens tremble. The only downside was a nagging worry that we were off course and that to reverse would require us backtracking over all those hills.

 

At one point we passed an exposed high pressure gas line, and then climbed way down into a ravine with a creek at the bottom. The trail was soft mud on both sides of the little stream, and we had no option but to wade right through. On the far side of the stream crossing was a hill that was so steep, tall, and covered with lose rocks and boulders we almost didn't make it to the top with the cart.
 

After taking a breather we continued on. Ironically, a trail of cigarette butts, beer cans, and candy wrappers was ultimately what convinced us that we were on some kind of trail that others had travelled before us. We persevered until finally we found a tiny, faded, and half shattered Trans Canada Trail marker on a tree leading down a secondary track. Yay!  In our deepest need, when we felt absolutely lost, the trail provided direction. 

 
 

Upon further inspection however there wasn't actually a pathway. For about 200 m we followed what looked like a set of ATV tracks. They were muddy, filled with ankle and shin deep water, and overgrown with razor sharp grasses. Then they just vanished. In front of us lay a beautiful cattail marsh, with standing water, fallen trees, bleached grey snags, and shrubby undergrowth. It looked like the perfect spot to see a moose, although sadly we did not see any. To cross it would have meant wading into water and mud up to our waists at best and to our shoulders at the worst. 


We stopped to consider our options, and decided to turn around and head back to the dirt track we'd been following, which we assumed would take us out to the same road as the "trail", just not as far as long. Although it was a conscious decision to leave the trail, which we don't make lightly, we didn't think that bush whacking for what looked like about 5 km, much of it through deep swamp, was really any more true to following the "trail," and we thought it would be a heck of a lot harder.
 
 
 
 

As we followed the track through beautiful hemlock stands we began to encounter more and more puddles. At first we could weave our way around the edges, or find an alternate route through the trees. This was time consuming and energy intensive, but we were trucking along happily enough. Then we started to encounter new "puddles" that extended out into the surrounding marshes.  It seemed that regardless of our chosen route - we simply had to traverse the surrounding marsh - one way or another.


Sean decided the best course of action was to steam straight ahead through the first one. We both assumed it would be a few inches deep .... until he sunk in, first to over his knees, and then to his waist! After watching his experiences, I gingerly picked my way around, managing not to get wet.

 
 

The next "puddle" was a stream crossing through a beautiful marsh. We waded through, the water coming up well over our knees. Sean soldiered back and forth, first carrying his pack across, then going back for the cart, which luckily coverts into a backpack. I made the trip once. There were leeches and unidentified things that bumped our legs as they swam past. Here's to adventure!
 
 
 

As we approached the road, we crossed two beautiful, wide, dry, pine needle strewn trails. Perhaps this is where we were meant to be, but there was no signage to indicate this. Eventually we did come out onto the road again, soaked and muddy, but triumphant. We boxed around and got back to the place where the official Great Trail was supposed to join the road. There was a nice looking trail head with a new Great Trail marker, but when we followed it for a few hundred meters it lead into a wet marsh with waist high grass and no discernible path through. Maybe we chose wisely after all!

 
 

For the next 25 km our hike was primarily along hilly, winding, roads lined with cottages, punctuated by short stretches of very wet, marshy, and undefined "trail".

 
 
 
 


One of the highlights came along a stretch of road that ran beside train tracks. Among the tall, lush green grass and purple blooming milkweed we spotted a young fox! His bright red coat, tall black boots, and dark ears stood out against the rusty steel of the tracks and the dark creosoted rail ties.

When we first spotted it, its whole attention was focused on a spot just below the far side of the tracks. As we watched, it got distracted and began searching through the tall grasses. Suddenly it saw something interesting, and ... pounce! Straight up into the air and then down with speed and force. It stayed with its nose in the grass for a bit, and emerged licking its lips, so we couldn't tell if it was successful or not.

As Sean stood on the tracks taking photos the fox approached to within a few paces. A slight movement, the sound of a rock shifting, and it was away down the tracks at lightning speed. What a beautiful creature!
 
 

Another highlight came when we found a spot to rest in the sun and try to dry off some in a small forested clearing at the side of the trail. A Winter Wren was giving its loud, bubbly, happy song just a few meters away. We scanned the brush pile, a dense patch of sugar maple saplings, and the white pine canopy above, but never did manage to spot the little Wren.  Regardless we enjoyed a few moments of peace amid his beautiful song.
 
 

When we reached a point about 28 km into our hike we were on a nice stretch of trail, just after the tiny community of Utterson. There was a nice spot to camp and we nearly stopped for the afternoon, but the nearest water source seemed dodgy at best. Figuring that we would be able to find another campsite easily we foolishly decided we could continue on for a bit.

 
 
 

As the afternoon turned to evening we found ourselves on roads lined with small homes and cottages. Many had large vegetable gardens. Others had board and batten wooden siding painted is strong, dark, colours with brightly accented door and window frames. We started to see people outside, mowing lawns and riding bikes. As we passed a young boy out on his bike, out riding with his father, the boy rang his bell in encouragement.  
 
 

As we approached the outskirts of Huntsville the houses grew larger and the landscaping more elaborate. We began to pass hay fields and horse farms. In several places the horses gathered at their gates and fences to investigate us. As the sun began to set it lit up the rolling fields, turning them a bright green and gold. With the dark storm clouds on the horizon, the evening looked very dramatic.

 

We were looking for a place to stop, but we walked and walked and walked and found only marshes, no trespassing signs, and private property. As we approached the outskirts of town we stopped to chat with a lovely lady out walking her dog. She turned out to be the Village Potter whose amazing works we have seen in the past.

Now realizing that we had very few options for camping we made the decision to push into town.  As such, after walking 44 km over very hilly, winding roads in wet shoes and socks, and traversing some pretty challenging terrain (for us), we found ourselves crossing highway 11 into the town of
Huntsville.

 

As we walked the main street, tired, sore, and a bit frustrated at not having found a spot to camp, we met a fellow adventurer. Julie and her lovely dog were out for a walk and stopped to chat. It turns out they've cycled across the country several times, and lead a life of exploration. She kindly asked if she could share our story with the public library, and her words of encouragement and enthusiasm were a wonderful way to end a very long day.







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