Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Map, The App, and the Signs : Doe Lake to Bracebridge

This morning arrived with a loud crash as a branch came tumbling down out of the canopy nearby. This was followed by several smaller crashes, leading us to think that a creature was up the tall pine tree causing some kind of disturbance, but we couldn't see anything.

As we packed up our campsite we heard a Wood Thrush's melodic song. The ubiquitous Red-eyed Vireo and Eastern Wood-pewee were singing, but otherwise the woods were pretty quiet on this hot July morning apart from the frogs.


We estimated that we had 2 km of raspberries, wild roses and sharp grasses to plow through before finishing the Jevins and Silver Lake Conservation Reserve and Recreation "Trail". We had been debating last night if we should stop or not, but it was good we did. Added to the shoulder high vegetation was a muddy swamp and two large hills before we emerged onto the road.


Furthering the challenge, was the fact that the trail dead ended into the side of someone's house placed on the trail, necessitating hikers go through overgrown bushes into someone's backyard.  We bushwacked to the road, but it wasn't the road we were expecting to come out on. Regardless, a few meters along that roadway we came to a trailhead, with a nice mowed grass path down to a small pond, but even here the trail itself apparently didn't continue in either direction. Enough said - we survived.

As we took a break at the trailhead we met a friendly lady on a bicycle who was heading to the pond to bird. When she saw us she seemed stunned, asking whether we were about to hike the trail because - according to her - the trail in this area was impassable.  She went on suggesting that the town put in a beautiful sign and regularly mowed about 50 feet down the pathway and then did little else.  Regardless, she was happy to be able to use the 'developed' and mowed patch to access the local pond to watch birds. She had a very cool hat covered with interesting birding patches, and seemed to be one of those individuals who - hours later - you wish you had talked more to.


As we followed Doe Lake Rd into Gravenhurst we passed lots of cyclists, joggers, and people out walking their dogs. The road was newly paved with no shoulder to speak of, and quite a bit of traffic. We were left with the sense that if an off-road trail were built in this area it would be much used and loved by the local community.

When we approached highway 11 we ran into our second spot of trouble for the day. The mobile version of the Great Trail App showed us heading down a dead end road and then picking up a trail into town. We walked to the end of the road and found a closed and barricaded gate with a 'No Trespassing' sign. As we stood beside HWY 11 and the closed track a man in a truck drove up warning us not to go onto anyone's private property and then sat watching us until we walked off.   Frustrated, we backtracked to the main road, and followed that over highway 11. As we crossed the overpass we could see the metal pedestrian bridge the App suggested we use farther down the highway, but has no idea how we were supposed to have reached it.


As we followed Bethune Rd into town suddenly the Trans Canada Trail appeared beside us, on the other side of the road. How did it get there? As we attempted to rejoin the pathway way it only seemed to lead us to encounter a series of closed and rerouted roads that the trail apparently was supposed to follow.  So we simply took the main road into town. The "path" just didn't seem to be reliably present in this area at the moment.

In spite of these obstacles we reached Gravenhurst at around 10 am oddly exhausted from our short trek.  Gravenhurst is a small town in the Muskoka region of Ontario, which is popular 'cottage country' for many Torontonians. The town is on Lake Muskoka, which is the largest lake in the region, and Gull Lake is right next to it. Both are lined with cottages, many of which are larger than any house we've ever lived in.

Gravenhurst was established in the 1850's when the colonization road was built. It was located at the terminus of the Toronto, Simcoe, and Muskoka Junction Railway, and it was part of the steamboat economy on the Muskoka lakes in the 1860's. It is also home to Camp 20, a POW camp that ran from 1940 to 1946. The prisoners had access to the water to swim and wash, they grew their own vegetables, and they were employed on various public works projects around town. The lifestyle the prisoners enjoyed there gave this camp a reputation for being a vacation spot for POWs.

We were completely exhausted, but decided we couldn't realistically pitch the tent and stop that early in the morning, so we decided to continue on.  Unique to this region, The Great Trail actually ventured for 7 km through the town-site.  Here, the main streets, with their many trendy gastropubs, cafes, boutique shops, historic red brick buildings, and long sandy beach were very busy as we made our way through them. Many people had kayaks, canoes, or SUPs tied to the roofs of their vehicles.  No one - whether shop owner, restaurant server, or patron at these establishments looked favourably or kindly at the two mud covered hikers walking through town.  Even relaxing in a park enjoying a snack we were again confronted and told to 'move off and find somewhere else to squat'.   The last straw came when we stopped at a local variety store to buy water and while standing outside refilling our bottles a well dressed man in a Tesla pulled up, got out of his vehicle, put his nose in the air, and proceeded to ask us to 'please move off somewhere else, I don't want my car getting dirty'.  Tired with being treated such, an old adage came to mind that 'there are somethings that money just cannot buy: manners, morals, and class'.   It was clear to us that we were not going to be welcome here and so we moved on.  

As we headed north out of Gravenhurst we again found ourselves on a busy, winding, road with quite a bit of traffic. We passed country homes with small barns and hay fields, as well as patches of north woods, and portions of exposed granite shield. Again, many cyclists were out on this road.

Eventually we came to a beautiful section of trail through a stand of eastern white cedars, hemlock, and tall sugar maples. The sunlight filtered down through the canopy, creating complex patterns on the needle strewn forest floor, and setting the small, delicate ferns aglow. The sound of a White-throated Sparrow broke the otherwise quiet morning air.

At first we didn't trust the meandering trail through the quiet forest interior, given our recent experiences. When we crossed some muddy and marshy patches that were churned up by cyclists we almost turned back, fearing it would get impossible to pull the cart through the muck. However, our fears were unfounded, and it turned out to be a pleasant footpath that was well used and loved by the neighborhood kids.


After this lovely section of trail we again emerged onto the road, which is part of the Frank Miller Memorial Route. It was named after a Canadian politician, who served as the 19th Premier of Ontario in 1985, lasting only 4 months in office before being brought down by a Liberal-NDP coalition. We were left wondering why Frank Miller's fleeting political career was memorialized here, but perhaps there is more to his story.

This section of road brought us back up to the shores of Muskoka Lake. We stopped at Muskoka Beach to take a break under a shady tree and enjoy the breeze coming in off the calm, deep blue lake. The sandy beach was closed due to erosion, but lots of families were out picnicking in the grassy park and swimming off the boat launch. The sounds of laughter and children squealing in the water filled the air and gave the tiny park a festive air. We could easily have fallen asleep in the cool shade for the rest of the afternoon.


As we continued on we passed the Taboo Muskoka Resort and Golf Course. This large complex of chalets, forested grounds for hiking, boating facilities, and golf course were busy with people out crossing the road between facilities, walking, jogging, cycling, and driving around. Many people seemed a little offended by us, but a few stopped to chat, give us friendly directions describing the road into Bracebridge, and wish us good luck.

We continued down the road, first past a long stretch of cottages that bordered the lake, and then through rolling hills that were a mix of lovely shady forest and small fields. Since getting into Gravenhurst we hadn't seen any Great Trail or Trans Canada Trail markers at all, but as we progressed up the road that suddenly changed.


For the next few kilometers we found portions of very well-marked, beautiful forested trail weaving along beside the road. The trails were steep, often going straight up and then down hills, ridges, and rock faces that the paved road skirted around. This was tough going with the cart, but the shady maple and hemlock forest, the exposed granite walls, and the sounds and smells of nature were worth it. In one section, as we stopped to catch our breathe at the top of a particularly steep climb, we heard the loud, insistent calls of a Broad-winged Hawk in the canopy. Try as we might, we couldn't spot it though.


As we made our way along the winding, hilly, gravel Stage Coach Rd, weaving on and off the road on gorgeous sections of forested trail, we were somewhat dismayed to see quite a lot of litter on the roadsides. Beverage cans, liquor bottles, beer cans, plastic bottles, cigarette packages, and discarded Wendy's and Tim Hortons cups seemed to account for the majority of the roadside trash.


At one point, just as we were ducking back onto the trail a man slowed down beside us in his fancy, highly polished, and very expensive car and shook his fist at us. Perplexed, we began climbing the hillside on the trail, only to see the same man pull up at the edge of the road below us and dump a large bag of garbage into the trees. For one minute I would like to understand the thought process of someone who likely has a fair bit of wealth, property, education, and time, and who has probably driven a considerable distance to enjoy the pristine lakes, forests, and wilderness of Muskoka, but who then decides to make the effort to pack up their trash and dump it in the landscape they came to enjoy. Why do this?


After passing another stretch of cottages along Stephen's Bay Rd we came to a trailhead at Strawberry Point. The Great Trail seemed to be posted as going in two different directions here. One way was a lovely looking forested trail that went straight up the side of a steep forested ridge. The other way continued down the road. By this point we were too hot and tired to wrestle the cart over any more hills, no matter how beautiful, so we opted to stay on the road.

Soon we found ourselves walking along the edge of the Muskoka River. Both shores were lined with private floating wooden docks, many of which had colourful Adirondack chairs on them, as well as an assortment of kayaks, canoes, and floating inner tubes. The other side of the road was lined with cottages. Many people were lazily floating in the river on inner tubes, happily chatting to each other, and lots of the docks were occupied by families out enjoying the warm summer afternoon. Relaxation looked really inviting at this point.


A few kilometers down the river the Great Trail signs led us back up, away from the water. We found ourselves on a gravel track, walking through the Bert Cross Family Nature Reserve. To our delight we passed a large marsh that was covered in reddish lily-pads. A Great Blue Heron was standing on the far shore, panting with its beak open to cool off. A little farther along a Green Heron was hunched, almost perfectly blending in with the lilypads. A female Wood Duck and four fuzzy babies were also nearly invisible as they paddled around in the middle of the water. A Common Yellowthroat posed on a stick nearby, singing his loud, clear, song.


As we continued down the grassy track we spotted lots of different kinds of dragonflies. The buzzing of cicadas and the dry, crisp, clicking of grasshoppers as they catapulted off the trail and into the tall grass were the sounds of this section of trail. There seemed to be an improbable number of Leopard Frogs and American Toads leapong off the trail as well. We continued down the track past lush green wetlands, through stands of aspen and other deciduous trees, and down a dense green tunnel of eastern white cedars.


As we approached Bracebridge the trail wove us around two wastewater treatment ponds that were lined with cattails. In the first one a small flock of Mallards dozed near the shore, and a family of Wood Ducks hastily shot out away from the shore, the babies leaving a web of wakes behind them. In the second pond we spotted four or five Pied-billed Grebes, complete with a group of still-stripy babies.

When we reached the outskirts of Bracebridge around 5:30 pm we decided to stop. The trail seemed to weave and wind and dodge through a series of businesses, parks, roads, and private properties, and we decided to stop rather navigate through. Although we only covered around 36 km of trail today, pulling the cart over uneven terrain is pretty much like a full-body workout, and in the 35°C heat and high humidity it had taken its toll. In addition to this we were finding the disparities between the online maps, the mobile app and the local signage in terms of direction and which route to take increasingly frustrating.

We initially sought  to stay at a local campground only to find out that while you can now rent a campsite you have no access to water, no washrooms, and no showers.  As such, despite the exorbitant weekend rates we wandered to the nearest hotel and checked in to do laundry and sit beside the air conditioning.


  1. So sorry to hear that your day was filled with negative interactions with stupid people and that you had to look at their garbage littering the trail. I would find the trail frustrations that your experienced (closed trails, unmaintained trails, multiple directional signs, etc.) so frustrating. Hopefully some hikers in the area decide to take on the task of improving and maintaining this section of the trail. Happy hiking.

  2. Hopefully you rested well. May you encounter many more pleasant people, and no more unpleasant ones.


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