We found ourselves in an idyllic looking pastoral landscape. Small puffy white clouds dotted a blue sky, and the sun cast long shadows across the trail. Wildflowers and tall grasses swayed in the slight breeze, cicadas filled the air with their loud buzzing songs, and on either side of the trail the fields were dotted with picturesque grey wooden barns.
The trail brought us across two meandering creeks, where we heard the loud rubber-band croaks of Green Frogs. Tree Swallows swooped low over the fields, hunting for flying insects, a Baltimore Oriole gave its bubbling song from a nearby ash, and a Common Yellowthroat fed fledglings in a creekside willow.
It was a beautiful stretch of trail, bordered on both sides by tall eastern white cedars in places, and surrounded by stands of deciduous forest in others. Every so often we passed wooden benches, and we stopped for about an hour on one of these, just enjoying the morning and looking for the energy to keep going.
As we sat on our stream-side bench a lady passed us, walking a dog. Shortly afterwards a man with two gorgeous golden retrievers stopped for a chat. Then a group of ladies on bicycles stopped to ask about the trip. Next came two young women leading a group of children out on a bioblitz! Even before 7:30 am the trail was already well used.
The Uhthoff Trail follows the bed of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was built through here in 1912 to carry grain from the elevator in Port McNicoll and crushed stone from the quarries at Uhthoff down to Lake Simcoe where they could be transported to Europe. The line was named after the firm of German bankers who financed the rail project. With the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, and changes in passenger rail services, the line was later abandoned.
When we approached Orillia we picked up the Lightfoot Trail, which is part of the Trails for Life network in the area. The paved and completely shaded trail was full of people out cycling, jogging, and walking, and we passed a group of small kids out on a nature scavenger hunt.
We threaded our way through the neighborhoods until we came to the Couchiching Beach Park on the shores of Lake Couchiching. This 14.5 acre green space includes the town dock, a Rotary Club miniature train, a splash pad and playground area, and a long sandy beach. As we walked through, the splash pad and public washrooms were open and there were lifeguards overseeing the beach. The boardwalk along the marina was alive with activity, and many people were out enjoying the park and beach.
We attempted to walk down mainstreet, to see what Orillia looked like, but apart from getting a glimpse of shops, restaurants, and bars, all we saw was construction. It seems every town we visit this year is completely redoing their main street. While it was only 1pm in the afternoon, it was clear that we were both done and had little energy to continue. As such we quickly made a reservation at a local motel, had a lunch from a local Subway and ventured in to get a room, take a cold shower and sleep.
After crossing Sophie's Landing we came to the Rama Trail, which was a paved pathway bordered by trees. It took us across The Narrows, which is a bridge spanning the divide between Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe. There is a large marina with roof-covered piers at the Narrows, and a metal trestle bridge that is slid open to let boats come and go.
Beside the bridge was an Osprey nest with two chicks still visible inside. As we watched an adult swooped down and caught a fish, before flying to a nearby post to consume it. A Marsh Wren was singing in the cattails beyond the bridge, while a Common Tern fished in the channel. As we looked down into the clear water below us we could see a Midland Painted Turtle swimming around before ducking under the weeds. Three Double-crested Cormorants flew overhead.
We continued on along the Great Trail segment toward the conclusion of the Rama pathway near the local casino and the beginning of the water trail spanning to Washago. With only development and houses in sight we begrudgingly decided that we had to keep walking. However, with no trail defined for this stretch it meant that we had to walk along the narrow roadway known locally as Rama Rd or HWY 44. About 500 meters along the pathway a convoy of 6 huge trucks swept past us a high speed, buffeting us with high winds, covering us with dust, and knocking the cart over. It was at this point that I cracked, and began to weep. I just couldn't go any further, I needed to stop, take a shower, and just lay down. Every step I had taken for the past day felt as though I was moving through mud, and nothing - not even our treat at having lunch seemed to have helped. As such, although it was still relatively early, and given that we only walked about 20 km today, we chatted and decided to stop for the day. Sean suggested walking back a kilometre or so and checking into the local Days Inn at Rama, but I was horrified at the cost of 120 for the night and so, despite my exhaustion we backtracked along the Trans Canada Trail 6 km to the Best Western which was 'only' 90 for the evening. Here thankfully the front desk clerk was a gentleman, he said nothing about our look, about my red puffy eyes, and did not delay in helping us to our room. His kindness at that moment overwhelmed me and I began to cry again. I am sure I either confused or worried him at my response. We were soon into our beautiful room, I took a 30 minute shower and was in bed by 4 pm (not waking up until 3pm - almost a day later - clearly we were due a day off the trail.
We haven't walked the Appalachian Trail, but people's accounts of it suggest that each new State they cross into presents a new challenge. Just when they master the 'pointless ups and downs', or the boulders, or the relentless mountains of one stretch of trail, they are presented with a new set of challenges that makes them feel like they are on day one of their hike again. That is sort of how we feel about the Great Trail.
Most of the trail in Ontario so far has been flat rail trails which have been maintained to incredibly high standards and are well signed. We've passed places with amazing natural and cultural histories. Almost every day we've had the option to stop for ice cream or iced tea. Physically, the trail so far in Ontario has been a treat. In between the daily delights we have been cared for and helped by so many amazing people. When the temperatures soared it was relatively easy to take a train back to London and visit the storage unit to switch our gear over. In so many ways Ontario has been a delightful trek!
The challenge, however, has come in the extreme heat and humidity, which has made it feel like high thirties or low forties since the third week of May with no reprieve. It has also come in crossing city after city. This means that to wild camp or stealth camp we have to keep walking until it gets dark around 9:30 or 10:00 pm, and we have to strike camp and be back on the trail around 6:00 am, before the first cyclists, joggers, and dog walkers are out taking advantage of the cooler temperatures. During the short time in between we write and edit photos, often until well after midnight. Not being able to stop to cool off, recharge our electronic devices, or use a washroom in coffee shops along the way has made it more difficult in urban areas, as has the closure of private campgrounds for the season. The trail has not been physically challenging so far this year, but it had left us utterly exhausted.
As we turn northwards now towards Huntsville, North Bay, and Sudbury we anticipate a new set of challenges in the form of more highway walking, continued high temperatures, mosquitoes, and fewer resupply points, but as always, we expect it will mixed with stunning beauty as well.