Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Community Vision : Blind River to Iron Bridge

Today was a 26 km hike along the shoulder of the Trans Canada Highway. It got us from Point A (Blind River) to Point B (Iron Bridge), but was otherwise not too eventful. I suppose when you are a hiker sharing the road with a lot of large and fast traffic going between 120 and 150 kph there is much to be grateful for in an uneventful day.

As we headed out of Blind River the highway skirted around a beautiful body of water. A soft breeze ruffled the surface of the dark water, causing the light green lilypads to sway. Clouds racing across the sky threw moving shadows on the far shore, lighting up the rocky outcroppings and then plunging the forested shore into shadow. It was a dramatic landscape.


The town of Blind River is located on the shores of Lake Huron near the mouth of the Mississagi River and at the entrance to the Blind River. When French explorers 'discovered' the North Channel, they set up the Voyageur route along it, which was later used by fur traders, loggers, and miners as well. The North West Company established a trading post in 1789 at this spot, which was later bought by the Hudson's Bay Company. The voyageurs named the river 'Blind River' because the entrance to it was really hard to spot from the canoe route.


As we followed the water around a bend in the highway two cyclists approached from the other direction. The couple both waved as they passed us on the other side of the road, huge smiles lighting up their faces. A few minutes later the driver of a black pickup truck, who had a luxurious grey beard and kind face, honked and waved enthusiastically at us as he drove by. It felt like we'd just been encouraged by Santa Claus!


A few kilometers outside of town we passed the entrance to the Mississagi River Indian Reserve No. 8. The Mississagi First Nation is one of the six First Nations that make up the Mississauga Nations. They were a signatory to the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850 and reside within their traditional territory. The community is located at the mouth of the Mississagi River, which is pronounced Misswezhaging and means "many outlets" in the Anishnaabemowin language. As we past the reserve entrance we read their Community Vision Statement: Walking in Balance: "A socially and culturally healthy community where individuals have the opportunity to prosper and to achieve their full potential spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically through generous and unselfish support for one another, while pursuing balance and harmony within, with each other, and with Mother earth." I think we could all learn something from this community and its goals.


After this point the highway followed the Mississagi River for most of the day. This wide, slow-moving, shallow river had many red sand bars along its length. The far shore was forested and showed no signs of development. Although we kept a close lookout for moose or bears, we didn't spot any. A kettle of Turkey Vultures circled above the trees. Groups of Canada Geese floated lazily in the shallows. At one point a Bald Eagle flew low over the trees, following the contours of the river and disappearing around a bend ahead of us.

It felt like the traffic had picked up considerably after we left Blind River. We were passed by many transports, logging trucks, dump trucks, RVs, and cars with kayaks and canoes tied to their roofs. The vehicles were moving fast, and although the shoulder was flat and paved, it wasn't very wide. As the day progressed the traffic got a bit tiring.

Around noon we stopped at a picnic area and rest stop along the banks of the Mississagi River. It was quite busy with people stopping to walk their dogs, prepare lunch or their families, or just stretch their legs. We chatted with a few different families and couples, and generally enjoyed a break under the white pines on the bank of the river. As we left a man looked at the cart and called out "That's cheating!"


At the entrance to the rest area we stopped to admire a billboard with a colourful painting of three Indigenous women wearing white and standing at the water's edge. This painting is part of a series done by Sharon Hunter. She is a Toronto-born artist who has been working with the First Nations communities along the shores of the Great Lakes to create outdoor art that is part of people's everyday commute rather than being displayed in a gallery. Her images show themes or scenes that are important to local communities. This one illustrates the importance of access to clean water, which is still an issue in far too many First Nations settlements.


We continued our hike along the highway, still walking through a largely forested landscape with the Mississagi River winding along on our left. At one point we passed the Dean Lake Bridge, which is a long, thin trestle bridge that is more than 100 years old. It spans 300 ft across the Mississagi River. We enjoyed seeing a large photograph at the side which showed a huge crowd of Eastern European looking settlers that were in attendance at the bridge's opening in 1908. We can certainly appreciate how important a bridge can be, and the creation of this one must have been an exciting event at the time.


A sign above the bridge indicated that the road led to the Mississagi Delta Provincial Park and Nature Reserve. We didn't make the detour, but apparently the park features a classic example of a birdsfoot delta. These deltas form when sediments accumulate at the mouth of a river in the shape of long fingers or bird's feet. Other estuarine features with especially intriguing names, such as cuspate and offshore bars, storm beaches, spits and a boulder tombolo are also apparently located in the park.


At the outskirts of Iron Bridge we came across the Iron Bridge Historical Museum and Information Center.
The museum included a log home built by John and Sandy McDougall in 1879. It wasn't open when we visited, but apparently features many local artifacts used by settlers, farmers, and loggers in the area.


Also located at the museum was the timber home of Lawrence and Andrena Tulloch-Carlyle, which was built in 1890. It was also closed, but inside were displayed many items commonly found in farmhouses in the region up until the 1930's, including quilts, family bibles, and a hair wreath. Hmm.


We continued into town, and soon found ourselves in TallyHo Park, which is the site of the former Iron Bridge after which the town is named, and is also a convergence of the Voyageur Hiking Trail (also part of the Great Trail) and the cycling portion of the Great Trail (which we've been following). The town was originally called Tally-Ho, until the new Iron Bridge was built in 1886 by the Hamilton Bridge Company. In the park parts of the original iron struts were on display, along with information about the town's history.

Seeing the sign for the Voyageur Hiking Trail was bittersweet. This trail was conceived of in 1973, and the idea was to create a 1,100 km long wilderness trail running along the northern shores of Lake Huron and Lake Superior from Sudbury to Thunder Bay. Today some of this trail exists, and is part of the Great Trail. We had hoped to hike the portion from Iron Bridge to Sault Ste. Marie, but have ultimately decided to hike the Huron Shores trail, which follows backroads instead.

This year, owing to Covid 19 the Voyageur Trail Association announced that "the VTA has temporarily suspended all Association led and coordinated group hikes and activities, including trail maintenance. Members are advised that sections of the trail are remote, and in need of maintenance following winter trail use and winter environmental conditions. Due to COVID-19, our regular seasonal maintenance is not possible at this time."  As a result members have contacted us stating that the trail is "in vast disrepair", "ill maintained" and "almost unfindable as nature has taken it back". 

We've recently been in touch with Julie and Simon of Jusi Adventures. They were unable to complete this section of trail last year because it was unmaintained and too difficult to follow. They tried again this year, from several access points, and reported that conditions had deteriorated. They were unable to get more than 50-100 m down the trail. The head of the Voyageur Trail Association also kindly reached out to us, advising us to hike the portions that are north west of here, but not to attempt this section. Apparently maintenance hasn't been possible in a few years in this area due to a lack of trail stewards. Inspiring the next generation of hikers, trail captains, and land stewards is what we are out here to do, and this seems to be another example of a group that is suffering from a very enthusiastic, dedicated, but aging membership. So, we will leave Iron Bridge on the Huron Shores Trail, not the wilderness trail we have been dreaming of from the side of the Trans Canada Highway these past weeks.


After leaving Tally-Ho Park we headed over to the Red Roof Motor Inn, where we will be staying tonight in order to recharge and upload our blogs. This place turned out to be a complete blast from the past! Everything about it is from the 1960's! Wood panelled walls, rhinestone crusted mirrors, pea green polyester curtains, red, brown, and pink polyester bedspreads, pleather headboards. It is very clean, and the owners are absolutely fabulous!


We also headed over to the post office to pick up a resupply box my parents very kindly and generously sent us. It turned out to be a gigantic box weighing 10.6 kg (23.3 lbs)! Unfortunately, we requested all that stuff. We are changing back to our winter sleeping bags. We also got a replacement pair of Keen hiking boots for me, a replacement Sawyer Squeeze water filter, and replacement straps for Sean's Gregory backpack, which came from a really cool gear resupply store called "The Outdoor Gear Exchange" in Burlington, Vermont. It seems quite a lot of our gear is at the point where it has reached its end.  Our hope is that our Big Agnes tent and my Osprey backpack survive this year through to November.

Most of the weight in our resupply came from Backpacker Pantry and AlpineAire freeze dried meals that we have been collecting for a while from Christmas and birthday presents, and the generosity of my parents. We had stockpiled them for the Voyageur Trail ... which we aren't taking now.

We are still working out the logistics, but given the collapse of funding and loss of sponsors this year we are unable to afford the water route across Superior and so we are hoping to be able to walk the Lake Superior Coastal Trail as well as the northern trails across the region, so all that luxurious dried food will come in handy in any case. We'll just have to carry it for a while :)

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