With the winter snow and chilly temperatures gone, the month of May is traditionally the month when we Ontarians escape our winter cocoons and get outside to reconnect with the natural world around us, and hiking some trails is a fantastic way to do just that.
This year is the 50th birthday of Ontario's mother of all trails, the Bruce Trail, which runs a staggering 885 kilometers from Niagara Falls all the way to Tobermory.
While few have had the opportunity to explore the Bruce from beginning to end, we in the Meaford area are fortunate enough to have several access points to the trail, and we've also got (arguably) some of the most beautiful sections of the trail within minutes of our homes.
The celebration of the Bruce Trail's 50th birthday can also be a celebration of nature trails in general. While the Bruce might be Canada's longest and oldest established trail, this area has a cornucopia of trails that suit all levels of energy and ability, from the tranquil and easy to walk Georgian Trail, to more challenging trails like the Tom Thomson or Trout Hollow Trails.
With the sunny sky and warmish temperatures on Saturday, my sons and I set about exploring a section of the Bruce Trail, and the best word to describe our outing is: refreshing. There's a little bit of magic that happens when we escape the asphalt and concrete world that we live in daily, and surround ourselves with trees, creeks, and the sounds of birds and other forest creatures. Taking your teenagers out for a weekend hike is also a great way to connect with them without the distractions of smartphones or tablets, and you might be surprised how much they enjoy it.
Some folks like to be on the lookout for birds when they go for a hike, while others like to explore the wide range of plants and trees, or to scour the ground for animal tracks. One of the things I like to do when I'm out exploring a trail is to look for bent trees.
A few years back I read a fascinating article about bent trees, which led me to do some further research before setting out to see if I could find any myself, and indeed I have found many when I've had a chance to explore local trails. Long before Europeans arrived in this country it was the domain of the First Nations people, and as they made their way through the forests establishing trails and camps, they would bend young trees so they could act as directional trail markers, or to identify a camp site. As the years marched on, these bent trees continued to grow, often maintaining their bent shape for us to discover today.
“They look like road signs, once you start seeing them — and they're everywhere,” Bob Doidge, a bent tree researcher told the CBC in 2013. “Like everyone else, I’ve been passing these trees all my life and never noticing that 'hey, this tree is so different from anything else in the forest.' And once you recognize a few of them, on the Bruce Trail you could not go a full kilometre without seeing one.”
The story about bent trees fascinated my teenage boys, and as we explored the section of the Bruce on the weekend, we were on the lookout, and we did indeed find a couple of trees that we suspect were intentionally bent. When we found the first one, we inspected it for a while and discussed with some amount of fascination the fact that that a couple of hundred years before we tromped along the trail, Native Canadians walked the same path, purposely twisting and reshaping trees, using vines to twist branches together, and cuts and grafts to change the tree’s growth as a sapling, so it would grow into the bent shape and mark the route for those who would walk the path later.
Happy 50th birthday to the Bruce Trail, and a huge thank you to the Bruce Trail clubs in communities along its lengthy path who ensure that the trail is maintained and well used. Our granddaddy of Canadian trails has helped inspire numerous other hiking trails to be established, accessible to all of us in exchange for treating the trails with respect, and taking nothing but photos as we explore.