Bruce Trail disappoints, Canadians do not

In southern Ontario there’s a stretch of peninsula that’s known more for its limestone cliffs and rocky white beaches and clear Lake Huron waters than its illegal Native American made cigarettes.  But you can find them all on the Bruce Peninsula.

The Bruce Trail is the Appalachian Trail of Ontario.  I say this for my east coast friends.  Though not as well known and only about a quarter of the size as its American neighbor, the Bruce Trail is an attraction for Ontarians near and far.

“I just finished Niagara to Tobermory today,” one man told me fresh off the trail.  (The trail runs for 550 miles from Queenston, On. near Niagara Falls to Tobermory at the top of the Bruce Peninsula.)

“Congratulations,” I said.  “How long did it take you?”

“Four years.”

Another woman, pointing to different places on the map, “There’s a good loop in this area.  And then here, a good out and back hike, take you maybe three or four hours.”

And it seemed no one we talked to could grasp that we were backpacking, carrying four days’ worth of food in our packs and planning to do more than 60 miles of the trail that runs along the coast of the crystal blue Lake Huron.

“Yes, since you have a van, drive here today,” said the woman’s husband.  “Then tomorrow, go up to this area, and after that, drive to here, plenty of places to explore.”

Of course, we should have listened to the locals.  The Bruce Trail is no more of an ideal spot for backpacking than Las Vegas is an ideal spot for a family vacation with the six and ten year old.  Until north of the Miller Lake area, the trail utilizes a number of gravel county roads and private farmland.  Though serene groves of Aspen trees line some of the roadsides, we were ready to ditch the trail and knock on a farmer’s door and plead for mercy, claim we’d gotten lost in the wilderness and couldn’t find the trail, and hope he’d take pity and invite us to dinner.  But getting lost on the Bruce Trail would be like losing site of the CN Tower at a Toronto Blue Jays game.

The trail is marked with white blazes more frequently than the AT and blue blazes notify that you are not on the Bruce Trail but in fact a side trail.  Additionally, blazes tell you the direction of an approaching turn by two blazes, the above set to the side of the approaching turn.  In this regard, the Bruce Trail receives my highest praise.  I couldn’t be so lucky as to pretend I’d gotten lost, for some Canadian farmer would take me for the dumbest American he’d ever met.

Continuing north of the Miller Lake area, the trail does become more rigorous.  We anxiously awaited the moment when the trail would reach the coast again and we would look out over the vast blue expanse of Lake Huron.  But as the trail neared the coast and rose towards the Niagara Escarpment (a piece of limestone that runs the length of the trail, forming dramatic cliffs at the water’s edge) it grew more strenuous.  Rigid, eroded pieces of limestone made the walking slow and it was constantly rising and falling.  The payoff, we expected, would be the coast—the opportunity to walk high above Lake Huron while watching the coastline ahead curve along the rocky shore.

Unfortunately, the trail gets close enough to the coast to tease—the dense forest opens up at an overlook and you can catch your breath while looking down at the water—but then the trail cuts back into the bush and you’re straining and sweating under the weight of your pack and cursing the trail for not being twenty yards closer to the water so that you could enjoy the view, feel the breeze from the lake.

In 36 hours we walked about 25 miles.  Admittedly, we wore ourselves out waiting for the trail to improve, to produce what the pictures had promised.  And that was our fault—not just our ignorance to what we were getting ourselves in to—but our expectations of scenic destinations we’d brought with us from the States.

We left the trail earlier than expected by catching a ride from the Halfway Log Dump area with Matilda and Mark and their sheep dog Zeus.  Mark told us of winters on the Peninsula, a place that though it seems colder, is no farther north than Minnesota or Maine.  And he told us of a place where Native Americans rolled their own cigarettes and sold them by the hundreds in bags for very little out of a trailer with a drive thru window.  “Every apartment building in Toronto has some guy dealing ‘em.”  (Cigarettes in Canada are taxed up to eight or ten dollars.)  “But don’t get caught if you buy some,” Mark warns.  “They’ll impound your entire vehicle.”  Matilda drove us to Tobermory, where we expected to recuperate—nurse our blisters and rest our calves—and then start back south to complete our trek.  But we were defeated and as the out-of-shape, unhappy American is wont to do, we rented a hotel room and watched Sunday night football.

We caught a ride to our van the next day and as we left the Bruce Peninsula from the comfort of our stuffy, cozy home on wheels, our sentiment towards the Bruce Trail similar to the taste of talcum powder, we reminisced that we’d met some of the nicest, most helpful and willing to inquire upon your travels people.  And agreed that Canada rocks—not solely—but because of the caliber of people that call Ontario home.

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