Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Travel Close to Home # 12: At Last, Some Easy Escarpment Walks

 A few days ago, I made it to the last of the Halton Region Conservation Parks which lie along the Niagara Escarpment.  It was a pleasant surprise to find that Crawford Lake, although it does have some more typically rugged hiking trails, has two substantial walking paths geared to allow even people of limited mobility to experience the unique geology of the Escarpment region at close quarters.

First, consider the lake itself.  Crawford Lake is a smallish lake atop the Escarpment which has one very unusual feature -- it is considerably deeper than its width.  A lake of this type is called a meromictic lake. 


Because of this depth, the bottom of the lake is both very dark and consistently cold at all times.  Unlike most wider lakes, the different layers of water do not ever mix, and the deeper water contains very little free oxygen -- somewhat like a deep ocean environment.  Due to the lack of mixing, the sediments settle evenly on the bottom of the lake.  There, they can be analyzed and dated on a year-by-year basis, revealing all kinds of useful scientific and archaeological information about the environmental and human history of the lake and its shore lands.

But this is still Escarpment Country, and that means the usual accumulation of rugged, exposed rock layers along the ground surface.  The solution is simple.  The entire "trail" around the lake runs on an elevated wooden walkway with railings along both sides.

Although this walkway "trail" has its ups and downs, these would pose no problem other than slowing some walkers down.  There are no steps involved, just ramps, and even those are not unduly steep.  At this time, due to Covid-19 and the need for social distancing, the circle trail around the lake is "one way only" -- counter-clockwise, as shown by the arrows I've added on the website's trail map here.

The "X" markings on the map show two places where trails are closed -- the lengthy trail down into the Nassagaweya Canyon because it's impossible to hike it within the current two-hour limits on visit time, and the short connector between the two sides at the north end of the lake as well (although I am not sure why this one is closed).

If you read my previous post about Mount Nemo Conservation Area, and looked at the trail map there, you'll readily see a major difference -- Crawford Lake does not have any of those handy trail indicator posts with their numbered labels.  In fact, this park has almost no trail signage of any kind at all.  Bringing along a map like this one is suddenly critically important!  For a first-timer, it's helpful to know the most direct route to get onto the trail to the lake.

From the upper parking area by the Iroquoian Village (more on that a little later), go down the flight of stairs immediately to the left of the visitor centre building.  At the bottom of the steps, simply follow the paved path directly in front of you on down the hill.  This is the short black trail shown on the map to the east of the visitor centre.  It's a continuous moderate down-grade, so handle with caution with strollers, walkers, and the like.

Take the first junction on the right hand side, and you're now on the gravelled blue trail towards the lake.  The picture at the beginning of the post shows how the lake appears as you first approach the shore.

Signs direct you to the right and you walk up a short hill to reach the beginning of the boardwalk around the lake.  These pictures give you an impression of the ups and downs of the walkway, the expanded rest areas which occur at regular intervals (and allow faster walkers to pass slower ones), and the mixture of rock outcroppings, dried pine needles, uniquely-shaped trees, and wetlands which can be seen along the walkway as you proceed.

At the far end of the lake trail, this ramp and viewpoint by the lakeshore was unfortunately included in the closed section.  Pity.

Because of the trail closure, I proceeded straight ahead to the junction of the Woodland Trail and turned right.  This is basically a gravelled continuation of the path down from the parking area to the lake -- broad, mostly level, only the occasional rock breaking the surface of the path, and altogether a very easy walk east to the 4-way junction, and then north along the Escarpment Trail to the lookout point.

The Escarpment Trail as far as the lookout, by the way, is even straighter and smoother than this bit, and yet it's rated by Halton Parks as a Level 2 difficulty.  Now, remember this one from my previous visit to Mount Nemo?

This steep rock staircase, with its assist chain fastened around the huge boulder, is also rated as a Level 2 trail.  After visiting Crawford Lake, and enjoying an easy stroll out to the lookout and back along that broad, smooth walkway, I'm more convinced than ever that Conservation Halton needs to rethink their rating system to take much more account of the difficulty of walking on the various trails.  At present, it's plain that length of trail is the pretty much the sole consideration.

Along the way to the lookout, you enter a dense belt of old-growth forest shortly before reaching the Escarpment's edge, and there again I encountered some white trilliums, just a few of them, in their customary shady nooks under the tall old trees.

The lookout itself faces to the northeast, out over the Nassagaweya Canyon.  Limestone Creek flows through this canyon, from left to right in the pictures, on its way down to Lake Ontario.  The height of the land across the canyon is geologically part of the Niagara Escarpment, but is physically separated, creating a plateau surrounded on all sides by the characteristic cliffs.  This plateau is known as the Milton Outlier, and is one of a number of outliers along the course of the Escarpment.  

The southeast end of the Outlier's cliffs, to the far right of the viewpoint, is the location of Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area, which I visited back in the late summer of 2020.  Here's a link to that blog post:

Travel Close to Home No. 5: Snakes and Ladders 

And now, upon returning to the parking lot, let's take a quick look at the Iroquoian Village.  The three longhouses of this reconstruction were inspired by the archaeological discoveries made at the bottom of the lake, and in the surrounding area.  The reconstruction was guided not only by that data but also by oral records of the Iroquoian peoples, with some help from written historic records.  In normal times, the longhouses present static displays and living re-creations of traditional life and activities.  Sadly, the village is closed now because of the pandemic, but I will look forward to spending some time there in future.

To close this visit to Crawford Lake, I just want to re-emphasize that here is a conservation park with a good selection of trails suitable for people of limited mobility -- not least that fascinating boardwalk around the lake itself.

Here's my usual locator map, showing the approximate location of Crawford Lake:

And finally, a reminder that Crawford Lake, like all the Conservation Halton Parks, continues to require advance reservations for all visitors due to the pandemic -- this to help control visitor numbers and avoid overcrowding at popular times.  You can make advance reservations up to the day of your visit, if times are available (they're usually booked completely on weekends).  You prepay your fees when you reserve.  On arrival, the gate attendant scans your licence plate, verifies the number of people in the vehicle, and then waves you through.  Here's the link for making reservations: 

Conservation Halton Parks Reservations 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Travel Close to Home # 11: Mountain Climbing in Halton

 Continuing my series of scenic hiking spots in Southwestern Ontario, I again trekked east to Halton Region to visit the conservation area at Mount Nemo, just north of Burlington.

By this time, I had visited three of the other Halton parks on the Niagara Escarpment, and thought I had it all pretty well figured out, as far as what to expect.  Mount Nemo proved that I had to dramatically revise my thinking on the difficulty of the different types of trails.  One look at this trail picture, and you can see that we aren't talking about a quiet little amble through some nicely civilized countryside.

Some of the trickiest hiking spots in the Halton parks lie on trails close to the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, where the rock layers declare themselves and force you to go through a good deal of up-and-down in the process.  This example, though, really takes the cake.

Check out this close-up of part of the above picture, and take note of [1] the people coming down at the top left corner, because those figures will give you a sense of just how steep this climb gets, and [2] the orange arrows pointing to the chain anchored around the huge rock outcropping, to help you keep your footing on the rather narrow, steep, and slippery rock surface.

What you can't see here, (just off the bottom edge of the photo) is the large ledge at the bottom which was just too high for me and my bad knees to try to climb onto.  I doubt that I could have gotten up the next step to the chain either, so I had to turn around and backtrack instead.  That was the first time I've had to retreat from a challenge in all of my hiking adventures.

Now, take a look at this stretch of trail:

That's a lot more innocuous and user-friendly, isn't it?  Why am I showing this bit right here?  Simply because this nice, easy footpath and the demonic rock stairs above, are both on trails rated by Halton Conservation as "number 2" level of difficulty.  Here are the ratings used.

Despite the descriptions given here, it's pretty obvious (to me at least) that the rating system depends far more on the length of the trail than any of the other factors.  I would urge that the degree of technical difficulty needs to be more strongly considered in devising these ratings.  I'd encountered nothing remotely close to this in difficulty on any of the Level 2 trails which I had hiked in the other Halton parks.  I'll be returning to this issue in my next post, which I hope to get online some time in the next few days.

The Halton Conservation website includes a comprehensive trail map for each park, and they are definitely helpful as well as easy to follow.  Here's the map for Mount Nemo.

As you hike the trails, you'll find the numbered trail markers on posts at the side of the trail, and the posts also include coloured directional arrows (matching the colours on the map) for each of the trails.  The purple "X" which I've added above shows the location of that steep, tricky rock climb on the North Loop Trail.  The short little trail which I've marked on between MN07 and MN09 is so new that it does not appear on either the Halton Parks map or among the trails shown on Google Maps.  Less than a minute long, this connector allows you to hike part of the North Loop while bypassing the most challenging spot if you have similar mobility issues to mine.

What's not mentioned specifically, either on the map or on the trail guide, is the most direct trail from the parking lot straight to the lookout point.  This one is a former access road, and is both broad and reasonably smooth all the way -- a definite Level 1 by any sensible definition.  It took me about 15 minutes to walk back this way from the lookout to the parking area.

The view from the lookout point gives a broad panorama from northeast to southeast.  On any clear day, you can see multiple clusters of high rise buildings in Brampton, Mississauga, and even downtown Toronto -- easily picked out by the soaring profile of the CN Tower.

If you get the right kind of warm day, the turkey vultures will be up in the air, spreading out their broad wings (up to six feet wingspan) and riding on the rising thermal currents of the Escarpment.  They're a majestic sight as they soar effortlessly past you.

The broad plateau in the distance is the Milton Outlier of the Niagara Escarpment, and its southeastern tip, which appears here below the bird, is the site of the Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area.  

On the opposite extreme of scale, some of the shadier nooks of the forest floor host the springtime blossoms of the white trillium, the provincial flower of Ontario.

On my second visit, I went up the centre road/path to marker MN03, and then followed the South Loop Trail all around its entire length to the lookout.  Taken as a whole, the South Loop is more consistently rugged than the North Loop as it follows the outer edge of the Escarpment, although it has no single spot as tough as the North Loop's rock staircase with the chain on it.  Here are a couple of views of different parts of the South Loop, showing the frequently-irregular surface.

On both trails, you pass numerous spots where water erosion is opening up cracks, holes, and crevices in the porous rock.  Some of these splits will ultimately widen enough to allow an entire rock mass to be separated from the main body and become a rock pinnacle or spire on its own.

As in all the other parks along the Escarpment, you encounter numerous examples of trees struggling to find and maintain a foothold in these soft and unstable rock formations along the edges of the Escarpment -- this being one of the most dramatic survivor trees which I've seen.

Despite my comments about the somewhat deceptive trail ratings, I did enjoy my two mornings spent hiking at Mount Nemo.  

Here, as usual, is my locator map to show you the approximate location of Mount Nemo.

Note that, as with all of the Halton Conservation Parks, reservations are required during the pandemic in order to visit Mount Nemo.  You can book your trip anytime up to the day of your visit, if space is available.  You prepay your gate fee as you make your online reservation, and then the gate attendant simply verifies your licence plate and the number of people in the vehicle, and waves you through into the parking area.  Here's the link for making reservations to any of the Halton Parks:

Halton Parks Reservations

Friday, May 14, 2021

Travel Close to Home # 10: Round and Round the Pond

Spring has undoubtedly sprung in Ontario, and although the Covid-19 lockdown still continues here, it's been perfect weather to get out and about for some walking and hiking in the region.  Here I am continuing the series on local beauty spots and points of interest which I began last year.

In a small town not far from where I live, a town named Dorchester, there's a pond.  It's a flexible term, a pond.  It can mean a small pool of water on a farm, big enough for a dozen animals to drink from at once, or it can mean (and does in New England) a lake several kilometres long and wide.  

The Dorchester Mill Pond lies between the extremes.  It's about 1.6 kilometres long, and the scenic walking trail around the shorelines stretches for 3.5 kilometres.  It's the crown jewel of a network of trails in different parts of Dorchester, and in my latest visit I got to sample one of the others as well.

On an earlier visit in April, I encountered a cloudy day, and the pictures I took on that day are easy to pick out in this post.  This week I had a gloriously sunny morning.

As the name "mill pond" indicates, this is an artificial lake created by a dam, which is located where the stream flows between the slopes of the river valley to empty into the Thames River.

The pond is a beautiful, peaceful place, not least because motor boats are not permitted.  

I did see a couple of kayakers enjoying a leisurely paddle along the shores. 

A great deal of work on the part of members of the community goes into keeping the Mill Pond Trail in good working order.  Because the slopes of the land on either side of the pond are in places loose and unstable, several rather lengthy sections have had to be built out on wooden walkways projected over the crumbling areas.  

There's also a sizable wooden footbridge across the narrow neck at the upstream end, where the pond gradually gives way to marshy wetland.

 Other parts of the trail are constricted to narrow footpaths, where walking side by side is basically impossible, and there are a couple of steep dirt slopes that could get slippery and risky in wet weather.

Earlier in April, before all the greenery began to emerge, the trunks and branches of fallen trees created some striking natural sculptures along the walkway.

Word to the wise: you really need to keep an eye on the ground.  Tree roots and small stones occur regularly on this trail.  Also, at odd intervals, you may come across the end of an angle iron sticking out of the ground.  They've been cut down to ground level, but they still have a knack of protruding just enough to trip the unwary walker.  I think they're the remains of earlier attempts to stabilize some of the more uncertain parts of the path.
The trail on the west side of the pond comes right down to County Road 29, Hamilton Road.  Across the road you can see the beginnings of another trail -- the Lions Trail, along the shore of the Thames River.  This trail runs west to a small riverside park with picnic tables, and took me close to 15 minutes to walk each way.
It's a very different kind of trail to the Mill Pond Trail.  Some parts are dirt, some grassy, and a few patches have been filled with gravel.  There are a couple of perennially muddy patches where water coming down from the valley walls seeps under the road and across the trail towards the river.  It's just uneven enough to make keeping one eye on the ground advisable, although for different reasons. 

What you do get is a diverse range of native wetland vegetation, which is being deliberately placed here to create a border of native greenery along the riverbank.

And then, you get the placid waters of the Thames as regular backdrop.


And here's the picnic park at the trail's western end.

Along the way back, I spotted a striking cluster of fungi growing out of a tree stump.

So there you have it.  In Dorchester, these two totally different but both lovely walking spots, just across the road from each other, offering a combined total of about 90 minutes of walking enjoyment.

To close, here's my usual indicator map showing the approximate location of Dorchester, which is just a short distance to the north off Highway 401.  The Pond and the Lions Trail are both on the western edge of the town.