Adventure Journal

Saturday, 27 March 2010

First barefoot hike of 2010

First barefoot hike of 2010

It was an exciting Friday. The day started out with a pitch for an outdoor tour business, which ended up with me being featured in a local newspaper.

My friend Chuck picked me up from the business meeting and wished me well. “I want to relax, and it's a beautiful day” I said.

“Let's hit the trails and visit the Niagara Gorge” Chuck replied.

Crossing over the St. Lawrence Seaway bridge into Niagara-On-The-Lake, I stopped off home and picked up my CADPAT (Canadian Disruptive Pattern) backpack and my husky Luka.

It was a strange kind of day. Bright, sunny and beautiful, yet fairly cold. It was 0C outside, but it felt much warmer with bright sunlight shining down. The ground was cold, and the wind cut through my clothing to chill to the bone.

Inside the car, however the bright sunlight kept me warm in my jacket, and Luka started panting until I rolled down the window.

After navigating a traffic circle (an unusual road feature in Canada) Chuck pulled up at the Niagara Gorge in Niagara Falls. It felt warm, until I stepped outside to feel the cold start to cut through my gear. The ground felt warm under my bare feet. The sun had been beating down on the asphalt for most of the morning and heated it up.

Kitting up with my nylon pants, thick t-shirt, hat, glasses, backpack, and winter jacket I hit the trails. It was time to start training for hiking this summer. I decided to stow my black Vibram Fivefingers in my backpack and hoped to make this my first barefoot hike of the year.

Winter softness had crept into my normally tough, leathery feet. I was surprised how much I could feel the small pebbles beneath my feet. The mulch covered trails felt a little sharp and cool as I walked towards the grey metal stairs which would lead to the bottom of the Niagara Gorge.

The Niagara Gorge which is down stream from Niagara Falls is an environmentally significant and sensitive area. There are species of moss and fern as well as some small salamanders which are found nowhere else in Canada. The unique features of the gorge, which include high, sheer cliffs and the thunderous Niagara River have created a unique, sheltered, Carolinian forest environment.

The massive steel steps take me below the hustle and bustle of Canada's largest tourist area of Canada. (also home to one of the Wonders of the World - Niagara Falls)

Stepping off the unforgiving steel stairs, I was met with a cold, harsh stone packed trail. The wind was ripping through the gorge and right into me. I pulled up my hood to help block out the wind. I headed South toward Niagara Falls and a section known as the whirlpool.

I was walking along a smooth stone ridge scattered with small pebbles. I was surprised how liberating it felt to go barefoot, even in the cold. It felt so natural. It made me feel connected to the land, and the Great Creator. The valley below was filled with trees devoid of leaves. I could see the trees themselves. Birch, Cedar, and pine. Up above in the bright blue sky, Turkey Vultures soared on the thermal turbulence created by the Niagara River. Below I could hear small creatures scurrying about.

As I was contemplating how liberated I was feeling, I rounded a bend in the gorge and was met with beautiful sunlight. The sunlight had warmed the rocks beneath my feet.

“Perhaps this is what shod people feel” I thought to myself. My body was freezing cold, and I was bundled up, but my feet were warm!

Large sheer rocks towered overhead, and the trail followed a small pathway deeper into the gorge. Giant boulders were strewn about haphazardly over hundreds of years. Mosses grew on some of the rocks, while others had trees struggling to survive growing on them.

The familiar earth smell permeated through the air. The musty, almost sweet smell was very soothing.

Descending further, the trail made it's way to a set of giant, house-sized boulders which had rolled into eachother many moons ago. The boulders were only touching at the top. This created an arch which you could walk through. The stone had retained winters wrath and it was noticeably colder passing between them.

The pathway, cut out of stone led to a surprising sight. Patches of ice lay before me on the trail. Chuck went ahead of me and took some photographs while I walked barefoot over the ice. Surprisingly it did not feel very cold. The spring sun was slowly eroding it's power.

Barefoot on ice

The ice quickly gave way to more flat stone, polished by thousands of hikers moving through this area over the years. Some areas felt cool, others felt warm. The texture of each rock was unique. Some were smooth like a hardwood floor, others were porous like a cement sidewalk.

Evidence of beavers in the area became evident. Several of the towering old growth trees, mostly birch, had an hourglass shape gnawed into them near the base. The Parks Commission had made short work of cutting down the trees that were victim to the beavers work. Possibly to prevent the trees from toppling over on unsuspecting hikers.

Birch Tree

The birch trees have a beautiful white bark which curls slightly off the tree as it ages. The beavers work had exposed the trees inner wood. Glistening in the sunlight, an array of colours could be seen. The white exterior contrasted bright oranges, yellows, and even reds of the trees inner wood.

I decided to head up the trail, towards a small beach which led to the edge of the Niagara River. The river, is a massive torrent. Unbridled violence, Class 7 rapids, undertows, submerged rocks, back eddies, and whirlpools make this an extremely dangerous waterway.

This entire area is dangerous. Each year, inexperienced and unprepared hikers end up either dying or getting severely injured in the area. The area is so dangerous that a new helicopter rescue pad was build several years ago to extricate injured hikers.

Approaching the beach, I was surprised at the sight. The sun-bleached beach had a unique feature. About 2m from beach bottom, was a distinct dark coloured line which encompassed everything in the area.

“Holy Crap!” Chuck exclaimed “Look how low the water level is!” Chuck fumbled for his camera and started snapping pictures.

I made my way from the dirt and rock floor of the forest, to the normally submerged section of the gorge. I was surprised to see the unusual rock formations, fossils and glacier potholes that were visible. Over the thousands of years this massive, violent river has flowed through the area it wore smooth most of the rocks. Other areas were jagged and looked like pieces had been ripped away.

Low Levels Niagara Gorge

Many of the rocks looked like the surface of a sponge. When glaciers receded in the area about twelve thousand years ago, small hard rocks spun around in the torrent of the water and ground into the softer rocks, leaving amazing formations.

Of course, the low water levels also revealed scrap metal, beer cans, life jackets, and other human rubbish.

The terrain was varied as I made my way across the bare stones. Some felt warm and smooth, others were somewhat sharp and jagged.

Looking around at the low water levels, it was amazing to think I would be standing in water over my head if the river had returned to it's normal levels. To my left, something caught my eye.

Someone had taken the time to create two small Inukshuk's. Small stone structures made without any clay or bonding agents, that represent a human figure. Created by Native Americans in the north to as a representation that human settlements were nearby. I took some photos of the Inukshuks and noticed Luka had gone missing.

Inukshuk Of The Gorge

Off in the distance, Luka had found some new friends. A group of young people hiking in the opposite direction had come across her and was giving her attention. As usual, Luka enjoyed it very much.

Steep hills and a few flat areas left me wanting a rest. A large flat rock jutted out into the air over the raging river below. I removed my pack and enjoyed the beauty of the bright blue skies, sheer canyon walls, and raging river below.

Chuck dug through his pack to find a zip top bag full of mustard pretzels which he offered to me. I had several and a raspberry chocolate bar. The area felt so serene.

The sunlight warmed the rocks, but the air was still cold enough to see your breath.

Finishing my snacks, I put on my backpack, and headed up the trail. Steep hills covered in smooth rocks, pebbles, and of course mulched forest floor.

Each texture on the ground has it's own distinct temperature, and feel underfoot. Something shod hikers cannot begin to understand. From sandy, to sharp, to crunchy, the ground provides the barefoot hiker with an amazing experience.

Rounding a large bend in the trail, the new concrete heli-pad came into view. The large steel cables of the cablecar could be seen high above me anchored into the gorge walls.

The elbow in the mighty Niagara River creates a huge whirlpool surrounded by magnificent rapids which throw the water up to a metre in the air. The area is spectacular to behold.

“May as well head back” I said to Chuck. “At least we proved that it could be done, and the trail does exist between the two stair wells” Chuck agreed.

The walk back seemed to go faster, as there were few photo stops. With the exception of short rests at the top of hills.

The long climb up winding switchback paths took me to the giant cold steel stairs, which led to the parking lot. I took some time to relax, and enjoy the beautiful day.

It was a fantastic day for my first six hour long barefoot hike of the 2010 summer season!

End of Barefoot Hike

Complete photoset can be found here.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

First Encounter With Wild Wolves

First Encounter With Wild Wolves

My first encounter with wild wolves was back in the 2004 in Ontario Canada.

Tori, Lupis and I packed our bags in our Jeep and headed up the highway to a remote park just north of Kingston Ontario. About a six hour drive from where we lived in Niagara Falls.

The drive up the 401 Highway in Southern Ontario was thankfully uneventful. Arriving around 09:00hrs I unpacked the gear.

I checked into the ranger station and got the usual “You aren't seriously going out there for two week without shoes are you?”

“Of course not” I lied. “I have them in my pack for later”.

The morning sun shone brightly through the bright blue sky. Sunglasses protected my eyes and my black boonie hat gave shade to my shaved head. The powdery ground felt soft under foot. The heavy pack held me fast to the ground with no chance of floating away.

“Wruff”, “Wruff” Lupis barked, with a glint in his eye, and large green pack strapped on his back. He was raring to go as it was only the second long trip of the year.

Leaving the security of civilisation behind, the area quickly led to beautiful wilderness. The trail led me to a large canyon with fragrant mosses, and giant boulders strewn about. Trees jutted up along the moss-covered canyon walls.

The canyon gave way to a boardwalk as the ground started to feel soggy. The old, worn wood felt cool under my feet. Up ahead along the trail, a giant rock, the size of a pickup truck sat near the trail. The current trail, curled around it.

Approaching the large boulder, Tori remarked “Look at that!” pointing to the base of the rock. “The old trail is still under that rock!” she examined bunch of boards stuck under the rock. Some time ago this large boulder must have come loose from the canyon walls and rolled into place overtop of the trail. “Imagine how cool it would have been if we were near here when it came loose” Tori said.

The trail snaked through more lowland swampy areas which felt cool to the touch, and somewhat squishy between the toes. There was a unique aroma of cedar from the area.

Large birch trees reached for the sky from the damp, forest floor. Several of the trees looked like they had an hourglass shape cut into them – beaver marks. Very common around swampy areas. The air was thick and warm.

During long hikes, one of the more fascinating things to notice is changing terrain. Starting out in large forests of poplar, larch, and pines the forest give way to open grassy fields. These led into canyons filled with large rock crevices and moss.

Trees and forest changed again to a large open field with a giant rock sticking out of the countryside. After a long, 6hrs of traversing valleys, moving through fields and climbing hills, I decided it was time to stop for lunch.

The afternoon sun had warmed the giant rock, which was covered in thin, multi-coloured mosses and gnarled trees devoid of leaves. The silence was beautiful. No cars, no aircraft or farm equipment, just total silence except for Lupis's panting and our own movement. I removed my and Lupis's pack, then sat down to relax. Tori prepared lunch. The scenery from the large rock was incredible. Vast forested areas dotted with small lakes were all that could be seen, right off into the horizon.

With Lunch eaten, I packed all my gear, put Lupis's backpack on and hit the trails. The other side of the hill led to my first glimpse of a large, clear water lake.

Approaching the lake, I realised that it was actually two small lakes which lay in the middle of the woods, and came together in a small area like the silhouette of a young couple kissing. The clear water was beautiful to behold, and shimmered in the afternoon sunlight.

A plank bridge had been built over the narrows between the two lakes. The water looked fairly deep and was still. I took my first step over the wooden plank, and to my surprise the plank sank beneath the surface of the water! The floating plank bridge could not support the weight of a fully equipped backpacker. I had hoped that it wouldn't sink too deep during my traverse.

My thoughts on the predicament were interrupted by a loud splashing sound as Lupis jumped headlong into the water beside the plank bridge and swam across the narrows. His tail moving like a rudder to keep him straight, while his backpack and it's contents flooded.

I stepped onto the plans and they sank down a good 40cm into the water and thankfully stopped there. I waded across the bridge hoping I wouldn't fall in and waited on the other side for Tori to attempt her crossing.

Tori completed the crossing and the plank bridge bobbed back to the surface, sending ripples into both lakes. The bridge lay in wait for it's next victim like a crocodile. Silently hoping some unsuspecting hikers will come close enough and haphazardly step onto the bridge and go for a dip.

The long days hike came to a close as the forested, sandy pathway led to a large open area with a small diamond shaped plastic sign with the outline of a tent on it. “We're here” I said out loud. “Good, because I'm beat” Tori remarked as she dropped her pack onto the picnic table.

I set up the camouflaged dome tent with the door facing the beautiful, calm lake. The view out the door was breathtaking.

The sun was starting to set and night began to envelope the land. Tori was watching the sunset on a small piece of land jetting out into the lake, and I snapped a photograph of the Sunset at Frontenac, shortly before the campfire and then bed.

Morning came and bright sunlight shone through the thin nylon walls of the tent. I opened my eyes, and smiled. This is the perfect place. So quiet, so calm, and so breathtakingly beautiful.

Unzipping the tent, Lupis rushed out to do his morning business and I climbed out and had a stretch. Tori was still passed out in her sleeping bag from the night before.

I wandered over to the picnic bench and sat on the top, with my feet on the seats, looking out across the bay. I never tire of the beauty of nature.

Lupis hopped up on the table, and I put on his collar and long 3m lead for the morning.

Lupis's ears came to attention, his mouth closed and he took a very alert posture. I looked out to see what had caught his attention to see the most unusual thing I have ever encountered.

Across the bay, as silent as the sun hangs in the sky, six wolves appeared. They were all large, with mostly grey fur which glistened in the early morning light.

Seemingly oblivious to our presence, they each moved silently to the waters edge and took a drink. The water ripped across the small bay and each wolfs tongue lapped up the clear, cool water.

I sat in total silence in awe of their magnificence. I didn't move, I didn't breathe – I just watched.

One of the wolves looked up across the bay and caught sight of Lupis and I sitting on the picnic table. As quick and silently as they appeared out of the woods, they were gone. In the blink of an eye they appeared and disappeared. Ghostly apparitions representing the essence of the wild. The experience lasted no more than a minute at most.

Sitting in awe of the experience was almost mystical. They moved as a group with such grace. They made almost no noise.

Tori had just poked her head out of the tent to see the last wolf leave the bay and disappear into the woods. She said “Was that a wolf just drinking across the bay?”

“Yes” I quietly replied still trying to compute what I had just witnessed.

The rest of the two weeks in the wilderness of Frontenac Provincial Park were uneventful compared to the first morning. Encountering wild wolves a very, very rare occurrence. Hikers and outdoors people rarely get a glimpse of these magnificent and awe-inspiring creatures of the wilderness. It was an experience that few people are fortunate to have in an entire lifetime.