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.

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