Long-Distance Hiking in Mixed Terrain on the Bruce Trail, Ontario
I just returned from 4 days of hiking a portion of the Bruce Trail, on the Bruce Peninsula, in Ontario, Canada. This was not a vacation, or a hike to see the Bruce Peninsula, or a trip to see wildlife (although I did see some). This was training, testing equipment and food for long hikes. And ultimately it was a test for me, to see how fast I can hike with a little over than 30 pounds on my back, on mixed terrain.
Initially, I chose this part of the Bruce Trail because I assumed (big mistake! never assume anything) that since I was hiking on the coast of the Georgian Bay, I would have access to water at almost any time, so I would be able to hike fast. But that was not the case. For the most part, the trail is set up on the ridge of the cliffs, with no way to the Georgian Bay to refill on water, unless I had brought some rock-climbing gear to rappel down and then climb up again.
I started at Cyprus Lake campground, just south of Tobermory, on the northern part of the Bruce Peninsula and I headed south. The goal was to make it to the town of Wiarton, about 150km/93.2 miles away on the Bruce Trail. In the end, I did not do the 150km/93.2 miles because I came out of the forest on a couple of occasions and chose to hike on dirt roads, gravel roads and highways, cutting about 35km/21.7 miles from the total hike. I needed mixed terrain as I am preparing for a 380km/236 miles hike from Yukon to the Northwest Territories (the Canol Heritage Trail) and the Bruce Trail offered mainly a hike on the ridge/escarpment on the Georgian Bay, with constant up and down on the rocky cliffs, not much flat ground.
My plan was to hike a minimum of 30km/18.6 miles each day. If I could do that, I figured that I could cover the 380km/236 miles of the Canol Heritage Trail in just over 12 days next year. I also wanted to see if I could carry my own food and gear for an entire week. I will go into the food details in a later piece of writing, but for now, I can say that I am happy to see that I was indeed able to hike 30km/18.6 miles for three out of the four days.
I started the hike like a hero (not good) moving fast through the forest, up and down rocky, wet terrain, with roots of trees popping from the ground. It has been raining a lot here in Ontario and the trail was slippery, muddy and at times fully flooded, looking like a marsh. I pushed through this northern part of the Bruce Trail, which is described as “difficult” on hiking maps. After 9 hours of hiking on the first day, I had excruciating pain on the lateral part of my left knee. I understood then, that I had hiked too fast going down slopes and the weight on my left knee had been too much. I was concerned at that point that I might not be able to continue the next day. So, I took that evening to stretch out and massage my knee. I slept well in my tent and woke up the next morning with minimal pain and rejoiced at the fact that I could keep hiking.
I took it easy on the second day (remembering the knee pain from the night before) and that is when I only covered 25km/15.5miles. The terrain had changed a little as well and I had a mix of forest trail, country roads and muddy farmer’s fields where cows had turned the ground into a clammy-wet-marshy-ugliness. The going was slow, the hiking boots were wet and I had already put five bandages on five different toes that morning to slow-down the build-up of blisters. I hiked for some more hours through the forest, camping-out at Reed’s Dump Side Trail Camp, right on the Georgian Bay, where I met two young ladies in their late teens, with a lovely little dog. They were on their 30th day hiking north from Niagara Falls, Ontario. I told them that I did not have a hat but my hat was off to them for their achievement. Thirty days of hiking up and down rocks, hills, wet forest and never-ending country roads is certainly not easy. They will go far in their future adventures, of that I am sure. We shared some food, stories and a campfire that evening. In the morning I was off again just before 8 am. I realized I was late because I usually start hiking no later than 6:30-7:00 am.
The third day was my birthday and I decided to hike more than on the other days. I did 10 hours, not including breaks. That was my birthday present to me. The hike started-off again through rocky, wet forests and then I chose some country roads. I stopped in the town of Lion’s Head and treated myself to a coffee and a blueberry muffin. Then, I stopped at a grocery store, got a protein milkshake and two small pizza buns, returning to the forest trail to finish off the 30km/18.6 mile day at Hope’s Bay, on the Georgian Bay. I had a choice between a campground and small cabins for the night and I took a small cabin so I could take a shower, shave and lick my wounds. By then my calf muscles were far beyond the state of pain, my feet I could no longer feel and by the following morning I had 9 bandages on 9 toes. I had only one toe on my left foot which was still in decent shape. The knee pain on my left leg continued for the entire trip, sometimes worse, sometimes better but it was manageable, nothing like the first night. My stomach muscles were also sore from the hip straps of my backpack which I might have tightened too much but surprisingly my shoulders were relatively fine. It took me a good hour to fall asleep that night from all the pain in my legs. Nonetheless, I woke up on the fourth morning invigorated and ready to march.
I had 45km/27.9miles to the town of Wiarton if I followed the Bruce Trail, on its rugged, wet terrain, but I decided I had had enough of constant up and down cliffs and wet rocks. So, I consulted my maps and decided to take some short cuts by using roads and highways and push all the way to Wiarton that day. The first couple of hours were still up and down in the forest after it had stormed for most of the night but the rest were on country roads and highways. I did about 31km/19.2miles that day with not even an hour of total small breaks along the way. I hiked from 7 am to 2:30pm, when I reached Wiarton and sat down at a restaurant to have a huge meal. That day was grueling. I hiked for hours in the rain, with wet boots, on roads that seemed to never end.
There seemed to be something wrong with my brain. Normally I can look at a road that goes as far as the eyes can see, fix my vision at the farthest point and hike there. When I reach that destination and I see that the road once again continues as far as the eyes can see, I fix my vision to that new point and hike there again. Now, I can do that over and over for eight, nine, ten hours a day, as long as I have lots of water and some food. But water was a problem on this portion of the Bruce Trail.
The lack of water along this hike made my going slower and harder psychologically. I cannot overstate how important water is for me. I drink tons of it on a regular basis, never-mind when I am doing physical activities. In such cases, I can drink liters and liters every few hours and that I did not have. There was one day when I hiked for roughly five hours with only 700ml of water. I had to ration and that was not nice, to say the very least but it was all part of learning. It was in part why I did this hike.
I have never hiked at such a fast pace before, with roughly 30 pounds on my back but I did more or less what I thought I would be able to do: 30km/18.6 miles a day on mixed terrain.
In the end, I brought back five pounds of extra food. Haha!! I realized fairly quickly that I took way too much pemmican (dried deer meat mixed with dry blueberries and fat) with me, and I did consider at one point dropping some off, but I decided otherwise. I wanted to carry 30 pounds, not 25, as part of my training for the Canol Trail, when I will have to carry about one week worth of food with me.
For now, I returned in one piece, two days ago. My left knee is still slightly bothering me but the pain is mostly gone. That was my only concern along this hike: the knee pain. Other pain, like muscles pain, I am able to go with until the muscles are numb and then, keep going more. The same with my feet: once they’re numb I can’t feel much anyway so I can just keep going indefinitely. Haha!!
I have always walked a lot though. When I went to the UK some years ago, my backpack was over 45 pounds. I still walked around with it. Barely. But I did walk with it, taking lots of breaks. Of course, not through forests and up and down cliffs, there I just walked on roads and flat trails. I love walking, what can I say?
My wish here is that my writing may help someone at some point, either in their travels, or simply in understanding one or two things about long-distance hiking, which is perhaps my favorite past-time. Thank you for taking the time to read this piece of writing. I wish you all the very best, and if you hike, many wonderful adventures to You!
© 2019 Mr. Happy