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Hiking in Niagara: A Big ol’ Bowl of Mud Soup

James Ryan

“This is the way we fall. First we lose our balance, teetering precariously on the edge of uncertainty, until, mercilessly, gravity takes over. You can’t outshine gravity.” ― Cassia Leo

When I set out to hike along the Bruce Trail from the Rockway Conservation Area all the way to Short Hills Provincial Park, I had a vision of the perfect experience.

First things first, I knew that Short Hills was notorious for two things: muddy conditions, and an unusually high deer population. A good friend of mine recently told me that he had seen somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 deer while hiking there last week with his kids. So yes – I was excited for the expectation of deer and any other wildlife that I might encounter.

As well, I was ready for the mud – I always am.

If anyone happened to read my last blog post, than you know how jacked I was to finally get down to the bridge located at the bottom of the Rockway gorge. What would be even better, I thought, would be to see the bridge at sunset on my way back, although that was highly unlikely considering the forecast called for cloudy with a chance of flurries. But wait! That could be cool too. The prospect of snow, I mean. The scene that I imagined painted an incredibly beautiful picture in my mind.

The bridge was everything that I anticipated it would be, minus the view of the Rockway Falls. The gorge is very twisty-turny and as such, the view was blocked by a dogleg of jagged rocks. Still though, it was a very relaxing spot to just hang out for a bit and listen to the water rushing past. I stayed there until I noticed a couple of young girls approaching and snapping photographs in my direction. Were they hikers? Or were they members of some international spy agency, keeping tabs on my every move? I guess we’ll never know for sure. It should also be noted that the mud on the way down into the gorge was sticking to the bottoms of my hiking boots pretty badly, making traction almost impossible. With every step I took, it felt as though I were stepping on grease – definitely an advanced section of trail.

After leaving the bridge, it didn’t take long for me to hike my way out of the conservation area and into the trail that leads all the way to the Short Hills. I stopped for a moment to remove my parka because even though the temperature was near freezing, my body was over-heating as a result of all the hiking and climbing. I enjoy listening to music when I hike (I prefer the radio) so I had my ear buds in when I was bent over sorting through my pack, so I didn’t right away hear the three young hikers as they approached.

“You startled the hell outta me,” I laughed, after I finally noticed them.

Turns out, they’d been hiking for the past six hours and had travelled all the way from Brock University in St. Catharines. They were very nice (as you might expect – “hikers” usually are) and warned me about the mud that I was soon to encounter. They also confirmed that they had seen 15 deer while hiking through the Short Hills. Nice! I wished them well and continued on my way. Their journey was ending. Mine was just beginning.

The section of trail between Rockway and Short Hills wasn’t overly difficult, but there were a lot of fallen trees and redirected trails in the area, which meant that I really had to watch my step and make sure that I didn’t take my eyes off of the trail markers. It’s generally pretty tough to get lost on the Bruce, but not impossible. It happens.

Upon arriving at Short Hills, I immediately went on the look-out for deer, but no such luck. There were none to be found. I motored on, not really sure of where I was in relation to some of the more well-known landmarks. Despite having visited the park several times before (the last time was with my son), I had never entered in through the access point on the western side. After about 10 minutes of hiking however, I finally stumbled upon Swayze Falls and knew right away where I was. I was essentially at the beginning of the southern loop. I was also impressed to see that this particular section of the park was handicap accessible. But still, no deer.

The path conditions quickly changed from wide and flat (beginner) to narrow and swamp-like (novice). I also noticed that anywhere there was grass on the trail, was a pretty solid indicator that the surrounding mud was incredibly slick. When hiking in these conditions, it’s hard not to constantly look down in front of you because you’re always trying to find the best spot to place your footing. In doing so, don’t forget to look up every few yards and keep your eye out for the trail markers. You don’t want to get off the path which is easier to do in the Springtime because the surrounding brush hasn’t yet filled in. I spotted a bike tread in the mud. I laughed out loud to myself because I’ve been through this park during a mountain bike race on a dry day. I can’t imagine even attempting to ride in these conditions. You’ll just end up wrecking your bike. Still . . . no deer.

A little further down the line, the snow began to fall and the wind began to pick-up, so I put my parka back on. The scenery was as gorgeous as I had envisioned. If only there were deer in the background to make it perfect. Nope.

I soon encountered two teenagers walking their mountain bikes as they were clearly having a difficult time. Mud (clay), grass and leaves were all gummed up in their frames, making wheel rotation almost impossible. I didn’t bother to tell them that bikes were not permitted on the Bruce because I’m not the trail patrol for one, but also because I think they were starting to figure that out on their own. I wished them luck and continued on my way.

I then encountered a downhill section that was slightly graded to my left but the mud clung onto my boots like a jealous ex-girlfriend. It honestly felt like I had an additional 10 pounds added to each foot, but at least it wasn’t slippery like the trails leading up to this point – just sticky.

Any deer yet?

No, not yet.

I passed by the Pelham entranceway which is usually where I park and enter from, so I knew I was running out of time if I planned to cross the entire length of the park before heading back again. My plan was to hike until 5:00 p.m. before turning around so that I could time the sunset just perfectly at the bridge. A little further in and I was smack dab in the middle of the park – a fairly easy trail with little to no mud (in contrast to what I had experienced leading up to that point). It was there where I encountered two ladies frantically kicking mud off of their boots. I had to laugh because they clearly had no idea what they were in for.  It was 4:20, so I continued on. The snow seemed to be less of an issue now.

I came across a beautiful waterfall, which smelled a bit like sulphur (rotten eggs) but it wasn’t too bad so I stopped for a quick snack. Knowing that time was an issue however, I hurried through my snack and took a few pictures. There’s no sense rushing too much though, as the whole point of hiking is to soak in the relaxing beauty of your surroundings. After a few minutes, I hoofed it up a big, somewhat dry hill, both to make up time and to get warm. And yes, you guessed it . . . still no deer. I was starting to think that my perfect vision of today’s hike wasn’t going to come true.

By 5:15, I finally had to accept the fact that I just wasn’t going to make it to the eastern entranceway, so I turned around and headed back. In hindsight, it was definitely the right decision.

On my return, I encountered that exact same downhill section (now graded slightly to the right) and literally said to myself, this is that area with the clay-like mud that stuck to my boots. Then I stepped on the grassy edge of the trail, resulting in my feet sliding out from under me and landing on my ass as I failed to reach out for the closest tree branch. As I laid there on my back, in the mud, wondering how I could have ever let this happen, I had to laugh at my own stupidity. There I was, over-confident, not watching my step (ironically, I was glancing all around looking for deer instead of watching where I was stepping) and I got what I deserved – my first ever slip and fall in almost four decades worth of hiking on the Bruce Trail. Then the snow began to fall on my face, so I got up, laughed it off and kept moving. Luckily my Camel pack broke my fall and I remained uninjured, although my pride was a tad bit bruised.

By the time I made it back to Swayze Falls, the snow was coming down in these giant snowflakes, which was beautiful, but at the same time, I was still thinking about those damn deer. Where the heck where they? I had to have been the only person out here all year long who hadn’t seen any, which definitely sucked, because I was really looking forward to it. With only a 10 minute hike back to the west side entranceway, I was feeling a bit jipped.

SUCCESS!!

With only five minutes left in the Short Hills, I saw an entire family of about seven deer. It was amazing! I watched them eat and run and play, and eventually they spotted me and ran off. I talked to them a little bit because I’m crazy like that, as I wanted to let them know that I meant them no harm and wished them a great day. Seeing these deer in the falling snow was like a dream. Five hours of hiking later and I finally got what I came for. The snow was coming down hard and the trail was completely covered. Thank goodness for trail markers.

When it was all said and done, I saw a total of 22 deer (an additional 15 between Short Hills and Rockway). The sun was going down and I knew if I picked up the pace a little bit, I would make it back to the bridge before dusk. The good news is that the snow covered mud lost almost all of its slickness. As it turns out, snow is like kryptonite to mud. I was feeling empowered and reenergized and eventually, I made it back to the bridge.

I really had a great day hiking, exercising, pushing myself physically, listening to music, soaking in the natural beauty of the Niagara wilderness, taking pictures, staring up at the sky – just enjoying life. Keeping it simple. Forgetting about stress. Thinking about my son, and how much I wished he were there to see all of those deer with me.

As I stood there on the snow-covered bridge, I thought of a friend who recently told me that they were experiencing anxiety and depression, and got their doctor to write them a prescription for drugs to help counter these perfectly natural human emotions and feelings. I’m no doctor, but if you ask me, a 25-year professional bartender, all anyone really needs in this life to feel better about themselves, is to go outside and reconnect with nature. Imagine me, standing on that bridge, watching the snow fall, with nothing more than the sounds of rapids beneath my feet.

Now imagine it’s you.

See you outside.

Cheers!

@jamesryanwrites

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James Ryan
James Ryan

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4 Comments

  1. Allison

    Where is the section that is wheelchair accessible? I am always looking for new stroller friendly trails until my kids are old enough to hike themselves!

  2. Caroline

    Haha James, now I realize that we bumped into you in the Short Hills Park. I am one of the two ladies who was frantically kicking mud off her boots… ;) We were on our way out of the park, having hiked most of the day in various places. Short Hills was our last stop, and as we knew we were staying on the gravel path back to the car, we decided to clean our boots on that concrete bridge… So much of it was caked under it was becoming uncomfortable to walk! My friend and I didn’t see any deer while in the park. But I am glad you did! A family of 7 sounds like a pretty magical sight. :) And btw, I too talk to animals :)

  3. Jordan

    Great blog… hopefully the warm weather this week dries up that section. We hike often and that was muddiest section of Bruce so far

  4. James Ryan

    Hi Allison, try the access off of Roland Road. It’s the Swayze Falls entrance. I can only assume however that since the viewing area of the actual Falls was wheelchair accessible that so is the trail leading up to it. Maybe scout it out first? Cheers! And thanks for visiting my blog :)

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