I never write lovingly about the places I come from. Travel and adventure writing is always based on paying attention to the new places we go to, never the old places we come from. But sometimes it can be refreshing to write about our places of origin as if we were seeing them with the eyes of an intrepid tourist, experiencing it all for the first time. The pandemic, which has closed international and interprovincial borders, has forced us all to stay closer to home – and has thus forced us to re-evaluate the commonplace and the backyard. Perhaps even the trails we’ve hiked a thousand times and the woods we’ve driven past on a daily basis can still hold some of the glamour and allure of an exotic locale. All it takes is a span of attention and a dash of curiosity to transform the familiar into the fantastic.
I’m trying to treat the forests of Ontario with as much respect and wonder as I do the coastal rainforests of BC and the deserts of Arizona. In those foreign places, I am a diligent student of the unfamiliar. I read the educational placards and scan the park brochures and flip through my tree and bird identification handbooks and hunt down the names and histories of plants and places as if I were to be tested on it later. It’s how I come to know a Douglas Fir from a redwood and a yucca from an ocotillo; it’s how I come to feel like less of a tourist. When I got back home a few weeks ago, back into the roaring third wave of the pandemic and a series of government actions that felt more like improv comedy than public health policy, I wasn’t nearly as excited about being confined to Ontario. More from restlessness out of any desire to see Ontario, I left Toronto and spent the next week hiking sections of the Bruce Trail from Orangeville to Owen Sound. Before I left, I thought: I’ve been there, done that. I’ve hiked in the forests and swum in the lakes. It’s not new and exciting like the red rocks of Utah or the great mountains of Colorado. It’s just boring old Ontario. Zzzzz.
That was precisely the wrong perspective to take, though. A narrow and uncurious perspective, self-limiting before I’d even gotten out of the city. Because once I started exploring, starting crouching down to look at a weird plant and Googling the names of pretty wildflowers and digging fragrant wild leek bulbs out of the soil, I realized that springtime in Ontario is magnificent. It is the perfect time for a slow-paced exploration such as my own. Wildflowers galore – and such wonderful names, the kind of names you can read on a page and instantly imagine some bloom of beauty, no pictures needed: coltsfoot, hepatica, blue cohosh, Dutchman’s breeches, meadow rue, Carolina spring beauty. Of course the provincial flower, the trillium, starts to unfurl and mark the beginning of spring in the forest. As kids we used to tell each other that picking a trillium was a crime punishable by prison sentence; now I know that they blanket the forest floor in carpets of white, so it’s no big deal to pluck one to wear in your ear for the afternoon.
It turns out that Southern Ontario has a lot to appreciate. Every day I would gaze out across a lofty maple forest, resplendent with sunlight, a thick layer of dead leaves keeping the soil wet and rich, and I would see an edible buffet of ramps, trout lily, and dandelion leaves. (Note: ramps are delicious, but trout lily and dandelion leaves just taste like grass, so don’t expect me to be eating foraged salads anytime soon). The sound of thin maple trees leaning in the wind and scraping against one another eventually stopped spooking me, even though the creaking of their trunks sounded like the slow turn of a doorknob in a horror movie. I walked through stands of pine whose fallen needles formed a thick carpet that dampened all sound until I could barely hear myself walk. I also skipped and skidded across the mossy rocks of cedar forests, all so verdant and moist that it called to mind some otherworldly place, a Narnia or Shangri-La. These cedars love to grow out of the limestone cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment, enjoying the alkaline soil. One could spend weeks exploring all the little limestone canyons and caverns that branch off in every direction. Not to mention that I think I could spend years hiking and re-hiking various segments of the Bruce; seeing how the plants differ by season, how the forests look covered in snow versus exploding in wildflowers, and how the birdsongs change as the cold comes on.
The Bruce runs 900 kilometers from Niagara to Tobermory along the Niagara Escarpment, plus several hundred more kilometers of side trails, and its very length is what makes it perfect for a vanlifer. I slept in a few of its many trailhead parking lots, often located just by driving down a dusty road until it ends in the telltale blue sign denoting a “Bruce Trail Side Loop.” These lots are always located in the middle of nowhere, next to a horse farm, and are completely deserted from sundown to sunup. If anybody needs to get out of the city for a night or two and wants to do it on the cheap and down-low, let me know. I’ve got a few secret gems that would be great for a free campsite.
I’ll admit, it has been cold. There’s the annual cold snap that every Ontarian forgets about because in early April when the cherry blossoms bloom it seems like spring is here to stay, but inevitably there will be a day when the mercury plummets and snow piles up and winter is back, baby. You’re back scraping ice off your windshield and getting salt on your newly cleaned Blundstones. It happens every year! And every year we’re shocked! But I think Old Man Winter has gotten his last triumph for the season, and I’m looking forward to nights when I can actually move around inside the van, as opposed to the sleeping-bag-cocoon that I’ve been confined to. Here’s hoping that the flowers continue to bloom and the temperature continues to warm, and that I’ll keep discovering heretofore unknown marvels in places I once thought of as familiar.