19.9 C
Niagara Falls
Saturday, July 13, 2024
Hooked on Hiking: Trails should come with a warning: ‘Hiking may be addictive’

It started small. A long stroll on the Upper Canada Heritage Trail in Niagara-on-the-Lake, or through the Commons and along the Parkway. It seemed so innocent. COVID lockdowns and restrictions made outdoor walking more appealing than ever.

Then came the teaser – a sweet little 90-minute hike with the Niagara Bruce Trail Club in Jordan. Sure, there were some rocky bits, a slightly treacherous section close to a steep drop off, and some stairs. Well, 118 stairs actually. But hey, we were in the forest, there was a fast-running stream, and not one, but two, count ‘em, TWO waterfalls to gawk at.

Now, this hike felt challenging, so I stayed with it for several weeks as late summer slipped into fall. One of the other hikers was about to turn 90 and I made it my mission to keep up with him. It was tough, but I did it and felt a small swell of pride. Those steps never got easier, but the forest was incessantly charming. 

Soon the cycle of lockdowns spelled an end to those organized hikes, so as winter settled in, I set out to explore some local sections of the trail with my hiking buddy. Never great navigators, we stuck to going out and back at Queenston and Woodend, two spots with easy access to the trail. 

We enjoyed tromping along the escarpment, marvelling at the massive boulders and thrilling to the exhilarating winter air. The joy of sunshine and fresh snow even inspired some snow angels along the way.

Then it happened. In a flash, a moment faster than time. 

We had just ventured onto the trail at Woodend, fresh snow dusting some ice patches. A kindly man coming toward us paused to say hello and to tell us the trail ahead was a bit icy. As my friend stopped to make room for him to pass with safe space, distracted by his comments and the need to move away, she slipped on the ice, and in that instant, broke her leg.

Tea, sympathy and medical treatment ensued for my friend. And perhaps this turn of events ought to have been a warning to me. Go back! Give it up! Hiking is dangerous! 

But, no. Apparently the lure was too strong.

Scheduled hikes were still on hold due to COVID. But recent hiking acquaintances conspired to tempt me. 

Just as I was feeling the pangs of withdrawal from my regular hikes with my now-injured friend, an invitation came to tag along with a small group on a three-hour hike. Three hours?? I thought. In the deep snow??

I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I should do this. I don’t think I will do this.

And then, I did it. 

There were moments of winter splendour and forest wonder, but they were followed with the misery of plodding along an open berm in snow up to my knees into gale-force winds. That may have dissuaded others from further winter hikes, but instead of feeling discouraged, I felt a stubborn satisfaction at finishing despite the conditions.

Here’s what happened next. 

In hindsight, I can see this was the moment I took the bait, not really knowing the consequences.

A casual mention was made, no pressure, no persuasion. Just a dangle … “We’re doing an end-to-end of the Toronto section of the trail. It’ll be three days a week, about 15 kilometres each hike. Come along if you like.” 

Why not, I thought. I’ll just try it, I thought. I can quit anytime, I thought.

And so it began. Early morning drives to obscure co-ordinates, parking on the edges of remote roads and heading out on the trail.

I felt like I’d entered a secret world of enchanted forests, sweetly flowing streams, and on some days, gushing waterfalls. The air was fresh and bracing, the smells were woodsy and wet, and I drank in the scenery deeply. I experienced a rush of wonder I came to crave.

Crunching along on the ice, climbing sometimes treacherous slopes, and trudging on even near the end when my feet were sore and my pack heavy, I felt the fulfillment of finishing something that wasn’t easy, but was worth the effort. There was a buzz even in the physical weariness.  

And if all of that wasn’t enough to ensnare me, my fellow hikers added an irresistible layer of easy camaraderie, light laughter and kindness. 

I was all in.

And my obsession extended beyond my hours on the trail.

Soon my Facebook feed was filled with endless pictures of mossy rocks, gnarly tree roots and cascading waterfalls.

I jumped every time the doorbell rang, anticipating delivery of coveted new poles or the perfect new knapsack, to bring a burst of joy on those days I was not hiking.

My focus on food turned to trail snacks and electrolyte drinks, and I studied tree species and tips to identify wildflowers.

Even my home workouts took on a new intensity, as I now saw the exercise as enabling my habit. 

As that marathon end-to-end hike neared a close, with more than 100 kilometres logged, I felt an impending melancholy. Where would that rush come from once it was over? 

I scaled back to shorter hikes just twice a week, exploring some of the many beautiful trails in and around NOTL, as wintry ice retreated and spring mud emerged.

Then came the chance to join another end-to-end marathon, even longer than the last! I didn’t think twice. The trout lilies were blooming, the blackbirds were trilling and we were exploring more of the escarpment.  

We had finished six hikes and covered 124 kilometres when the most recent round of COVID restrictions forced us to cancel the rest. 

For now, I’m reverting to solitary jogs for my outdoor exercise, but the moment it’s safe to get back on the trails with a friend or two, I’ll be packing my poles and checking my map for the next adventure.

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