Many of the places I hike are along the Niagara Escarpment, or have at least been influenced by its massive presence. These places have a lot of “material” to work with when walking out here with other hikers. Other than Niagara Falls itself, the escarpment is the most iconic landform on the Niagara Peninsula. The collection of valleys and canyons dotting the escarpment often harbour pockets or strips of old-growth forest. These stands of woods are ecologically important, as they retain ancient nutrient cycles and unique habitat characteristics only found in older forests.
They also have a certain effect on hikers. These nooks can be spellbinding for people who see a place like it for the first time. The sounds of traffic disappear — a rarity in a busy Niagara summer. Some visitors have noted that the hike was the most peaceful component to their visit in NOTL, a pleasant breather from the busy streets and happening crowds. A few steps further into the deep chunk of forest, and the temperature pleasantly drops a degree or two. The red oaks and sugar maples tower overhead. These are the spots where lots of the hikers can’t help but pause and take it in. You can see them relax.
A lot of my favourite spots with old forests have a waterfall nearby. Waterfalls are especially appealing to the human eye. We would have been hiking for nearly an hour and a half, and hikers will keep telling me they can’t believe that the scenery unfolding in front of us is a part of Niagara, or even Canada. The most repeated phrases I’ve heard in the “Looks like…” category would go to Florida, British Columbia, or simply a jungle. Some have been inclined to outright say that they enjoyed the smaller waterfalls we hiked to over mighty Niagara Falls itself. This tells me that Niagara isn’t quite on the map just yet for its natural attractions and significance.
Perhaps this is a blessing and a curse all in one, as they say.
Truly, if a visitor comes to experience Toronto, NOTL, and Niagara Falls, they haven’t seen what the majority of Canada really looks like. These densely populated areas happen to be within a tiny section of Canada that has a forest where most of the trees drop their leaves every winter (deciduous trees). This is much unlike the endless, snow-covered spruce trees in the wilderness that many people overseas would imagine.
We’re in the Carolinian Forest zone. What’s in a name? Species of plants and animals we have here in NOTL are more characteristic of the Carolina states, and the other southeastern states. People are blown away by the types of animals we have here and the diversity of species. More than 300 birds, 36 reptiles and amphibians, and 1.5 thousand species of plant. The hikers raise their eyebrows, and will hopefully be taking this knowledge home to put Niagara on the map in a different way.
Canada doesn’t often get paired up with words like snakes, tree frogs, or hot summer swims. Our forests along the Escarpment even look like a cut from the Appalachian mountains, somewhere in Virginia perhaps. Summer presents a lush, bright green aura that rivals forests I’ve filmed in the Amazon. This unexpected type of forest, when experienced properly, is likely not the typical image of Canada visitors would have carried.
Another thing I learned, or was quickly reminded of: Kids are built for nature and the outdoors. Their developing minds, hungry hands, and spurts of energy all have a place in the outdoors. It’s almost like their bodies are designed for the tumbles, scrapes, and mud that comes with it. Look no further to see human wonder in its purest form, like when a little kid sees a salamander up close for the first time, or gets to hold a toad. With those little moments happening at such a young age, it restores some hope the future generations can grow up with a mindfulness for the environment. And, that kids are naturally curious about it.
Speaking of kids, it doesn’t matter how old they are getting. I’ve guided a few families where they would book the day off, just to spend quality time together in the outdoors. The simple things.
Be it an eerie swamp, picturesque trees, or stunning views, we can all fully register how captivating a place is when we see it. When you bring up the healthy surprise of “this is in Niagara?” it just adds to the awesomeness of it all. There is something to be said about seeing someone totally taken aback by the presentation of nature.
When hikers return to the trailhead, I only hope these people saw value in Niagara’s “other” backyard, a nationally unique ecosystem. Their excitement and enthusiasm I see on the hikes hopefully spill over into other areas of their lives, and it gets people talking, and then coming back to Niagara.