When Denise Falk and Cathy Andres were working, they made a pledge to each other that when they retired, they would hike the Bruce Trail together.
They had both walked portions of the trail, and liked the idea of doing it from one end to the other, although not all at once.
The teacher-librarians met early in their careers when they taught at Colonel John Butler in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and remained friends as they moved around to other elementary schools, including Parliament Oak, St. Davids, Crossroads, and others around the region.
Now retired, they are fulfilling their goal to hike the trail end to end, all 900 km of it, from Queenston Heights to Tobermory.
They started in Queenston April 3, 2019, with no set plan or end date in mind, just a goal of walking weekly, when the weather is decent and it fits into their schedules.
There was an unplanned 10-month hiatus that began when they decided to take a break during last winter’s harsh weather, says Falk, that ran into COVID-19, when the trail was closed.
They resumed when they could, and last week, after a 15-kilometre hike through a new snowfall that ended at Limehouse Conservation area, they had completed a total of 238 km.
They hope to have good days to hike through the winter, as long as the weather allows. Their concerns are the deep fissures sometimes beside the trail, and icy, slippery patches.
“We sometimes have to do the ‘old lady shuffle,’ says Falk, and at 56, and Andres 58, falling could be dangerous, especially on a remote section of the trail, where cell phone service is unreliable.
They also stopped for a couple of months in the summer, when the ticks were bad. “One day on the way home we had ticks crawling all over us.”
They plan their hikes in advance, looking at the best days weather-wise, and also so they know where they will finish.
They’ve hiked through thunder and lightning, sleet and rain, and come out of the forest “soaking wet and covered in mud,” says Falk, “although this has been a beautiful fall.”
When they began their treks, they would take two cars, parking one at each end. Now, when the drives are about an hour and a half to get to the portion they’re hiking, that doesn’t make sense, so they drive together, park, and then take an Uber back to their car when they’re done.
“We have our masks and hand sanitizers,” Falk says, and with the exception of one “crazy experience” with a driver who took them in the wrong direction, and wouldn’t pull over or turn around when they asked him to, their system has worked out well.
“We let our families know where we were, in case they were looking for bodies,” jokes Falk, who thinks weak cell phone coverage was the problem, along with an inexperienced driver, who seemed to be afraid for some reason that he wouldn’t get paid. “It was a very strange ride, very bizarre. The more we thought about it afterwards, the more disturbing it was. We were very glad we had each other.”
They typically walk about four hours, taking their time to take a lot of photos, she says.
“At the beginning, we walked like we were on a mission. But now we try to remember to stop and enjoy the view. There are beautiful views along the way.”
They take backpacks, and will take breaks for a bite to eat — usually a sandwich, with some fruit and nuts. They also have some bandaids in their pack, but Falk adds they will start carrying matches, “to make a little fire if one of us gets hurt.”
So far the worst that’s happened was a twisted ankle for Andres. “We realize we’re not 25 any more. We’re really careful, but the trail can be rugged, rocky and sometimes pretty remote.”
They have their cell phones, which work in most areas, but they’ve had a couple of occasions where cell coverage has been limited, says Falk. “We use Bruce Trail maps and guides, and we have all the trail apps. We use them to plan our hikes, and to make sure we’re on the right trail.”
“Sometimes we’re not,” says Andres. “We’ve made a few wrong turns.”
Although the trail is generally well-marked, sometimes the signs are missing, but by and large, says Andres, the trails are “exceptionally well-maintained by volunteers. If there is a wind storm, by the next day, the trail has been cleared.”
Falk says to her, the hikes have shown how important it is to have natural spaces close to urban areas, for all to enjoy. She’s concerned about recent proposals to change Ontario legislation that will undermine the protection of conservation areas. “This is such a beautiful thing we have here, that’s been maintained and cared for all these years. I’d hate to lose it.”
Andres points to the heritage that has been protected, such as the limestone kilns and ruins they came across on their hike last week, and worries about zoning changes that are impacting significant wetlands.
They both agree they are grateful for the private property owners who allow access to the trails that cross their property, and maintain them for public use.
“Often the trail will be marked as private property, and we’re asked to stay on the trail. We send out a grateful thank you to the property owners for allowing us to be there,” says Andres.
COVID restrictions have encouraged families and individuals to be active, and to get out and walk together, adds Falk, and point to how important it is to continue protecting natural areas such as the Bruce Trail.
For the two friends to be able to get out and walk has been “physically, mentally and spiritually energizing, ” says Falk. “Especially now, being out on the trail has been a lifesaver.”
In addition to the exercise they get, it gives them a chance to talk about “anything and everything. We have to watch our step, but we talk all the time. We joke that we haven’t seen much wildlife lately. Animals can hear us coming.”
As teacher-librarians, they both like to read, and talk about books, she says.
Andres also lists philosophy, policies and family as topics for discussing, along with the plants they see, sometimes stopping to use their phones to identify what they’re looking at.
But they also take moments to be still, Falk says. “It’s important to listen to the sounds around us.”
Their walks have become a “critical component” of staying healthy and positive during COVID, Andres agrees.
And for both, it’s felt good to set a goal for themselves, and work toward achieving it.
Finishing is important, although how long it takes is not a concern, says Andres.
“We don’t have a date in mind. We just want to finish, although by then we might need someone to push us across the finish in a wheelchair,” she jokes.
“Hopefully it’s while we can still walk,” says Falk. “We know it will take a few years, with all the stuff that comes up in life. We’re not going to rush it. It will take as long as it takes.”