I wasn’t sure what awaited me at the top as I spider-climbed over a hodgepodge of roots, rocks and mud.
Uphill, all I could see were more roots, more rocks and more mud. And trees. I stopped and wiped perspiration from my eyebrows and forehead. It was hot. I gazed skyward through the loosely woven canopy of maple trees overhead, shielding speckled rays of sun from my eyes. Was I still on the trail? And where were the caves? The caves were the reason I had come. I dug out a ragged map from my shirt pocket and approximated my position . . . along an illegible, blurry crease in the map. I ran my finger across the fold. I was somewhere in the middle; somewhere between here and there.
The Bruce Trail runs an uninterrupted course for over 800 km along the leading edge of the Niagara Escarpment — from the U.S. border near Buffalo, through the middle of southern Ontario, to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula which separates Georgian Bay from Lake Huron. To trek its full length would take a month of eight-hour days on the trail. Along its course, many hundreds of side trails of varying degrees of difficulty explore the diverse and unique beauty of the escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
I had chosen a site less than two hours northwest from Toronto by car. Nottawasaga Lookout Provincial Nature Reserve is a small 120-hectare polygon of land straddling the Niagara Escarpment 15 minutes south of Collingwood. With cliff, cave, crevice and ravine habitats, along with forested slopes and wetlands, a short hike through Nottawasaga Lookout offered an amazing cross-section of escarpment flora, fauna and topography.
The reserve's entrance was easily found following simple directions out of Collingwood. On the trail I came to an immediate fork. Map instructions described a three-kilometre loop attempted in one of two ways. I took the right fork which meant a long, gentle zigzag down the escarpment followed by an abrupt ascent through steep topography to the original level. Listed as "strenuous," the hike should take no more than two hours.
The first part of the hike — quite literally — was a stroll in the park. The mature maple forest had shaded out and killed off early succession tree scrub (including large tracts of white birch, the rotting trunks of which criss-crossed the ground in sections), offering great visibility in all directions. The trail was predominantly flat with the odd rock and root to keep one's eyes focussed both forward and down. Berry-laden animal scat was encountered which insinuated the presence of black bear but was probably just the calling card of raccoon, porcupine or skunk. The most diverse ecosystem in Ontario, the Niagara Escarpment is home to over 350 species of birds, and many scores of mammals, amphibians and reptiles, including the Massasauga rattlesnake. Not surprisingly my ruminations focussed on forest denizens more terrestrial than avian as I walked.
As the trail wound downwards, I passed a shallow stream that trickled easily over greyish-white sediment and moss-covered rocks. I put my hand in the cool water and rubbed a small amount of the sediment between my fingers, temporarily clouding the water. I was looking at the death of mountains in the flesh: the incessant, abrasive and eternal act of erosion.
More than 400 million years ago during the Silurian period, the Niagara Escarpment of today was the shoreline of a shallow inland sea stretching from New York to Nevada (most of North American as it existed then was underwater). As this vast body of saltwater dried up, a mixture of chemical compounds formed a hard, protective layer, or "capstone," of dolomite rock. Over millions of years (erosion's goal: reduce all landforms to sea level) the capstone eroded at a slower rate than the surrounding landscape. This disparate action — called differential erosion — created two distinct levels. But erosion wasn't done. Not by a long shot. The capstone may have protected the top of the escarpment, but not the sides. I would soon stumble upon the result of this vulnerability.
I came upon a small sign that identified a point of interest called Standing Rock. Its top obscured by tree-cover, this giant, boxcar-sized rock had long ago crashed down the escarpment and come to rest, bizarrely and improbably, on its end. As I looked up at the curious sight my inclination was that it was probably best not to linger too long in its shadow. All around, many other rocks of varying, but lesser size littered the site. Erosion was attacking the softer underbelly of the escarpment from the side, undercutting the capstone, which was coming apart from the mountain and falling off in these chunks. Further up the trail the same large-scale erosional process had created "slit" or "side" caves that I had read about and was anxious to see.
After scrambling up the hill for a few minutes, I found myself surrounded by large boulders and slabs of rock propped up against each other at odd angles. One could crawl into these small cavities, but they were certainly not the caves that I had expected. I thought that perhaps I was off track so I checked my map, again. I returned back down to Standing Rock. I would recalibrate from there.
I heard voices coming from the hill. Excited voices. Maybe they'd seen a snake. In a few minutes a middle-aged couple reached the bottom of the hill and emerged from behind a rock, walking up to where I stood.
"Anything exciting that way?" the woman gestured in the direction from which I had come.
"A nice walk, some trees, it's great," I replied.
She made a face. Disappointed.
"And up the hill?" I asked, cautiously.
"The caves . . . they're just . . . man . . . get up there . . . go!" they said in spurts, alternately.
My ascent was efficient and brief. Not far from where I had capitulated earlier I came upon the downward edge of a massive rock face. It was brightened from indirect sunlight but cold to the touch. After my fingers found purchase in its rugged contours, I pulled myself up and into a body-width gap that separated it from another rock face further uphill. The gap continued away from me into darkness, but also upwards into light. It wasn't a rock face. These were two giant rectangular boulders of Standing Rock dimension, perpendicular to the fall line, separated by a half-metre crevasse. A mature tree had fallen into the crevasse and was propped up midway by a pile of rocks. A natural ramp. With my hands against each side of the rock I was able to walk up the tree trunk between boulders. The tree allowed me to get just close enough to scramble up onto the uphill boulder. Its top was billiard table flat; a majestic ten-metre high pulpit. I walked to each side and looking over into darkness. Looking up the mountain, I saw similar sections of rock and shadow wending uphill, partially obscured by trees.
A giant rock labyrinth.
I scrambled back down the tree trunk, mindful of footwork (and not inadvertently becoming a cautionary tale for others). Heading up the escarpment again I squeezed through a thicket of young cedars and came upon a cascade of wet rocks descending into the mountain like the entrance to a catacomb. I stepped slowly and deliberately over the rocks and was ushered into darkness. The rock staircase leveled out onto a long corridor, maybe three metres by 20, enclosed by rock walls that soared up into dense tree cover. Only a rumour of light made it through the trees. It was cool, easily 10 degrees colder than where I had just been, almost as if one were leaning into a refrigerator. And this was midday during summer.
As my eyes adjusted I could see a constellation of starfish-ferns adorning the rock walls above me. Vigilant, mute sentinels in crepuscular dimness. Everything was luxuriant with verdant overgrowth, like a Mayan temple, undiscovered. A tiny orchid sprung from tangled moss. Stillness. Silence. An ancient smell emanated from other realms, other worlds.
From where I stood, the far end of the corridor looked sealed, self contained. I walked its length and discovered a tight crevasse that hinted at something else. I shuffled sideways through the crevasse, one hand feeling where I was going, the other to keep my face from hitting rock. In three or four metres I entered upon another corridor, parallel to the one I had just left. At the end of that corridor, another crevasse, another corridor. Bedroom, kitchen, bath, I thought. Bit of a fixer-upper.
I was in no hurry to leave.
In the bowels of erosion's factory the mountain was fighting time and failing, groaning apart over eons, releasing Silurian ghosts from the bonds of eternity.
And only two hours from Toronto.