Hiking With Friends

I’m heading off the beaten path in this blog with a personal memoir, a little gift to good friends – but you can come along too, if you like. A few weeks ago, we hiked at a favourite location, the Torrance Barrens in the Lake Muskoka region. It’s a place I visit regularly and blog about, too – and indeed, it’s a spot my hiking gang has visited a few times before, using our cottage as lodging. What’s significant, for me, is that this year’s walk represented the 25th year my husband and I set aside a weekend in autumn to hike with the group. For it was October 1993 when we were invited “in” and posed, below, near the famous Bruce Trail in Beaver Valley, Ontario – a suitable christening for a pair of novice hikers (I’m in the hat, he’s in the yellow jacket) as we slogged through forest and field in cold, pouring rain.

1993-Beaver Valley-hikers

The Bruce Trail has been our favourite hiking venue, and we’ve slowly bitten off chunks of its 890 kilometre (553 mile) length,

Bruce Trail

… all the way from the spectacular Lion’s Head Provincial Park up on the Bruce Peninsula overlooking Georgian Bay way back in 1994….

1994-Lion's Head Provincial Park

….where we took turns posing on the rugged Amabel dolostone (limestone) cliffs high above the water – capstone that was the bottom of a shallow limestone sea some 420 million years ago…

1994-Lion's Head-limestone cliffs

…..and ate our picnic lunch, as was our custom, on the rocks overlooking the water……


…. to the Niagara Gorge at its south end, in 1995.

1995-The Niagara Gorge

In 1996, we ventured off the Bruce Trail and headed to Pelee Island for the weekend. Later, as Lake Erie waves crashed onto shore, we strolled the sand at Point Pelee, Canada’s most southerly point of land.

1996-Point Pelee-Hiking

1998 saw us head east to ‘the County’, i.e. Prince Edward County and Picton, Ontario – just emerging then as the choice destination it has become since then. There we found a particularly picturesque bed & breakfast called The Apple Basket Inn (sadly no longer there)….

1998-Apple Basket-Inn-Picton

…. and lovely scenery nearby, including actual apple baskets at Hughes’ Orchards!

1998-Hughes' Orchard-Picton

2004 was a special year, when we hiked the tropical hills of Mustique in the Caribbean, courtesy of John & Anne. This is the view of Britannia Bay….

2004-Mustique-Brittania Bay

….. and this is the view of Bryan Adam’s house!  (Honestly, we did hike….)

2004-Mustique-Bryan Adam's House

In 2006, we were back on the Bruce Trail over the forks of the Credit River in Caledon….

2006-Caledon-Forks of the Credit River

…. where the group posed for my camera.

2006-Hiking Group-Forks of Credit

The year 2007 saw us beginning our Saturday hike under a rainbow in Collingwood…..


….before hiking the Bruce Trail in the Owen Sound area.  It rained that year, as we slogged our way through a carpet of sugar maple leaves in Sydenham Forest.

2007-Sydenham Forest-hikers-Bruce Trail

The glacial potholes in the Sydenham forest were so fascinating, created from the action of glacial melt-water roughly 12,000 years ago, their damp walls home to maidenhair and provincially rare hart’s tongue ferns.

2007-Glacial Pothole-Sydenham forest-Bruce Trail

The most spectacular sight was Inglis Falls, which was the site of an 1840s grist mill.

2007-Inglis Falls-Bruce Trail

Looking back at our picnic lunch in the rain that day, I recall that we were not going to let the rigors of the hike derail our South Beach diet!


In 2008, we again hosted the hikers at Lake Muskoka where I’d asked Orillia naturalist and mycologist Bob Bowles (navy cap) to give us a walking seminar on mushrooms.

2008-Mushroom Lessons-Lake-Muskoka-Bob Bowles

Though the forest floor on our peninsula was laden with maple and beech leaves by that point in October, we were able to key 29 species of mushrooms.

2008-Lake Muskoka-Page's Point-Beech Bracket Fungus

We also hiked the Torrance Barrens that year, where the blueberry bushes were bright red and the paper birch skeletons shimmering white.

2008-Torrance Barrens-beaver pond

We eased into our 2009 hiking weekend in Prince Edward County with a wine-tasting personally conducted by Norman Hardie at his renowned vineyard.

2009-Norman Hardie-Wine-tasting

We all enjoyed a sip — best be prepared ahead of a hiking trip!

2009-Wine-Tasting-Norman Hardie Wines

The next day, when we hiked the soaring dunes of Sandbanks Provincial Park….

2009-Sandbanks Provincial Park

….. where some found time to wade in the waters of Lake Ontario…..

2009-Sandbanks Provincial Park-hikers

… I did a little botanizing, and  was thrilled to see fringed gentians (Gentianopsis crinita) in flower.

2009-Gentianopsis crinita-Fringed gentian-Sandbanks

In 2010, we headed back to Niagara, but this time we walked about 10 kilometres (6 miles) of the Niagara River Parkway…..

2010-Niagara River Parkway

….where the view of the river was spectacular…..

2010-Niagara River

….before getting into our cars (ah, the magic of the pre-parked cars!) and driving to Ravine Vineyard for lunch.

2010-Niagara Ravine Vineyard

In 2012, we hiked near Susan’s beautiful farm…..


….. where we sat for a group photo (again, of most of us, but not quite all).


As with many of our hikes, we enjoyed brilliant fall colour – here of Susan’s gorgeous paper birch…..

2012-Paper Birch-Betula papyrifera-fall colour

In 2014, we bunked in at Anne and Bob’s in Collingwood, and headed out on the Kolapore trail, which Bob helps maintain.

2014-Kolapore sign

Though it sometimes feels like a dark cathedral of trees as we hike amidst thousands of slender trunks of sugar maple, beech and birch….

2014-Kolapore hiking

…. it’s good to look up occasionally, and see fall-coloured leaves fluttering against the autumn sky.


The trail that year was muddy in places – there was the odd little spill…..


The vegetation was wonderful: here are hart’s tongue ferns (Asplenium scolapendrium), quite rare in the region.

2014-harts-tongue ferns-Asplenium scolopendrium

Though non-native, it’s always a treat to see watercress (Nasturtium officinale) in a clean, moving stream.


In 2015, eight of us decided to pack our bags and head to a different kind of forest for our autumn hike: a rain forest. In Costa Rica!

2015-Beach Trail sign-El Remanso Lodge-Osa Peninsula-Costa Rica

And do you know how mother nature makes a rain forest? That’s right…….

Let’s just say our hiking attire was a little lighter than normal, given the almost total humidity and warm temperatures.

2015-Felix-Long Hike-El Remanso

Five of us did the zip-line through the jungle. I chickened out but served as the documentary photographer.


(I wrote  a special blog about El Remanso Lodge on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, if you want to read a little more.)

In 2016, we hiked the Mad River Side Trail near Glen Huron, Ontario. The colours were spectacular.


Here’s a video I made of that lovely hike along the Mad River.

When we arrived at the base of the Devil’s Glen Ski Club to have lunch, I made a group shot, (well, most of us and one guest – a few had wandered away) and just managed to get myself back into the frame before the shutter clicked.

2016-Hiking Group-Devils Glen

Heading back to our lodging, we stopped at an apple stand and stocked up on Northern Spy apples, my favourite for pies and crisps.

2016-Spy Apples-Glen Huron

Which brings me to this year, the 25th edition of our hike, when we once again met in Muskoka and walked the beautiful Torrance Barrens.  We marvelled at the fluffy white clouds reflected in Highland Pond….

2017-Highland-Pond-Clouds-Torrance Barrens

…and noted the tamaracks (Larix laricina) at the water’s edge.

2017-Pine-Sumac-Tamarack-Torrance Barrens

Bob pointed out aspects of geology, as in ‘this is gneiss, not pure granite’.


We walked past my favourite paper birch….

2017-Paper birch-Torrance Barrens

…..and saw the fluffy cotton grass (Eriophorum vaginatum) flanking the bog.


The little bridge over the small pond is sinking in the middle and necessitated a ‘one-at-a-time’ rule.


It’s always fun to stop and look at the erratic boulder left behind when the ice retreated, and it appears that Alex Tilley, founder of Tilley Hats, agreed. This little interpretive sign was paid for by Tilley, whom I’ve seen hiking the Barrens.

2017-Erratic-Precambrian Shield-Torrance Barrens

With so much rain this summer and autumn, many parts of the path were waterlogged and Bob (the veteran trail groomer) pointed out drier spots to navigate.

2017-Water on trail-Torrance Barrensl

We crossed Southwood Road and finished our hike in the deeper soil of a forest….

2017-Hikers-in-oaks-Torrance Barrens

….featuring bracken ferns and beautiful red oaks.

2017-Red Oak-Torrance Barrens

A tiny red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) was on the path (it’s only my lens that makes it look huge) – one of many reptiles I’ve photographed in the Barrens over the years.

2017-Red-bellied snake-Torrance Barrens

And at the end of the trail, we posed for our traditional photo (minus four who couldn’t be with us this year).  Over a quarter-century, we’ve seen our children grow up, marry, change jobs, and have their own kids. We’ve talked about books, theatre, food, health and travel to faraway places. We’ve lost spouses or partners, and felt the comfort of the friends who knew them well. And we’ve welcomed new partners to the group and made them feel welcome and loved. It is a simple thing to do, walking a trail, and it reminds us that we need nature – and the company of friends – to live full lives.

2017-Hiking Group-Torrance Barrens


In memory of Murray, Tim and Jim.

The Torrance Barrens – My Sacred Place

I would like to take you on a midsummer hike with me.  We’re going to my sacred place — I hope that’s okay with you. Don’t worry: there are no pews or altars or holy water fonts.  But there is holy water, lots of it.  It seeps from underground springs and is cleansed by the roots of innumerable wetland plants, until it shimmers blue and crystal-clear under the sun. We’re at the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve about 12 kilometers (8 miles) from my cottage on Lake Muskoka in central Ontario. If you’re a red-tailed hawk flying overhead (or me in the little old yellow Cessna I hitched a ride in a few autumns back), this is what the ‘parking lot’ looks like from the air. It’s a magical expanse of ancient Precambrian Shield that comprises the bedrock or basement layer of the North American craton.

Aerial view-Torrance Barrens

Have a little read of the sign so I can skip the long explanation, okay?

Torrance Barrens - sign

Oh, and here’s the other sign. They tacked on a warning for the city folks, bottom left.  As usual, I forgot the bear bells today, but I’ve never seen one in here.  Just a very big pawprint in a mud puddle once…….

Torrance Barrens-bear country

I walk in along my normal route, always beginning near the pyramidal rock overlooking Highland Pond.  It’s on the flat granite south of the pond where, of a dark mid-August evening, you can see (or not see, rather, it’s so dark) hundreds of people lying back to watch the Perseid meteor showers.  I’ve come out on a few of those evenings (usually the anniversary of the great power blackout of August 2003), when the big telescopes and amateur and pro astronomers are trying to out-Hubble each other.

Rock & Sumacs at Torrance Barrens

As defined in its conservation plan, Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve is “a large area of low relief, sparsely forested bedrock barrens interspersed with numerous lakes and wetlands.” Highland Pond, one of the largest bodies of water in the Barrens is a shallow, linear leftover of the glacial lakes that once overlay the granite here.  Between it and the rock on which I am standing are floating fens – though most people refer to them as bogs, of various sedge and fern meadows growing up through peat. Fens are defined as “peat-forming wetlands that receive nutrients from sources other than precipitation: usually from upslope sources through drainage from surrounding mineral soils and from groundwater movement. Fens differ from bogs because they are less acidic and have higher nutrient levels. They are therefore able to support a much more diverse plant and animal community.”  (EPA) Fens can be herbaceous or woody, and there is a mix in the Barrens.

Balsam firs & cotton grass-Highland Pond

The beavers have been active here recently, killing the tamaracks (Larix laricina) I used to photograph in all their golden glory in autumn.

Beaver damage

Circling around the south end of the bog at the pond edge, I see in the distance what I’m sure is a hawk, but it’s only a beaver-felled tree stump, its “feathers” are fungi.  It’s surrounded by typical fen and bog plants: leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) being the most common, with Virginia chain fern (Woodwardia virginica), upper left, growing in vast fern meadows.

Leatherleaf & Chain fern meadow

And there’s an abundance of our native fragrant water lily (Nymphaea odorata) in the standing water.

Nymphaea odorata - fragrant water lily

You can be in the Torrance Barrens for a fast 20-minute turnaround or follow a number of elliptical trails through the 4,707 acres.   Plan on three hours if you hike the Pine Ridge Loop (I accidentally took some out-of-town visitors on the long loop, and they really doubted me when I said I was sure we’d be back by evening.)  I’ve brought a picnic lunch with me today, so we can get a taste of the place in an hour or so.

Trail Map I try to make at least one trip to the Barrens each season, often coming with the family in autumn and winter as well.  The photo below was December 28, 2011 – a bitterly cold afternoon with a fierce west wind and my long afternoon shadow stretching towards the family as they walked very quickly to keep warm.

Hiking the barrens in winter We didn’t last long that day, but it was utterly spectacular after a fresh snowfall, and completely empty of people. Contrast that with the hordes of crazed shoppers searching out bargains in the shopping malls between Christmas and New Years.

Torrance Barrens in winter

Crossing the rocks now in August, I smell the familiar fragrance of sweet fern (Comptonia perigrina), which is a low shrub, not a fern.  I give the leaves a rub to release the aromatic oils.

Sweet fern-Comptonia peregrina

The path circles the pond under white pines and red oaks, typical of our part of Muskoka. All around the pond is the fen mat with its different sedges and special plants.  I’ve photographed various orchids and iris (I. versicolor) on these mats.

Torrance Barrens-fen in summer

It’s beautiful in autumn too.  This was November 17, 2012.

Torrance Barrens-fen in autumn

This is the point where I like to check the boggy edges of the fen for pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea).  I’m not disappointed, as just a few strides out is a lovely specimen waiting for its insect lunch.

Sarracenia purpurea

Bogs and fen mats are incredibly complex ecosystems with dozens of different species vying for space.  As such, they are extremely sensitive to being downtrodden by people, but I need to move in just a little to photograph the pitcher plant  So I take my flip-flops off and step as lightly as possible.  It’s an impossibly delicious sensation, the cool water of the sphagnum sponge soaking the sole of my foot.  As soon as I have my shot, I back out onto the granite. But I won’t forget the feeling.

Barefoot in the bog

Out on the hot rock, wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) grows in a bit of shade.  Naturally, I pluck the ripest berry.  It’s quite delicious, for a seedy little thing that I ignore when it grows by the weedy hundreds in filtered sunlight on my own sandy hillside.

Blackberry-Rubus allegheniensis

Dragonflies and damselflies are plentiful near the wetland. This is the common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) resting on a fern.

Blue damselfly- Enallagma cyathigerum

Nearby is the big paper birch (Betula papyrifera) that I greet each time I visit.  I photographed it just after rosy dawn one autumn more than ten years ago and the canvas print (right) graces one of the walls of my cottage.  I would say this birch is living on borrowed time, given the beaver population in the Barrens.

Paper Birch

Whoops. This is the old path…… Water finds its own way in nature, always, and we’ve had lots of rain this year.  The reality is that wetlands are ever-shifting in terms of the ratio of water and terra firma.  Best to find another way, however…..

Path under water

After searching around a bit, I find the familiar white-painted trail markers on bedrock.  I know this part of the Barrens like the back of my hand, but there’s nothing scarier than running out of trail markers deep inside 4,707 acres.

Path marker

Sometimes, where’s there’s just a bit of water to negotiate, the path features a rustic little plank bridge.

Plank bridge

A few minutes later and I’ve arrived at my favourite place, a curving wood bridge over a small pond, nestled under the granite ridge that forms the high backbone of the Barrens.

Torrance Barrens-wetland pond This bridge always figures in our seasonal walks here (except winter, when the deep snow prevents us getting in this far).  But autumn is lovely, too.

November in the barrens2

It’s a good spot to sit down and have a little solitary picnic and listen to the bullfrogs…..

Bridge lounging-Torrance Barrens

…gaze at the water lilies and get a closeup view of some of the more unusual wetland plants, like the arching swamp loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus), shown here with the fluffy flowers of cotton grass (Eriophorum virginicum).

Swamp Loosestrife-Decodon verticillatus

I’m thrilled to see a viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) ovipositing on a willow shrub nearby.

Viceroy ovipositing on willow

And what’s this? Another native carnivorous plant: the spatulate-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia) busy digesting another tasty fly meal.

Drosera intermedia - Torrance Barrens

But my time is running out, so it’s just a short climb up the granite ridge to get the high view before I go.  Throughout the Torrance Barrens, your feet tread on granite estimated to be 1.4 billion years old (from Nick Culshaw, Dalhousie University geology prof.and specialist in the Grenville Province geological region.)  Along the way is a lot of wonderfully kinetic hair grass (Askelia flexuosa).

Hair grass-Deschampsia flexuosa Here’s a little video I made in the Barrens to describe the sound and effect of this lovely native grass, which grows on the rocky hillside behind my own cottage – and in every nook and cranny in the area.  (Thanks to botanist Sue Meades for updating the name of hair grass to Askelia flexuosa from Deschampsia – sadly too late for the video!) 

Tiime to go.  I head out to the parking lot and drive a bit down Southwood Road.  The road features a different type of flora than the plants inside the Barrens. It’s where you find the tall pink fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), buzzing with bees.

Fireweed-Chamerion angustifolium

And the exotic weeds, pretty as they are, like the yellow evening primrose and the red clover mixed in with natives like goldenrod, fleabane and yarrow.  And the trucks, of course. And civilization. Southwood Road Wildflowers