The Escarpment

The signs that we found at the junction to our campsite were not comforting. We were informed, along with the usual warnings about bears, that the hardest part of our hike was to follow. As proof, there was a string of rope tied to trees that ran down part of the slope towards Georgian Bay, supposedly to assist those who wished to camp below. After a day of soul-soaking  drizzle, swear-inducing rock scrambles, and butt-scooting downclimbs, the sight of the long and vertical descent was almost too much to bear.

Despite difficult hiking, there were many scenic views of Georgain Bay, far below.

Below, some newfound companions were making their way down the slope. The couple had tagged behind us during the more difficult sections, and we bonded over the terrain. Having passed us as we ate, I could now see that they were just as tired as we were. The rain and fatigue had turned each step into a puzzle and a decision hours ago.

The rope was at an awkward height, and it proved too low to truly help with the descent. Nevertheless, I creeped down, thankful for any surface resembling horizontal. The trees that anchored the line moved in their place more than seemed natural, as their roots struggled to find purchase in the thin, tilted soil. The rope was soaked from the drizzle, but the surface was sharp like gripping a round metal file. I had packed away my trekking poles so I could better handle the rope, but soon the rope ended – before it was truly needed.  

Twenty yards below, the other hikers’ progress was at a standstill. An outcrop of rock mixed with a fallen, twisted cedar created what would be the crux of the trail. The problem was that a hiker with a full pack could not twist through and maintain their balance at the same time. Suddenly without the assistance of the rope, I tried to plan a route down to where there looked to be some horizontal looking steps in the roots crossing the trails. The first step away from the rope was a touch too far, and I landed a touch too fast.

Suddenly, I lost my feet.

This steep, rocky terrain was typical for this section of the Bruce Trail. The trail increased in difficulty as we progressed towards our campsite.

The hill that we were climbing down was a temporary break in the vertical cliffs that hang high over Georgian Bay, on the north coast of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula. These cliffs are part of the same ridge that the Niagara River flows over, creating the famous falls some 200 miles to the south.

Extending northward from New York and the Bruce, the Niagara Escarpment leaves mainland Ontario to traverse the length of Manitoulin Island, a two-hour ferry ride to the northwest. The sheer drop of its cliffs continues underwater, creating the illusion that you are sailing off the end of a continental shelf – in the middle of an inland lake, many hundreds of miles from the nearest saltwater coastline.

As the escarpment continues through the Great Lake Region, it is easy to follow on the map. From the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island, the escarpment swings to the west across the southern coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and then south through Michigan’s Garden Peninsula, across the mouth of Green Bay to make Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula.

This near-perfect arch of promontories, cliffs, islands, and peninsulas mark the coastline of an ancient tropical sea, whose underlying continental plates have since migrated north to where they sit today. This same sea would later be responsible for the formation of the famous Petoskey stones that are found along the Lower Peninsula’s northern shores.

As I half sat, half laid on the slope where I fell, I reassured our concerned companions ahead that I was fine, without knowing whether or not I actually was. I knew that I hadn’t slipped far, about as much as you might if you missed the top step to your front porch. Mia was too far above me to help me up, as I had just watched her start down the roped section. Even if she was next to me, it was too steep to get the leverage to haul my ass up anyway.

This orchid, Yellow Lady’s Slipper, could be found along the sides of the trail.

Next to me, a rock the size and shape of a slice of pie stuck out of the side of the trail, oddly pointed where every other rock was weathered and rounded. In the moment of adrenaline and embarrassment, I was thankful I had just missed the hazard, though the baseball sized bruise that later developed on my calf would tell a different story.

Visions of level ground and dry clothes filled my mind. The haven of our shared tent had been calling for so long, and yet we were still on this hell of a trail. And now I was on the ground and I needed to be back on my feet. Now. I felt the cushion of my pack against my back as I clambered to get up, feeling like an upturned turtle. Gripping a trailside root, I hoisted myself back on my feet, the waterlogged, tender bark finding purchase under my fingernails.

Once all parties squeezed through the bottleneck of rock just before the campground, Mia and I hung our food bag, used the privy, and climbed to our tent site. Which was, of course, perched a third of the way back up the slope, a final insult to an onslaught of a day.

This section of the Bruce Trail showed off the overhanging cliffs that make up the eastern shore of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.

The rain-weathered rocks that weaved through our ridgetop route is called dolostone, formed some 430 million years ago in a time that geologists call the Silurian. In the Silurian, a world map would’ve looked very different than it does today. The vast supercontinent called Gondwana covered the southern hemisphere, centered around the south pole. Further to the north and near the equator were several smaller continents, one of which is called Laurentia.

As sea levels rose and fluctuated, Laurentia’s new seas also fluctuated and changed composition many times. Sometimes it evaporated to leave massive salt deposits, and sometimes it left behind fossilized coral reefs, producing a great variety of fossils. By the Silurian, the seas had stabilized enough to produce a thick layer of limestone and dolostone, which proved to be tougher and more weather resistant than some of the other layers around it.

Eventually, the shallow sea would bury these layers and eventually dry up. Laurentia would smash into other continents, eventually creating the supercontinent known around the world over, Pangaea. As destructive and transformative events occurred throughout the ages, the rock layers created by those shallow seas were protected from much of the mountain building that was occurring on the edge of the continent, waiting to be uncovered by the ice ages of the last few million years.

Back at the base of our hill, I emerged from the dark and dripping trees to a foggy, pebble strewn beach. I approached the lapping water, removed my trail runners and socks, rolled up my pantlegs, and gingerly made my way toward the sea. The pebbles were not pebbles but stones, perfectly rounded and oval and a good size for throwing. They shifted under my bare feet, and oh how they ached my troubled feet as I struggled to keep balance with each step. Striking an awkward pose, I let each wave fill my filter bag ever so slightly more, keeping a rhythm with the waves to keep my progress from spilling out between crests.

I sat down on a piece of driftwood and tried to memorize the view in front of me. Behind me and to each side high cedars were shrouded in the mist, elevated by the landscape. Ahead of me, the waters of Georgian Bay blended with the sky, erasing the horizon. I was quite amazed by this landscape, as its ruggedness and beauty had caught me by surprise. I had not expected to be in the midst of such ancient cliffs or even the swirls of fog that drifted over them.  

Back at camp, we ate hiker calzones of tomato paste and cheese sticks on tortillas and struggled to start our day. We were to hike straight up the scarp and follow the same ridgeline as the day before, over the same ledges and slopes that gave us so much trouble the night before. Overcoming inertia, we set out, each step lifting our spirts as we progressed towards the warm, dry haven of a motel by the bay.

This hike was part of the Bruce Trail, an 890 km (530 mi) footpath and hiking trail that extends from Tobermory to Niagara Falls, Ontario. The entire length of the trail roughly follows the Niagara Escarpment as it stretches between the two towns. Our section hike was an out-and-back portion from Halfway Log Dump parking area to High Dump backcountry campground in Bruce Peninsula National Park. Our original plan was to extend the out-and-back in order to camp at Stormhaven backcountry campground, but dropped the second night on account of the difficulty of our first two days.

The rough terrain caught us by surprise, and while it was within our abilities, it was more scrambling than we had ever seen. The rain made all of the rocks we were going over very slick, and it quickly wore us out as we navigated them. After it was all said and done, we came away with a new appreciation for the rock scramble, and wished immediately to see more of the same, though perhaps in drier conditions.

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