Hockley Valley, Ontario - A 2,000- footer in southern Ontario? Well, maybe not one continuous climb, but that's mountaineering in this part of the world. You have to take what you can get.
Albertans have their magnificent Rockies, but for Ontario hikers looking for a good, long walk uphill, the choices are pretty limited. There are no snow-capped peaks, but we do have places like Hockley Valley, where you can at least quell a craving for pumped calves and fresh mountain (or big hill) air.
Situated east of Orangeville, the Hockley Valley offers a near-wilderness experience less than an hour from Toronto. My expedition partner, Chinook, a young Siberian husky, and I are taking on the Hockley Valley Loop, a challenging 25-kilometre route up - and down - the valley's highest points through its nature reserve and into the fine scenery of the headwaters region.
On a quiet gravel road, we make our initial approach up the southern slope of the valley to the Bruce Trail access point. My legs are slightly cramped from driving, and it feels good to walk in the crisp morning air. Chinook, as usual, pulls out in front, dragging me along like a wet bale of hay.
In the shade of maples, the path leads us westward, climbing narrow valleys. The blue sky appears only when we reach a grassy plateau where the ski lifts for Hockley Valley Resort sit idle. Below us, the valley opens up in bands of green forest and fields dotted with wooden barns and grazing livestock. Centuries ago, County Road 7, which runs parallel to the Nottawasaga River, was a First Nations trail later used as a settlement route by pioneer families.
At 4th Line, we descend into a grove of cedar trees along a path surrounded by ferns and white trilliums. The expedition halts when Chinook wades into a fast-running stream and decides it's time for a rest. While I nibble on crackers and toss him a doggie biscuit, a look at the map shows we're still far from accomplishing our goal. My partner tends to be a bit pushy, so it's not long before we're going up a sharp slope out of the forest and down through fields of long grass, eventually crossing the Nottawasaga.
Our ascent of the valley's northern slopes takes us into the 900-acre Hockley Valley Provincial Nature Reserve and a roller-coaster ride of steep valleys, hardwood forests and creeks lined with cedars. In higher areas, tall maple trees form a canopy above us like the ceiling of a great cathedral.
On the Glen Cross Side Trail, the landscape is sparser, with pine trees that grow well in the sandy soil. I've always been impressed by the quality of the trails in this area, a reflection of the dedicated efforts of the Caledon Hills Bruce Trail Club.
In the steeper sections, I prefer a slow, steady pace and immersing myself in the sensation of fighting gravity and pushing forward. For all the clichés about climbing mountains, there is truth in its power to soothe the soul. After many failed indoor attempts at stillness, inclines are my preferred mode of grinding meditation.
In the middle of the Snell Loop, we break at a pond where an osprey glides overhead and then turns back into the trees. We're out of the nature reserve, and the landscape is opening up into grassy meadows and clusters of thorny bushes. The wooden bridges and refreshing creeks are behind us on our long, gradual incline out of the valley toward Dunby Road.
Walking east along 15th Sideroad to hook up with the Hockley Heights trail, I'm feeling the cumulative effects of so many ups and downs in one day. Chinook, though still eager, has even dropped back and is trotting beside me. The gravel road passes scenic cottages and lavish horse farms and leads us to the side trail at the Anderson forest tract. After winding between tall pines on a series of thin ridges, a quick descent takes us into a hardwood forest and the steepest climbs yet.
Just when you think the hardest sections are over, you hit these hard uphills. Chinook seems to have gotten his second wind, because as I inch my way up, the leash tightens suddenly and he's out in front again. A sandy slope finally brings us up to 5th Sideroad and into the home stretch to the car.
At the end of the trail, Chinook wallows in the Nottawasaga while I rest in the shade, savouring the relaxed state of being physically worn out. That's the exhilarating part of a good incline, but there's also the simple pleasure of forcing yourself to slow down and allowing your life to unfold one step at a time.