Hamilton - my sole-blazing trek begins in the washroom at the local bus terminal, where I notice an urgent "Save Red Hill Valley" etched in the wall near the toilet paper. Then I'm off to the valley itself, where I get a warm hug from a prophet-like figure with a flowing beard and storm-tossed hair. His name is David Field and he reminds me of God in Michelangelo's Last Judgement. Field was the first of 14 people arrested on charges of trespass and mischief for such high crimes as clinging to trees before they were bulldozed into oblivion. His association with piety doesn't just come from his appearance. He's the guy who pounded a nail through the webbing of his left hand to attach himself to a tree.
This little crew of 20 is set to put foot to pavement to tell Queen's Park it's time for a new environmental assessment. After all, the original approval for the expressway was made back in 1985 before there was a plan to smash an 80-metre-wide hole in the escarpment. The new Liberal government, which claims it has no money, has declared itself ready to fund this environmental monstrosity to the tune of $120 million.
The walk's first happy moments are suddenly marred by the ridge's muddy slopes and the sight of cutting. Here, a mass of dirt and dead trees have replaced what until a few weeks ago was a magnificent, century-old forest of sugar maples. It was one of the most beautiful sights in Ontario's Carolinian zone.
The cutting we have seen so far, however, is only a small part of what may soon begin. Right now the only thing that will halt it in time is an injunction to stop construction on behalf of the Iroquois Confederacy near Brantford, who believe the roadway violates their treaty rights.
As we pass the clear-cut, activist Don McClean evokes the satisfying moment when Cannon Phillip Duran bravely defied the police by walking out into the banned cutting zone. He was soon released when 200 valley defenders encircled the officers' cars.
McClean, an astonishingly fit person for a man who has recovered from a triple-bypass heart operation, leads us at a brisk pace through spectacular groves of intact forest to a new First Nation encampment. It's replaced the protest longhouse police destroyed as a prelude to construction on Greenhill Avenue a few weeks back.
Here archaeologists have dug a few feet down to reveal the outlines of ancient longhouses. Many artifacts have been excavated, but the city of Hamilton denies the claims of Iroquois elders that their ancestors are buried below and will be disturbed by the construction.
We meet the guardian of the new sacred fire, which we are told will be relit later today from the embers of the fire at the former protest site.
Seven kilometres along, at Woodword Avenue, we get our last glance of the valley before Red Hill Creek empties into Burlington Bay. As if to reward us, we are greeted not only be a soaring red tail hawk, but by the glimpse of a rare peregrine falcon and a flock of bufflehead ducks newly arrived from the Canadian Arctic to winter near our warmer waters.
On the second day we breakfast at the Appleby United Church in Burlington. The city council here is the province's opposing efforts to blast another hole in the escarpment for a different expressway, the mid-peninsula corridor. Later, we pilgrims are warmly greeted by the faithful of the Burlington Baptist Church, who provides a solidarity dinner.
One of the organizers is a well tailored septuagenarian and a former Burlington mayor, NDPer Walter Mulkewich. We are accompanied for a while by a local man who explains how Mulkewich got his support. "People in Burlington understood that he would stand up to developers. They didn't want our community to become afflicted by the ugliness of big-box stores like in Mississauga.'
We cross the municipal line from Burlington to Oakville, and stories from eco-activists there aren't as happy. We pass through a subdivision called Lakeside Woods as a local tells me that the site was once a forest. "Until 1997, it was used by Shell to buffer its oil refinery. They sold it to developers. They destroyed habitat for the rare and beautiful red-headed woodpecker." A few minutes later, we pass a well-manicured landscape called Shell Park.
After seeing a blue heron on the marshy shores of Bronte Creek near its Lake Ontario mouth, we stop for a lunch near historical signs that tell us the town was a fishing village until 1950, when the fish died out from over-consumption and pollution.
As we continue along Lakeshore, we pass a cemetery dedicated to the patron saint of lost causes, St. Jude, said to be responsible for reversing situations on the brink of doom. A good omen.
On day four, we depart from the Port Credit Unitarian Church on the south side of the QEW at 9:15 am. Finally, my muscles ragged and my feet shouting, we arrive at in Toronto at 6 pm.
The next day we rally at Queen's Park, where NDP environment critic Marilyn Churley tells the cheering crowd: "Dalton McGuinty promised the Red Hill Expressway. It's one promise we want him to break."