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Meet some of the 1,500 volunteers who go ‘all-in’ to clean up and fix Ontario hiking trails

Many hikers may be unaware of the work that goes into designing and maintaining their favourite paths. Even the rugged Bruce, which stretches along the escarpment from Niagara to Tobermory, Ont., receives regular touch ups from volunteers.

An army of volunteers keep the Bruce Trail's 1,300 kilometres maintained

Two people hold a plank of wood in place on steps in a hill while one pushes rocks under the front of it.

On a recent sunny-but-cool Tuesday in Ancaster, Ont., Kelly Hamilton and Nick Kuret work together to fix a step on an outdoor staircase.

They lift a hefty block of wood and set it into place, remove nearby rocks and pack loose dirt around the front of the step until it is level with the others.

Kuret, wearing a baseball cap and safety vest, places a long metal stake up against the step's corner, while Hamilton, standing wide-legged on the slope, drives it into the dirt using a small metal mallet.

"Usually we have a bigger sledge. I call this the baby one," Hamilton says, chuckling.

Hamilton and Kuret are members of Hamilton's local Bruce Trail club, Iroquoia. They were out with a day in October — one of two days a week in which volunteers maintain hiking trails like this one.

Iroquoia is one of nine Bruce Trail clubs, each responsible for a portion of the Bruce Trail Conservancy's 1,300 kilometres of trails. The Iroquoia club oversees the area between Grimsby and Milton.

Hiking is a popular fall activity in and around Hamilton and Niagara, but many hikers may be unaware of the work that goes into designing and maintaining their favourite paths.

Even the rugged Bruce, which stretches along the escarpment from Niagara to Tobermory, Ont., receives regular touch ups.

"Our whole mission is to provide free public access to the Niagara Escarpment, but we also recognize that has to be done in a controlled fashion so that people … aren't impacting some of the sensitive ecological habitats that the trail runs through," Adam Brylowski, manager of conservation and trail for the Bruce Trail Conservancy, said.

The conservancy has about 1,500 volunteers, he said. They keep an eye on things, and now, with the creation of a new app, can respond to user-reported issues.

At times, maintenance involves re-routing trails to avoid endangered or protected species. It also means ensuring the roughly two-metre width of the trail is free of vegetation, obstacles such as fallen trees are removed, and structures such as bridges and stairs are safe.

Keeping trails clear and accessible

At the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, "nature for all" is a core idea, Adam Christie, director of conservation areas, said. That means making sure there is an opportunity for people of "all skill levels, ages and abilities" to use green space.

A couple years ago, he said, the NPCA started work to create new accessible trails or restore older ones. Christie said the authority finished work at Cave Springs Conservation Area last year, and is completing projects at Rockway and St. Johns this year. At a few hundred metres, some are relatively short, but he said they give more people an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.

The Bruce, Brylowski said, is considered a "wilderness trail" and runs along the rocky escarpment, so it's not considered accessible, nor is it required to meet provincial accessibility standards.

Increase in trail users

With outdoor activities becoming more popular during the pandemic, the NPCA has worked to expand its trail systems, Christie said, formalizing some existing trails, and blocking access to others to keep people on official routes.

"We've seen that major increase [in use] and and we haven't really seen it go down. The popularity is still there."

Meet the people who keep Hamilton's hiking trails in good condition

14 hours ago

Duration 1:25

Featured VideoEvery week, volunteers with the Iroquoia club go out to keep the Bruce Trail near Hamilton clear and safe. Trail development and maintenance director Peter Rumble says anyone can join.

Patrick Connor, who directs the Ontario Trails Council, says more people on trails often means more maintenance is needed. But, he says the intensity of activity is also a factor. Local routes are used for a variety of activities including jogging, cycling, horseback riding, rock climbing and snowshoeing, which can have more impact on the pathways than hiking, he said.

With that use in mind, Connor said trail operators try to design out potential problems by making sure water flows off or away from trails, and ensuring signs keep people on the path and following rules like keeping dogs leashed.

'A ton of planning goes into this'

That day in October, Hamilton and Kuret were among about 15 volunteers working on a leg of the trail around Tiffany Falls.

The staircase they repaired links two sections of trail running parallel along Wilson Street East.

On the same side of the street as Hamilton and Kuret, more volunteers replaced a side log that serves as a guide rail for hikers. On the other side, some cleared out a drainage pipe near the waterfall. A fourth group hiked up the escarpment to replace a side log near a worn wooden staircase.

Hamilton is a trail captain responsible for semiannual reports into what needs fixing. "A ton of planning goes into this," she said, adding a lot of the volunteers are retired engineers, but that one doesn't need any special skills to volunteer.

A local, Hamilton remembers her mother buying a Bruce Trail calendar every year when she was growing up. She joined the club two years ago and now she's "all-in."

She added that although the group is mostly men, more and more women are joining.

Pam Chackeris joined in the spring. The Burlington resident grew up in Toronto and remembers asking her father what was on the other side of Lake Ontario. He told her there was a beautiful valley to hike in.

Now, Chackeris is working on those very trails. "It's a great group of people," she said. "A lady in Waterdown last year called us 'the trail fairies.'"

Peter Rumble, the club's trail development and maintenance director also has a personal history with local trails.

He recalls hiking the Bruce as a Mohawk College student in the '70s. Later, he worked with conservation authorities at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and once he retired, he hiked the Bruce end-to-end.

"I've had an opportunity when I was hiking to go through areas that I thought were just wonderful, that made you want to hug a tree. There were other areas that were sort of scary that I didn't know what went on there," he said."

Now, "I spend a lot of my days out hiking and keeping the trail in good shape and safe for users," he said.

Rumble, who lives in east Hamilton, likes to build things, and the work is good exercise, he says. "I tell my daughters that I would rather do work [with] a pick and shovel than go to a fitness club."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin Chandler

Reporter

Justin Chandler is CBC Hamilton reporter who covers all sorts of stories but has a special interest in public policy. From May 2020 to September 2023, he was TVO Today's Hamilton-Niagara Reporter. Before that, he worked at CBC in Toronto for programs including As It Happens, The Current, Cross Country Checkup, Day 6, CBC Music and CBC Arts. He's @mrloislane on most social media platforms.

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    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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