Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: August, 2015

Rideau Trail Hike, Days Two and Three

Well, I set out from Kingston with a question: would I like the kind of thruhiking people do in North America–carrying a tent and stove and food and water–as much as I like walking from hostel to hostel, from B&B to B&B, in Europe?

I quickly got my answer: no, I do not. The pack is just too heavy. I remember my friend Angus saying he prefers canoeing to hiking, because he prefers to let the boat do all the carrying, and I think he’s right.

The trouble started early on the second day. The trail went through an unmown hayfield. No one has walked there, not in the last year, and so there was no trail. It took an hour to get through it, stopping every hundred metres or so to retie my boots because the grasses and wildflowers (Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod and thistles) kept pulling the laces off my boots. Because of all the rain that fell the night before, my boots quickly got soaking wet. After the hayfield, the trail was clearer, but when it reached a marsh, the waymarkers disappeared. So did the trail, covered by a lush growth of reeds and other plants. I misread the map and followed the only trail I could see. And got lost. I spent another hour stumbling through a forest, pushing through wild rose and sumac, until I found the rail trail I was supposed to be on. It was on the other side of a stream, of course, so my boots got even wetter. And wet boots–at least the pair I was wearing–cause blisters. Big ones.

I trudged down the rail trail, already exhausted, bent double under the weight of the pack. By four o’clock, I’d reached the village of Sydenham, less than a third of the distance I’d hoped to achieve. I ate a burger at a chipstand and asked people if the campground just south of town that was marked on my map was open. Nobody knew. I decided to push on instead of losing more time and energy looking for something that didn’t exist. By half past seven, I was in a pine forest overlooking a lake, and too tired to take another step or cook any dinner. There was a mossy clearing under the trees and I made camp. It was private land and I didn’t have permission but I didn’t care. Ten hours of walking and I still wasn’t halfway to my goal for day two.

I hung my bear-proof food bag in a tree and spent half the night listening to chipmunks trying to get into it. Fortunately it turned out to be chipmunk-proof, too.

It was time to reassess. I only had so much food, and if I kept moving this slowly I would eat everything before I got to Westport, the next town with (I hoped) a supermarket. The trouble was the pack. It was just too heavy. I could’ve foreseen this. I can carry a 10 kilogram pack and walk all day without complaining (very much). But 20 or 25 kilograms? Everything changes. When your pack is twice as heavy, everything gets twice as hard. Each kilometre feels like two. Every hill you climb is twice as high and twice as steep, every descent twice as precipitous. Something simple, like climbing over a stile, becomes a risky balancing act, the pack throwing off your centre of gravity. Your feet hurt twice as much. You walk at half the speed. At the end of the day, you’re twice as tired. Maybe if I’d spent the spring and summer training for this, maybe then it would’ve been easier–expecting that I would get used to the extra weight in the first few days was, to say the least, an error in judgement.

On the third day, the trail went through a hilly forest between Gould Lake Conservation Area and Frontenac Provincial Park. It would be a great place for a day hike, but it was no place to be stumbling around carrying a heavy pack. I climbed rock walls. I crawled under fallen trees. I walked along a sheer drop the lake below along a path that was crumbling under my feet. I saw no one one the trail and few signs that anyone had used it recently. There was no cell signal and I realized that if I twisted an ankle on the rocks or in the mud I’d be completely on my own. No wonder the trail association warns against hiking solo–a warning I should’ve paid attention to.

It took me six hours to cover six kilometres through the forest, alternately looking down to make sure I was on a solid footing and looking for the trail waymarkers, which weren’t always that easy to find. By the time I got to the road to Frontenac Park, I was completely exhausted. This is no fun, I thought. And the next few days will take me through similar terrain, and probably a similar kind of trail. There was no way my food would last until Westport. And I wasn’t going to last, either. My feet were covered in blisters and my walk had turned into a kind of shuffling hobble. I finally got a cell signal at the top of a hill and I called my sister-in-law, Barbara, who lives with her husband Mike in Kanata. Would they be able to pick me up at Frontenac? Yes, they would. Thank God for family! I plodded up to the park visitor’s centre. I heated some soup and ate some tuna and started to feel better. I changed out of my stinking shirt. Barb and Mike arrived at seven o’clock. I thanked them profusely for driving two hours to rescue me. My grand thruhike was over.

What could I have done differently? I could’ve been more ruthless about what I packed (maybe even an extra shirt was too much to carry?) and I definitely should’ve trained for the hike. I should’ve tried to figure out why my boots give me blisters when they get wet–I never had that problem in either Spain or England. But I don’t think I could’ve foreseen the trail conditions, the difficulty of the terrain, the absence of other hikers. Or the length of time it was going to take to finish the hike. On the Camino, it’s not unreasonable to expect to cover 300 kilometres in two weeks; on the Rideau Trail, it would take a lot longer, unless you are as fit as a 25-year-old firefighter and able to carry 25 kilograms as if it were a feather. I’m not, and I can’t.

But it’s not a total loss. I got an answer to my question. I know that, in future, I’m going to travel more lightly and stay in hostels or B&Bs, not in a tent. If I ever try hiking in the woods again, I’ll go with someone else–someone with experience. And I have even more respect for people like Bill Bryson or Cheryl Strayed or anyone who has managed to hike this way for weeks and months. It’s not something I can imagine doing. Not today, anyway. Today I’m going to relax and let my blisters heal.

Walking the Rideau Trail: Day One, Kingston

I’ve only walked on multi-day trips in Europe, from one bed-and-breakfast to another, or from one albergue to another. It’s different in North America. Here, if you want to go on a walking trip, you need to carry everything with you. Food, shelter, everything. I’ve never travelled that way, and I thought I might try it. So here I am, walking the Rideau Trail from Kingston to Ottawa, a trek of some 300 kilometres.

It’s quite different from the Camino or the Cotswold Way, mostly because my pack is twice as heavy as it was on those trips. The extra weight makes the walking much harder. I know it’ll get lighter as I go along and I eat the food I’ve brought. But even though I bought the lightest tent and pot and stove I could find, all that stuff adds up.

I walked almost 20 kilometres today, which took me out of Kingston. It wasn’t as far as I’d hoped to get, but I’m not used to the weight of my pack and I wasn’t convinced that there would be a source of water at the camp site I’d originally picked. So here I am at a KOA where there’s WiFi and a pool and a little store where I bought an ice-cold Coke to drink while I wrote this. Compared to what I was expecting, this is luxury.

At first, along the Kingston waterfront, I just followed the joggers using the waterfront path. Then, when I turned north, away from the lake, I saw fewer people, although for some reason they were more interested in me. One fellow who was walking his tiny dog looked at my pack and said, “That pack will ruin your back, do you know that? It’ll compress your spine.” I think he wanted me to take it off and leave it behind, because he wasn’t satisfied by my answer, that I’d only be carrying it a few days. I didn’t have the time or energy to discuss the health of my back, so I wished him a nice day and kept going.

Then I met a couple, who were also walking their dog, who immediately asked if I was walking to Ottawa on the Rideau Trail. “That’s so cool!” they said. “You’ll walk right past our family cabin.”

I stopped at a convenience store and bought a cold drink. They guy behind the counter said he walked 10 kilometres to school and 10 kilometres back every day when he was growing up in India. Only one kid at the school had a bike. Everybody else walked. “Now kids expect to be driven everywhere,” he sighed. “I miss the old days.”

The trail crosses the CN line at the VIA station. The cabbies waiting for fares outside told me they’d drive me to Ottawa if I liked. “It’ll only cost you a couple hundred dollars,” one said. “Of course, you’re probably doing it for the experience.”

That’s as good an explanation as any. Why else would I spend two weeks walking a distance you can drive in a few hours? It must be for the experience.

PS. I apologize for the lack of photos in this post–I left home with the wrong adaptor! I’ll try to get one in Ottawa and add photographs.