How mavericks blazed the Bruce Trail, Canada's longest footpath

It was 50 years ago that a bunch of Ontario nature lovers decided to cut a trail through the fossil-rich, 700-kilometre-long Niagara Escarpment to raise awareness of its beauty. The Bruce Trail took five years and thousands of volunteers to complete, but the result is a tribute to "a piece of Canadian history."

50 years of Canada's longest footpath

The question splashed in heavy type across the top of the 1961 Financial Post article was a simple one: "Can they save this ribbon of wilderness?"

"They" were a group called the Bruce Trail Committee, which had announced its intentions to protect a "wild and beautiful" string of rugged hills and forests in Ontario called the Niagara Escarpment by creating a trail through it.

Fifty years later, it's a question that still hangs heavy in their minds.

When asked today, Philip Gosling, one of the four Bruce Trail founders, pauses. "Well, I think so," the 83-year-old Guelph retiree says, before quickly launching into the history of how the trail was formed.

It took a few mavericks, hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours to create Canada's longest and oldest footpath.

But first, it took a gutsy move.

"I got fed up about just talking about it and went out and did it," said Gosling, who was director of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists at the time.

By June of 1962, Gosling had quit his job as a real estate broker, and with the help of a $12,300 grant from the Atkinson Foundation, began a monstrous task: carving a trail across the 700-kilometre-long Niagara Escarpment, from Niagara to Tobermory.

Gosling racked up 37,000 kilometres on his car as he visited community after community, rallying locals to volunteer with regional clubs to help map out and blaze the trail.

"If you put the idea in my head right now that I might go out and do this sort of thing, I’d probably say, 'Are you crazy?'" said Gosling. "I don’t understand what was driving me, but certainly I felt that there was a job that had to be done."

Remembering the meeting on June 28, 1962, that kickstarted the physical creation of the trail, Gosling's gravelly voice lightens, "The momentum was built up and it was wonderful."

Over the next year, about 250 kilometres of trail were built or marked on the land — nearly one-third of the length of the escarpment.

Mavericks and myths

When measuring the trail in 1962, Philip Gosling and others used a modified bicycle wheel. (Courtesy of Robert Taylor)

Stepping out onto the Speyside trail, near Milton, Ont., where tall grasses and shrubs lean heavily onto the sun-drenched footpath, Dave Tyson remarks with a smile, "It's glorious. We should be hiking."

Between work and volunteering on various Bruce Trail committees, Tyson is writing a book about the history of the Bruce Trail. Over the past eight years, the devoted hiker has produced 700 pages of notes while studying the minutiae of how the trail came to be.

The trail has its own mythology, such as the story about the time co-founder Ray Lowes asked famous wildlife painter Robert Bateman what he thought about creating a trail along the Niagara Escarpment.

"And Robert said, 'Well, that's a great idea, but who's going to do it?'" Tyson recounts. "That story's been told and told and told."

The four founders of the trail include Lowes, Gosling, Robert MacLaren and Norman Pearson. Only Pearson and Gosling are still alive.

All four will be honoured at a founders gala dinner at Edwards Gardens in Toronto on June 28 — a date that marks the first meeting back in 1962 of the Toronto Bruce Trail Club, the oldest of eight groups that maintain portions of the trail and organize hikes.

The date also marks when the Bruce Trail concept started to become reality, with volunteers using topographical maps to plot the trail, clear paths and paint vertical white stripes (called "blazes") onto trees to mark the path.

The trail officially opened in 1967, after years of volunteer work.

"It's an amazing tribute to volunteerism," says Tyson.

A classic example he cites is the Blacklocks, a married couple that single-handedly mapped out and cleared the 56-kilometre Blue Mountain section of the trail.

The couple was among dozens of volunteers that soon grew to hundreds and now number around 1,250.

If there's one thing Tyson has learned from studying the trail's history, it's that "many of the people who get involved in the Bruce Trail are mavericks. They're free spirits. They just go out and do stuff."

The Bruce Trail was intended to serve one purpose: educating the public about the ridge of fossil-rich rock that began forming 450 million years ago - all in an effort to help preserve it.

The Bruce Trail

  • If you hiked eight hours a day, it would take 30 days to complete the trail end to end.
  • More than 2,000 people have officially walked the whole length of it.
  • A few have run the length of the trail.

"The intent of the Bruce Trail was to raise awareness for the Niagara Escarpment," says Beth Kummling, executive director of the Bruce Trail Conservancy. "It wasn’t established as a recreational hiking trail, per se."

The 725-kilometre Niagara Escarpment is home to numerous flora and fauna: 300 bird species, 90 fish and 37 types of wild orchids. In 1990, it was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve, which acknowledged it as an ecosystem promoting biodiversity.

At the time of origin, however, the trail was being described in newspapers as a cure for the "ills of an overweight Southern Ontario public" and a way to encourage a "walking revival" health experts were touting as necessary.

Whatever the incentive, the 890-kilometre main trail and 400 kilometres of side trails get about 400,000 visits a year. The goal of engaging the public seems to have worked.

"The trail got the public involved," says Gosling. "The trail was the binding force that made it a public asset."

'Enormously expensive'

The proposal for the Bruce Trail in 1962. (Bruce Trail Conservancy)

But the work is never done. Protecting the Niagara Escarpment is a continuing challenge. Only 50 per cent, or nearly 8,000 acres, are publicly owned and thus protected. The other half of the trail runs through roads or private property, thanks only to handshake agreements with landowners.

"It could be purchased or bought by somebody to build a house and we'd be off the land," says Tyson.

The Bruce Trail Conservancy, a charitable organization that seeks to protect the escarpment, aims to eventually protect a strip of land along the length of the trail.

Using donations, the conservancy agency buys up land when it goes on sale, spending on average about $2 million a year.

"It's enormously expensive. This property is about 14 acres," Tyson says while standing at the entrance of the Speyside trail. "It cost a quarter million dollars."

Bruce Trail Conservancy executive director Kummling says about 450 kilometres of the main trail needs securing, at an estimated cost of $80 million.

"If we’re all done in 100 years, I think that’d be something to celebrate, but it is a daunting prospect," says Kummling. "Right now, we have no funding from any government agencies for land acquisitions, so we’re doing it entirely on donations."

And so, 50 years later, the question remains: "Can they save this ribbon of wilderness?"

Near the end of the interview, Gosling returned to the question, answering it more resolutely this time.

"The Niagara Escarpment is not just a rocky cliff. It’s a piece of Canadian history. It’s a piece of Ontario’s history and it should be preserved. And truly because of the action that we took as the committee, we are saving this 'ribbon of wilderness.'"

It's not done yet, but with the help of a few more mavericks, it just might be.