TAKE A HIKE IN A GOOD WAY, THAT IS
By John Challis/ Photography by Andy Zeltkahns
It took years – millions of them – for humans to evolve the unique set of muscles and skills needed to stand and walk upright. Yet many of us still run out of breath just climbing a flight of stairs.
It’s just too handy to take the elevator, ride the car to the corner store, or tell Alexa to turn on the music.
More than 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau wrote; “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” In 2000, a local evolution happened when the Trans Canada Trail was opened through Muskoka. Interestingly, downhill skiing hall-of-famer Liisa Savijarvi wrote to the prime minister years earlier suggesting the idea of a hiking trail across Canada.
Today it’s happening again as people grow weary of the incessant pace and noise of modern life and turn to trails. Unlike our sporadic interest in walking, the medical profession has been reminding us continually about the need to put one foot in front of the other.
“Thomas Friedan of the Centers for Disease Control said walking is the closest thing that we have to a miracle drug,” says David Kent, a retired physician who has promoted walking paths and daily physical activity for decades. He lists the often-repeated benefits of walking: reduced heart disease, reduced risk of stroke, better cardiovascular fitness, improved mobility, preventing diabetes and even dementia.
The truth is, hiking is just… good. Depending on who you talk to, it’s healing, fun, spiritually uplifting, educational or an excellent fitness routine.
Muskoka is blessed with trails just a few minutes’ walk from any town centre. Trails meander through all our topography, from wetlands to rock barrens to mature forest. There are paved trails for those with limited mobility, and rocky wilderness treks for those who seek a challenge.
On Bracebridge’s Wilson’s Falls trail, the town’s bustle vanishes beneath the waterfall’s rush and roar. Gravenhurst and Port Carling both have interpretive mural walks through their downtowns. Huntsville has a stunning shoreline boardwalk along Hunter’s Bay. Muskoka Lakes has the spectacular lookout at Huckleberry Rock. On Lake of Bay’s Oxtongue Rapids trail, you follow in the footsteps of Group of Seven painters.
“My favourite walk is Hardy Lake Provincial Park,” David Kent says. A hike on the park’s 8.5-kilometre loop around the lake will take better than two hours. It’s a bouquet of different wild spaces, from boardwalks by wetlands to deep forest to outcrops along the shoreline. Emerging back to the parking lot by Muskoka Road 169, one feels flooded with images, smells and textures — tired and exhilarated.
The Japanese have a word for it: shinrin-yoku, most often translated as “forest bathing.” Lest you find that a tad on the flaky side, consider: In Japan, they learned that “taking in the forest air” (another translation) reduced the underlying causes for unprecedented rates of heart disease and autoimmune disease resulting from their industrial boom.
The concept is gaining traction worldwide. As a certified forest therapist, Kristie Virgoe says research shows surprising changes after walking in the forest: Blood pressure drops by an average six per cent; saliva samples show levels of cortisol, a key marker of stress, drop; the body’s immune system functions, amazingly, can improve by as much as 54 per cent. The immune response, she explains, may be connected to chemicals called phytoncides that the trees release to fight fungus or insects.
Virgoe stresses that her practice is about teaching her clients to connect to the forest.
“The forest is the therapist; I’m just the guide,” she says. Sessions are slow: as long as three hours and may only involve a kilometre’s walk. Her own son, Quaid, has been plagued with anxiety, like a lot of young pre-teens and teens. She tried using forest therapy to help him disconnect from his worries. One day he stunned her when the 12-year-old turned to her and said, “it’s like some of your soul stays with the trees, and you absorb some of the soul of the tree, and so all the creatures in the forest all get a bit from each other, and your soul gets bigger.”
Sue Regan Kenney knows that feeling well. Walking in the wilderness, she says, makes her feel like she’s “being nurtured. My mind slows down and I’ll pay attention to one leaf, or a big red mushroom. It’s a very simple approach to life; it makes all the emails and chores disappear.”
Kenney has written books on walking and has completed the legendary El Camino pilgrimage through France and Spain some 28 times. She also takes walking a step further than most of us: she travels barefoot. Being barefoot has a spiritual element to it, she says. “I’ve built a relationship with Mother Earth; it’s become an agreement to care for one another.”
There are good physical reasons for doffing the shoes, she argues: “There are almost 200,000 nerve receptors in the sole of each of your feet.” The feet are highly attuned to respond to every change in terrain. Shoes and boots hide those cues — and the support from footwear weakens foot and ankle muscles, creating potential balance problems in old age.
It takes time to build the feet up for a trail walk, she admits. You only need to think back to your childhood, though, to know how great it felt to kick off the shoes once school was finished in June, and how tough your feet were when the school footwear went back on eight weeks later.
The Kahshe Barrens is Kenny’s favourite trail. The trail is a set of two loops through deep forest, over rocky hills and across beaver meadow complexes. It’s right off Highway 11 behind the Muskoka Tourism office and is something the tourism promotion agency likes to showcase as a highlight of the vacation opportunities in Muskoka.
An informal tally shows there are more than 400 kilometres of municipally-maintained trails, and more private trails, in Muskoka. They’re a variety of lengths, with the longest being the Muskoka leg of the Trans Canada Trail, now known as the Great Trail, snaking 121 kilometres through wilderness and downtown corridors from south to north.
Leah Leslie, the chair of the board of Muskoka Tourism, points out there are a myriad other trail uses in Muskoka. Canoeing, skiing and snowshoeing, mountain biking and fat biking, and zip lines all offer a more vigorous use of the muscle groups we were born with, and the resorts and parks of the district have facilities in abundance.
On the Muskoka Tourism’s website, discovermuskoka.ca — click on the Things to Do link, and search for trails. It has a long list of locations where you can take your walk up a notch. Leslie suggests the popular “View the Lakes Chair Tour” which guides visitors to trails at 10 Muskoka Lakes Township locations where a Muskoka chair overlooks a scenic vista.
“There are so many options for every level of skill, every age group, even a few wheelchair-friendly routes,” Leslie says.
The increasing interest in trails among visitors and locals creates an urgency for maintenance and development. It’s a point Chuck Greene of Bracebridge has been pressing for five or six years. He helped build the 266-kilometre Tahoe Rim Trail in California and Nevada, and knows how much organizational capacity is needed to keep a trail system thriving.
At present, Greene feels there is the lack of a “real trail culture” in the community or on town councils. He warns that anticipated growth in both tourism and new residents has the potential to overwhelm Muskoka’s trails.
Muskoka had roughly 1.8 million vacation visits in 2017, the most recent statistics available from the tourism agency. Of those visits, 530,455 included hiking as one of the activities. Add to that the number of year-round residents who use trails, and the system is already getting a lot of wear and tear.
The Torrance Barrens, a provincial Conservation Reserve and the world’s first Dark Sky Preserve, is a case in point. The area attracts thousands of astronomers, hikers and campers, annually. All that use has taken its toll, leaving litter, trampled sensitive areas and rotted boardwalks.
The group Guardians of the Barrens has been working for several years to get municipal and provincial governments to better manage the site. It’s slow progress; a garbage bin was placed at the trailhead last fall, helping reduce the litter problem. Michael Silver, who developed the dark sky designation, says Muskoka Lakes Township council has advanced a proposal to commit funds to replace the boardwalks. If approved, the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks will do the work.
While trail development resources are scarce, they do exist. The non-profit Muskoka Trails Council began as an informal liaison between local trail committees and incorporated in 2006. Muskoka Tourism’s online trails guide offers both private and public choices. Each town commits some of its funds to trails — some, like Bracebridge and Gravenhurst, have dedicated staff — but it’s a line that often gets trimmed come budget time.
Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith says last year’s appointment of Gillian Mitchell as parks and trails foreperson could bring new energy to the trails, which he describes as “an underappreciated resource.” For her part, Mitchell says over the short term she wants to work to improve maintenance and signage, and pinpoint gaps in trails. Over the long term, she says, “I will work with stakeholders and engage the community during the planning, design and development stages of trail improvement projects.” She envisions links between trails to create an interconnected network.
The efforts to build momentum won’t continue without public support, across Muskoka. If you’re keen on seeing the trails system evolve and grow, volunteer with the Muskoka Trails Council and get involved on their board. Town councils need to hear encouragement to keep trail development on their agendas.
Most importantly, get out and experience the trails. As Quaid Virgoe suggested, it could enlarge your soul.