When unseasonably warm weather hangs around deep into the fall, Nancy Irwin makes the most of the opportunity.
Thanksgiving weekend was amazing here in Toronto. Unseasonably warm weather meant every biker was out on main roads and back roads waving happily at one another, flying above the blacktop in the rich autumn colours. No one knew how long this blissful weather would hold and were making the most of it while it did.
As for myself, there were two forests I really wanted to visit that weekend. So on an 8C Saturday morning I headed south dressed in silk, wool longjohns, lined leather pants and chaps. And that was just my lower half. (It was cold enough that I’d be feeling it on the highway.) My heated handgrips were covered in Pogies, (oversize mittens that fit over the handlebars) which allow me to wear flexible summer gloves in winter. But by the time I got to the US border and was rolling along on New York state Highway 219, the sun had already made a difference. What a treat! And as I entered the Zoar Valley on the west side of the state, I was feeling warm and relaxed.
The Zoar Valley is a steep canyon with a rapidly flowing stream, and a treasure-trove of old growth forest: tuliptrees, oaks, maples, beech, white pine and hemlock. Topography makes it accessible only by foot, but a short half-hour walk brings you to the water’s edge. From there you cross one branch of the Cattaraugus Creek, hike, then cross again. If river walking is your thing you get to cross large plates of shale, or dance from stone to stone, as I do on the Humber Creek in Toronto where I grew up—it’s the same geology but a much smaller patch.
There are elders in the valley, so tall I strain my neck to identify trees by the leaves at the top. Inaccessible to loggers of the past, the healthy forest has tiers, and is unaffected by the excessive deer population that is making it impossible for other forests to rejuvenate. At eye level is one type of leaf. Two or three stories higher up are others, often not the same kind as those on top! California’s redwoods are the only trees I’ve seen that are taller.
A hike after three hours of riding made sense to me, so I parked my bike at the trailhead and packed water and food. I swapped boots for water sandals, stuffed my winter wear into saddlebags and left wearing a sweater, hat and shorts—required for river crossing. And the river isn’t always easy; not in spring, when rafters and kayaks appear. And not after a heavy rain—I recall a treacherous crossing in early summer. Autumn is the best time, when the water is low.
I enjoyed the afternoon hiking through the forest, communing with trees, walking along the rocks and basking in the sun. Finally I made my way out of the valley and followed the sun through the scenic Allegheny foothills where the trees were just starting to turn colour.
That night I found my way into downtown Buffalo where I dined at the Spot Cafe and then took in a play at a local theatre. It’s an interesting experience going on a date alone, but the fine weather had the outdoor bars and cafes bustling.
The ride home was uneventful except for the usual slow cars sitting in the left-hand lane like obstacles to be overcome, forcing others such as myself to eventually pass on the right where the lanes are clear. Of course we all get there faster by blocking traffic in the left “fast” lanes, right? Never mind. Pet peeve.
I was good and tired when I hit the pillow an hour after midnight, but I wasn’t cold.
THE NEXT MORNING I HEADED northeast of Lake Simcoe to Quaker Oaks Farm, lured by the best buttertarts within two hours of Toronto. It has become a destination of its own. Located on the north side of rural Hwy. 45 between Uphill and Sebright, (east of Orillia), and marked by a life-size Betty Boop, regulars from as far as Ottawa enjoy the incredible baked goods.
Mark and Judy Spurr and family serve up gourmet sandwiches, ice cream, coffee and tea in a small shop filled with interesting curios to browse or buy—which helps on those really cold days when 20 minutes of shopping is what you need to warm up. The ceiling is decorated with album covers from the 1960s, and money spent there helps to support both an ethically run business and a sanctuary for rescue farm animals. Currently soliciting donations of outdoor sculptural art, they plan to create a walking tour of the farm: www.quakeroaksfarm.com
Perhaps next year it will be an even more interesting destination. With plenty of parking, they are very motorcycle friendly!
TUMMY FULL, I HEADED WEST TO A place I return whenever I need to ground: the Severn River in Muskoka, near the Big Chute where there’s a dam and huge elevation drop. There, I hiked the snowmobile trail to Pretty Channel, and the lesser known dam. I had never been there when the trail was covered in a blanket of dried, coloured leaves, coated in sunlight. It was so beautiful I had to lie in it. Talk about paradise! When I got to my spot I was pleased to find myself alone.
I climbed large granite rocks along the river, lay in the warm sun on a bed of green and silver moss decorated in pine needles, and listened to the water rushing through the rapids. It was 27C But I did not swim. The water was far too cold. Instead, I felt the wind against my skin, my senses filled by all that nature had to offer. I was mezmerized by the spectacular orange and scarlet of the fall contrasting against the green of those eastern white pines that are so distinctly Canadian and point the direction of the wind. Think Group of Seven.
We often say, “It’s the ride, not the destination.” I like when the two combine. Choosing beauty over efficiency, I made a backroad fall foliage tour and arrived home after sunset.
When Holiday Monday came I enjoyed Thanksgiving in the usual way: potluck with friends who are family. The party was in the backyard. We even had a fire. I’m glad now that I took advantage of the opportunities presented by the warm lingering fall. It was the most waving I’ve done in memory.