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Five things I learned from walking the Avon Trail: Day 1

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

St. Mary’s to Wildwood Conservation Area: 14km

At 113 kilometres, the Avon Trail winds from St. Mary’s to Conestogo. I’m practicing for walking the Camino next year; breaking up the Avon Trail into 20-kilometre chunks would build my stamina and help me do some of the physical and internal work I might need for the long trek in Europe.

Sunday morning dawned in Kitchener with a hint of sun, a late summer glow cast over the houses. I needed to stop in Stratford at Fanfare Books to pick up the Avon Trail guidebook, since Wordsworth in Waterloo didn’t have it. The Stratford bookstore opened at 10, and I arranged to meet my friend, Karen, who lives in Woodstock, there. I learned quite a lot from our hike, things I’d be able to transfer to my Camino walk next year.

1. Keep plans flexible.

I’m easily swayed. Neither Karen nor I had done much hiking lately, and although we originally planned to do a 20-22-kilometre hike, we scaled it back to 14 kilometres that day. She talked me into it. I caved. The important thing to me was that I started at the beginning of the trail, and had clear opportunities at the next hike to pick up where I left off. I adjusted my expectations for the day.

As we arranged our drop-off point for one of the cars, the sky clouded and began to weep. Not much, just a few drops. By the time we’d dropped one car at Wildwood Conservation Area (it costs $14 for a day admission) and driven to St. Mary’s to the head of the trail, it was raining steadily. Enough to get you wet. We both pulled on our rain coats and kept walking along the streets indicated in the guidebook.

2. Be prepared.

It’s the Boy Scouts’ creed – Always Be Prepared. Pack snacks, lots of water, extra socks, and have a paper copy of your map, in case your phone battery dies while using the trail app (Ondaga, if you want to try it). Dress in layers, and have a windbreaker or rain coat in your pack, in case the weather turns.

And be prepared to carry it all on your back. Keep it light, and keep it comfortable.

“Wait a minute under this bridge,” said Karen as we headed out of town. “How keen are you to walk in the rain?”

“Not real keen, but I’m prepared to,” I replied. “I’m determined.”

“I’m not,” she said. “I hate walking in rain. There’s nothing stopping you from walking the rest of the way, though, right?”

“You’re going to abandon me before I’ve even found the trail?” I asked incredulously. I looked at the sky; blue sky had begun to peek through, even though the rain still fell. “Look! There’s blue! Let’s give it a few minutes, and I bet the rain will stop.”

She reluctantly agreed. And it did.

We set out again, trudging along Glass Street in St. Mary’s to the edges of town, until we could see fields and church spires peeking above the treeline. Our socks and boots were already wet from the rain, but they were about to get a lot wetter. The Avon Trail follows a lot of streets and roads, but it also goes alongside a lot of farmers’ fields and groomed grass trails. Our feet were soaked before we’d gone six kilometres. But the sun did come out to warm us, and dry us out a bit, and we completed our walk in lovely weather.

3. Take care of your feet.

Break in your new hiking footwear. You don’t want to be doing a long hike in new boots. My boots of choice are Merrells; they’re comfortable, with good support, and I use them a lot, especially in the city in the winter. On a hike, such as the one we did, where your feet are going to get wet, make sure you have at least one extra pair of socks in your pack. I did, and I had a change of clothes, dry shoes and socks in my car, left at our destination. I didn’t change my socks until the ninth kilometre; I wore thick hiking socks that absorbed the moisture after a while, but were quite nasty to take off when I did decide to change. I switched to smartwool hiking socks, thinner, but no less absorbent. My feet felt almost dry at the end, even though the socks were obviously wet. Well worth the extra money the smartwool socks cost.

The trail is well marked in most places. There was only one place where the white marking on the tree was quite a bit further along, as we crossed from a forest into a fenceline along a soybean field, so we didn’t see it right away.

4. Always follow the trail markings

There are times when it’s not clear where the trail goes, and so you go with your instinct. We’d seen in one place a sign for the Avon Trail, and then a marking a bit further on, but the path on the other side of the fence appeared to be groomed grass, with a bench even, if you wanted to take a break. The grass is greener, right? We switched over to the other side of the fence, but soon discovered the cut grass was a track of some kind, possibly for ATVs (we could hear them in the distance, roaring past on the roads). And it brought us back to where we had left the trail in the first place. Look for the white markings on the trees and fence posts; they’ll keep you on the right track, and if your instinct or logic is telling you to deviate from the white-marked trail, push it aside.

With the paper map in hand, we navigated our way through 14 kilometres of trails. Karen and I haven’t seen each other in a while. We’ve known each other since childhood, so we had lots to talk about. I hardly noticed the time going by.

5. Take a good walking companion.

The time flies when you’re deep in conversation. Now, I’m not always keen to talk for four-and-a-half hours; I do also enjoy the silence. But between stops for snacks and drinks, and to check our map, our conversation was lively, engaging, and also a running commentary on the beautiful landscapes – the farms, the river, the trees turning into autumn colours, barns in the distance, rolling hills and the bucolic forests. A good companion knows when to talk and picks up on the cues to be quiet. But it’s also up to you to say what you want. Ideally, you’re with someone with whom you have that level of trust or who would not be offended if you told them to shut up for a while.

By the time we got to the edge of Wildwood Conservation Area, we were both glad we’d decided not to walk the 20 kilometres I’d originally planned. I’m leaving that for next time. After changing socks and having a snack in a peaceful Scotch pine forest, we began to realize our tiredness. The sulphur springs at the dam filled the air with the smell of rotten eggs, and we stopped awhile to listen to the rushing water before persevering the last couple of kilometres to the end at Wildwood Conservation Area, through the tunnel under Hwy. 7, and the short walk to my car.

The Avon Trail is not a difficult walk. There aren’t many hills, and there is a fair amount of walking along roads on this first leg (Map 1, if you have the guidebook). The trail winds through some of the prettiest countryside in southwestern Ontario. I’ve set aside dates for the next three hikes, and I’ve lined up a few people to accompany me. Some I know well, and others I haven’t even met yet. I think that’s maybe the sixth thing I’ve discovered: that this mini-Camino has lots of lessons and perhaps will be a place where new friends are made and old friendships are fastened tighter.

And in order to enjoy the sun, we must sometimes walk first in the rain.

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