Adventures in Blazing Trails

There is no better feeling than walking along a trail and enjoying the beauty and serenity of nature. Conversely, there is no worse feeling than getting lost. Unless you can clearly see a trail or a marker, it’s easy to get muddled and confused.

Even when you know the trails well, you can easily get sidetracked. The other day I was walking in Altona Forest on a trail I know very well and was caught up in my thoughts. I suddenly stopped, realizing I was off-trail… somehow I was walking off into the woods and had strayed from the trail.

Altona’s trails are harder to follow now. When this trail system was created, painted trail blazes clearly marked these footpaths. Over the years, some have faded and some marker trees have been lost to age, illness, or storms.

There are 3 trails in Altona Forest – the short trail beginning at Autumn Crescent, the main trail (marked in white), and the north-east trail (marked in blue). The blue trail is an open loop that starts and ends at the white trail. It leads through mixed forest and deciduous wetlands, past spring trillium, bloodroot and jack-in-the-pulpit blooms, through EAB ravaged forest that showcases the forest’s woodpeckers, and past vernal streams.

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This is ‘my trail’ – the one I walk most frequently. So, when the Altona Forest Stewardship Committee asked for volunteers to repaint the trail blazes, I volunteered my spouse and myself for the whole of the blue loop. I never stopped to think about the logistics. Or that maybe I should have asked my spouse before volunteering him. (I did that with the 2015 website revamp as well; resulting in his literally dozens of hours of work writing old html code)

More than a year later, trail blazing hadn’t been undertaken anywhere in the forest. I didn’t want yet another winter of trail-confusion to happen on my watch. Since the AFSC is not funded I concluded I’d be buying all the supplies myself. The TRCA signs and the current markings were available as a guide. And since we were doing the whole blue trail, consistency would be a given.

Altona Forest trails follow the same markings system as the Bruce Trail (which is based on the Appalachian Trail). My spouse is a member and has hiked half of the distance from Niagara to Tobermory so he is familiar with the typical blazing methods/standards.

The blazes are simple and universally understood; if the top mark is to the right – turn right, and if the top mark is to the left – turn left. If there is a single mark then continue straight.

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The process is perfectly simple – and then came the reality of doing it:

  • What paint colour? There is a blue suggested by the Bruce Trail association to mark side trails. Using that colour made sense – except the store couldn’t match that particular (discontinued?) Pantone shade. I needed to come up with a shade of blue that nearly matched the original paint (I didn’t have a sample) and would be clearly visible in the bright light of winter and the deep shade of summer. It was a somewhat blind choice – hope you like it!
  • The size of the blazes should be standard – and this was great because the Bruce guide was clear that it was 2×6″. I created 2 templates to use… this is great and logical … until the paint gets a bit messy and gets on the back of your templates. Or worse (you can see an example along the trail) where the paint runs down a non-porous bark after you’ve walked away.
  • You take along a spray bottle of water, paper towels, a scraper, your brush, the paint… etc. And then realize that you reach a point where every single thing is smeared with paint and can smear each other. You wish for a tap. You stop, laugh, and continue.
  • You realize that this is a very simple job – but it simply needs 2 people. One to hold the template and one to paint. You hope that this does not end up like a kindergarten finger painting.
  • About 1/5 of the way in, you realize that while Bruce markers should be on the left side of the trail as you are walking it, Altona’s original markers were on the right. What do you do? You panic for a moment and then decide that the old markers will be repainted and remain on the right… and all new markers will continue on the left.
  • From a few feet past one marker you should be able to see the next one. Another reason this is a job for two people: you need to pace this out. But then you realize that mother nature doesn’t always grow a tree where it needs to be. Or that the tree won’t be wide enough to manage two blazes to indicate the turn.
  • You realize that this trail is winding so ‘straight’ is a relative concept.  You accept this or decide to paint every second meter… which would then qualify as vandalism.
  • Blazes should be at eye level. Who’s eyes? All ages use this trail and an average person is 5’6″: that is Bruce ideal. Sometimes the tree dictated a slightly higher or lower placement… who am I to argue with Mother Nature?
  • Did you know that the blue trail does not actually link to the boardwalk in the north, but stops at the north gate of the forest – the entrance to the hydro corridor? I have walked this trail for years and never knew this.
  • Just when you get that triumphant feeling of getting to the end, you realize that the trail must be painted in the other direction as well… and treated like a new trail since the sight-lines change. I have great appreciation for those who blazed these trails originally – and perfectly.

I hope you are a little amused – and learned from our adventure. These were a few of the little things we encountered while trail blazing. It was fun and funny, cold and frustrating, challenging and rewarding. It’s done. As of November, the blue trail is easier to follow… so wander in!

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Using a Footpath – Bruce Trail Conservancy

Guide For Trail Workers – Bruce Trail blaze processes (start on pg 26)- we’re very grateful







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