Sunday, September 30, 2012

Crawford Lake Conservation Area

A Review of Our Latest Adventure - a postmodern horror story

After a week of afternoon shifts made tough because of a wicked throat and chest cold I picked up on the Grand River Dinner Cruise (an experience detailed in the previous blog entry) I was looking forward to spending the last Saturday of September exploring new areas of Southern Ontario with my wife Tammy and our chihuahua Isabeau. I was still not completely over being sick but thanks to the magic of Buckley's Cough Syrup and cherry-flavored throat lozenges my illness that morning was more a minor inconvenience than the near life-altering experience it had been. Tammy was also fighting a virus-induced fatigue/general malaise and we probably should have been planning some relaxing at-home activities instead of the "3 parks in 1 day" excursion we had in mind but darn it, the weather was sunny with patchy cloud instead of the predicted 99% chance of hazy skies and rain showers and the fall colors are ramping up their breathtakingly beautiful displays. How could we pass up the opportunity to take advantage of the good weather and relatively warm temperatures, even if we were still 'slightly under the weather' ourselves?

We arose Saturday morning and began preparations to undertake our chosen adventure... exploring 3 different local conservation areas in one afternoon, none of which we have ever been to before. After ensuring we had water for both us and Isabeau, extra clothing, fully-charged camera batteries (plus additional lenses & gear) and pretty much everything else we might need for a wilderness hike (except food - duh!) we headed out from Hamilton in high spirits. Our plan was to avoid major freeways, utilizing country routes on our circular trip which would include stops (and hopefully awesome adventures) first at Crawford Lake, then Halton Hills and lastly Rattlesnake Point. That was the plan anyway. As it turned out, we would only hit 1 of our 3 planned stops...  

Crawford Lake Conservation Area

The official Crawford Lake map/tourist guide given to visitors at the front gate describes the park as "a natural environment park that is managed by Conservation Halton. The 468 hectare park includes unique geological features, extensive forests, a rare meromictic lake and 15th century reconstructed Iroquoian village. The conservation area has significant natural habitat with a wide diversity of flora and fauna and approximately 19 km of nature trails". 

We had no idea Crawford Lake offered anything more than a gravel parking lot and some trails into the bush, a scenario we've seen at pretty much every Southern Ontario conservation area we've explored thus far. Some may have paved parking lots and some may have washrooms/outhouses but for the most part we've always just parked the car in some deserted-except-for-other-adventurers gravel lot and headed off on our choice of trails. Pay parking, if that's a requirement, is usually just a coin-operated cobwebby machine that won't accept the new 2013 twonies and loonies. I knew from my initial scout of the day's planned adventure which included inquiries at the gate of Rattlesnake Point that it and the other parks we planned on seeing were paid admission. I also learned then that admission at one of the six area parks under Conservation Halton's authority was good for all six on the same day, our planned 3 park adventure could be done for the price of one.

So it was no surprise being required to pay the adult admittance fee of $7.50 ea. to gain access to Crawford Lake Conservation Area. What was surprising was discovering the park offered far more to visitors than a place to park the car and some trails. We drove past a large wood-pole stockade fence which surrounds the reconstructed 15th century Iroquoian village and created our own parking spot at the end of a row in a very crowded lot. Like the one just inside the gate, and the one further down the road, the parking lot was packed with cars. People were moving in all directions. Not only was there the Iroquoian village attraction, a bustling interpretive center (complete with craft and park-related learning exercises and challenges for kids), an expansive picnic and playground area and numerous natural-info signs and displays beckoned curious and adventuresome park-goers alike. Even if there weren't any hiking options available, Crawford Lake certainly delivers a wide range of options for the relatively modest cost of entry...

But of course there are trails and they are the lure which draws us like moths to a flame, the call of yet unseen natural wonders and a promise - the serene riches of sensory enchantment only a forest can provide are but steps away...

In the info-packed Crawford Lake complimentary area guide the "aprox. 19 km of natures trials" are prominently marked on the map and easy to locate as the central access point is right outside Visitors Centre.A wide paved trail leads into the forest where a number of options become available. Most but not all trails are wheelchair accessible and range in length from the 1.4 km trail which loops the park's namesake lake to the 3.6 km Pine Ridge Trail which takes users on a cross-country circle route through the various landforms and ecological systems of the greater Crawford Lake Conservation Area. The guide lists 7 different trail options including ones that don't bring hikers back to where they started like portions of the Bruce Trail which intersect the park. (A 700+ km trail that seems to splay itself across the greater Niagara Escarpment area like a space-dropped pile of raked-gravel spaghetti.)

Since we still at that point intended to hit 2 other parks that day we elected to take the trail that looped around Crawford Lake, partly because it was the shortest (and thus the quickest) and partly because the lure of autumn foliage reflected in the water of the lake spoke to both our spiritual needs and our photo-artistic wants. A short winding walk through a forest almost too beautiful to describe in words we arrived at the spot the graveled path intersected with an elevated wooden boardwalk and we got our first look at Crawford Lake. The actual area from which one could view or photograph the lake was small, a break in the lakeshore trees and foliage maybe 50 ft across but it afforded some breathtaking views of the lake. After a couple of minutes there we elected to continue our journey via the wood boardwalk instead of the gravel path which appeared to circle the lake from a route deeper into the woods.

The boardwalk is relatively well maintained, there were only a couple spots where the railing's structural integrity looked compromised due to decay/rot or obvious purposeful breakage. It made for an easy stroll through forest which would have been extremely difficult and treacherous to walk through without benefit of a trail of some sorts. The ground was uneven, littered with moss-covered rocks & stones, crisscrossed with crevasses and labyrinths of fallen dead trees. In some areas trees grew from bare rock, their roots stretching and digging into the slightest of cracks and fissures. Sun rays dappled and danced across some sections while other areas saw hardly any light penetrate to the forest floor where deep green mosses created beds for ferns to root among the rocks and fungi of various types flourished on the myriad felled trees in various states of decay.

The waters of Crawford Lake can be glimpsed from the boardwalk at various times during the journey and all along the boardwalk are observation areas where people can rest on offered benches or partake in the various "clues" and "questions" on the displayed information boards, exercises promoted by or relative to the learning crafts and games suggested in the Visitors Centre. Many of the families and groups enjoying the park were avidly involved in that activity and from conversations I overheard at the various 'stops' along the boardwalk it seems kids and their parents can learn about the history of the lake, the Iroquoian Natives who once lived here, the local environment's natural flora & fauna and a whole lot more. 

Crawford Lake's elevated boardwalk and offered interactive exercises are an impressive example of providing an environmental and local history learning experience by immersing visitors into that environment without encroaching upon it. Even if, like us, you choose to forsake the fun & games of the offered learning enabled quizzes, mysteries and other child oriented exercises and opt for the Crawford Lake Trail elevated boardwalk to just to marvel at the plethora of natural wonders and beautiful sights it offers this relatively short hike is definitely worth the time. 

I can't speak to the other trails because we only did the initial forest access trail and the boardwalk around Crawford Lake but if the rest are anything like those they promise to be amazing journeys as well. We didn't check out the reconstructed native village or anything else Crawford Lake Conservation Area had to offer so I can offer no opinions about them but I'll hazard a guess and say the other attractions are probably just as fun and enriching for families and others looking for an easy-access nature adventure.

So I know some readers might be thinking "Wait a minute, isn't this supposed to be a horror story?" and it is. I just wanted to describe the park without a lot of personal emotion before I went off on a bit of a rant about why our experience there wasn't the slam-dunk whiz-bang of a good time one might expect it to be given our professed love for time spent outdoors amid the splendors of nature.(of which Crawford Lake has many.) I mean, after all, it isn't the park's fault we had a less than enjoyable time within its boundaries, an experience so mentally and emotionally exhausting that we cancelled the rest of our plans and drove straight home instead of exploring Halton Hills and Rattlesnake Point as we'd originally intended. 

What put a damper on our Crawford Lake experience, the thing that made if a test of endurance more than enjoyment was the behaviors and actions of other park users. We don't begrudge anyone going out and having a good time, nor do we normally get bothered by the sights and sounds of children and their families getting excited while discovering the joys of outdoor nature experiences. We may prefer to enjoy our outdoor adventures in relative solitude but we don't get upset when we share that experience with others seeking their own communion with that same piece of nature.

The park was crowded and that could hardly be unexpected. It was an unexpectedly beautiful and mild fall day, a Saturday at that. It's September, the famed colors of Southern Ontario's autumn foliage are a big deal to locals and tourists. Crawford Lake is within an hours drive of hundreds of thousands of GTA inhabitants... Why wouldn't it be crowded on a day like that? It was crowded, filled with families and large groups of people out enjoying the afternoon. The elevated boardwalk and its interactive learning activities was a magnet for many of those families and groups looking to make their outdoor time an experience of combined fun and learning... and we have no problem with that.

What we don't like, what we can't abide and can barely tolerate is rudeness... thoughtless inconsideration and arrogant indulgence regardless of and indifferent to the effect their selfish actions have on others around them (including the environment.) THAT kind of stuff can put a damper on almost everything and there was tons of it on display at Crawford Lake that day. It never ceases to amaze me how stupidly annoying people can be.

Why do some people think it's okay for their kids to run around screaming and shrieking at the top of their lungs irregardless of their proximity to others? Why is it okay for your kids to invade the personal space of others, often at your encouragement? What makes those parents think everyone else feels it's perfectly okay that their kids clamor and play around them? Whatever happened to time and space appropriate behavior? What happened to teaching kids to respect the rights of others? What happened to following the simple rules like "stay on the path"... why is it okay to allow your kids to run amok through the natural areas everyone is there to enjoy, to rip up and trample the foliage?

THAT is the type of behavior exhibited by a majority of park users that made our Crawford Lake experience more akin to a horror story than a pleasant hike in the outdoors. THAT was the stuff of the horror story that slowly grew in our thoughts, a story were we broke free of our self-imposed bonds of tolerance and restraint to ran amok with machetes cutting a swath through these self-centered jerks  like Jason Vorhees slaughtering teenage councilors at Camp Crystal Lake. Instead of fully enjoying the outdoors (which was impossible in those circumstances) we found ourselves harboring thoughts of violence and murder. Such was the state of mind induced during our walk around Crawford Lake.

To be fair, it wasn't everyone that acted like jerks that day. There were other families in the park who were endeavoring to balance their kids excitement and activity levels with the rights of other park users to enjoy the space. I saw more than one frustrated parent trying to explain to their own kids why some things weren't right to do, a difficulty compounded by the obvious fact other kids in the park were under no such restrictive behavioral boundaries.

It wasn't just unruly, unsupervised kids and their parents that were the issue. There were also huge numbers of adults whose behavior encroached upon the enjoyment of other park-goers... like the people who felt the need to yell every word even though they were inches apart... or the large group who decided to rest across the only staircase when numerous other options were available for those wanting to stop thus forcing those who wanted to keep walking only one option, navigate the sprawled bodies and bags of their party... or the young couple who decided to climb out of the boardwalk and eat their lunch on a rock dead center in the middle of a rare unobstructed photo-op of the lake, one which people were queuing up and sharing prior to them expropriating it for their own private picnic. 

And another thing... just because our dog Isabeau is small and cute doesn't mean she wants to meet every screaming child that comes her way. I swear some parents think it's amusing to see their toddler wobble in circles around us as Isabeau tries to avoid them. What am I supposed to do, kick the kid away? Yell at the kid? (Hey asshat! It's YOUR kid, why don't you keep it away from MY dog? Isabeau's not doing anything, she's not making noise. Our dog is quietly accompanying us... on a leash! Maybe that's something you should consider to control your miserable little spawn since you're obviously teaching it NOTHING about respecting the rights and space of others!). 

Some people even direct their kids to Isabeau... Mothers will yell "Look at the cute small dog!" and then stand there laughing (or even taking pictures), thrilling to the sight of their toddlers trying to pet her while she endeavors to avoid them and we try and run gentle interference while saying stuff like "She's kind of shy" when really we'd like to scream "GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM OUR DOG!". Seriously, some people seem to treat us and Isabeau like we're some kind of interactive park exhibit, like we're not really live people... people (& a dog) with just as much right to be left alone as anyone.

I could go on and on but you get the point. People are so freaking rude and self-centered nowadays that almost anywhere strangers congregate becomes an exercise in frustration. As beautiful as Crawford Lake was the experience was lacking in enjoyment for us. Since the odds were great that the other 2 parks we'd planned to visit would have similar crowds we just called it a day and went home. Next time we'll pick a school day and hopefully avoid most of the negatives we encountered on this trip. It is a beautiful park full of natural wonder... too bad that on this day it was so full of ugly human nature too.

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