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Winter Hiking on the Trails

January 4, 2021

By Barb McKean, Head of Education, Royal Botanical Gardens.

Taking Care When Hiking

Hamilton and Burlington have to be the hiking-est cities around. Linked by the Great Lakes Trail, The Great Trail of Canada, and the Bruce Trail, they’re also home to the 27-kilometre trail system owned and managed here at RBG, many trails found on Conservation Halton and Hamilton Conservation Authority properties, and trails owned by both municipalities. A strong tradition of holiday hiking sets these two communities apart from others where I’ve lived. As we saw the old year out and ushered the new year in, many local households started 2021 on a good (well, maybe a bit muddy and slippery) footing by taking their traditional New Year’s Day hike.

While there is plenty to dislike about the waning year, one shining outcome has been a huge new cadre of people who’ve discovered how much they need time in nature for wellness, and how amazing and nearby our local trails are.  For those who haven’t grown up hiking here, welcome! We’re so happy that your feet have found their way onto our trails. And just as a tour guide can help introduce you to local etiquette when you travel to a far-flung place, we’d like to introduce you to hiking etiquette in an urban nature sanctuary. Our nature sanctuary areas are not pristine wilderness but they are a Canadian biodiversity hotspot — home to more species of wild plants than any other place in Canada. Safeguarding this natural legacy is a key part of our mandate but balancing an ever-growing number of trail users with the needs of thousands of species of plants and wildlife can be challenging.  The good news is that every hiker can help protect the biodiversity of these significant areas for generations to come.

Snow Covered Bench On Boardwalk

The Trail User’s Code

There’s a special kind of Golden Rule for hikers that can help us all to love nature without loving it to death. You may have had days when you’re hiking at RBG and feel like you’re the only one out there, but it’s important to understand that hundreds of thousands of people use our trails each year. This isn’t too surprising if you add up the many millions of people who live within a 30 to 60-minute drive of here, but it’s important to keep in mind that any impact from your actions are multiplied by thousands. It doesn’t take long for one person’s “Just this once” or “I’ll only gather a few” to add up to larger ecological problems. These problems can be minimized if all visitors will keep the trail user’s code in mind whenever you visit. It’s quite simple: take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints and kill nothing but time.

Take nothing but pictures

The first part of the code is straight-forward: leave the ecosystem as you found it. Please don’t pick or collect anything. Leave the flowers for pollinators, leave the bark on the trees, and keep the sticks and leaves in the forest where decomposers can recycle them so they can nourish new plants.

Leave nothing but footprints and kill nothing but time

The second action has taken on a whole new meaning in the age of selfies and Instagram. In the search for the perfect ‘postable’ photo, we’re seeing many more hikers heading off the trails or climbing up and down embankments along the trails. In the process, they fail at #2 by causing soil erosion, trampling wildflowers and seedling trees, and damaging nests of ground-nesting species. The forests in this area are already stressed by climate change, invasive species and pollution, and fewer young trees are one of the many changes we’re seeing as a result. In winter, these young trees are very vulnerable to trampling by people walking, snowshoeing or skiing off trail, so please stay on the marked trails only. Dogs must be leashed at all times so that they too stay on the trail.

Leaving nothing means leaving no trace that you’ve been there.  There are waste bins at most trailheads so we’re always surprised by how much litter gets left along the trails. Please make sure garbage, used masks and pet waste bags are put in the bins or taken home.  Leaving nothing also means not leaving food for wildlife along the way, as this leads to problems with #3 – killing nothing but time. There is plenty of natural food for birds in our nature sanctuaries so they don’t need supplemental food. You’ll find more information on the research behind this in our blog and video posts, but food left by well-meaning trail users is feeding more than the birds. It has resulted in an over-population of predatory animals who are in-turn causing massive declines in local turtles and other ground-nesting species.

Snow covered hiking trail
Our trails are narrow, hilly, and winding and cross-country skiing is not permitted. Whenever someone ventures off the trail in order to seek a different route, they break and kill sapling trees that are the future of our forests.

So, there you have it; a simple code of three actions that help to ensure we love nature without loving it to death. We’re not quite sure how to cleverly add a fourth, but we’d like to include, “And physically distance” on this list too. The truth is that our trails are busier than they’ve ever been, and #4 is all about you, our visitors. Many of our trails and boardwalks are narrow and it can be challenging to distance unless we all work together. Therefore, keep at least a couple of metres away from others and please carry/wear a mask to protect yourself and others in case you come to a bottleneck.  To help manage these bottlenecks, some trails are one-way so please respect the signage and your fellow hikers by going with the flow. Check the On the Trails page for updates and details.