A wooden bench sits high on a granite cliff above Musquodoboit Valley.
“Choose Happy.” Its inscription invites wanderers in the midst. Stanley Van Dyke and his sister Ellen took it up the steep wilderness path piece by piece. Sometimes he likes to just sit there among the fern and lichen and hemlock. And feel the solitude.
Those of us who’ve hiked up, down, and around the winding, boulder-bordered loops of Musquodoboit Trailway know the feeling. (See gallery.) The sign below promises strenuous climbs and panoramic views. We get both. And more. Happiness, solitude, and a touch of Monet along the way.
Swaths of spring lily pads flower in white and green across the blue mirror of Musquodoboit River running parallel to the 15-km Rail Trail, an abandoned railway line now part of the Trans Canada Trail.
The wide, gravel pathway branches off and up to another 26 km of wilderness loop trails which shift from cloistered forests to boulderladen hills to flat platforms of bedrock overlooking spectacularly lush views.
People like Van Dyke helped secure funding to build these rugged routes, just a short distance from Dartmouth. And he’s volunteered since the late ‘90s to keep the mountainous trail system clean, safe, and accessible, adding to the natural beauty that comes with trickling brooks, ancient stones, and quaint footbridges.
Van Dyke has hiked them all, enjoying “the birds, the flowing water, the rustling of leaves.” But not as much anymore. “I’m 70 and I’m slower,” he laughs.
The retired archeologist and chair of Musquodoboit Trailways Association can answer almost anything anyone wants to know about a place he calls comforting, quiet, and very peaceful.
Like the fact the converted rail bed used to be the main run for The Blueberry Express: a train so slow that local lore has it passengers could jump off, pick blueberries, and jump back on. Or the details of what grows in every nestled nook of the landscape. Hemlocks here, lichen there. Or a stretch of burned out forest from a fire more than a decade ago.
Much of the landscape belies any trace of nearby suburbia especially at the peaks. No sights or sounds of cars. No houses in the distance. Just the outlines of Eunice, Bayer, and Granite lakes, the winding river, the glowing greens of the valley.
“They may not be towering mountains,” Van Dyke says about the look-offs on the craggy cliffs. “But to catch your breath, slow your heart, and enjoy the view, you might think they are.”
The trail is also home to meadows and wetlands. Swallows and snapping turtles, whose eggs hatch in September. Some sun themselves on far-off rocks while Great Blue Heron stand statue-still on the river. Cormorants air out their wings in triumphant displays of grooming.
Unlike on other Halifax municipality trails, the wildlife here is harder to see. The woods and the rocks and the climb itself are the star attractions.
Something about the way the forest floor cushions each step. Or the withered tree roots snake around the underbrush. The way tiny saplings sprout bushy wigs from the tops of giant rocks while sunshine and shadows play among the trees, lighting the moss an emerald green.
Van Dyke’s favourite spot is the Longview Lookoff on the North Granite Ridge Loop Trail, where the bench he built, with the inscription his sister coined, sits in the thicket.
Mine is the Gibraltar Rock Loop Trail, which can be as easy or as hard as you like. Straight up past 3-metre boulders, or downhill if you come in the opposite way. I always choose the hard way, a relentless incline, past terrain rugged and rare. Towering boulders, scarlet brambles, the smell of fir trees on the air.
This hike is hard. But leads to a brush-sheltered resting place that has the only other bench on the five loops, trails that are all protected or about-to-be-protected wilderness areas, which Van Dyke encourages people to enjoy without leaving a trace.
It’s nice to sit there for a minute and take in the solitude and the scenery. Then climb a little further to a slab of flatter granite and a higher peak that warns “Danger: Steep Drop,” but offers an even wider view of what lies and flows below.
Van Dyke says this and the other trail loops, Admiral Lake, Bayer Lake, South Granite Ridge, and North Granite Ridge, are well used. But the area is vast. And it’s easy to spend whole afternoons in the higher wilderness without seeing anyone else.
The trails have lots of signs, but it’s also easy to lose your way when meandering off to spots like Rolling Stone or The Cave (a real cave), or Jessie’s Diner, which isn’t really a diner even if some have mistakenly
thought they could get coffee there.
But volunteers, and the association always needs more, are adding signs all the time. The website (www.mta-ns.ca) provides detailed directions and maps so hikers won’t become lost as they amble along the hills and valleys of this rocky retreat where you can leave all your troubles behind.
Or just sit in the silence.