Finding what’s essential in Short Hills Provincial Park.

  • Land:  Short Hills Provincial Park is located on the traditional lands of the Anishnaabeg and Haudenosaunee First Nations.
  • Transit: You pretty much have to drive. You could bike from near-enough areas.
  • Cost: None.
  • Crowds: We met maybe a dozen other hikers on a summer weekday.
  • Attractions: Hiking, a piece of Ontario that’s hard to find these days, photography, peace and quiet, seasonal waterfalls, birding, relaxation, horseback riding and mountain biking (in some areas only).
  • Accessibility:  The trails var.
  • Environmental note: As always, stay on the paths so you don’t trample delicate organisms by accident, and try to leave the trails cleaner than you found them.
  • Click here for map.

We’re all stressed out, aren’t we? How many of us are happy with the pace of our lives? The amount of time we spend doing what we want to accomplish in this world?

Thinking about those questions often enough gets overwhelming. When I talk about it, most people say, yes, they’re stressed out. They’re not happy with the pace of their lives, or with what they spend their time doing. Or that they either have the time to achieve what they want in life, or the money to do it, but seldom both.

And do you ever ask yourself what you really want, as opposed to what you’re told to want?

Social media seem to be very good at selling folks what other people think they should want – the images of what other people have – without encouraging folks to think about what they’re really looking for.

Short Hills Black Walnut Forest
Short Hills’ black walnut forest is an example of an ecosystem largely wiped out of Ontario.

I see other travel writers’ articles, images, videos, other people’s fabulous adventures that I’m not on.  Life is a novel, I’m told, and if you don’t travel, you’ve only read one chapter.  I know they’re not trying to say “your life is boring,” but that’s often, I think, how people internalize all of these social media messages.  It’s the Facebook highlight reel – we’re sold adventure without being shown the rest.

My life is boring. One chapter. Look at these people turning pages I’ll never read. Happy people doing exciting things in places I’ll never get to.

Importantly, they’re usually happy-looking, coupled, white, straight, cisgender, affluent-enough-to-travel-all-over-the-world, English-speaking Westerners. Don’t get me wrong: I fit a bunch of those boxes, but the ones I don’t fit have left me painfully aware of my outsider-ness as long as I can remember.

And that part of me that feels how poorly I fit into this world looks at those happy pictures and videos, reads those articles, and has me wanting what it looks like they’ve got.

Okay, I think to myself, I’m going to go with my husband (coupled? check!) and a friend of ours who always makes me laugh (happy? check!) and take a trip to a Provincial Park that, though it’s not far away, at least looks like it is: Short Hills.  Most of Southern Ontario, you see, was razed by settlers and developers to make farmland and subdivisions, so nearly all of our southern forest is gone.  The northern forests are all white pines and red oaks – gorgeous, but familiar.  Short Hills, however, is all black walnuts, hickories, black maples, and, so I’m told, pawpaws. I’ve been hunting for pawpaws for ages (more on that another time) and I figure, okay:  Short Hills will feel more like a forest a thousand kilometres to the south of us than one an hour and a half to the north. I may not be affluent enough to travel all over the world as a hobby (once a year is all I can afford, and for that I am incredibly grateful), but I can explore the unique parts of my back yard.  That is, after all, kind of the point of this website.

And suddenly, the veil of green between me and the creek opens up, and I see on the other side of the water a mammoth, ancient black walnut tree.  In forest this thick you just don’t see a whole tree from any distance, but this one presents itself to us as though it were placed just so, to be taken all in.

And hey, it’s in the middle of peach country.  If the trip is a bust, I can still hit up a peach farm and eat my way to happiness.

Anyways, I’m aching for time away from the city, from work, from childrearing, and this is the first time I’ve taken off in more months than I care to think about.

We park next to a vineyard (cool) and notice the warnings that there’s been no rain in two months. Absolutely no fires. Got it.  The trail entrance is just there, a hole in the green to our left.  We’ve arrived late (meaning I won’t have the time I wanted to wander the park) and at first, Short Hills feels a bit…short.

We walk down the trail and come into a stand of ratty looking young pines.  It looks like any recently-deforested area up north.  I’ve seen this time and time again.  Spiderwebs of disappointment begin to spread through me.  Already.

Breathe through it, I tell myself, it’ll be good.  You just set your expectations too high.  And there will be pawpaws.  You’ve been looking for them forever.  You’ll find them and your friends will share in your self-satisfaction. Better yet, you’ll have all kinds of sunny shots for Instagram to go with your triumphant stories about finding your elusive flora (in all of Canada, pawpaws are indigenous to Ontario alone, and at that, they only grow in the very south where nearly all of their habitat has been destroyed). All those people who told you you’d never find them near the shores of Lake Ontario will be proved wrong, and maybe you’ll get a good picture of you being cute with your husband that people on social media can envy.

It’ll be great.

And, it turns out, it is beautiful here.

Short Hills Canopy

Now we’re passing by the hickories and black maples I was told of. They’re getting taller as we walk, a sure sign that we’re entering older forest. We come to the cold water stream (the last left in the Niagara peninsula) whose banks, I’m told, harbour pawpaws.

But clouds roll overhead just as I’m ready to take out my camera, just as we arrive at the first (and biggest) photogenic footbridge we find in the park. Dammit. There go the bright greens and shafts of light I was hoping for, the awash-with-sun feel that I like to shoot.

Short Hills Bridge

Breathe through it, I tell myself. It’ll be good.  And why are you this frustrated?

We wind through the park on crunchy, ossified dirt. You can tell there hasn’t been rain in months; some of the trees are already yellowing, withering in the drought. I keep an eye out for long, oval pawpaw leaves, but see none.

We take a trail that follows the creek, through a black maple and oak forest. The sun is still behind the clouds, but the sweet air is hot and very humid down here. I notice myself getting crankier, despite my best efforts. I’m not finding what we’re all looking for.

Short Hills Hogs Back

Shirts off and our bodies can do their job transporting heat to skin to release into the air.  The world feels better.  The search isn’t so desperate all of a sudden.

Coming back down from the high ground we reunite with the creek, and I stop to admire the magic of water.  Here, everything is lush.  The green is deep and the canopy above is thick with leaves.  There are wild raspberry bushes alongside the trail heavy with fruit. We each taste a couple, and they’re sweet in a way that stores can’t sell.  We scatter a few into the forest to say thank you to the plants, to help them do their job of sowing their next generation, and move on.

Still no pawpaws.  We find lots of understory trees with long, toothed leaves, and lots with roundish smooth leaves, but none with the big, smooth, ovicular, tropical-looking pawpaw shape I’ve seen in gardens.

Frustration flows into disappointment.  This is my best guess as to where their habitat would be in the park, and I’m striking out.  Will we find any?  I’m doubtful.  Pessimism doesn’t help.

I turn to the river to try to capture some of its magic. It helps a little, as does having the air on my skin on this sultry day.  And while those experiences are nourishing, they’re also gentle, slow.  They calm the turbulence inside, but don’t rid me of it.

Why am I so upset? part of me asks.

Short Hills Trail

Because nothing’s going the way I planned.  It’s grown-up time.  I love my kids, but – no, not but, andand this time is precious right now.  We got here late.  I promised people what we’d find, and it’s not turning out.  I don’t have enough time off, and honestly, part of that’s my fault.  I’m trying not to be cranky, and I’m trying not to ruin everyone else’s time with my sulking.  I’m sulking.  Not proud of that.  It makes me more upset, and then upset with myself for being upset.

And suddenly, the veil of green between me and the creek opens up, and I see on the other side of the water a mammoth, ancient black walnut tree.  In forest this thick you just don’t see a whole tree from any distance, but this one presents itself to us as though it were placed just so, to be taken all in.

Short Hills Black Walnut

I remember reading that most black walnut habitat in Ontario was destroyed to make way for progress, and most of them that I’ve seen are thin and young, not at all like this titan.

How old are you? I wonder. How long have you been standing right there?

You see them in people’s yards all over, but to see such an enormous black walnut in the wild?  One that’s escaped all the axes and chainsaws, the parking lots and big box stores?

I smile.

The way to the end of the trail and back, away from the creek, is quiet.  I keep hunting for pawpaws, and I keep finding nothing.

Short Hills Trails

We take several other trails.  We find the Bruce Trail, which goes from Niagara to Tobermory.  We find the dry beds of waterfalls – more casualties of this summer drought.  We hike through lush black walnut forest, along the edges of gulleys and up hog’s backs lined with tall, old trees.  At the same time as I’m planning to come back, to see this place in every season, I’m also fighting off my own emotions.

What am I doing here?  I ask me, How am I in this beautiful place with these people who love me, and I feel like I’m failing?  This isn’t less-than.  This isn’t some totally-not-staged (no really (seriously!)) social media image meant to make me coo over how amazing someone else’s life is.

This is the real thing.  This is me with people I love in a beautiful place.  It’s queer, it’s dirty jokes, it’s done on the cheap in a place other people would look right past.  It’s also summer, while summer lasts, my legs are pleasantly warm with effort, and my shirt is off.

I may not be getting what I wanted, but I’m getting what I need.  Time to myself.  Time to be with a friend.  Time to be with my husband.  Time to tend to the things I don’t get time for, these days.

Short Hills Hot

This is precious.  Not the likes it’ll get on Instagram.

It’s not someone else’s life, after all – it’s mine.  And I’m not reading chapters that other people are missing out on because they don’t have the money I do, and then rubbing their faces in it.  I’m writing chapters that no one else ever will.

Just like you are.



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