Sunday, December 06, 2009

Those of you who feel that a walk in Rockingham’s Hemlock Ravine Park is not a legitimate hike, read no further. Click on the little “X” in the upper right hand corner now to save yourself unnecessary frustration. Those of you who believe there can be magic in a piece of wilderness within a city, read on.

A hike in Hemlock Ravine Park had been on my “To Do” list for far too long. Before today, I had never ventured there. Upon waking up this morning to a light blanket of snow, with more falling by the minute, I decided that today would be the day to honour my commitment to get out there and hike in the woodlands at least once each month. Hemlock Ravine Park was my destination.

To get there from the Fairview overpass in Halifax, follow the Bedford Highway for about 5-km. On the right side of the road, at Prince's Lodge, you will see the "Music Room", a white rotunda. Kent Avenue exits the Bedford Highway immediately across from this building. Follow Kent Avenue up the hill a short way to the end where there is a parking lot down a small steep hill to the left with a map of the trail system on a sign post at the entrance to the park.

Many of you may have already visited Hemlock Ravine Park and some of you will know a fair bit about the story of Edward and Julie. Some of you may not. Allow me to expand.

The 197-acre wilderness, located near the former northern boundary of the city, belonged to Sir John Wentworth, former Governor of New Hampshire followed by his appointment as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia (1792 - 1808). It was Wentworth who ordered the building of our current Government House on Barrington Street, the one Ron Jeppesen has been ripping apart, and reassembling, for the past few years.

In 1794 Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, who became the father of Queen Victoria, arrived here to command the Halifax Garrison. Sir John Wentworth loaned Edward his land on which Edward built a lavish estate as a "love nest" for his French mistress, Julie St. Laurent. They lived there, at Prince’s Lodge, for 6 years. “Once there were man-made waterfalls, landscaped gardens, summer houses, and paths leading into the surrounding forest. Prince’s Lodge was the social centre of the colony, the site of summer picnics and concerts, winter sleigh rides from Halifax, and skating parties on heart-shaped Julie’s Pond. Today, all that remains of this brief era of lords and ladies is the music rotunda on the shores of Bedford Basin, the heart-shaped pond and the names of the trails in the park.", reads an information sheet.

Edward and Julie returned to England in 1800. At that time, Sir John Wentworth and his family took up residence at Prince's Lodge. Sir John's fortunes then began to decline, forcing him to live by simpler means. He died in 1820 and the property gradually fell into ruins. In 1870 a portion of the estate was divided and sold as building lots. After much negotiating, the City of Halifax was, finally, able to purchase the remaining land in 1977 and the Halifax Regional Municipality now maintains it as a park to be enjoyed by the general public.

The heart-shaped pond is at the entrance to today’s Hemlock Ravine Park, a token Edward had constructed as a show of his everlasting love for Julie. It’s reassuring to know that the Julie's Pond remains a center of romance to this very day. If you need proof, drop by during an evening in April when countless yellow spotted salamanders descend upon this particular location to “do it” while submerged in the water in the amorous glow of your high-powered flashlight. I'm not kidding.

Hemlock Ravine Park is named in honour of the giant eastern hemlock trees growing throughout the park, some over 300 years old. Other species of trees include red spruce, yellow birch, white pine and red oak. One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2010 is to become more proficient at identifying the native trees in our woodlands throughout Nova Scotia.

Frequent park visitors, perhaps residents, are red squirrels and white-tailed deer. Flying squirrels, raccoons, red foxes and owls have also been sighted. Fauna, more obvious during non-winter conditions, includes various ferns and mosses, pink lady slipper, bluebead lily, rhodora, blue flag, mayflower, bunchberry, Indian cucumber, lambkill, and wild lily-of-the-valley.

But I digress. I did see one red squirrel, who scolded me profusely for interrupting his daily routine, and I followed the fresh tracks of a white tail deer.

There is a maze of several trails throughout the park: School Trail, Rockingham Loop, Prince Edward Trail, Governor’s Loop, Ravine Trail, Wentworth Loop, Cresthaven Trail and St. Laurent Trail. Among the trees you will discover brooks, small ponds and the ravine itself. All trails are well graded with crusher dust making for good footing, but in an upward direction when you start out since the park is located, basically, on a hillside.

The amazing part is that this gorgeous piece of wilderness is a mere 10 – 15 minute drive from my doorstep. Once in the park, city life seems so far, far away. Traffic noise is almost non-existent mostly everywhere and totally non-existent on the inner trails. The surrounding property may be heavily populated but that too seems so non-existent once you are enclosed within the park.

Hurricane Juan did have an effect on the park, but resulted in blow downs only in a relatively small area. It certainly does not lessen the experience at all. Instead, it provides an opportunity for new growth and adds to the variety of landscapes.

My hike was on a damp day, but a beautiful day nonetheless. I had the park all to myself except for the occasional extremely happy dog that galloped by, followed closely behind by a somewhat sleepy owner who couldn’t quite grasp the mood that only the dogs and I shared. It took me back to my days as a youngster when I had spent many happy hours strolling through the woodlands near our home in Clearland. The only difference was that today I was without my trusty BB gun (which pleased that squirrel I had seen earlier).

While it certainly is nice to travel long distances to hike in the Swiss Alps, Italy's Cinque Terre or the Appalacian Trail, we sometimes show too little interest in the beauty that's in our own back yard.

The bottom line is that, without a doubt, Hemlock Ravine is a gorgeous park and one that I should have been visiting many times over in the past. I will surely return again and again to experience it during all four seasons.

After two glorious hours, and sufficiently wet outer clothing, it was time to head back home. But, not directly home. Another advantage of hiking in a nearby park is that I was able to stop by my favourite watering hole, Julien’s, in the Hydrastone, for a steamy mug of Joe ($1.00, including HST, if you bring your own mug, and you get a free refill). Today I also had a "Morning Glory" muffin. It felt appropriate.

Ain’t life grand.

Jerome Bruhm
aka Alpenkrieger