Winter scenes on Cootes Paradise

Contrary to the industrial stereotype of Hamilton, a great natural resource can be found west of downtown: the Cootes Paradise wetland area including Princess Point and the Westdale Ravine, all part of the Royal Botanical Gardens organization.

Living in an urban environment, the feeling is one must travel some distance to find peaceful isolation. Not so. It’s too easy to forget about this natural setting only minutes away.

While the sound of traffic humming along Highway 403 never abates, given the right conditions, it can be obscured. Such was the case this week. There had been snow over the weekend and temperatures remained well below zero. The ice on Cootes Paradise was once again thick and solid, invitingly calling for winter wanderings.

With the weather app on my phone indicating -11C and the winds gusting strongly, it was cold. Really cold! Mistakenly, I browsed my phone gloveless for 30 seconds, resulting in a hand that needed 10 minutes to recover full functionality. It was a slightly painful reminder of just how vulnerable one can be in such an environment, even only minutes away from home. But layers of technical clothing was an effective insulator and kept me cozy while wondering how people survived in similar conditions hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Overcoming the usual uneasy feeling of venturing out on ice for the first time, I made my way west from Princess Point towards Cootes Drive. About halfway the sound of the highway was buffeted away by the gusting wind. Facing west, there were few signs of urban life. Only some distant electrical towers and a few houses on the edge of the Dundas escarpment. Ignoring this and letting my imagination wander, I could picture the natural wonder of this nook at the west end of Lake Ontario and how it received its ‘paradise’ designation, named after British officer Captain Thomas Coote, stationed in the area in the 1780s.

The cold kept the snow as icy granules and the wind created a sea of desert-like dunes. Sitting down and just watching, I could observe their edges slowly growing and eroding, gently creeping east.

Off in the western distance, I watched each wave of wind approach, kicking up billowing clouds of snow along the ice’s surface, occasionally culminating in small vortices. There was something peaceful about sitting in the path of these chaotic waves of drifting snow. The howling sound of the wind. The tinkling, whooshing of icy snow crystals bouncing over the undulating surface. So detached from assurances of safe, modern urban life.

Ripples were etched across the dunes, packed hard by the wind, offering secure footing compared to the cold, hard, slippery ice over which my boots squeaked like wet shoes on linoleum. The snow was capped by a crust like shaped styrofoam. But my weight on the deeper drifts was too much and I would break through to softer snow underneath. it made for more of a trudge, like over a soft sandy beach.

I often avoided these areas. Not due to the harder slog, rather, to preserve their pristine, beautifully wind sculpted surfaces.

Always keeping an eye out for potential photos, it would frustrate me to find I had inadvertently wandered through a particularly interesting area of shapes or patterns, causing me to generally skirt the snow and stay on the ice, lest I should ruin more photo opportunities. But the slippery ice made for difficult progress against the powerful wind. Not that I was in a rush. Had there been someone watching, they might have been puzzled by my frequent tendency to walk briefly then stop, standing in one spot for a few seconds, or minutes. I was simply observing, but to someone else, it might seem strangely paranoid.

At times I felt boxed in by the abundance of potential scenes. It was a problem of information overload and took time to process for photographic merit. I didn’t want to mar potential scenes with footprints. But Cootes Paradise is expansive, and the western half appeared to receive few winter explorers. Occasionally I would run across other footprints, both old and relatively new. But they were exceptions; I was certain to always find fresh, untrampled scenes.

Sometimes it was interesting to follow these footsteps. Usually they hugged the shoreline, which I could understand. There is a certain vulnerability when out on the middle of the ice. Nothing is nearby in case of disaster. I had to remind myself that Cootes averages only 60cm deep. The ‘deeper’ question in my mind was the gooey, silty mud under the water…

In any case, there was no risk of falling through. It had been very cold long enough. Yet, along the shore tucked in small nooks were the occasional open patches of water. Maybe where a spring was bubbling through? Deer often seemed to stop here, based on their tracks in the snow.

The shoreline provided for some interesting motifs. Often this consisted of oak leaves, long turned richly brown, embedded in the ice.

Out in the middle were interesting patches of opal ice. Not the dark steel gray, reassuring kind. Walking here created painfully discomforting crackling and crunching sounds underfoot.

Stopping to examine these areas revealed an interesting ‘honeycomb’ layer of ice lattice sandwiched between a thin surface layer and solid ice underneath. Kicking through it brought a childish feeling of smashing things simply because I could. I suppose a kind of empowerment over the micro-environment underfoot; the shattering of glass-like ice shards provided a momentary diversion. Breaking through to the solid ice below was reassuring, though the unease of hearing the ice crunch underfoot as I continued wandering never fully subsided.

The afternoon sun skimmed along the treetops and soon was setting in the southwest. Rich, golden light feathered across sculpted snow, accentuating patterns of frozen ripples and backlit windblown snow sparkled like fine diamond dust in the air.

And then it was over. The sun set, its warm glow enveloped by cold blue shadows. The wind picked up and instantly it felt colder.

It was time to head home before it became too dark! At least the walk back was fast, pushed along by the unrelenting wind.

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