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Sheffield Conservation Area – the most beautiful place I’ve ever hated
As I walked toward the lakeshore, I felt myself falling back through time. Though I’ve been a sedimentary stone strider, a limestone walker, for most of my Life, my heart has always been drawn to the igneous and metamorphic rock of more Northern climes. Were it not for the sign declaring “Sheffield Conservation Area”, I would’ve sworn I was standing on the granitic shoreline of any one of a number of Northern lakes from my childhood. Reality slowly caught up to me, and the wife and I began wandering up a pathway to the North-West. This was a stroll up memory lane for her too. She spent more of her Lifetime in this kind of landscape than I ever have.
Sheffield Conservation Area is located 37 km North of Napanee on Hwy 41, and yesterday at this time, I’d have told you never to go there under any circumstances. I prefer not to review well known, easily found, and well utilized CAs, but I’ll make an exception for this one. At that time the only resident to greet us was an impressively sized garter snake. We continued on a shallow uphill slope across massive granite outcroppings. We passed numerous thick patches of blueberry bushes and glacially deposited boulders, all the while marvelling at the spectacular vistas. The granite outcroppings will draw any Northerner’s memory to back Home.
The granite based trail would be hard to follow were it not obviously circling the lake, always visible through the trees to the left.
The constant rain of acorns from the abundant oaks all around us was rather amusing. Then the trail plunges into deep, damp forest. There’s a crosstrail “T” where we chose to go left as there was no mention of the “T” nor a trail to the right on any of the maps we could find. The website warned that during wet times, some parts of the trail may be under water and that was evident in a few spots on the trail. There was nothing that couldn’t be walked around though. As we descended a hill the wife made a thrilling discovery for me. A huge black chanterelle was growing up on the side of the trail, ripe for the picking. At least I thought it was a chanterelle. I carefully placed it in the wife’s hoody (a common carrying vessel – we usually both have hoodies on) for positive identification once Home.
We emerged from the forest and found ourselves back into the granite outcroppings with swampy borders. But the lake was out of visual range, so we were looking for trail markers now.
THAT’S WHERE THE TROUBLE STARTED.
Now, I have marked many a true wilderness trail through this kind of terrain. Trails that don’t show on the ground because it’s bleached bare bedrock, &/or because no one follows the trail but maybe once or twice a year. I’ve marked, and used, trails where good markers are the single difference between a safe trip and becoming hopelessly lost in the bush. Unless you have extensive experience in this kind of travel, &/or are equipped to stay a night or longer … TURN BACK NOW !! The instant you have to split up and start searching for trail markers, it’s time to quit. Up until that point, the markers are reddish/brown arrow-like triangles pointing in the direction the trail goes. Those disappear (well, I found a few of them on the ground, so who knows what direction they were pointing) and are replaced with either red or yellow dots, stripes, circles, arrows, whatever, marks on trees, &/or the rock base under your feet. Crudely built cairns and inuksuk’s, compliments of other travelers are everywhere. They don’t really help much as everyone’s interpretation of their meaning differs.
I seriously doubt the painted trail markers have been refreshed since the 1980’s, and that’s not exaggerating. Spotting one of the marks was more luck than skill. The trail is reputed to be 4 km long, but when you have to stop every 20 meters, fan out, and move in ever-widening circles, until one or the other of you sees a faint remnant of red or yellow paint on a few chips of bark or maybe realizes, that’s not a vein of colored stone in the bedrock, but the faded remains of a painted arrow of sorts, it’s a Helluva lot more than 4 km. What should have taken us less than an hour, took three and a half. But it could’ve been a whole lot worse. Just keep in mind that if you get lost and head off to the West, you’ve got over 20 km of rock outcroppings and swamp before you hit Hwy 7 at least. One kilometer in this kind of terrain (unless you have some way of travelling in a straight line over open water and swamps) can become 8 kilometers as you have to go around one lake and it’s compliment of swamp intake and output waterways. Multiply that by the 15 lakes between where you are, and Hwy 7 to get an idea of the spot you’ll be in. So be very careful, and very sure of what you’re getting into.
When you stand beside a trail marker, the markers ahead and behind should both be visible. This is not the case at Sheffield. I will reiterate, IF YOU HAVE TO SEARCH FOR THE NEXT TRAIL MARKER, GO BACK ! The markers and the trail conditions only worsen if you continue on. Admittedly, the featureless bedrock makes a poor marker base, so all the more reason to mark the trees extremely well so a walker doesn’t have to circle the outer edges of a 60 foot diameter outcropping of rock to figure out which way leads to safety.
So, just to finish putting the cherry on top of “the hike from Hell” we came to a swamp where we could hear a highway in the distance and could hear voices on the rock outcropping across the swamp. The wife was sure she could see red marks of possibly human origin on the rocks across the swamp from us. We were both getting very weary by this point. The granola bars I’d stuffed into my pocket out of habit had burned off hours ago. We tried bushwhacking to find a way across the swamp but to no avail. My legs were getting tired and I began tripping over things I shouldn’t have. The wife was lagging farther and farther behind as I pushed my way back to where she saw the possible markers across the narrowest part of the swamp. She told me later that she knew I was at the end of my rope when I shouted across the swamp, hoping the people we saw earlier were still over there. Let me tell you now folks, when it comes to wandering out in the bush, I have no pride, nor ego. I’ll call for help before I’ll get into an irreversible situation. Machismo has delivered a whole lot of A-holes to the gates of Hell, and I have no intention of joining their ranks.
Turns out someone over there did hear me and when asked if he knew how to get across he shouted “Sure, just give me a minute to get over there”. I thanked him and heaved a sigh of relief with a glance to the wife. The guy shows up on the crest of the rock over the swamp and says “Oh, there used to be a beaver dam across that”. “Oh that’s just F***ing peachy” I muttered to myself. Then he says “If you follow the edge of the swamp, you can get out to the highway”. The wife was standing there with 3 day old $130.00 shoes which she didn’t wish to wade through a swamp in, so we tried following the swamp again. We went far enough this time to realize we’d probably make it to the highway by afternoon the next day. So back we go, and knee deep in full attire across the swamp I waded. The wife came across in her socks with her new shoes draped around her neck. We then continued to follow the red markers. Encouraged by the appearance of these fresh ones, and the well beaten path, and the steady increase in litter along it, we figured we were getting nearer to civilization. Finally, we burst out of the bush onto an abandoned old roadway. Guessing we were south of where we started, we turned north and started walking.
I’d had enough of these unknown trails and roadways, so I opted we turn around and get to the highway. At least I knew it was well marked and easy to follow, which would’ve been a real treat for me at that point. As luck would have it, we emerged onto Hwy 41 right near the sign stating Sheffield CA at the Next Exit. We walked up the highway, down the road, got into the car, and got the Hell outa that cursed park.
THE FINAL TAKE (S)
Here was my take on Sheffield as we drove Home, wet, smelly, fatigued, and supremely pissed off ! If you aren’t gonna safely maintain your GD trails, then don’t advertise them. If you’re gonna advertise your poorly marked trails then at least tell walkers what I just did. That trail is not fit for the average walker who has certain expectations of a CONSERVATION AREA ! So, if you’re gonna treat your trails like they have an unmaintained Wildlife Area designation, then don’t call it a Conservation Area ! As well, don’t call a trail where walkers have to wade, knee deep across a swamp and then shanks-mare it up a highway, a F***ing LOOP TRAIL ! And furthermore, that damned mushroom was so contorted and flattened by the time we got Home, I couldn’t tell if it was a chanterelle or a squashed piece of bear sh!t, so I had to throw it out !
Here’s after I cooled off a couple of days. Sheffield is a “not to be missed” treat for all the senses. The wildlife (my first sighting of a milk snake in the wild), the fungal proliferation (my first possible chanterelle), and the blueberries make it a foragers paradise. And don’t even talk to me about the magnificent views from the granite heights. Glacial boulders dot the landscape at every turn, from the granite outcroppings to the deep dark forests and wetlands surrounding them.
However, the “loop trail” mentioned in the write-ups is no longer a loop. The break in the loop is at such a location as to make this a VERY long return trail. As well, the trail markers become increasingly difficult to see as the trail continues. I wouldn’t advise following the trail any further than within eyeshot of your picnic site. The views on the trail are just “more of the same” as from your picnic site, so you won’t be missing anything.