“We’re here because we’re nine months into the pandemic and we are tired of being so careful.”
My children are convinced the basement is haunted. Not our basement, but the remnants of a basement we’ve stumbled across during a hike on the Timber’s Tract of the Uxbridge Trail systems—the official Trail Capital of Canada. It’s the Thanksgiving long weekend and the forest in this west part of the trail is darker than the rest. A dense canopy of trees huddle close over our heads as we carefully pick our way down uneven stairs into the stone foundation of what we presume to be an old house.
The town of Uxbridge, Ontario is replete with ghost stories. There’s the haunting of the Hobby Horse—a local restaurant and pub. Many employees have reported creepy occurrences like seeing the apparition of a former maid. The Quaker Hill stone pile is reported to bleed once a year, on the anniversary of a horrendous murder that took place in the area. There’s an old house on Main Street where a ghost has been spotted pushing the curtains aside to peek out a second floor window.
But I’ve kept these stories to myself, and my children know nothing of them. Moreover, the locations of these hauntings are nowhere near the trail. Still, the lonely, crumbling basement calls them to mind: a fleeting spectre of the past.
“There’s a bone!” my oldest son shouts, eliciting shrieks from his sisters who try to backtrack up the stairs. They run into their father, who is trying to control our excitable goldendoodle, Loki, and me, who is juggling my camera in one hand and their toddler brother on my hip. My oldest son chuckles to himself, delighted with the chaos he’s caused.
The “bone” is a tree limb, its bark flaking off to reveal the lighter wood underneath.
“Don’t touch anything,” I say. I’m quick to qualify, “I mean don’t touch the stone—the foundation.”
In my twenties, I worked as an educator at Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto, and during that time, I saw how the wear and tear of touch can take its toll on historical artifacts. I want my children to keep their hands off what’s left of the building, but I don’t want them to shy away from engaging with nature. There’s a tree that’s fallen from the forest floor into the basement.
It’s irresistible to my kids, who pull themselves up to walk along its length. I start to warn, “Be careful,” but stop myself. They aren’t far off the ground. And we’re here because we’re nine months into the pandemic and we are tired of being so careful. We are tired of being cooped up.
It seems like many other people feel the same way. We headed to the Countryside Preserve trail in Uxbridge to blow off some steam outside, but when we arrived, the parking lot was packed to capacity.
We careened past.
Thankfully, the Uxbridge Trails contain 220 kms of seasonally managed stomping ground for hikers, runners, cyclists and equestrians. These trails wind throughout part of the Oak Ridges Moraine—an environmentally sensitive landform which spans roughly 470,000 hectares in south central Ontario and is a vital water source for Toronto and the surrounding area.
We decided on the Timber’s Tract, which is part of the Durham Regional Forest Trail and located just a five minute’s drive from our original destination.
In retrospect, this should have been our trail of choice to begin with: lesser-known with less ground to cover. Perfect for kids under 10, as all of mine are. While the hours of exploration and fresh air would have all of them—dog included—so tired they’d be open-mouthed passed out on the way home, the trail loops in predictable, easy to navigate pathways through sun-molted forest.
I was surprised to learn that most of the forest is man made; seedlings planted by the thousands in rows during the early 20th century.
I learned this from Cory Byron, a Forestry Program Coordinator with the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority. After inquiring with the Township of Uxbridge about the basement on the Timbers Tract, which had left me feeling nostalgic and curious, they had referred me to Byron. It was impossible not to wonder who had lived there before and what had become of them.
However, Byron didn’t have those answers. Even after putting the question to a group of town residents on Facebook, I still don’t have a definitive answer on that. Although, one Uxbridgian said that he thinks his father had once told him that it was the foundation of the old Johnson homestead—an historic family farm that had failed.
Byron agrees that could be the case. At one time, there were many such farms peppering the Oak Ridges Moraine, and many failed miserably. The soil, it turned out, was like beach sand.
Of course, the agricultural hopefuls of the mid-1800s didn’t know that then. They’d been given swaths of land by the government on the condition that they clear it.
“It was part of the settler mentality to tame the wild,” Byron says during our phone call. “But they cleared all that land, resulting in mass deforestation.”
Without the trees, the sandy soil blew up, creating sand drifts. Realizing their error, the farms were abandoned and the people left.
Fast forward to the 1930s. The deforestation had resulted in substantial erosion and the sand blows were so immense that they covered cars. The Oak Ridges Moraine was at risk of becoming a dust bowl. The government implemented the Agreement Forest Program and leased land from settlers with the intention of planting trees to help stop this catastrophe.
Over the decades, billions of trees were planted under the program, tens of thousands in the area my family and I explored that weekend. It would be hard to guess the trees were ever in orderly rows. Every 30-50 years, forest managers like Bryon go out and remove every third row so that there is more light and room for the remaining trees to grow.
“Our job,” Byron explains, “is to make the forest better than when we got there.”
When we’d arrived at the trailhead, my eldest daughter started reading a vandalized sign encouraging people to pick up after their dogs. “Pick up your horse shit.”
I’d given her a sharp look. “What?” she said, shrugging. “I’m just reading the sign.”
At the Timber’s Trail, this is the extent of errant humanity that I see, but Byron informs me that there is more. “We know how important these green spaces are to everyone, especially now, and they are getting even more use. This is great, but we just want people to care for the properties too.”
This means not littering or vandalising signs. It means cleaning up after your pets and keeping your dogs on a leash. It means not parking in emergency vehicle parking spots or on the roads. It means giving people their space and if a trail looks too busy, going somewhere else. The Uxbridge Trail system is massive and there are plenty of other trails to hike both in and out of the town, proper.
It also means not urinating on the fieldstone foundation of an old homestead.
“Don’t!” I bark at our dog, who, as we’re exploring the basement, has decided to lift his leg to the wall.
He puts his paw back on the ground and sits, looking guilty. I squat down to look in his deep amber eyes. My older son, still trying to terrify his siblings, has started making a low, wailing sound from beneath the cover of the fallen tree.
“It’s okay bud,” I say to Loki, scratching behind his ear and pulling him closer. I need to try to centre myself. I haven’t been able to shake off the feeling that we’re being watched. I scan the treetops, the forest floor that’s slouching into the basement. There’s no one. Loki whines softly and I give him a little squeeze. “We just need to have a little respect.”
Learn more about the Trails of Uxbridge at www.discoveruxbridge.ca/trails.
Hollay Ghadery is a writer and mother of four young children, living in small-town Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in various literary journals, including the Malahat Review, Room, Grain, and The Fiddlehead. Look for her upcoming book of non-fiction, Fuse, coming out with Guernica Editions’ MiroLand imprint in Spring 2021. Follow Hollay on Instagram: @hollayghadery or Facebook @hollayghaderywriter.
All photo credits: Hollay Ghadery