Thursday, 2 April 2015

Ice Climbing at Tiffany Falls Conservation Area

By John Williams, Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision and Strategy Project Manager

 If you love the outdoors there is no shortage of new things to see, and do. This past winter I decided that the new outdoor adventure I was going to try was Ice Climbing.

The last two winters have been especially cold in Southern Ontario, and while this often makes outdoor activity less than inviting it also provides the unique opportunity for activities such as Ice Climbing. The deep freeze we have experienced has provided for ideal conditions for ice climbers to practice their passion, and for the complete novice to try a very unique and special sport.  So while I was wondering how to best give this sport a try, I took to Google, and then it happened, all rather spontaneously. Within an hour I had found a provider in ONE AXE Pursuits, a location at Tiffany Falls, and a date being that Saturday (just a few days away).

I called up a few friends and within the hour I had three friends ready and willing to give ice climbing a try. I had the advantage of knowing that ice climbing was possible locally but my friends and many others are surprised that you don’t have to “go far up north, out west, or internationally to ice climb on such amazing ice” says Christa, of ONE AXE Pursuits.

Anyone who knows Hamilton, and its abundance of Greenspace, is likely to know of its waterfalls. Tiffany Falls which is located a short hike from a small parking lot on Wilson Street in Ancaster, is only one example of Hamilton’s beautiful waterfalls. And, in the depths of winter this waterfall serves beauty in the form of adventure, as it freezes providing the platform for ice climbing.

ONE AXE Pursuits offers ice climbing and tutorials to the novice climber, as well as the seasoned veteran. I booked with this company to go ice climbing on Saturday. Tiffany Falls as it turns out is a well-known location in the ice climbing community, according to ONE AXE Pursuits. I must say ONE AXE Pursuits was excellent in providing us newbies with the necessary gear, instruction and oversight not only to introduce us to ice climbing but for us to really enjoy the day!

Gearing Up 
Planning to go in just a few days left me with little time for research, planning and any necessary shopping; so everything felt a bit rushed even on the day itself. I picked up my three friends and headed to Tiffany Falls Conservation Area. Once we navigated a parking spot and piled out of the Jeep we introduced ourselves to ONE AXE Pursuits staff. We completed our waivers (signing our lives away) and in short order we were assigned our gear which included:
  • Climbing Harnesses 
  • Helmet 
  • Boots
Their staff helped everyone get rigged up correctly; ensuring everyone was comfortable. The key to everyone’s comfort was ensuring we were dressed for the elements. I was wearing (for -20 degrees Celsius in the morning going up to a high of -5 degrees Celsius) :
  • a base layer of thermals and pro-fit long sleeve
  • flexible hiking pants and ‘splash pants’ (many wore ski-pants)
  • a tee shirt, fleece sweater and a fleece lined shell. 
My goal was to be warm and dry, but also to be flexible and dynamic. Climbing obviously requires optimal levels of flexibility, and I did not want to be burdened by too many layers.
While putting on our helmets and harnesses Fredrick Schuett, Director of ONE AXE Pursuits reviewed Tiffany Falls and the short but scenic hike we would be taking in. The blanket of fresh snow against the Niagara Escarpment backdrop made it feel especially remote; despite being so close to urban and suburban areas.

At the Falls
When we arrived at the face of the falls there were about 10 ropes anchored above the falls and below (to assist belaying). Fredrick went over the gear we would be using to actually scale the frozen wall in front of us which included Ice Tools (hand held spikes) and Crampons (boot mounted pointed metal cleats).  These menacing looking tools are essential to dig into the ice and ascend the waterfall; very cool! After a lengthy instruction on how to use the tools safely and effectively we moved onto belaying.

Belaying is the act of assisting a climber to safely climb (ascend) and then to rappel (descend) from the frozen waterfall. Essentially you remove slack from the rope as they ascend (to minimize the distance they can fall); once they have reached the summit you lower them to the ground in a controlled fashion. Sounds pretty easy... and it is; by the days end you have it pretty well figured out. The whole day ONE AXE Pursuits staff is on hand to answer any questions, and lend a hand throughout the day.

The Climbing 
It is a weird feeling stepping onto the waterfalls face; ice is normally difficult to walk on never mind climb! Yet despite all of this, here I was. With my feet on the ground and facing the ice I reached to dig into the ice, or to find a place to hook the ice tool into. Once I had a good handle with both ice tools, I began looking for a place to dig my toes into. The front of the crampons have two definitive pointed ‘spikes’ (for lack of a better word). By kicking with your heel down and toe up, your foot quickly becomes secured, although it hardly feels sturdy. Fredrick instructs, “You just have to trust that your foot has a good hold”. At first I thought he’s plain crazy but after a few reps on my first ascent I realized that it wasn’t taking much effort to secure my foot holds. My hesitation quickly escaped to the back of my mind, securing myself became second nature, and up I went!

The climb is not only fun but fulfilling, searching out a hook and route to get to the top is a rush the entire time. You feel as though your life is in your hands, you are the master of your own fate; all while being totally secure. Occasionally you hear a voice from below, “sweet foot work dude!”… “get a good reach up to your right !”.. as ONE AXE Pursuits’ staff enthusiastically help out, encouraging you to continue. The camaraderie that is created between strangers in one day is surprising and awesome.

As the day goes on you push yourself to do more difficult climbs, all the while getting increasingly fatigued. I couldn’t think of anything else I would have rather been doing, it was a perfect way to spend a frigid winter Saturday!

Hamilton has plenty of greenspace, and whether you want to grab a picture of a waterfall, or climb them, hike, run, fish or paddle you can do it here with ease, and all accessible through the Hamilton Conservation Authority’s Conservation Areas.

Find a Conservation Area, find a reason, and get outside. Hamilton’s outdoors are amazing and are waiting to be experienced. In the dead of winter there are still ways to get a rush, and feel alive !

The Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision and Strategy recognizes the unique opportunities that the Dundas Valley area offers to those who live near and visit from afar. Ice Climbing in the Dundas Valley Vision area is an especially unique opportunity usually reserved to the true adventurer, willing to invest high amounts of time and finance in order to experience what we are so lucky to here at home.
If you are an adventure junkie, or simply want to give something new a try, I would recommend Ice Climbing in the Dundas Valley.

Please be sure to respect our natural areas, we will only have them if we take care of them. Ice climbing is only permitted through one of the two providers; ONE AXE Pursuits, and the Alpine Club of Canada.

John Williams is the Project Manager for the Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision and Strategy. You can contact him by email at or 905-525-2181, ext. 157

Links ONE AXE Pursuits   
Alpine Club of Canada
Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision
Tourism Hamilton

Pictures were provided by ONE AXE Pursuits. 
The Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision is made possible by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Before Valens Lake Conservation Area

Not many people realize that Valens Lake looked very different 50 years ago; to many, they only know it as it is today. This park didn’t exist back then and it was all farm land, which the Hamilton Conservation Authority bought to build a dam to help control flood waters. Where the lake is today was once only a small creek. Today all you will find are a few ruins, rock piles and old stone and cedar rail farm fences running through the trees where once there were fields. Below is a map of the area from 1875, the Valens Lake Conservation Area boundaries are in red. 

In the early 1800’s the area where the park is located was settled by a number of pioneer families, one of them was John Valens after whom the park and the village was named. This area was covered in old growth forest and they cleared most of the land for farming. In the mid sixties, the Hamilton Conservation Authority approached the landowners on which Valens Lake is now situated and bought the land to make a reservoir to control flood waters and provide water for the Beverly Swamp during dry spells. The dam was constructed and some of the land which would be flooded was cleared of trees. It took less than a week for the lake to fill up to its present level. A major tree planting program began and many of the farm fields were planted with scots pine, red pine and spruce. Site plans were developed for the day use area and campgrounds and the conservation area slowly took shape. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests stocked largemouth bass in the lake and was the only species of fish ever introduced, all the other fish just appeared over time.

There were only 150 campsites (17 sites had electric and water hookups) when the park first opened, today there are 226 sites. The campground looked much different back then; all the trees would have been small saplings no more than a couple feet tall when they were planted. To get an idea of what the area looked like take a walk through the 30 hectares of land which the HCA purchased about eight years ago, it is located to the west of the Cedars loop; follow the trail between sites 309 and 310. This area was planted shortly after the HCA purchased it, these fields will eventually be developed into campsites. We plan to start developing the first loop in 2016, which will add about 25 new serviced sites.

There are remnants of farm buildings across the property; you can find some by the Ruins Group Area and across the lake where the Rabbit Run and Boardwalk Trails join. There are also remnants of a lime kiln next to the fire pit in the Pinegrove Group Area. There are only two original homes remaining on the property, one is located at the front of the park as you drive in on the right. This was owned by the Ferguson Family, it is a beautiful large stone house. The other house is located across the lake next to the dam, John Valens built this house and it was purchased by the McNealy’s in the early 1900’s, from who the HCA bought the property. One room of this house was used as a post office in the early days.

Today as you walk the trails around Valens Lake, all you will see are the remnants of fields, fence rows and rock piles. It is hard to imagine corn or wheat growing throughout the campgrounds and horses pulling plows as the farmers tilled the fields. The lake was once a large field, today people swim, canoe and fish where once a farmer grew crops and cattle grazed. So the next time you are at Valens Lake Conservation Area and see a rock pile or fence line, stop and take a moment and imagine the pioneers clearing the land…if only they could see the place now.

Paul Karbusicky
Valens Lake Superintendent
Hamilton Conservation Authority


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Nature Crawl in the Dundas Valley

The Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision and Strategy joined forces with the Hamilton Conservation Foundation (HCF), the Hamilton-Halton Watershed Stewardship Program (HHWSP) and the Giants Rib Discovery Centre (GRDC) to recognize the year’s donors and volunteers and all the efforts to preserve and enhance the Dundas Valley Area through a special Nature Crawl, The Shades of Autumn.  Free to all donors, the crawl featured a BBQ and two guided hikes into the beauty of the Dundas Valley, in the height of its fall colours.

HCF and HHWSP were also highlighting their receipt of a donation by the RBC Blue Water Project Leadership Grant of $45,000 dollars for an upcoming pilot project entitled Made in Dundas Solutions to Managing Stormwater.  This grant will fund the  HHWSP’s work with landowners and volunteers in the built Community of Dundas to encourage, design, implement and demonstrate lot level retrofit projects to reduce the impacts of stormwater runoff into Spencer Creek, which flows into Cootes Paradise, Hamilton Harbour and Lake Ontario.  More about the HHWSP

One of the guided hikes was led by Giant’s Rib volunteer hike leader, Ron Plinte. Ron is one of a half dozen volunteers who leads weekend interpretive hikes for the GRDC. The “Giant’s Rib” was an early name for the Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve.  The Giant’s Rib Discovery Centre is a small interpretive centre in the Dundas Valley’s Trail Centre building, which educates visitors about the Niagara Escarpment. Fossil displays, interpretive panels, an escarpment library, taxidermy and crafts for kids are a few features visitors can enjoy on weekends, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers. As part of the Giant’s Rib Escarpment Education Network (GREEN), the Discovery Centre also features a monthly artist or photographer on display, monthly lectures, curriculum-based Rocks and Minerals teacher’s kits for grade 4, and an escarpment website. The Giant’s Rib is a partner in the Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision. GREEN holds volunteer appreciation days in the spring and fall and was excited to share this event with the Foundation and contribute to the excellent program enjoyed by all.   More about the Giant’s Rib Discovery Centre.
The Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision is a comprehensive community centric initiative which is focused on conservation efforts that are meant to preserve or enhance the Dundas Valley Community and Area. It was my pleasure as Project Manager for the Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision to recognize the efforts of many, and to share how they are helping the community and the Hamilton Conservation Authority realize several elements of the 50 Year Vision. 

After the key note address and the cheque presentation by RBC to the Hamilton Conservation Foundation, two guided hikes were offered into the Dundas Valley. As the Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision Project Manager I led a guided hike to the Hermitage and back along the Main Loop trail. The valley floor and tree canopy provided a spectacular variety of colours for those participating in the hike, and there was plenty of opportunity to highlight the unique natural features of the Dundas Valley Conservation Area including the Carolinian Forest, the Niagara Escarpment, and the history of Sulphur Springs, Sulphur Creek and the Hermitage.  The comprehensive 50 Year Vision recognizes the unique architectural and cultural heritage the history of the area provides; the promotion and preservation of this area is central to the 50 year vision, and sharing it with people is essential. 

The Nature Crawl event provided the opportunity for the Hamilton Conservation Foundation to recognize the donors and volunteers that make environmental, and conservation efforts possible throughout our watershed. In the future, this event will provide the opportunity for partnering organizations, and those fulfilling elements within the vision, to promote their work and reach out to like-minded people, be it organizations, or possible donors/volunteers. 

To donate to the restoration of the Hermitage, please visit the Hamilton Conservation Foundation’s website and select Hermitage Ruins Restoration in the “Fund to Support” drop down menu.  Or contact the Hamilton Conservation Foundation  at 905-525-2181 between 8:30am and 4:30pm, Monday to Friday.

John Williams
Project Manager; Dundas Valley 50 Year Vision and Strategy
Hamilton Conservation Authority