Getting lost in the York Regional Forest is half the fun for four friends from Newmarket who have come to refer to themselves self-deprecatingly as the Lost Girls.
Nancy Fish, Susan Dowell, Donna Norman and Shelagh Fraser started their hour-long weekly forest hikes on May 7, soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit its peak and self-isolation began to take a toll.
As public health restrictions slowly loosened, the time was right to get out into nature for a much needed physical and mental health boost, they say.
“I treasure my friendship with these women,” said Fish, who is retired and started the walking group. “We click. We’re a tight-knit group, we know each other and we know our stories.”
In pre-pandemic days, the friends got together for lunch or a coffee once a month. But if there’s a silver lining to the health crisis, it’s that they see each other more often now and have strengthened the bonds of friendship that for some in the group have been decades in the making.
“Our weekly meet-ups vary from serious tête-à-têtes to basic chin-wagging,” Fish said.
And, of course, getting lost in the 120-kilometre trail system that runs through York Region, which includes 21 forest tracts ideal for walking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing in winter, has provided comic relief for those who have been following their adventures.
“When we follow Nancy is when we get lost,” Dowell said with a laugh on a recent hike through the 3.8-kilometre North Tract trail loop near Whitchurch-Stouffville.
“For me, I’m new to Newmarket in the last year, and I was honoured, to begin with, to be invited by Nancy into this group,” said Dowell, who works as a supply teacher. “Just to meet some new friends was major, and it’s something to look forward to every week. I feel like I belong to something since I’ve been without my job since mid-March. This really got me out of where I could have gone into a depression.”
For Norman, who is retired, the calming effect of being in nature has been a big draw.
“I love nature and it keeps me semi-sane. It’s a perfect setting,“ Norman said, adding that a few weeks after they started their hikes, Fish suggested they grab takeout and socially distance on somebody’s deck afterward. “It’s nice for everybody to get together.”
Fraser, who is also retired, said she always “feels better” after the outing.
“It’s been great because when you can’t see a lot of family and friends, we can all drive on our own, socially distance, and still have that human connection,” said Fraser. “And we get some exercise, it’s all good.”
So far, the friends have hit 13 trails within the York Regional Forest, including the Robinson, Scout and Bendor tracts, Eldred King Woodlands, and they've walked the Nokiidaa Trail from Holland Landing to Rogers Reservoir. They haven't seen much wildlife, except for birds, but watching the forest bloom with trilliums and other flowers over the spring has been a highlight.
They have lost their way and their vehicles temporarily at Sheppard’s Bush Conservation Area in Aurora, and even got lost the first time they tried to find the entrance to the Bendor and Graves trail in East Gwillimbury. But those experiences have created lasting memories during a difficult time, they say.
Their adventures prompted Fish to document the forest walks, which she shared on her personal Facebook page as season and episode entries entitled, Lost Girls.
For example, season 1, episode 9 is called Mosquito Armageddon, and episode 7 is entitled, Naked and Afraid. In the latter episode, the friends pull over quite a few Aurora pedestrians to ask for directions, but they make it out to Vandorf Side Road and complete 7,000 steps.
“We topped it off with a delicious beer and hamburger patio lunch at the George Brew House & Eatery on Main Street. Next week is Scout Tract in Cedar Valley because they have horsies,” Fish wrote in the social media post.
Recently, the group downloaded the AllTrails app and can register the location of their vehicles and better make their way around the often twisty and criss-crossing trails. But Fish continues to wear a bright orange shirt on the hikes, she said humorously, in the event they get lost and “the helicopter comes out looking” for them.
“This is not the place to wear green,” she adds with a grin. “Getting back to nature is wonderful. I felt that longing to get back with nature. This is really fulfilling, and the other thing is I’m so pleased and grateful to York Region and surrounding areas for keeping these beautiful forests and maintaining them because we really have a treasure trove here.”
The group plans to go through one of the region’s forest trails on horseback in the near future, and are talking about how they can continue with their outdoor forest walks when the colder weather moves in.
As the friends walk, they talk about the state of the world and stop to pick trail raspberries to snack on. They carefully step around poison ivy, and do their best to avoid pesky mosquitoes. Then, they come to three separate secondary trails off of the main trail.
“Uh, oh, which way should we go?” they say, laughing.