The unusually mild November we are having is drawing to a close. There is now a definite nip in the air and a sharpness as it fills your nostrils and lungs. The time is fast approaching, when the wool gloves will be packed away in favour of the insulating, frost protection ones. But for the moment, you can still break a sweat running around after two kids on scooters, and peel off a layer to cool down, without a thin layer of ice forming!
So, on Sunday, while the good people of Whitby Shores battled with their exterior Christmas decorations and wrestled with snake-like coils of lights, we piled into the Jeep and drove over to Ajax, for a spot of scooter free-wheeling on the undulating hills of the lakeside trail.
The vast body of water that is Lake Ontario swelled and sighed to our left – silver-grey, reflecting the low, scattered stratus clouds shrouding the sky. J & T raced each other on their scooters while K & I followed behind with S in the regal comfort of her pushchair. The trail traces the edge of the lake. A few steps to the left and you would plunge over the cliff to the rocky beach-line below. Submerged rocks and boulders give the impression you’re being stalked by whales, catching your attention from the corner of your eye. Of course, there are no whales here, but the rounded glistening humps being caressed by the waves appeal to my imagination.
As we left open ground and entered more wooded terrain, we found a secluded sandy beach, littered with the carcasses of bleached driftwood. Some construction took place, some sand writing, and a sword-fight or two, before we continued on our exploratory journey. The autumn colours have almost disappeared now, most leaves have made their inevitable decent to create a speckley, crackley carpet underfoot. The trees stand stark and bare against the sky. Only the red stems of the Dogwood shrubs and the odd rash of red berries here and there, from a scattering of Fireberry Hawthorn, offer a contrast to the yellows and browns of dried grasses and winter foliage.
We follow a boardwalk and come upon a metal framed bridge with timber boards which traverses Duffin’s Creek. The creek, like many creeks and streams around here, has its head-waters on the slopes of the Oak Ridges Moraine. Less than 300 years ago the area was a wilderness of great forests and secluded clearings, populated by bear, wolf and deer, and the Mississauga Indians, who were hunter/gatherers, and camped around the mouth of the creek. For decades, fur-traders had canoed the shores of Lake Ontario, and the Indians were eager to trade with them for whiskey, axes and weapons. The creek was named by a surveyor called Augustus Jones, in a 1791 survey, after an Irish settler, Duffin – first name unknown – who mysteriously disappeared.
It was some time after 1780, when Duffin arrived. He paddled up the creek and built himself a cabin. He lived off the land, and most likely traded beaver, fox and muskrat with the Indians. Historical records describe him as genial and friendly, someone who got along with most, until the day a traveller stopped by his cabin to find the door ajar. Some say Duffin was murdered, citing the signs of a struggle and bloodstains on the rough plank floor as evidence. His body was never found.
This part of the trail is known as Simcoe Point and coniferous trees become more prevalent. A greeny-gold blanket of pine needles fragrances the air and muffles our footsteps.
It was here, at the mouth of the creek, that another of Ajax-Pickering’s pioneer settlers, William Peak – a fur trader and Indian interpreter – and his wife Margaret, first arrived in 1793. The dense forest was bristling with wildlife and the creek was filled with salmon, only a pitchfork was needed to spear a meal. The clay and silt soil beds were indicative of a fertile lake plain and the Peaks cleared some land to farm. They also built one of the earliest known mills on Duffins Creek but that, along with their home, was destroyed by fire early on. Despite the hardships the wilderness inflicted, they managed to raise a large family, and unlike poor Duffin, their family lived on in the area. Settlement of Pickering progressed at a slow rate, attempts to establish commercial businesses failed, largely due to the scant population. You can get an idea of the hardship experienced by these early pioneers in this quote from a neighbouring Whitby Township settler in 1820:
The County north of that (was) one unbroken wilderness … With no grist mill in the Township of (Whitby), the nearest being situated at Duffin’s Creek, which was of the rudest character, and hence out of repair, the family was obliged for weeks at a time to go without bread. Meat of any kind was only a rarity which few could afford. The nearest store was at Little York, where the journey, for years, had to be made on foot.
William Peak died on November the 11th 1842, and his wife Margaret lived on into her 90’s with the family of her youngest child, James. Their granddaughter, Marianne, married John Henry Greenlaw, a Scot who was orphaned on the voyage to Upper Canada. They eventually inherited the land, raised a family of three daughters and a son, and in 1911, John built a summer resort near the mouth of the creek and named it Simcoe House. The following year, he died. The resort and the original Peak family homestead was sold, ending over one hundred years of family ownership, clawed from the unforgiving land and passed on generation by generation
Simcoe house prospered as a holiday location with visitors coming from all over Ontario and neighbouring Quebec, but the Great Depression brought it to it’s knees, and a fire in the 1950’s dealt the death blow.
The Peak-Greenlaw family burial ground lies on the shores of the creek, the only existing link to a pioneer spirit and a time of grim endurance in the face of adversity. The graves lie unmarked, having been divested of markers by vandals over fifty years ago. No complete record of burials here exists, but it is known that the family are joined by three unnamed young sailors, whose bodies were washed up on the shores of the lake in 1899, and were provided with a burial and a plot in the family cemetery by John Greenlaw. The site is marked by three Maple trees that are over a hundred years old. In a land of often harsh existence, kindness is extended to strangers and family alike, for we are all at the mercy of the elements.
We lingered a while at the cemetery, looking at the bare Maple trees that stand guard over the sacred ground and musing over what life must have been like back then. In the silence of the pine-cloaked glade, the feeling that you could reach out and connect with the past was almost palpable. You can’t help but feel like a guest in someone’s home, regardful and cautious in this space that is someone else’s. We paid our respects and turned homewards, a new appreciation of the perspective that life through the generations brings, fresh in our thoughts.