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Publication: Globe and Mail, The
Issue: 18 September 2007, page R5
Title: RAY LOWES, 96: CONSERVATIONIST (Obituaries)
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Nature-loving steel worker inspired the creation of Ontario's Bruce Trail
Self-taught naturalist who grew up on the Saskatchewan Prairie moved to Hamilton and fell in love with the Niagara Escarpment. 'Without him, it would not have started.'
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 18, 2007
For a man with an insatiable curiosity about the natural world, the thought of losing the rugged beauty of Ontario's Niagara Escarpment to development was unthinkable. "Not all of us can study ecology, but we should all have the opportunity to walk under ancient trees on a forest floor that is rich with the things that sustain life," said Ray Lowes, who is credited for inspiring the creation of the Bruce Trail.
In 1968, the self-taught naturalist appealed to the Niagara Escarpment Conference to consider preserving the route, a marked hiking trail on a rocky ridge that stretches more than 800 kilometres across Ontario, for posterity. "It is this right of access to places of natural beauty that I plead for," he said in a speech. "The simplicity of our request is astounding."
The trail had opened the year before as part of Canada's centennial celebrations, but nothing had ever been said of its future. For his part, he knew exactly what was required: "We just want a strip of land that will be left alone - not manicured, not landscaped, not serviced by multilane highways or 'parkways' - and not through new subdivisions. It's not much to ask. A later generation will demand it."
It all started after Mr. Lowe hiked portions of the 3,501-kilometre Appalachian Trail, a route from Maine to Georgia that is maintained by a loose association of about 30 U.S. hiking clubs. "If they could do it," he asked himself, "why couldn't we?"
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At a meeting of the Hamilton Naturalists' Club in 1959, he turned to wildlife artist Robert Bateman, who was also a member of the club, and wondered aloud, "What would you think of a hiking trail winding up the Niagara Escarpment from one end to the other?"
Mr. Bateman liked the idea and, with the support of the Hamilton Naturalists' Club, Mr. Lowes approached the Federation of Ontario Naturalists. Before long, a four-man committee was struck, with Mr. Lowes as secretary along with nature lovers Philip Gosling, Robert MacLaren and Norman Pearson. For the next two years, they pored over maps and plotted a route from Queenston, near Niagara Falls, to Tobermory, on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula.
"He had the dream and he got it going," said Mr. Gosling, a Guelph, Ont., businessman. "Without him, it would not have started."
They started knocking on doors in towns and villages along the escarpment to negotiate access, and soon established trail organizations in several communities. The also reached access agreements with landowners on the planned route. The Bruce Trail Association was formed, and by 1967, the trail was open. The association slowly grew in size; by the late 1970s, it was able to start purchasing land to build a permanent, protected route.
While Mr. Lowes spent time getting his hands dirty building sections of the trail, his main role was that of promoter and office co-ordinator. An impassioned speaker, he gave speeches to raise support and awareness, and used his gift for promotion to attract volunteers and media attention. In the early 1960s, The Toronto Telegram was reporting on hikes held along the trail.
For 20 years, Mr. Lowes served as a director and secretary of the Bruce Trail Association. In 1983, he was made the association's honorary president, which today has the support of more than 8,000 members and 1,000 volunteers. "He was really like a father figure to the whole thing," said Bill Cannon, president of the Bruce Trail Association in the late 1960s.
Mr. Lowes was a child of nature. Raised in rural south-central Saskatchewan, his love of the outdoors developed during the countless hours he spent as a child exploring the countryside near his home. His family ran a general store in the community of Willows, not far from the town of Assiniboia, and he was outside observing birdlife, catching gophers and adopting coyotes at every opportunity.
"He always had that spirit of getting out in nature," said his long-time friend Alan Ernest, the land trust co-ordinator at the Hamilton Naturalists' Club.
Mr. Lowes left home as a teenager and set out across the country to find work. To eke out a living, he sold everything from brushes and men's wear to advertising space in a Catholic publication. Along the way, he met Jane Chamberlain; the two married in 1933. Three years later, they moved to Hamilton.
The Lowes home, which was within walking distance of the Bruce Trail, soon became a playground and nature classroom for neighbourhood children. They joined Mr. Lowes for Sunday hikes, which usually ended with ice cream cones.
Although Mr. Lowes had none of his own, "he loved getting children, in particular, interested in nature," Mr. Ernest said.
In 1938, Mr. Lowes joined Stelco, the steel manufacturer. He stayed for the next 38 years, eventually becoming chief open-hearth metallurgist.
Away from the foundry, he loved to walk the gentle valleys and rocky cliffs of the Bruce Trail and would average about 20 kilometres a week along its length. One of his favourite pastimes was to take a morning in Niagara's Short Hills area, followed by a slice of pie at his favourite restaurant.
"He was a delightful person to go on a walk with," Mr. Cannon said. "He was full of stories about the natural world."
Mr. Lowes never attended university, but was intensely curious about nature and taught himself all he could about birds, insects and plants. When something caught his interest, he sought to know everything he could about it, Mr. Ernest said. About 12 years ago, he visited a friend in Arkansas and, while there, toured a plant that processed black walnuts. He was hooked. After learning all he could about the nuts, he returned to Ontario, contacted the local nut-growers association and proceeded to plant thousands of black walnuts. To his delight, they bore fruit.
Believing that we are all interrelated in the cycle of nature, Mr. Lowes was passionate about protecting the Niagara Escarpment from development. Through his work on the Bruce Trail, he helped spur the Ontario government to establish the Niagara Escarpment Commission in 1973. Mr. Lowes was appointed a founding member of the commission, which was formed to regulate development on the escarpment. After serving for about a decade, he resigned in 1984, saying he felt the body was more concerned with local political interests than conservation.
"I'm kind of sorry to be off the commission," he told The Globe and Mail at the time. "But I think it was the only protest I could make. Maybe now they'll pull up their socks and fly right."
Despite the designation of the Niagara Escarpment as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1990, just under half of the Bruce Trail and its 300 kilometres of associated side trails are currently on protected land. The remaining 53 per cent is on private land, although the Bruce Trail Association continues to buy up parcels each year. Last year, more than $1.3-million was spent securing land on the escarpment; the association now manages 2,178 hectares of land. To buy the remaining trail, the association estimates it needs more than $60-million.
After retiring from Stelco in the early 1970s, Mr. Lowes travelled to more than 40 countries and continued to spend as much time as he could hiking and exploring. Seeing himself as a rugged individualist, he was proud of his physical stamina, Mr. Cannon said. He remembers the delight Mr. Lowes took when one May they swam together in Georgian Bay while ice floes floated nearby. Just this summer, he talked to a friend about mathematical patterns found in the natural world. "That brain of his was always working," Mr. Ernest said.
Although he took to calling himself a "curmudgeon" late in life and "didn't suffer fools lightly," Mr. Lowes received honorary degrees from Brock and McMaster universities for his work on the Bruce Trail. In 2005, The Bruce Trail Association created the Ray Lowes Side Trail in Hamilton in his honour.
Until he turned 90, the year he broke his hip, he had walked five kilometres of the Bruce Trail three or four times a week.
Ray Lowes was born in Saskatchewan on March 23, 1911. He died Aug 29, 2007, at St. Peter's Residence at Chedoke in Hamilton after briefly slipping into a coma. He was 96. He was predeceased by his wife Jane, who died in 1986, and by his brothers Warren and Gerald.