Bikepacking just 115 km from Toronto. Se­ri­ously.

A FULLY LOADED AD­VEN­TURE ON THE CEN­TRAL ON­TARIO LOOP TRAIL

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Matthew Kadey

A fully loaded ad­ven­ture on the Cen­tral On­tario Loop Trail The net­work of trails not far from the prov­ince’s pop­u­la­tion cen­tres lets you get away eas­ily for days

Since bikepacking’s birth, the dis­ci­pline has been closely linked to big rides in west­ern North Amer­ica, such as the iconic Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide route and the Ari­zona Trail. But as the pop­u­lar­ity of this back­pack­ing or bike-tour­ing style of travel con­tin­ues to grow, more ad­ven­ture-seek­ing rid­ers are look­ing to kick up some dirt well east of the Rock­ies. So when an email landed in my in­box invit­ing me on a pre­dom­i­nantly off-road multi-day ride in On­tario this past Septem­ber, I had to sign on to see if I could have an in­spir­ing bikepacking trip with­out the need of a plane ticket.

The Cen­tral On­tario Loop Trail (colt) makes use largely of an ex­ten­sive net­work of rail trails con­verted from a once thriv­ing rail­way. The trail is an un­der­ser­viced tourism ini­tia­tive link­ing to­gether a hand­ful of com­mu­ni­ties in the heart of the prov­ince that were ma­jor play­ers in On­tario’s min­ing and forestry in­dus­tries years ago. Long a pop­u­lar play­ground for atvs, dirt bikes and snow­mo­biles, the paths are now see­ing more non-mo­tor­ized bikepack­ers as they ride the route that’s within easy strik­ing dis­tance of ma­jor hubs. At cer­tain points, it’s as close as 110 km to Toronto and 215 km to Ot­tawa.

My trip in­cluded the broth­ers Steve and Greg Shikaze, along with Hal Judd, a vet­eran of nearly every North Amer­i­can moun­tain bike stage race and who had just com­pleted a har­row­ing bikepacking trip along the Colorado Trail. Ev­ery­one but me was out­fit­ted with cushy fat bikes and full-on bikepacking gear. I had a moun­tain bike frame that had many fea­tures for tour­ing. But how gnarly could the On­tario back­coun­try re­ally be?

Our ped­alling be­gan on the Hal­ibur­ton County Rail Trail, which shoots south from the town of Hal­ibur­ton as it fol­lows the lazy Burnt River. Along the way, it re­warded us with plenty of eye candy in­clud­ing post­card-per­fect tree re­flec­tions in small lakes and his­tor­i­cal tres­tle bridges that speak of the re­gion’s in­dus­tri­ous past. A car­a­van of cheer­ful women on carts be­ing pulled by ponies proved you never know what you’ll come across when tour­ing on two wheels.

Kin­mount, a vil­lage of roughly 500 denizens no­table for once thriv­ing on forestry and be­ing among the first Ice­landic set­tle­ments in Canada, came quickly, fol­lowed by the Vic­to­ria Rail Trail, which is dom­i­nated by smooth, crushed gravel all the way to the re­fu­elling sta­tion of Sweet Bot­toms Cof­fee in Fenelon Falls. “Fol­low me and I’ll show you guys that you’ve come to a cy­cling-friendly busi­ness,” said owner Wayne Jolly. A bit ap­pre­hen­sive, we fol­lowed him into a back room of his her­itage build­ing only to en­counter bike porn. Through­out many years, Jolly has amassed a col­lec­tion of ce­leste Bianchi race bikes dat­ing back decades. We could see that it gave Jolly great plea­sure to present such cy­cling his­tory. I, how­ever, do pre­fer the mod­ern con­ve­nience of not need­ing to dis­mount from my bike for the sim­ple act of chang­ing gears.

As we rode south to­ward Lindsay, more and more fe­cund farm­land ap­peared on ei­ther side of the trail. When I would some­times get ahead of ev­ery­one in my group, the rum­ble of their ap­proach­ing fat bikes sounded like a build-up to a Lord­ofther­ings bat­tle scene.

From Lindsay, colt rid­ers can con­tinue south via the Ga­naraska For­est, home to a trail that has an Epic des­ig­na­tion by the In­ter­na­tional Moun­tain Bike As­so­ci­a­tion, which means the route meets a high stan­dard of back­coun­try rid­ing. Once they reach Lake On­tario, they can pedal along the paved Wa­ter­front Trail through towns such as Port Hope and Cobourg be­fore head­ing back north. We fan­cied the more in­land op­tion of ped­alling due east from Lindsay on a sec­tion of the Trans Canada Trail, now pro­moted as the coast-to-coast Great Trail. Af­ter a first day that was less rum­ble and tum­ble than ex­pected and much warmer than the Septem­ber date sug­gested it should be, we set up camp at Emily Lake Provin­cial Park where a fall­ing sun set the beach aglow. We had rid­den roughly 100 km. Greg and Hal cast their fish­ing lines. We swat­ted at swarm of pes­ter­ing bugs that were still thriv­ing in the late-sea­son heat wave.

Awak­en­ing to an­other ab­surdly sul­try morn­ing, we broke down camp, spooned up oat­meal and jumped on our bikes with un­com­pro­mised op­ti­mism for the day ahead. The Kawartha sec­tion of the Great Trail head­ing east to­ward Peterborough is nearly as smooth as an­cient river stones. It brought us to the Doube’s Tres­tle Bridge. The de­com­mis­sioned rail­way bridge spans 200 m and is perched over the ver­dant But­ter­milk Val­ley, af­ford­ing us plenty of photo ops.

I had plot­ted a route, and then used gps to take us around bustling down­town Peterborough in favour of quiet side roads and com­mu­nity trails. Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy can sim­plify route find­ing to keep your bikepacking trip smooth. For lessthan-con­fi­dent map read­ers, gps re­moves any was-that-the-cor­rect­turn angst. Lead­ing the group around the town, I felt a tad like a tour guide and con­sid­ered ask­ing for post-trip tips.

Af­ter a cou­ple hours of mel­low rail trail cy­cling that skirted us around soft-hued farm­ers’ fields, I was hun­gry for a touch of more var­ied rid­ing. I lacked the trail Zen of my rid­ing mates and craved the un­du­la­tions that back roads can af­ford. I’ve al­ways found the con­stant ped­alling (read: no coast­ing) that rail trail rid­ing de­mands to be sur­pris­ing dif­fi­cult, both phys­i­cally and at times men­tally. And who says bikepacking is only about rid­ing the trails and can’t be some­thing you make your own? So break­ing away from the pack, I self­ishly bolted off onto dirt-road good­ness. Between Peterborough and

“But how gnarly could the On­tario back­coun­try re­ally be?”

Hast­ings, the tree-lined back roads were de­li­ciously un­du­lat­ing and car-free. I ar­rived in Hast­ings fam­ished and in good spir­its. A plump boy boasted about the meat-lovers’ pizza on of­fer at the Bridge­wa­ter Café, but I de­cided on a bagel and cream cheese – less of a gut bomb – washed down with iced-cof­fee rocket fuel. Si­t­u­ated near Rice Lake, where I used to reel in large­mouth bass in my pre-cy­cling youth, Hast­ings oozes with that clas­sic small-town On­tario cot­tage-coun­try charm. The his­toric Lock 18 on the Trent Sev­ern Wa­ter­way was clearly lur­ing in the from-out-of-town crowd, par­tic­u­larly with the sun beam­ing brightly.

The day’s high­light was in the town of Camp­bell­ford: the Ran­ney Gorge Sus­pen­sion Bridge in Fer­ris Provin­cial Park. Hov­er­ing above the ex­pan­sive Ran­ney Gorge and rush­ing Trent River, the 92-m-long bridge swayed ever so slightly as our loaded rigs moved over it. Down be­low were rows of hefty tur­tles sun­ning them­selves on the rocks.

It was hard to be­lieve that the air in Septem­ber could be im­preg­nated with so much hu­mid­ity. By the time the trail dumped us in the for­mer iron-min­ing town of Marmora af­ter 125 km of ped­alling, our col­lec­tive water re­serves and en­ergy lev­els were near­ing empty. Even if dom­i­nated by trail­ers, the Crowe Val­ley Camp­ground perched along the epony­mous river was a pleasant spot to pitch our tents for the night. We passed Scotch around a fire and trum­peted tales of great bike feats as the night flowed in. To­mor­row, we’d cre­ate more sto­ries.

We ped­alled onto the Hast­ings Her­itage Trail just out­side of Marmora. It was the most rugged rid­ing of the trip in wilder­ness. The trail was pop­u­lated by rut­ted sec­tions (thank you, mo­tor­ized ve­hi­cles). A num­ber of pud­dle cross­ings re­quir­ing care­ful ne­go­ti­a­tion to keep us from soak­ing our feet. In spring, I imag­ine that rid­ing

through this marsh­land would be bug-in­fested and so mis­ery-wor­thy of a #pack­raft­ing hash­tag on In­sta­gram. But in the early fall, with the pud­dles more sub­dued, we em­braced our child­ish sides and rel­ished the chance to splash up water still with the rub­ber side down. Jump­ing out of harm’s way, the frogs didn’t share our en­thu­si­asm.

As we cranked north­ward, this sec­tion of the colt pro­vided a vis­ual buf­fet of tree tun­nels, blue heron­pop­u­lated marshes and leaves be­gin­ning to show their late-sea­son blush. As a rider, you also feel the most iso­lated on this sec­tion of the route ow­ing to a very light pop­u­la­tion den­sity. I once again took some rugged dirt roads, but these verged on eerily empty. The only thing I could hear on the fre­quent rocky, punchy climbs was my heart ready to pound out of my chest.

On the run into Ban­croft, the trail changed per­son­al­ity into an eye­ball-rat­tling bumpy, sandy ob­sta­cle course. Ev­ery­one else in my group cruised on more suit­able ex­tra-fat tires. With my more hum­ble 2.5" setup, I was flail­ing around like a fish on a dock. Steve had en­tered into a dark place and was in lit­tle mood for con­ver­sa­tion. Still feel­ing the con­se­quences of a con­cus­sion-in­duc­ing fall sev­eral months ago, Steve found the long days in the sad­dle tested his re­solve. As it is of­ten the case with bike tour­ing, it’s mind over mat­ter. On the whole, Steve was rock­ing it. Af­ter an­other day with more than 100 km of rid­ing loaded bikes with a net up­hill, the guys were in the mood for just one thing upon en­ter­ing Ban­croft: well-earned craft beer and burg­ers at the Ban­croft Brewery Co. I was over­joyed when I saw a small ice cream par­lour ready to sat­isfy my urge for sug­ary, creamy calo­ries with a num­ber of Kawartha Dairy flavours. Blessed with a pic­turesque set­ting on the me­an­der­ing York River, River Bend Park was the per­fect place to rest our ragged bod­ies and par­take in calo­rie glut­tony. Dreams of sun, sand and sad­dle sores un­der a star-filled sky were only in­ter­rupted by the sounds of bod­ies flop­ping around on sleep­ing mats. To con­nect our loop, we plot­ted a route that moved west from Ban­croft back to Hal­ibur­ton. A morn­ing fog that danced off Bap­tiste Lake greeted us as we took on a ride dom­i­nated by en­thralling paved and dirt coun­try roads. They don’t call it the High­lands for noth­ing. These paths have more ups and downs than a Van Halen gui­tar solo. But de­spite legs that were cry­ing foul, there were few com­plaints in the group as our ride weaved its way through some of the best Cana­dian Shield land­scape that this north­ern part of Cen­tral On­tario has to of­fer. It’s a land where lakes seem­ingly out­num­ber res­i­dents by a good mar­gin. Also, I was amazed how fast the fat­ties could move on pave­ment when mo­ti­vated to do so. We re­fu­elled at Agnew’s Gen­eral Store, known as the geo­caching cap­i­tal of Canada, in the ham­let of Wil­ber­force. In case you’re play­ing along, this store that sells every­thing from fish­ing line to ice-cream sand­wiches can be found at N45° 02.267' W078° 13.383'. Ow­ing to the plethora of lakes and ponds, there is no di­rect line from A to B in this land. So we snaked our way to­ward the fin­ish line slowly. By the time we ar­rived at the Lit­tle Tart bak­ery on the out­skirts of Hal­ibur­ton, the num­ber of in­clines had red­lined my blood sugar. Just like tack­ling the colt on two wheels, the oozy but­ter tart at the bak­ery was sat­is­fy­ingly sweet.

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