Bikepacking just 115 km from Toronto. Seriously.
A FULLY LOADED ADVENTURE ON THE CENTRAL ONTARIO LOOP TRAIL
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.