Blur of wa­ter and metal

Weath­ered bridges and the me­an­der­ing Nith River ac­cent a long pedal in the coun­try

Grand Magazine - - FEATURE - BY MATTHEW KADEY

You no­tice a lot of things rid­ing a bike that you miss while sit­ting be­hind a steer­ing wheel. There’s a deeper con­nec­tion be­tween you and the place as the vul­ner­a­bil­ity opens up your senses. This is pre­cisely why I’ve spent count­less hours mov­ing my legs in a cir­cu­lar mo­tion while ex­plor­ing the pave­ment, gravel and dirt in and around Water­loo Re­gion.

When it comes to lo­cal rivers, the Grand of­ten gets the ac­co­lades, but I’ve long been smit­ten by the Nith, named af­ter a river in Scot­land. Not by ac­ci­dent, many of my two-wheeled so­journs have brought me to the Nith’s glo­ri­ous se­cluded set­tings and its col­lec­tion of fetch­ing bridges span­ning the gen­er­a­tions. Because of this, I’d in­creas­ingly won­dered how many times I could cross this river dur­ing one big ride, soak­ing up some of On­tario’s ru­ral heart­land along the way.

It would be a full day in the sad­dle but, with the prom­ise of fetch­ing scenery and but­ter tarts, I ca­joled my girl­friend, Tabi Fer­gu­son, into join­ing me on this big Nith bear hug.

We picked the per­fect day for our clos­eto-home ad­ven­ture last sum­mer; the wind was barely no­tice­able and the sky was stud­ded with puffy clouds that of­fered the oc­ca­sional respite from the blaz­ing yel­low orb above.

Cy­cling jer­seys stuffed with home­made en­ergy balls and bars to power our legs, we pedal from our front door in Water­loo to the ham­let of King­wood in Welles­ley Town­ship to of­fi­cially kick off the tour de Nith.

From grav­elly Chalmers-For­rest Road, where the great­est risk of a traf­fic jam is a con­ver­gence of Men­non­ite buggies, we hop over a bar­ri­cade and push our bikes onto the time-worn and mys­te­ri­ous Welles­ley Bridge No. 6, erected in this iso­lated spot about 1910 as a link be­tween Water­loo Re­gion and Perth County. To the north­west from here, the Nith peters out into Smith Creek.

Rusted and dom­i­nated by twisted steel, the 33-me­tre truss bridge, which fea­tures a lat­tice por­tal brac­ing de­sign, has been closed to ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic for sev­eral years.

Cana­dian au­thor Jane Urquhart fa­mously show­cased the ex­panse in her 2001 award-win­ning novel “The Stone Carvers.” Blessed with an ex­ten­sive vista of the Nith lazily carv­ing its way through the ab­surdly beau­ti­ful ver­dant coun­try­side, it’s easy to see why this was where Til­man, the boy in Urquhart’s book, es­caped for swim­ming and fish­ing. Un­de­ni­ably, though, it’s a land that ex­udes a touch of lone­li­ness.

De­spite pres­sure from her­itage con­ser­va­tion­ists, the Town­ship of Welles­ley has balked at the lofty price tag nec­es­sary for restora­tion. If the con­crete pier con­tin­ues to crum­ble, the aban­doned bridge might be in­ca­pable of sup­port­ing even the oc­ca­sional cu­ri­ous cy­clist.

We have many kilo­me­tres to cover on this day, but we take our time re­mov­ing our­selves from this lit­er­ary land­mark.

Part of the Grand River Wa­ter­shed, the Nith is about 60 kilo­me­tres as the crow flies from its birth­place in a wood­lot north­west of Welles­ley to where it buries it­self in the Grand River at Paris. But as it bends and turns its way through Perth, Brant and Ox­ford coun­ties, as well as the Water­loo mu­nic­i­pal­ity, the Nith runs much longer.

And as it touches upon a number of small com­mu­ni­ties, it holds sto­ries of our in­dus­tri­ous and agri­cul­tural ways, past and present. Rivers were largely the first mode of trans­porta­tion and the rea­son for par­tic­u­lar pat­terns of set­tle­ment.

Head­ing south­east through Lis­bon and Philips­burg, Tabi and I pedal over eight more Nith cross­ings be­fore land­ing in New

Ham­burg. Prov­ing that the river prefers no straight path, New Ham­burg of­fers up four ad­di­tional river cross­ings – along with much needed su­gary-baked-goods glut­tony cour­tesy of MeMe’s Café.

Span­ning the Nith on Huron Street, the steel truss Hart­man Bridge was built in 1936 and is the last of its kind to be erected over the river. Re­tain­ing its orig­i­nal lat­tice rail­ing, the bridge is an attractive cen­tre­piece for this town and de­serves its spot on the On­tario Her­itage Bridge List. The New Ham­burg Her­itage Water­wheel is a no­table down­town land­mark built to pay homage to the early set­tlers and the first in­dus­tries in the area – mills – that were pow­ered by wa­ter gleaned from the wa­ter­course. Take away the Nith and you likely bid adieu to these com­mu­ni­ties along route.

A cou­ple of kilo­me­tres east of New Ham­burg, the pin-jointed steel Hol­land Mills Road Bridge was crafted by the Hamil­ton Bridge and Tool Com­pany in the early 1900s, a time when steel bridges were fre­quently con­structed. Now it’s the only re­minder of past ac­tiv­i­ties in the area, in­clud­ing a grist­mill.

How­ever, the bridge is un­de­ni­ably show­ing its age, so of­fi­cials with the Town­ship of Wil­mot have fenced off ac­cess, cit­ing the safety con­cerns of its buck­ling tim­ber deck. That’s a shame as the un­paved Hol­land Mills Road and its 90-de­gree bend on the other side of­fers a vir­tu­ally car-free route to the sleepy com­mu­nity of Haysville and is an ab­so­lute blast on two wheels. In­stead, we’re forced to de­tour back to New Ham­burg to con­tinue our Nith ram­ble.

Sand­wiched be­tween Haysville and Drumbo are nine more Nith road-cross­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties that in­clude a number of rusty steel-truss bridges of yore. Each adds am­bi­ence to any­one ven­tur­ing to these Nith lo­ca­tions to cast a line.

From Plattsville’s River Road to Town­ship Road 12, the peace­ful coun­try paths are great ex­am­ples of why so-called “gravel grind­ing” has be­come a cy­cling pas­sion for an in­creas­ing number of rid­ers. Re­gard­less of a few eye­ball-rat­tling wash­board sec­tions, we cer­tainly revel in the op­por­tu­nity to try to out­race dart­ing goldfinches in­stead of week­day traf­fic.

A hit of caf­feine in Drumbo helps spin our legs to­ward Can­ning, once home to the na­tion’s most fa­mous hockey dad, Wal­ter Gret­zky. Now past the 100-kilo­me­tre mark, we’re in­creas­ingly feel­ing each pedal stroke in our sun-soaked quads.

South­east of Can­ning, the gravel Town­ship Road 2 that is only open to non-ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic brings us to what is cer­tainly one of

the most buzz-wor­thy Nith River bridges – once we get there. I was a bit too gung-ho to reach it, pushed the pace and ended up kiss­ing the dirt. Luck­ily, a few mi­nor scrapes didn’t de­rail our Nith-cen­tric am­bi­tions for the day. The Water­loo Her­itage Bridge In­ven­tory sug­gests this 30-me­tre rivet-con­nected truss bridge, sur­rounded by dense bush, dates back to the wee hours of the 20th cen­tury. It is so nar­row we can only cross it in sin­gle file. Its fa­cade has been wiz­ened by years of bat­tle with the weather whims of the sea­sons, and it’s easy to get swept up by the torn-from-a-post­card good looks of the Nith as it con­tin­ues its jour­ney to­ward the Grand. Peer to the south­west and you may spot a stream of thun­der­ing train cars on tracks owned by the Cana­dian Na­tional Rail­way. The her­itage spot is the ideal place to pull some more date balls and other ed­i­ble-fuel from our jersey pock­ets to “gas up” for the push to Paris.

Af­ter 145 kilo­me­tres of sad­dle time, Paris of­fers one of cy­cling’s most en­tic­ing re­wards – heap­ing scoops of ice cream to take the edge off the heat of the day. The prodi­gious number of calo­ries will come in handy as we head back to­ward Water­loo.

Of course, be­fore de­part­ing town, Tabi and I would be re­miss if we didn’t roll over to the Nith River Bridge – a con­crete solidspan­drel arch-style bridge built in 1932 – to wit­ness the spot where the Nith emp­ties into the Grand River and where its wa­ters will even­tu­ally find a home in Lake Erie.

I’m feel­ing ut­terly elated as dopamine plays its great­est hits in my head.

OK, I also ad­mit that in­clines are now ex­tra tax­ing as my legs cry foul. I gear down and squeeze the bars and strain to pull my bike and body up and over any slope. Tabi ex­cels and whizzes along the gravel – be­tween pe­ri­ods of fight­ing with her bike.

The air is preg­nant with late-sum­mer hu­mid­ity so we’re sweat­ing more than onions in a sauté pan. But there is lit­tle time for moan­ing as we still have to keep up the pace to nail sev­eral more Nith fly­overs as

the day be­gins to ebb way from us.

A tidy sum of pedal strokes to the west de­posits us on the aptly named Nith Road. It’s an un­paved af­fair but not too jar­ring, which frees up plenty of men­tal space to be cap­ti­vated by the syl­van set­ting in­ter­spersed with un­pre­ten­tious farm­land. There is a sim­ple joy in rid­ing in the coun­try­side un­der blue­bird skies with no press­ing obli­ga­tions other than de­vel­op­ing a deeper con­nec­tion with the river that guides our jour­ney.

For those who know where to look be­hind a dense cover of fo­liage, the Nith­vale Bridge in Ayr is redo­lent of years gone by. Closed to mo­tor­ized traf­fic since 1967 and now re­claimed by Mother Na­ture, the pin-con­nected steel bridge wel­comes us with its creaky wood deck that is pen­e­trated by a plan­ta­tion of weeds.

We pause to take in the river’s gen­tle sounds and the tunes of song birds, com­pletely obliv­i­ous to the fact a flour mill once dom­i­nated this area. Con­structed around 1873 in the set­tle­ment of Nith­vale – now part of the vil­lage of Ayr – this is among the old­est steel truss bridges in On­tario and you’d be hard-pressed to find one with a more cozy set­ting. One only hopes that this land­mark can with­stand a number more years of in­dif­fer­ence.

Town­ship Road 12 is blessed with three steel truss bridges hov­er­ing over the Nith, among the 12 still stand­ing in Water­loo Re­gion. We check off the mid­dle and east ones be­fore mak­ing the fi­nal 25-kilo­me­tre push for home. The land­scape is gleam­ing in the wan­ing light as we wend our way back to the com­mo­tion of Water­loo.

This mi­croad­ven­ture has been a blur of wa­ter and metal. The number we’re most stoked about is not the 202 kilo­me­tres of cy­cling on the day, in­stead it’s the 46 Nith River cross­ings that will en­dure in our mem­o­ries of a ride well done.

More than 200 kilo­me­tres and 46 river cross­ings made for a mem­o­rable bike ride for Matthew Kadey, left, and Tabi Fer­gu­son.

Paris of­fers this bridge in a peace­ful set­ting, as well as re­ward­ing scoops of ice cream for cy­clists who still have more than 50 kilo­me­tres of rid­ing ahead of them be­fore call­ing it a day.

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