The Ottawa River Valley and Algonquin Provincial Park are two of Ontario’s definitive natural features. When out-of-province guests arrive, Liz Jansen leads them there on a women-only ride.
Ride The Big Valley
By Liz Jansen
Virgil Knapp photos
Take 900 lakes, four major river systems, 2,700 residents, scatter them throughout 7,000 square kilometres of mostly wilderness and you’ve discovered the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association region. Extending northwest from the capital city of Ottawa to Algonquin Park, the area cradles the Ottawa River which forms the border between eastern Ontario and western Quebec. Scenic backroads cut through rugged wilderness, weave around lakes and over rivers as they connect occasional small towns rooted in pioneer times. Factor in that it’s within an hour’s reach of Ottawa and five from Toronto, easily accessible from any direction, and it makes an ideal weekend destination.
This past June a diverse group of women from various North American locations converged on the nation’s capital where they collected a lively mix of Harleys, Hondas and BMWs prior to embarking on a four-day tour of the Ottawa Valley, organized in conjunction with the OVTA, Go Ride Ontario and Trillium Motorcycle Tours, and led by me.
It was just a one-hour ride northwest to our destination, and very soon the rolling farmland of the lower valley stretched to greet us as the Trans-Canada led us out of the city.
Within 20 minutes, the terrain had transitioned to the forests, lakes and rock of the Canadian Shield this area is known for. Shortly past the cutoff to Arnprior, we headed west on Hwy. 508, with its tantalizing curves and undulating hills hinting at the enjoyment that would fill the days that lay in front of us.
SET ON BEAUTIFUL CALABOGIE Lake, Calabogie Peaks Resort is surrounded by some of the best known twists and turns in Ontario. With a beach-front bar and grill, a more formal restaurant, onsite hiking, golfing and boating, it makes a great weekend base. After an exhilarating day of riding, it was nice to be able to park the bikes for the night and dine before unwinding under the stars in the outdoor hot tub.
Enjoying a late start the next morning, we continued west on 508 for 30 uninterrupted kilometres of twists and turns. For the most part, road surfaces are good. However there are intermittent sections that can be rough from winter damage, so you do need to take care. But that doesn’t take away from the thrill of riding through the beautiful scenery.
Emerging at Griffith, we headed east to Renfrew before turning south to Burnstown, an oasis on the north shore of the rugged Madawaska River. Structures originally built to service a bustling mill town beginning in 1825, now attract tourists. The homey Blackbird Café, tastefully decorated with vintage pieces served us a delicious lunch with huge portions.
A short sprint east on 508 and south on Hwy. 511 was a warmup for Calabogie Motorsports Park where manager Jane Blinn awaited. Opened in 2006, this 5.05-km road course carved out of the forest hosts both automobile and motorcycle racing. We got a mere taste of the thrill potential when Jane led us and our touring bikes around a lap. Booking a course with one of the two independent racing schools operating on site makes for a fabulous way to spend a weekend.
With endorphins stoked, we continued south on 511, then east along sweeping secondary roads cut through the forests, winding around numerous lakes before bearing north. A meandering scenic ride along the immense Ottawa River to Foresters Falls and the London House Inn and Spa capped off a memorable first day of riding.
This 160-acre property also houses River Run Rafting. While check-in is at the main road, it’s a few hundred metres further down a gravel driveway to the inn and further yet to River Run where tent camping and family cabins are available. Dinner must be planned in advance, either by bringing it along, or making other arrangements. The nearest town is several miles away and has limited dining—especially if you’re late. The tavern, which serves drinks but not food, is a favourite gathering spot where rafters meet and swap tall tales. The river here is deceptively sedate, belying the world class rapids churning upstream.
Originally a large farmhouse, the inn is now a charming, cozy guest house in a tranquil wooded setting. All rooms have a dedicated bathroom and all except the loft have a walk-out to the gardens. Its central common area with a walk-out to the pool and hot tub make it a great spot to spend a social evening. A hearty breakfast can be prepared on-your-own from its well-stocked kitchen.
Having body-surfed the rapids a few years earlier, I opted to test out the spa. The fast moving water is at its highest in June, so with trepidation overcome by the thirst for adventure, four others took on the river. The infamous “Greyhound Buseater” hole at the Lorne Rapids on the Ottawa River flipped their raft almost immediately, pitching them into the water and ferrying them downstream. The expert river guides soon plucked them out and had them back in the raft, where they managed to stay for the rest of the exhilarating ride.
WITH MANY MORE ROADS YET TO explore, it was time to saddle up again. The Ottawa Valley is wide here and home to rolling fields with fertile farmland. Riding up out of the valley put us back on the Shield with scenery ranging from small lakes, rushing rivers and mixed forests to solid rock formations jutting through the shallow topsoil.
An hour west, we stopped at the underwater Bonnechere Caves, carved out of the rock by the adjacent river. An interior boardwalk takes you past growing stalactites, stalagmites and exposed fossils, indicative of the seabed which they lay on 500 million years ago. It’s a fascinating visit and a great place to cool off on a hot summer day.
Further south, we hitched onto the Opeongo Line which links the Ottawa Valley with the Madawaska Highlands. Built as a colonization road in the mid-1800s, it originally carried Irish and Scottish settlers. Lured by exaggerated claims of great farmland, they cleared and homesteaded the harsh wilderness, only to have dreams shattered with the realization that the shallow layer of topsoil covering the Canadian Shield could not support farming. Relics of log structures take you back to a simpler time, and the road retains the sense of adventure that infused these early inhabitants.
The Opeongo Line brought us out to Hwy. 60 and the hamlet of Wilno, site of the earliest Polish settlement in Ontario. With the best of poor land already claimed, they got what was left over. Descendants of those early pioneers have retained their history with a museum and a thriving general store with delicious ice cream and art gallery. The traditional Polish food buffet served every weekend at the tavern has made it a popular spot for riders to congregate.
The Sands on Golden Lake welcomed us that evening. The rooms were wonderful—large, bright, with modern, minimalist décor, each with a walk-out overlooking the lake. With delicious home-cooked fare superseded only by the local hospitality, the lakeside onsite restaurant is understandably the community hub where locals gather to catch up on all the news.
Craig Kelly is the economic development officer for Madawaska Valley Township, and an avid rider. As he joined us for dinner that evening he confessed what he loves about the area is the lack of straight roads. “The geography has necessitated many interesting loop routes which can be mixed and matched,” he said. “You can get out in the back country on a street bike and enjoying riding without the distractions of traffic and other people. The little traffic that exists is pleasantly spaced and moves along nicely.”
Moreover, he loves the intimacy, whether with nature or residents. “The size of the towns define its charm,” said Kelly. “You can talk with the locals, soak up the culture and enjoy home-cooked food without feeling like you’re going through a corral.”
One of those “locals” is Susan Artymko of Barry’s Bay, a Madawaska Valley community situated on the shores of Kamaniskeg Lake. After being a passenger on her husband’s dualsport for many years, last fall Ms. Artymko decided it was time for a bike of her own. Now, she loves getting out alone on her Yamaha DT200. Though Susan has lived in the area for 17 years, riding has added a whole new element of awe. “Around every corner is a new vista and it’s always changing,” she says. “It’s also a great place to improve my technical skills.”
Golden Lake became the starting point for the next day’s ride, circumnavigating the wilderness of Algonquin Park, affectionately known as the RAP (Round Algonquin Park) route. After several days visiting points of interest, it felt good to have a full day of pure riding ahead of us.
OTTAWA VALLEY FORMS THE heartland of an area inhabited by the Algonquin Nation for more than 10,000 years. It’s easy to imagine the wilderness it as they enjoyed it for all those millennia. With a land mass of 7,653 sq. km., Algonquin Provincial Park is now a natural sanctuary, world-famous for its backcountry hiking, canoeing, and camping. Roads here are defined by long sweeping curves, changes in elevation and beauty in all directions. Filled with natural and cultural history, it’s been an inspiration to artists who have been drawn here for more than a century. Moose are drawn here too, but their presence (protected in the park) constitutes a very real road hazard.
Ironically, the hub of the Algonquin Nation is now a five-sq. km. reserve in Deacon. Geographically tiny but strong in pride and spirit, its rustic cultural centre pays tribute to the environment which allowed them to thrive here for so long. Staffed mostly by volunteers, it’s well worth the stop.
At the opposite corner of the park, North Bay mayor Al McDonald, also an avid rider, warmly welcomed us to his town and hosted our lunch at Average Joe’s Restaurant. Set on the shore of Trout Lake, the outdoor patio overlooking the lake, great food and lovely hospitality made for a restful lunch.
Reluctant to leave but eager to ride, we followed a picturesque route on the Trans-Canada back to Petawawa. Lakes, forests and occasionally the Ottawa River punctuated long stretches of uninterrupted reverie. There is a caveat. As this is the only corridor connecting Ottawa and North Bay, traffic can back up, especially given truck traffic and a hilly landscape. Passing zones have been created but the stretch is best enjoyed as we did, during off-peak times.
The last 16 km before Petawawa crosses a sand plain zone, formed by an ancient river delta. After passing through kilometres of forests and rock, it’s surprising to see huge sand cliffs. Home to CFB Petawawa, one of Canada’s largest military bases, the many yellow ribbons tied to trees and road signs are clear wishes for the safe return of members serving abroad.
Typical of the hospitality was the reception we received by members of the 1st CAV (Canadian Army Veterans motorcycle unit) who had heard we were staying in town. It was an honour to be met by these heroes. Doug “Coug” Coughlan, president of the Petawawa-based CAV Anzio unit tells us the area is motorcycle-friendly from every perspective. “There are plenty of backroads with little traffic, great scenery and a warm reception from the locals,” he says as we share dinner with the CAV unit at Kelsey’s, adjacent to the Quality Inn & Suites where we were to spend the night. “And it’s all right here. You don’t have to get out of town to enjoy the freedom of the ride.”
Although chain hotels aren’t usually my first choice, the Quality Inn rooms are lovely. Seemingly small touches meant a lot—like allowing us to park under the canopy and being met by the hotel manager. The pretty gift bags waiting in our rooms with an assortment of candies, lip gloss and drugstore sunglasses were a real treat.
ON THE LAST DAY OF THE TOUR WE were taken by van on a 45-minute drive down mostly gravel access roads and dropped off for a short hike into the spectacular 100-metre-deep Barron Canyon, a natural centrepiece of Algonquin Park. Though one of the women in our group rode in, the riding isn’t favourable for touring bikes. But it’s certainly worth the view and you can arrange transportation through local outfitters.
The Ottawa River valley has widened significantly here and the fertile soil supports vast farmlands. When you see the sign for the Mississippi River, don’t look for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. It bears no relationship to the mighty American Mississippi the early voyageurs were seeking, but is part of the massive Ottawa River catchment area. This Mississippi, the Madawaska and others were two of the many supporting a booming lumber industry in the mid-1800s.
And while the Ottawa valley may have widened at this point, our excursion was quickly tapering down. We took solace though in recalling that each day had been packed with great and varied riding, adventure opportunities, scenic, historic and cultural points of interest, and we had the memory of Craig Kelly’s cheery invitation. “Choose a loop and come out and discover the amazing riding opportunities,” he had said to us. “The welcome mat is out!”