Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why does mountain biking suck in the Ottawa region?

It does. And it shouldn't.

Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the Ottawa Mountain Biking Association, who have selflessly and persistently built some fantastic trails in Kanata Lakes, the Ottawa region is inexcusably devoid of good mountain biking. This despite having a world-class landscape with immense trail potential and a vibrant local cycling community.

I'm not making an uninformed claim. As a mountain biker since 1987, when I moved to Ottawa in 1994 one of the first things I did was explore the region's rides. Since then I've ridden pretty much every metre of rideable trail and road within 100 km of Almonte, where I live. Those were some epic days. Now I'm exploring further by motorbike, trying to find untapped potential.

Tragically, much of the good stuff I used to ride years ago has disappeared under the developers paving machine, been marked "no trespassing", been legislated out of access by the NCC, or succumbed to the fear of liability. Consider the following rides:

- Gatineau Park. Once the local riding mecca with many kilometers of epic technical singletrack, the NCC has incrementally banned riding from almost every interesting area except the #1 fireroad. Great... your only option is to weave around families pushing strollers, pets on 20' leashes, and groups walking five abreast. No one's happy with that situation, least of whom riders. Of course, the NCC justifies their actions as "protecting nature". I'm all for protecting nature too, which is why it baffles me that the NCC's "environmental" activity includes allowing rich people to build houses in the park, roads to be blasted into tourist sites, and pristine remote singletrack to be bulldozed and widened so strollers can navigate it (think trails north of Lac Phillippe). Don't get me started on the NCC's rock climbing restrictions!

- Kanata Lakes. The poorly conceived Terry Fox extension planned for this year will destroy a major chunk of a unique part of the Carp Ridge. We already lost half of Kanata Lakes to vinyl-clad houses, whose developers blasted the crap out of every feature that made the place desirable in the first place, so they could create byzantine tangles of suburban sprawl.

- Mt. Pakenham. This area had mega trail potential just a short drive from Ottawa. I used to ride cross country there. I and a few others saw potential for 50-100km of world-class mountain bike park. However, I was told by the Wilderness Tours owners that liability concerns have shut the area to riders, so now it sits unused in the summer.

- Calabogie Peaks. Same as Mt. Pakenham, except they did have a short period of officially sanctioned riding. Unfortunately, it's just that bit too far from Ottawa to make business sense, but why not allow volunteer trail makers do some work?

- Wilderness Tours. The Rafters to Rapids trail is nice, but the minimal trail development doesn't justify the $10 fee and the one-hour drive each way.

- Eastern Ontario trails system. Now this has potential, but it's a looooonnnnggg way from support even for motorized riders, and the trails aren't designed for mountain biking. Still, an impressive epic potential--if you don't mind 100km between food and water opportunities.

- Stoney Swamp. Nice riding in a pinch or for beginners, but flat and limited in potential compared to other areas. Nevertheless, much kudos to the City of Ottawa for letting us ride there without the kind of neurotic, self-serving restrictions that some other government organizations would impose.

That's pretty much it for local rides. Quebec has its ATV trails, Toronto area has the fantastic Uxbridge Forest and Hardwood Hills, and there's the forest in Peterborough. Lots of ATV trails throughout the province. But only three hours away is the Adirondacks with a huge trail network and no bugs. I'd prefer to spend my money at home--even better, to ride right from home.

The Ottawa area has the raw ingredients to become a truly world-class ride center on par with centres in Oregon, Washington State, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, France, the UK, British Columbia, Switzerland, Slovakia, and many other places. It would be a great way to bring tourist dollars into the region. Worried about liability? How come the snowmobilers and ATVers can figure it out, with thousands of km of their own trails in Ontario accessible for only $150 a year? They have a great model. Mountain bikers know how to build trails, we have the labour and equipment, and we have organizations like IMBA to provide expert guidance on access and technical issues.

We just need our local government agencies to open their minds and consider cycling an important part of urban and suburban planning. Without that support, it's hard to get private landowners to take it seriously either.

Update (Aug 25, 2014): This post certainly resonated with readers. I'm happy to report that in the years since posting, I've negotiated land access agreements with local landowners, roped in some volunteers, and built 8 km of flowy single track connecting Almonte to the Mill of Kintail. We are currently working on a new trail network in the area, provided we can get all the necessary approvals. It's been challenging to work with the various public agencies (much harder than working with private landowners!) but fortunately some of them have been highly supportive of our efforts.

Update (March 17, 2015): Almost five years after posting this rant, and it's encouraging to see some real progress in local trails: OMBA and the NCC are working together to increase summer and winter (fatbiking) access to Gatineau Park; OMBA volunteers have further refined the South March Highlands trail network and undertaken some new trail development projects in cooperation with the City of Ottawa; Mississippi Mills (which includes Almonte) has been tremendously supportive of local trail initiatives, and we are in the process of extending our Almonte Riverside Trail through the Mill of Kintail to Bennie's Corners, which will give a total of about 20km of local singletrack; local landowners are stepping up to engage in discussions about how to secure trail access across their property. While the region is still not the dense trail mecca of a Kingdom Trails, there are many positive developments that should result in more trails over the next few years, with many benefits to the communities that support these efforts.

Old Government Rd. to Lavant

Lanark County is unusual in Canadian history in that it was founded as a military project following the War of 1812. Back then, Britain and the US held their grudge match following the US War of Independence, with the upshot that anyone with British inclinations still hanging around the US after the dust settled was vigorously encouraged to leave. The area around Kingston, among others, received a large influx of Loyalists and demobilized soldiers looking to start a new life.

The Brits suspected the Americans would try to pull a fast one and invade Canada. Those suspicions proved accurate, so the Brits undertook a massive military program to bolster security in Upper Canada (today's Eastern Ontario region). The Rideau Canal was part of this plan--it provided a secure means of transporting goods and people between Kingston and Montreal via the Ottawa River. Lanark County was another part of the plan. The British didn't fully trust the allegiance of those Loyalists-come-lately down in Kingston. So they wanted a bulwark of unquestionably loyal subjects along the upper reaches of the Rideau Canal. Who better to serve this honour than the Scots?

Hence the Crown arranged for several waves of Lowland Scots to settle Lanark County. Townships were settled in horizontal bands starting in the south. East-west roads were therefore important routes to link these early communities. The Franktown Rd. from Richmond to Perth was a prime example (who woulda thunk that Franktown was an important centre back in the day?). Perth was the lower county seat for settlement activity and Lanark was optimistically envisioned as being the upper county seat. Tragically, actually. Lanark's plan of survey is about three times larger than Perth's. But Lanark's on unforgiving terrain so we all know how that plan worked out. Anyway, Highway 511 linking the two towns was intended to be an important north-south arterial route and in fact it was one of the earliest settlement roads in Ontario.

All this brings us to Old Government Road. The question is, which one? Pretty much every early road in Lanark County was a "Government Road" because the military drove settlement activity until about the 1820s.

My 1879 map of Lanark County shows an intriguing route from Hwy 511 to Lavant, north of the road that today runs through Poland. In Lavant today, there's a trail out of town named "Old Government Road" that aligns with the historic route. It's closed in summer (private access) but open to snowmobilers in winter. The E104 trail follows Old Government Road on its way to the ghost town of Lammermoor, but I suspect the historic route diverges to further north along Waddle Creek Road, which intersects the 511 at Brightside. It's really hard to be sure. Correlating old maps with new is more art than science, so I'll be out exploring more of this route to see what clues I can find.

An interesting side trip turned out to be the E104 where it crosses Hwy 511 to the east, just north of Hopetown. This track, as shown in the above photo, has signs of being an old road and not just a snowmobile trail. You can only get in about a kilometer or two because it descends into swamp. Maybe by late summer the swamp will be passable and can be linked up to Pretty Drive.

As a footnote, the E104 west of Lavant (up Lavant Mountain) was in fantastic shape last weekend. Mudholes that are usually axle deep--or deeper--were bone dry. There are still some gnarly riding sections but this is definitely the driest I've ever seen this trail. Highly recommended from Lavant to Bottle Lake Road, but you'll benefit from knobbies and good low-end speed control. I just switched my countersprocket to a 14-tooth which should help immensely in the technical sections. You're hard pressed to ride 20-40km/hr on these trails on anything as heavy as a KLR. That is, I won't because I tend to ride self-supported. Don't need a breakdown, thanks!

Contact me if you want a guided tour of any of these trails. I've ridden a lot of the dirt within 200 km west of Almonte. Knobbies are ideal, but you could manage with dualsport tires if you're patient and confident on loose surfaces. You'll also need a Gold Trail Pass, available at Carson's in Perth. Keep it legit and no one can complain if you accidentally go down a trail you're not supposed to.

Clayton floating bridge

Head west of Almonte on Wolf Grove Rd. until you hit the 12th concession on your right. It's about 16km out of town, past Union Hall Road with the tall antenna.

At the end of the 12th is the narrows between Taylor and Clayton Lakes. There used to be a famous floating bridge here. It's shown on my Lanark County map from 1879 and was in use until 1964 when it was destroyed by Hurricane Connie. Photos of the bridge from the 1950s show it was in pretty rough shape by the end. If you're paddling here, apparently you can still see the timbers on the lake bottom.

In the photo above you can just see a light spot on the far shore where the 12th continues. This stretch of water used to be a lot narrower until about the 1980s, when the dam in Clayton was improved and the lake levels raised considerably.

The bridge served as an important shortcut through the lakes and swamps that appear along a line drawn between Clayton and Middleville. If you lived north of that line, you'd want ready access to the Upper Perth Road, which you can see today just south of where the 12th intersects Wolf Grove Rd. The Upper Perth Road was the main drag from Blakeney to Perth via Bennies Corners (intersection near Mill of Kintail--another ghost town whose population left to settle Almonte), Clayton, Fergusons Falls, and Balderson. The ride's a piece of cake today, but accounts of this trail from the mid-1800s describe it as a muddy track winding through massive old-growth pine and hardwood forests.

Google Maps shows the town of Lloyd just before the floating bridge. It's not shown on my 1879 map and there's nothing to see today.

Boyd Caldwell Mine - Found!

Recently the weather was crappy and I wasn't feeling so hot myself, so I figured it was about time I gave the "Mayor of Wilbur", Bud Thomas a call to see if I could interview him. Bud grew up in Wilbur out on the K&P rail line, and his grampa worked in the Boyd Caldwell mine nearby back in the late 1800s. His mom cooked and cleaned at a local rooming house which has long since disappeared. She'd been down in the mine as a little girl. Bud is a rare treasure of oral history about a fascinating and all but lost part of early Canadian settlement. I spent three hours with Bud asking him about his experiences growing up in the Lavant Station area and recorded all of it. I plan to edit and submit the recordings to the local archives, and will post some clips here.

Bud's getting on in years and his health isn't so good, but he's full of energy and stories. We started our conversation in the kitchen of his old frame house, wood smoke in the air and whisky on the table. As you can tell from the audio clips I'll post, I'm no professional interviewer. I just wanted to get Bud talking. Before long we were out sitting in his white Lincoln Town Car (license plate: "KP LINE"), bouncing along the KP Line itself on a mission into the bush. I have to say, I'd never gone off-roading in a Lincoln before. It was touch-and-go several times as Bud patiently and expertly guided us down narrow trails, through beaver floods, over boulders, and down wet grassy slopes. But we made it to our destination: the site of Wilbur town, and the sites of the old Boyd Caldwell and Wilbur mines nearby.

I'd been in this area before, looking for evidence that there used to be a town of 250 people here. I thought I knew where I was looking. I was wrong. The signs were so subtle there's no way anyone would see them unless you know exactly where to look. Bud described how the area used to look 70 years ago. There were open meadows, roads, houses, train tracks, tall piles of mine tailings, boardwalks, and electric lights. Both Wilbur and nearby Lavant Station were important industrial towns in Eastern Ontario in 1884. Kids came from all over to attend the Wilbur school. Miners, lumbermen, farmers and their families came to town to drink, dance and socialize. Then the bottom fell out of the iron market in the late 1800s. It was no longer economical to run the Wilbur mines and ship the ore to Pittsburgh for smelting. The mines shut for good. Or did they?

Bud told me a story about how the mine owners tried to raise money to "reopen" the mines. They visited all the hardware supply stores in the area and bought up all the tar paper that locals used to roof their shacks. Then they burned the tar paper down in the mines to create thick clouds of smoke, like the coal-fired water pumps and air compressors made. Photos were taken to show how the mines were "operating" at full steam in an attempt to persuade people in New York to fork over more capital. It was all a scam of course, and the mines soon shut for good.

With no hope for a local economy, the town of Wilbur on its spur of the K&P quickly faded away. Locals pulled out the rails and any other metal they could find to sell for scrap. Beavers blocked a stream which flooded a marsh and submerged the old rail spur past town. The rail line to the mine head washed out as nearby ponds flooded. Shacks and houses decayed, bricks crumbled, and nature worked its inexorable fingers into anything manmade. By the 1930s, Bud said there were only foundations covered with old flooring left to see. Forestry operations soon ran over those remains.

Now, as you walk around the dense bush that has overgrown the town and mine sites, you need a keen eye to see signs of former industry. Bud hadn't been back here in 65 years and he was surprised by how much it had changed. But he has a keen memory, and he recalled where the trails were, where so-and-so's house used to be, where the caves were that a childhood friend of his used to crawl into, and where a huge henhouse used to stand. He showed me a square-cut cave in a rock where a local used to store his food. Now all that remains are vague impressions in the ground on suspiciously straight lines, and scraps of metal, brick and old railway ties.

I've been in touch with local landowners about getting access to more of the site and family archive so I can do more research. Unfortunately, there's been a longstanding dispute about who owns what in the area and access has been a bit delicate. While I'm no Pierre Berton, I'm passionate about studying our heritage and I hope that we can overcome these challenges together and better document this story for future generations.

Photo 1: Entrance to the "Lower Road" off Bottle Lake Rd., which leads directly to the centre of old Wilbur. Bud used to maintain this road. It's been impassible since the ice storm of 1998.

Photo 2: The cold storage cave in Wilbur town site where a man Bud knew used to keep his meat, vegetables and butter. From marks and other signs in the area, it looks like it might have originally been a test shaft for the mine.

Photo 3: Bud looking over the old rail spur beside the mine. This gully was blasted out of the rock and now a stream flows where rails used to be. Remnants of rail ties and the odd scrap of ballast give it away. Behind Bud and over the slope to his right is the main mine shaft. There are huge tailings pile nearby.

Photo 4. The mine head. I'm not sure yet if this is the Boyd Caldwell mine or the Wilbur Mine, but I think it's the latter. Bud showed me the other minehead on the hydro cut. It's not at all obvious. This one still had rails sticking out at an angle, and nearby you could see where the mine lift was located to pull ore out on the rails. This mine was about 70' deep. The pool is about 80' across. It was pouring rain and hard to get a good shot here.

Mexico trip

My stepfather, Mike (seen here on our Lanark tour last summer), told me about a great motorbike trip he did across Mexico in March. He and a buddy trailered their BMWs down to Texas, then rode a few thousand kms across the mountains of central Mexico to the west coast and back. Perfect weather, nice people, good food, no problems at all. I'm bugging him for some pics and a story which I'll post when I get them.