Saturday, August 19, 2017

Exploration: Round Algonquin Park 2017 via TCAT and Cobalt - Part 2

Click here for Part 1.

One good thing about rain when adventure riding is it tends to firm up loose surfaces -- especially sand -- making them a lot easier to ride on with a loaded motorcycle. So the previous day's rain was actually welcomed in hitting the TCAT leaving north from Huntsville, where the trail consisted of long sandy stretches of glacial till that last year proved exhausting to ride when powder-dry.

One section near Novar (an optional gas stop) just outside Huntsville was a popular ATV trail, heavily eroded and washed out in places, with sections of melon-sized rocks rounded smooth by glaciers. Last year, the ledgy and steep rock climb shown below ate my bike. Having hit it too slowly after exiting a long and steep boulder field, I tried to shift quickly from 2nd into 1st and didn't notice I'd only hit neutral just as I lost all momentum and balance. The bike toppled over and slid down, bending a foot peg. Fortunately no other damage was done other than to my dignity, and I was able to bend out the peg. This amateur-hour goof-up weighed on me this year as I repeated the section--especially since now I was riding with only 50/50 tires and on wet, slick rock.  

Funny how we build things up in our minds when riding for long hours alone. This time I zipped up the rock with no problems whatsoever (that speck is my triumphant bike at the top). My retuned suspension most certainly helped by eliminating the constant bucking action and loss of traction in the rear end that WR250R's are notorious for. 

Soon the route turned onto the Seguin Trail, another old rail bed along a once well-travelled and populated route that now consists of scattered cottages and ghost towns. The trail itself is mostly sand with long stretches of quad-burning whoops and a few deep water crossings thanks to all the rain, but I was again glad for that rain because at least it held things together for my tires.  

Many great views as the early morning sun tried to break through the mists over the swamps. 

The TCAT follows the Seguin Trail for much further than I took it. Paralleling the trail is freshly paved highway with no traffic; it was pure joy carving along this until it reached the storied Nipissing Road heading north.

The Nipissing Road was one of the more famous colonization roads pushed through the glacial moraines separating southern Ontario from the northern frontiers in the mid-1800s. Until the advent of the railways in the late 1800s, life revolved around these tenuous wagon trails through the bush. The explosion of railways changed the cultural dynamic completely from what we see today, as this map of Ontario railways in 1875 suggests.

Today, almost nothing remains of the small communities along the Nipissing Rd. as a result of the rail lines requiring alternate routes. Some settlers moved to be closer to the new commerce that rail enabled; others left altogether--many of whom were drawn to the comparatively magic growing conditions of the Prairies as the west opened up. Magnetawan remains one of the few communities that survived the depopulation. The railways in turn became casualties of new roads built to serve the rise of the automobile, hastened by the unsustainable economics of rail posed by poor soils for agriculture, forests depleted of timber, and mineral deposits that proved limited. 

Some of the personal stories of loss are heartbreaking. In a small cemetery near Dufferin Bridge, nothing remains of the church or its community except a few headstones. On one is inscribed the names of six young children who all died--probably of typhoid fever--within days of each other. Another headstone told a similar tale of another family.

Further on at the site of North Seguin (now a ghost town), and down a couple kilometers on the side road to the west (I believe Orange Valley Rd.; the exact location was lost with my dead GPS) is the old schoolhouse for the town. Nothing much else remains. 

Continuing north was more of the same theme, eventually arriving at Magnetawan. If you need to gas up, the only place in the area to get premium is at the marina just before the bridge into town.

Further north, the Nipissing Rd. devolves into a rough double-track in what's called the "Lost Trails" area. This section is probably more representative of the original wagon trail and it's a beautiful and fun ride, moreso when the sun emerges as it did briefly for me. Pure adventure riding, classic Ontario scenery. I even got to ride it twice because I forgot to secure my wet shorts which were drying on my bike, and they blew off. 

After several kilometers is "Bummer's Roost", the site of a once-famous hotel that hosted travelers from far and wide. 

While there's nothing much to see here now, further north lies the ghost town of Commanda and the promise of a photogenic old building that's now a time-capsule of a general store. Unfortunately, intermittent rain were leading to darker skies and the threat of something more serious, and the trail ahead looked to be pretty rough. I should've reconsidered. 

Sure enough, this section proved to a very rough ATV track (probably the roughest trail along the whole 2500km route) with deep washouts, boulders, and mud holes. Despite navigating most of these successfully and carefully probing with a stick before entering the more iffy holes, my luck eventually ran out. I slid off firm ground and dropped my bike into one particularly deep hole, just as a thunder storm broke all around me. An adrenalin-fueled panic had me off the bike and up to my thighs in water and sucking mud, but I managed to stop and hold my bike before the air box submerged. But I was now completely waterlogged, stuck in the mud, and poorly situated to get out.  

After much cursing and prying, I was able to lever my bike out by alternately lifting it sideways by the wheels, finally dragging it up onto the edge of the mud hole as pictured. Would it start? I had no idea. Worse, there was a lot of trail ahead to Commanda, and going back meant having to pass through this mud hole and a few others again. 

While Commanda was now off my agenda, as a consolation prize there's some info here about the general store I wasn't able to see in person (photo credit to web site).

Going back seemed more sensible: I knew what to expect. Fortunately my bike fired up without hesitation although the turn signal was fouled with muck. I was able to pick a line back along the edge I'd previously slipped off, this time gunning it for momentum. By now the rain was torrential, the trail was a running stream, and my boots and pants were squelching with muck, and my visor and glass were completely grimy and fogged, reducing visibility to a smear of vague light. This is the double-edged sword of waterproof gear: it's just as effective at keeping water in. 

Wet, cold, hungry, and on the verge of shivering into hypothermia, it was time to grit my teeth and aim for warm food. Last year I'd made a pit stop at Eagle Lake nearby, where there was a golden sand beach and at the general store up on the hill, gas and good burgers. While I watched my bike get a free power-wash, I sat on a picnic bench under an umbrella and entertained the other tourists sheltered on the porch by stripping down and dumping an impressive amount of water and mud from each boot. This alleviated the worst of the discomfort. Soon the storm front rumbled off into a direction away from my destination, and I headed back out. 

Leaving the town of South River towards the backcountry trailheads and put-ins of Algonquin Park (a.k.a. "Subaru Country", with a lot of young couples wearing flannel and Tevas, with beards on the guys and canoes on the roofs) was a profusion of plump serviceberries and raspberries beside the road. Another bonus of a wet season.

After Powassen, the TCAT route I had intended to follow entered a forest service road that started out well but soon reached a heavily flooded area about 100m long where it crossed a swollen creek in a low-lying swampy area. The geography suggested it would be a deep crossing in the middle. I didn't want to test my luck again after my earlier escapade, so I retraced my path and after a few mistaken turns through a fogged up visor and more torrential rain, eventually found my way into North Bay via secondary roads. The view across Lake Nipissing was expansive and dramatic with side-lit storm clouds rolling away south in the distance, but I was scrambling to shed my rain suit and make it to somewhere I could camp for the night.

When planning my route, I'd identified a campground at Beaucage Point just west of North Bay off Highway 17. However, upon reaching this spot, I found it was closed up, and worse, the gas station at the exit didn't have premium. It was getting late in the day, but the next section of the route appeared to offer some stealth camping options. However, it was also remote and I needed to gas up, which meant backtracking 10kms along a fast section of the TransCanada highway, which my little 250 is too underpowered to ride confidently. There's a fine balance between taking gas when it's available (especially when premium is harder to find), and minimizing the weight penalty and delay of frequent top-ups.

Sure enough, this next section of the TCAT consisted of another rail bed, but I missed it the first time because the TCAT GPS track was nowhere near the actual cutoff. As the sun emerged I faced golden light and a seemingly endless stretch of incredibly loose and squirrely gravel ballast that demanded all my attention to avoid a wipeout. 

Along the way were some bridges with panoramic if vertiginous views, including this one crossing Smoky River, but I was hesitant to linger because there were no good places to camp--the side of the rail bed dropped steeply into swamp and dense bush. 

Salvation arrived in River Valley, where the local campground/trailer park is home to a long-running bluegrass festival which had just wrapped up over the weekend. My arrival was not welcomed by campground staff: I had not noticed that a large sign at the entrance included the words "no motorcycles or ATVs", so I blithely followed the instructions I'd received earlier at the general store in town and rode up to the main building. There I was greeted by a crowd showing looks of horror and waving arms at this filthy motorcyclist, telling me I couldn't be there. Apparently my little putting 250 represented unacceptable noise pollution to the owner of the place, but the hundreds of massive RVs, generators, and Bro-Dozers to pull everything there did not. 

Soon one of the staff kindly showed me down the hill to a very nice location on an island where, for $10, I was able to set up my Hennessey hammock right beside the river, just as the sun dipped below the trees on the ridge. I had the spot to myself, and a choice of three portaloos.    

After a meagre dinner consisting of two Clif Bars (having discovered I'd completely forgotten to bring any utensils to cook with, and with the emerging mosquitoes I didn't have time or inclination to find some wood I could whittle), I took a walk around the park and passed by some old-time bluegrass musicians playing upright bass, banjo, and guitar beside a campfire. It was a magical scene, much like the one in this video from a prior festival year. 

Then it was time to finally test my hammock, having bought it at the end of last season and not getting a chance to camp until now. Clear skies meant dropping temps, so it would be a challenging test! 

More to come in Part 3.

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