Saturday, July 25, 2020
A Jewel in the Heart of Ontario : Magnetawan (and onward to King Creek)
When you find yourself nestled in a cozy bed, with a beautiful view over a gorgeous lake, it is very difficult to get up. Eventually we reluctantly did so, packed up our things, and were treated to a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast with homemade jam, and coffee. There is no denying that it was one of the nicest mornings that we have had in awhile!
After bidding our wonderful hosts goodbye, only inadequately expressing just how much better we felt after the wonderful stay, we set off down the road again into a warm, sunny, morning. A few hundred meters down the road Barb's husband drew up beside us and dropped off Barb, who escorted us into town.
I think Magnetawan would have to be the winner of the 'Strongest Community Spirit' award for any place we've visited so far in Ontario. Barb was a great community ambassador, generously sharing a wealth of local knowledge about the town.
The word Magnetawan in the Algonquin language means "swiftly flowing river", and this area was once the traditional territory of the Anishinabek (ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᒃ), Huron-Wendat, and Odawa Peoples. The town is named after the river that runs through the middle of it on it's way from Magnetawan Lake inside Algonquin Provincial Park to Georgian Bay.
As we came to the edge of town we passed Saint Paul's Church, the first of five churches in the small community. The local school and Algonquin Fine Foods were next on the route.
When we reached the bridge over the Magentawan we came to the famous St. George the Martyr Anglican Church. Reverend William Crompton founded the mission at Magnetawan in 1880. The building is an example of Carpeneter Gothic style architecture, and is located on an outcropping of rock along the river. Famously, it was the inspiration for the painting 'Anglican Church at Magnetawan' by A.J. Casson, a member of the Group of Seven. Since being captured in the iconic painting, it has become a symbol and landmark of the natural and cultural elements that define the Canadian Shield region.
When we reached the municipal docks on the far side of the river we were met by Mayor Sam Dunnett and his wife, a reporter from The Great North Arrow, and half a dozen other residents from the town. It was an overwhelming show of support for our journey, and yet another opportunity to hear a few more stories about the region.
As we continued through town Barb pointed out the empty lot where the General Store and Restaurant had once stood. Even without knowing the charismatic proprietors, it is easy to see why the traumatic event left its mark on the town.
We visited the local Home Hardware Store, where we were honoured to be given the chance to participate in a local tradition. Magnetawan Apparel prints very cool t-shirts and sells them at Home Hardware that say 'Downtown Magnetawan' on the front. There is a wall of photos in the shop showing people wearing these shirts all over the world, including former US President Jimmy Carter. We were honoured to be gifted two of these shirts! When we reach Victoria and Tuktoyaktuk we'll have to send back a photo of us in our shirts! Perhaps we'll even have to taken the on our next hiking adventure once we have completed the Trans Canada Trail!
Our next stop was the Magentawan Grill and Grocery, where we stocked up on a few supplies, and then we headed down to check out the locks. These hand operated lift locks allow boat traffic to pass from Lake Cecebe to Lake Ahmic, being raised or lowered a distance of about 10 ft. The lock was first built in 1883-1886 to facilitate passage of steamboats along the river way.
As we walked out onto the locks a boat was just passing through, giving us a chance to see the lock in operation. The water rushing over the exposed rocks in the river was loud, and the spray felt cool on our skin. There was a family of Mallards sleeping in a pile on one of the rocks in the river, the babies still fuzzy and spotted.
The view down the river from the lock was beautiful. On one side we could see a small greenspace with the tiny Heritage Museum, an old steam engine, and an historical 'Old Boys' wooden cabin. On the other side was a lovely sandy beach along the river in the Lion's Park. Magnetawan is a beautiful village with signs everywhere of an engaged local population that work hard to make it beautiful and are proud of the place they've shaped.
On the way out of town we made one last stop at the Farmer's Market, outside of which was a beautiful Trans Canada Trail Pavilion. The market was located in a roofed, open air ice hockey arena and featured antiques, fresh local produce, jams and preserves, baked goods, and local artisans. Apparently only about half the usual vendors were present, the number of people allowed into the space was carefully controlled, and a clear path was marked on the floor to ensure physical distancing. We purchased some muffins from the Cornball Store stand and a bottle of homemade strawberry rhubarb preserve for our breakfast.
We stopped to say hello to the proprietors of the Summer's Attic Shop, and then bid Barb and the Village of Magnetawan a reluctant farewell. This beautiful town has a huge heart and a huge spirit, the same iconic Canadian Sheild landscapes of Algonquin and Parry Sound, but less of the hustle and bustle of the more mainstream touristy spots.
There are days when you hike to enjoy nature, there are days you trek to get your kilometers in, there are townsites and crossroads you come to and move on from. However, being in Magnetawan was like coming home. It was cozy, warm, welcoming and beautiful. I think it is safe to say that it was a hard thing to continue on and leave. It is the nature of this trek to keep moving, but it is also the hardest part - hardly stopping and rarely getting to savour one place deeply.
We headed out of Magnetawan on highway 510, which locals refer to as the shortest highway in Ontario. It is 2.4 km in length, which seems like it would make it a definite contender for the title. However, we haven't been able to confirm whether it in fact deserves the designation of shortest highway in this province or not. Regardless, in our opinion all highways and paved surfaces should be this short - especially ones along hiking routes.
After this we turned onto the tree-lined gravel Old Nipissing Rd again. It is possible that at no point was any part of this winding gravel road flat, and some of the hills were extremely steep, but our legs are gradually and painfully adjusting to the constant ups and downs of this undulating landscape.
As we followed this forested road we continued to see historical plaques outlining the history of the settlers in the region. One was for a limestone kiln. There were several kilns in the region, where farmers or landowners with limestone outcroppings would burn the limestone in three sides kilns. It took nine days and about 30 cords of white birch wood to burn the limestone, leaving behind crumbly lime, which is a component of cement and the mortar mix used for bricks.
As we walked we noticed signs suggesting we were on the Forgotten Trails. Either this was very charming and romantic, or very discouraging - we were hard pressed to decide which.
A few hours into the hike we turned up a dirt track. As we sat at the corner, taking a break before attempting to climb the extremely steep and rocky track that comprised the 'road', a Jeep and a Minivan turned onto the track, accelerating and spinning their tires to make it up the incline. The driver of the Minivan stopped to ask us if the track was driveable, but we had no answer. We hoped so! After watching them drive off down the track we waited 10 minutes to see if they returned. When they didn't we took it as a good sign that the route was passable.
A few minutes later a young woman on a bicycle passed us on the steep hill. She had full bike panniers and a large backpack, and looked like she was on a long adventure. We wished she had stopped to share her story, but it was a steep hill she was on and she looked determined and so we completely understood.
We thoroughly enjoyed the walk down the quiet, peaceful, forested track. It was a sunny day, but there was shade on the track, and only the sounds of nature surrounded us. We passed lots of beaver ponds and marshes. In one of these we spotted a Ruffed Grouse, sitting as still as a statue in the tall grass among the branches of a fallen tree. As Sean approached to take a photo about ten baby grouse erupted out of the tangle of shrubs and grasses, clumsily taking cover in a stand of nearby spruce, whining all the time. It suddenly occurred to us where the expression 'don't grouse about it' comes from.
En route we also enjoyed watching a variety of brightly coloured butterflies along the trail. One plant we passed, which was covered in large purple blossoms, was absolutely covered by butterflies. There must have been four or five on each blossom - meaning that there were hundreds of butterflies on certain bushes!
Eventually the Nipissing Rd ended at a place colorfully named Bummer's Roost. Disappointingly, there wasn't much there, and it is now listed as an abandoned place or ghost town. One legend says that two men named Alfred Russell and Richard Manning moved to the spot after losing their jobs during the depression, thinking that trapping would be an easy way to survive. Since Richard had nothing going for him other than living in a tent and trapping, he earned the nickname 'Dick the Bummer'. Subsequently, he nailed up a shingle by his tent saying 'Bummer's Roost'. Since a lot of trappers, lumber men, and colonists were passing the spot, Alfred thought it would be a good location for a hotel, and in 1885 he opened "Russell House," but couldn't lose the name "Bummer's Roost."
After popping out onto the road again we refrained from following a large Trans Canada Trail sign that suggested we turn the wrong way, and instead turned right, and made our way to Rye Rd following the online route, which detoured us around a section of the old Colonization Rd that has become impassable.
The detour took us through rolling countryside, among hay fields with beautiful barns. We were passed by the same truck several times as it transported huge shrink wrapped hay bales from the fields to a more appropriate storage facility. A breeze came over the hills, and the smell of wildflowers and hay filled the hot afternoon air. There wasn't much traffic on the gravel road, but what little there was seemed to be going extremely fast.
Towards the end of the detour we came across a lodge and resort that left us a little skeptical. The name of the first suggested it was on the shores of a nearby lake, but it was instead located in a field on the edge of the dusty gravel road. The other advertised lakefront cabins, which were in fact perched on the edge of a large, unsightly, man-made sand pit that had a few feet of dirty water at the bottom. Unless there was more to the story, I would have been pretty disappointed upon arrival at either location.
We eventually left the hilly country sideroad and turned down Jerusalem Rd, which was another shady, forested track. We made our way through a corridor of dense mixed forest, keeping a hopeful eye open for moose. Although it was quiet and felt very remote, we passed a lot of driveways, and saw quite a few small cabins and hunting camps. A few looked mostly abandoned, but perhaps weren't.
We began looking for a place to camp, but somewhat unbelievably most of the road was posted with No Trespassing signs. Although we practice no trace camping and weren't, too concerned about being detected, we were wary of trespassing because there were also a lot of signs warning to stay on the trail because there were trap lines nearby. Adding to this where the signs and sounds of hunters moving through the woods. Given the number of shots being fired throughout the afternoon and the number of shells we found on the trail way we had put the neon yellow rain jacket on the wheelie to make sure we stood out somewhat from the trees.
Continuing on, the trail began to deteriorate and we had to quickly step off the pathway a number of times as ATVs were using this section to race on weaving through the forest and along the Great Trail. With ears wide open and ready to dodge, we ventured further, passing several white pine plantations, and crossed a few beautiful marshes. The water lilies were blooming white, covering the surface of the lakes in white. We startled two more large families of Ruffed Grouse out of the tall grasses at the edges of a marsh with a beautiful river meandering through the middle. Another Great Blue Heron took off as we passed, and we spotted a small group of Blue-winged Teals at the edge of beaver pond.
As the sun began to sink towards the horizon we stopped on the edge of the trail at the entrance to an overgrown snowmobile track. We heated up our dinner of rice and beans and ate it, sitting on a convenient boulder.
We hadn't seen or heard anyone on the trail in hours, so we decided to pitch the tent right there on the side of the trail - something we have not done since Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and PEI. As Sean stepped into the forest across the trail I could hear him cursing. Minutes later he stepped out of the bush, with his right leg of his pants ripped open, his sock cut, and his leg bleeding. As he had sought to answer nature's call in the brush he found a set razor sharp snare and got caught it the process. Turns out it was a good idea to stay on the trail!
As we fall asleep the stars are bright in a clear night sky above us. We can hear Green Frogs calling in the distance, and occasionally the soft, half-hearted song of White-throated Sparrow breaks the silence. Otherwise we are surrounded by silence except for the sound of wind in the trees above, the buzz of mosquitos outside the tent, and the small movements of the forest at night.