Having begun trekking across Ontario in May of 2020 we had traversed 580 km from Ottawa to Durham completing Eastern Ontario and then 650 km from Durham to Orillia having hiked across the Greater Toronto region of The Great Trail! Next on our agenda was our venture through the beautiful Muskoka region from Washago to North Bay Ontario!
rested for a couple of days in Orillia we made our way on the regional
concessions around the local water route past the community of Washago
to the Great Trail trailhead at Copper Falls. As it had countless
times since Newfoundland, the pathway once again dramatically changed
signalling a transformation in the nature of the trail and our
experiences as we continued northward to the town of Gravenhurst.
From Copper Falls northward we traversed the rugged terrain of the Canadian Shield, or Laurentian Plateau, along a route that alternated between hiking along ridges of stone, descending to alongside beautiful lakes, to navigating both around and through marshes. The trail itself was well waymarked however in several places suggested one wade through waste deep wetlands and chest high reeds that pulled at our gear and cut at our bodies as we walked.
Moving on, despite the heat of the season, our trekking days got longer – both in terms of hours spent on the trail and kilometers covered. Having entered the Muskoka region after a month of predominantly sidewalk and road trekking we had hoped for sheltered pathways and nature trails. Despairingly however the TGT from Granvehurst to Bracebridge, despite traversing such beautiful landscapes primarily followed busy regional roadways through affluent neighborhoods and past exclusive golf courses.
Arriving into the town of Bracebridge the trail traced between the local community park and water purification plant. This meant that despite the late hour and being exhausted from the heat we spent almost an hour navigating the flooded and rough trails around the water ponds while birding!
Comfortable, and disinclined to hike a long distance into the blazing heat of the day we decided to trek the tails of the city of Huntsville. Here the city pathways wove through the beautiful downtown, past the iconic Tommy Thompson statue in front of City Hall, to Kawartha Dairy for…..large ice creams…..before continuing on to our campsite for the evening. En route the trail wove along neighbourhood sidewalks, through active construction sites, around road work, and circumvented a number of local golf courses. Our goal for the night had originally been Arrowhead Provincial Park, however when we arrived it turned out that they were completely reserved for the better part of the summer. Fortunately we were welcomed and helped by the kind staff at the nearby and impeccably clean as well as friendly Lagoon Tent and Trailer Park!
Venturing on, now sadly back on a long exposed roadway, we began our approach toward the community of Magnetawan. Before getting to town however we would spend an evening with Alex and his amazing family, who had offered one of their unused family cottages to us for the evening! Alex, is an amazing former university colleague for whom I was a Teaching Assistant in Ornithology while completing my graduate work at the University of Toronto. It was with great excitement that we turned off the trail amid the summer heat and found our way to his cottage! We arrived to find wonderful kindness and support. Here we were able to launder our clothes, dry out our soaked gear, catch up on our writing, swim in the lake, and best of all enjoy an evening chatting and having a home cooked meal!
After an amazing night’s rest and a fabulous breakfast we returned to the Great Trail and soon arrived into the welcoming community of Magnetawan! On the edge of town we met up with Barbara, who gave us an excited and warm welcome! She also provided us with a firsthand tour of the town site to the iconic St. George’s Anglican Church the focus of A.J.Casson’s famous Group of Seven painting of the region, to the beautiful Magnetawan Locks and along the Dam Trail.
With night settling in, exhausted from several humid and long days on the trail (and presently surrounded by only private property) we decided to venture some 5-7 km off the path to a local campground to rest and have a cold shower. Ultimately this would prove a harsh mistake. Having called, confirmed availability and made reservations, we made way to the campground on foot - our 10th hour of hiking for the day. Arriving an hour later we got to the campground which despite assurances had no running water, no showers, and no washrooms for day campers. Frustrated, in tears, and still in our hiking clothes, we left just after midnight after not being able to make dinner and amid a violent downpour. However as the saying goes “a bad night on the trail is still better than the best day in the office”. There was no denying however, that this evening certainly put that axiom to the test. On the bright side we were now cooled off and all of our clothing as well as gear had been naturally washed thanks to mother nature.
Squishing onward, along the Great Trail, we sadly returned to concession and road trekking. The sole exception to this being the Callander Trail which is described online as a 9-10 km section through the region’s natural landscape crossing farmlands and wetlands where muddy conditions should be expected. In reality much of this stretch was a route through wetlands and is clearly meant to be a snowmobile trail rather than hiking or cycling path undertaken in the frozen conditions of winter. Further soaked and muddied, we soon diverted out of the mire of the local marshes which we found to be challenging on foot and made our way back onto the nearby roadways.
Exhausted and struggling through the seasonal heat we followed the trail as it made its way through neighbourhood streets and onto the startlingly busy regional highway. After an ice cream break in the town of Callander we continued hiking along the paved, accessible, and wonderfully shaded Kate Pace Way into the heart of North Bay – the Gate Way to the North.
In town, and unable to find camping, we again checked into a motel and decided to take a few days to rest, resupply and plan the 575 km hike to Sault Ste Marie. In North Bay we explored the harbour front, visited the house of the famed Dionne Quintuplets, and strolled through the forested campus of Nippising University. While visiting we were amazing at how supportive and kind the residents of the region were to us.
As we stood in North Bay prepared to move on into Northern Ontario our hike was due to shift yet again - as much of the coming 500-700 km of trail would be on busy roadways and the Trans Canada Highway prior to reaching a 1000km water route through Lake Superior. Needless to say, after almost 1500 km of trekking since leaving Ottawa we were at long last set to venture westward again!