Monday, February 8, 2021

Hiking The Great Trail in the Muskokas

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!

Having 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.   


After two days of pushing our way through this landscape we emerged mosquito bitten, mud covered, and tired on the edge of a subdivision near Doe Lake.  Here our way forward became unclear, as the trail markers (on metal posts) veered into the nearby marshland and the route of the path was disrupted by housing development.  The result being that we had to briefly leave the trail and move onto the unshaded local roadways which would in turn lead us to the exclusive cottage resort town of Gravenhurst.



Concerned that we had missed the correct route after leaving Washago, we reached out to other Trans Canada hikers, only to have our experiences confirmed by their own.  However, after posting about our assessment of the pathway we received a number of very direct messages and emails suggesting that our account was entirely inaccurate.   Several regional hikers insisted that the route was clear and easy to follow.   One individual insisted that they trekked the entire 40 km stretch several times a week with no difficulties.   All I can say in response, is that we were either woefully out of shape, wildly lost, that there is another pathway that everyone else takes, or there is some confusion as to where the Great Trail is throughout this region as there was scant evident that anyone had recently ventured the length of this portion of trail from Copper Falls to Doe Lake.  


In retrospect, this stretch of trail served as an indicator for what was coming on many portions of the Trans Canada Trail through the Muskoka region.  Time and again as we navigated across the Muskokas and Northern Ontario we would find that trailblazed pathways in fact went directly across extensive marshes or through / over deep regional lakes.  Our sense then was that much of this region is meant to be used as snowmobile trails rather than hiking or cycling paths.  This would explain why so many marked routes turned into wetlands, why these regions are often gated, and why even the TGT app suggests one hike directly across lakes. Regardless there is little denying that the natural beauty throughout the area is incredible, and that one's appreciation for it only increases once you have expended such a huge effort to reach it.  




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!   


Continuing on, the Great Trail joined with the local roadways tracing the banks of the Northern Branch of the Muskoka River.  Unfortunately the local campgrounds were closed to overnight campers in tents and so we again spent the night in the local Quality Inn which turned out to be both very busy and a very expensive place to lodge.    




From Bracebridge to Huntsville, a long stretch of path that we covered in a single day, the trail alternated between road walking, crossing small hydro dams, venturing down forestry tracts, through chest deep washouts and waste deep marshes, to navigating logging cuts and trekking rural concessions.  



Perhaps most difficult was the fact that throughout large portions of this section it was not possible to refill our water bottles and hard to find a place to sit and relax as most of the region was fenced and signed private property.   Once again while challenging, the natural rewards throughout this area were amazing and included sightings of moose, fox, rabbits and countless birds.  


Despite the late hour, our arrival into the majestic town of Huntsville was noted by the local digital librarian who was kind enough to stop, talk, and post about our trek online!  In town, we were very dirty, soaked in sweat, and disheveled – once again.  With few options we checked into a local establishment, enjoyed a long shower (perhaps two or three showers), laundered our clothes (several times) and took a day to catch up on our blogs as well as resupply.  


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!  


With slightly cooler weather and more shade than we had seen since Eastern Ontario we continued onward venturing onto the Park2Park Trail, a multi-use pathway that brought back memories of the wilderness, relaxation, and freedom of the back-country in Newfoundland!  Here the trail was a wide gravel and dirt track that wove alongside lakes, rivers, and wetlands.  While ATV use is allowed, everyone we met was kind enough to slow down, chat, and offer aid.  



At one point the Park2Park trail changed into the Seguin Recreational Trail which was developed on the rail bed of the former Grand Trunk Railway, historically used to move regional lumber to the Ottawa River.  Throughout this entire stretch, the wonderful conditions that we had enjoyed on the Park2Park Trail continued as we traversed through the quiet communities of Sprucedale, Whitehall and Seguin Falls.  


Here on the shores of Lower Fry Lake we picked up the Old Nipissing Road Connector, also mysteriously known as the Ontario Ghost Trail, on which we would trek northward.  The Old Nipissing Road Connector ventures through a landscape which was home to regional pioneers, historic forestry operations, and weathered farms.  For a time this route served as one tract in a network of colonization roads established by the pre-confederation government in the 1850s.  





While a few stretches throughout this area are paved, the majority of this way is either a gravel or dirt trail utilized by 4x4 vehicles, ATVs, snowmobiles, cyclists or hikers. Throughout this region our days were again spent on quiet trails, enjoying wild camping, loving the landscape and luxuriating along the clear lakes of Ontario.  So much of what we fund here is what we had been waiting to return to for so long!  We were back on a stretch of nature in which our greatest challenge was navigating the few trail washouts and ruts in the sandy pathway.  At least for a few days the glorious fresh air and forests of the Muskokas were entirely ours!


After a few days of trekking we came upon the wonderful, welcoming and quirky shop – The Cornball Store!  There are a few places that are recommended to us as we trek, and fewer still that are recommended by so many people – the Cornball Store was just such a place!  Having arrived we dropped our backpacks in the shade, entered, receiving a warm welcome, and proceeded to get a couple of cold ice creams, refill our water, and pick up a few amazing baked treats.  When we went to pay, it turned out that a local supporter had already made arrangements to have our bill covered – we were once again being cared for by distant Trail Angels! Thankful, we rested outside in the shade of a nearby tree, to the curiosity of the numerous customers popping in for treats.


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. 


In town, owing to Barbara’s amazing efforts we also enjoyed the opportunity to chat with local residents, meet with journalists from  The Great North Arrow as well as the town mayor, the gracious Sam Dunnett and his lovely wife.  Here we were presented with a complimentary Magnetawan T-Shirt (that we intend to carry with us on our travels to the arctic).  As we said our goodbyes we made one final stop to the beautiful local market on the edge of town where we resupplied with far too many local baked treats for our hike!




Continuing along the Old Nipissing Road Connector on an ever narrowing former logging road our route took us through beautiful forests where we could explore, relax and bird without interruption!  Northbound the way wove through unique locations such as the historic community of Bummer’s Roost whose origins are a subject of debate, but whose name is certainly memorable!


The trail, a sandy and uneven track, next boxed around the end of the beautiful Deer Lake, touring along ATV and snowmobile routes into the rapidly developing cottage country to the rural community of Commanda prior to returning to an affluent cottage subdivision around Wolfe Creek.   Again venturing along county roadways our days became hot and dusty with most of our energy focused on seeking shade and water.  It was on these roadways that we pushed into the community of Nipissing,  where we were graciously helped by the kind staff at Foote’s General Store and where we took the chance rest, buy ice creams and have a few cold drinks!

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!   


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