If you seek twists and turns, elevation changes around every corner, and faraway vistas, the Ontario Highlands should suit your needs
Road trip! The good weather is here, and we’ve escaped from the office. Glenn and I hit the open road the first week of June with a couple of 2014 adventure bikes to see what life looks like from behind a set of handlebars instead of a keyboard. Our goal was to cover 1600 km, traversing the highlands of eastern Ontario. I was anxious to make some new discoveries in my home province and to ride the twisting roads less travelled.
Our trip was selected based on a combination of routes featured on the new interactive website ridethehighlands.ca. The site has been set up by the Ontario Highlands Tourism Organization (ohto.ca) to promote motorcycle tourism in the province.
For the next four days, we would be riding the 2014 Yamaha Super Ténéré ES and the 2014 Suzuki V-Strom 1000 SE. The Suzuki carried most of our gear and camera equipment, while the Yamaha was out front carrying the maps and directions. That’s right, paper maps and written directions. We had access to a GPS if we had wanted, but this approach seemed fitting, given that we were trying to get away from the office and the hi-tech environment. Each morning we switched up bikes, allowing us to split the navigation duties.
Leaving the Mojo mansion was a bittersweet feeling (by bitter, I mean others were bitter, and by sweet I mean sweeeeet!). We first headed for Bancroft. The fast, sweeping corners of Highways 503 and 118 let us get a feel for the bikes and settle into our ride.
We passed through Bancroft on the way to Maynooth, where you’ll find the beginning of Peterson Road, which turns into Elephant Lake Road. The next 34 km of riding is all the reason you’ll ever need to get a motorcycle licence. Turn after turn snakes through forested hills, allowing you to test the limits of your skills and your bike. It is a must ride for anyone on two wheels. At the bottom of Elephant Lake Road, we arrived at Harcourt and the Olde Ridge Authentic BBQ. We wandered in to find owner Bobby Turner hard at work, prepping for the coming season. The smell of fresh-smoked BBQ ribs had me drooling as we attempted to secure our care package to the back of the Yamaha with a series of straps and bungees. The rest of the ride to Carnarvon was spent carving around perfect roads while keeping one eye and sometimes a hand on the precious cargo behind me.
Arriving at the Stouffer Mill B&B gave us our first chance to take the bikes off the pavement. It was only about a kilometre from the road to the top of the driveway, but the steep climb on the freshly graded driveway was a nice change and showed how capable the bikes are. Don and Jessie greeted us and welcomed us into their beautiful, bike-friendly establishment, even giving us VIP covered parking right next to their own bike.
I started the next morning aboard the Suzuki, en route to the Dorset Lookout Tower. As soon as we set out, I could feel the character of the V-Strom was very different than that of the Super Ténéré.
Riding in Algonquin Park on a quiet Thursday morning meant we didn’t have to stare down slow-moving traffic, but those hordes were replaced by another minor concern – insects, and lots of them. I know that this time of year it’s normal to be attacked by hungry critters, but the swarms of mosquitoes and black flies also drive moose out of the forest and onto the road in search of some relief. I had half hoped to see at least one moose on our passage through the park, but I suppose there are less harrowing ways to experience the majesty of nature than having it step out in front of your motorcycle.
Barry’s Bay brought a respite from cool, gray and wet conditions. At the Barry’s Bay railway station, we were welcomed by Danielle Paul, who took the time to share some local history and point out the best spot to warm ourselves with coffee and treats.
I recall the rain following us most of the way to Pembroke, but it didn’t take away from the ride. If anything, it added to the excitement I was feeling. More great roads took us through Wilno and Schutt and then on to the Bonnechere Caves.
The last stop for the day was Pembroke. Here, we would rest up for the night in preparation for the longest day of riding on our schedule – 450 km.
We checked in at the Comfort Inn for the evening and headed to a local restaurant for a bite and a beer. An unsolicited honourable mention goes to the Whitewater Brewing Company for a fine selection of brews.
Our morning stop for fuel showed that even though the bikes are different in size and configuration – the Ténéré’s 1199 cc parallel-twin versus the 1037 cc V-twin of the V-Strom – they are both consistently within pennies of each other at the pump. Two differing approaches seem to be netting the same result thus far.
Highway 148 took us into Quebec for a quick visit before retuning us to Ontario via Hwy 301 near Chenaux. The line on the map took us toward Calabogie, along the shores of the Ottawa River and then the Madawaska River. The roads here rise and fall with the terrain while trying to cling to the riverbanks. It’s wonderland for motorcyclists, and I think Glenn may have been considering relocating the Mojo headquarters so that he could make this his drive to work.
Just down the road at the Calabogie Peaks Resort and Conference Centre, we were treated to a tour of the grounds by Maggie and Todd. I sometimes forget that we have a lot of big hills in this province, but the last couple hours of riding and the large ski lifts at the resort certainly jogged my memory.
By the time we left the resort, there were no clouds and the temperature had started to climb. The liners came out of the gear and I was in the lead, attempting to navigate the patchwork of back roads that lay ahead.
Right after the town of Matawatchan, the road turned to dirt and the trees closed in, leaving just enough room for a vehicle. I stopped to ask Glenn if he thought we had missed a turn. He answered my question by opening the throttle on the Suzuki and leaving me in the dust. I caught up with him at the end of the road, a few kilometres later, to find we were right on track according to the map.
Near Vennachar, I encountered a turn with a 20 km/h sign posted just before it. I recall thinking how uncharacteristically accurate it was as the turn tightened up on me; I hadn’t meant to drag the left peg of the Yamaha most of the way around the corner. Later at Plevna, we had to turn around and stop to admire another unusual road sign – it read “winding road for 32 km.” Thank you very much!
The sign turned out to be slightly off, as we managed to piece together way more than the 32 km of twisty roads from Plevna, through Ompah, and all the way to Westport. I would have been happy to ride that section all day long.
Both of us had been staring at a flashing fuel gauge for over 50 km when we crested a hill overlooking picturesque Westport. Set on the shores of the Rideau Canal, Westport was settled in the early 1800s and is the largest town between Kingston and Perth. Today, it’s a hub for business and tourism. Thankfully, it also has a gas station.
We were headed into the setting sun for our last stretch into Marmora. Less time was spent leaning the bikes over in turns on this section, but the sensation of weightlessness on the many sharp hill crests was a blast. We arrived in Marmora in the early evening and parked in the driveway of the Limestone B&B. Our hosts, Rosalie and Paul, were waiting with Ride the Highlands side-stand plates and Ride the Highlands motorcycle-only parking signage proudly displayed.
The final day’s ride began with sunshine and a stop at the Marmora Mine. Deep blue water now fills this open pit, which was once over 200 metres deep. The work it took to create the site is staggering.
En route to Coe Hill, we found a good vantage point to take some pictures. Glenn climbed up onto a rock-cut above the road so he could shoot me riding by. When we had finished, Glenn climbed down and handed me the Drift video camera I had asked him to capture some footage with. I wiped the sweat off my brow and out of my eyes as he told me about the poison ivy he had been walking around in up on the cliff and how he had been immune to it when he was younger. I looked at the camera he had just handed me, then back at him, then back at the camera. My ride to Coe Hill was spent wondering how long it would be before my impending breakout, and how far I could ride with my eyes swollen shut. Sas and Derek, purveyors of the Hideaway Primitive Grill, were kind enough to let us in even after we informed them of our encounter with the poison ivy.
Derek, much like everyone we had met on our trip, takes great pride in his product. We sampled the Chocolate Chili Bacon Gelato that he created. I wish I had some to share with all of you, but I don’t. It’s mine. Go get your own. The trip up Lower Faraday Rd. toward Bancroft marked the last part of our route before we turned back west to head for home. Thankfully, this is another gem of a ride for anyone who likes to wear the edges of their tires. On one particular downhill with a tight right-hand turn, the apex had been unexpectedly converted to dirt. Neither Glenn nor I had any issue, and as I think back on it now, it occurs to me that these adventure bikes handled all of the road conditions with ease.
It was early afternoon when we emerged on Hwy 28 south of Bancroft, and I figured I’d been spared, since the poison ivy hadn’t rendered me blind by then. From that point on, the roads were very familiar to me. I was in the home stretch, so I began trying to organize my thoughts about the last few days of our Ride the Highlands trip. I had plenty to think about: amazing roads, great people and places, the story I had yet to write, my deadline, even impressions about the bikes and gear. Our trip had been a barrage of new information and experiences that I still had to process.
But I couldn’t think about any of that; the road ahead was empty and the sun was shining. My mind wandered off into the place that it only finds when I’m on two wheels. It had been too long since I’d been there, and I was thrilled to find it in the Ontario Highlands – so close to home. For more information on this excellent riding area, go to ridethehighlands.ca or ontarioshighlands.ca.