Riding Ontario’s Highlands

Story by John Lewis// Photos by John Lewis
December 18 2019

Two hundred years of history, four loops and one nerve-rattling near miss

In Ontario’s early days, a river driver had to be quick-witted and agile, as even a moment’s inattention could cost him his life. He drove logs down rivers such as the Bonnechere, Madawaska and Mississippi – all tributaries of the Ottawa River. The logs, upon arrival on the Ottawa, were built into timber rafts – some hundreds of metres across – and guided downriver by raftsmen to Quebec City via the St. Lawrence. There, the rafts would be dismantled and the logs exported to the U.K. or the USA. This industry would be all but finished by 1900, and life in Ontario’s Highlands changed forever.

I may have met descendants of these river drivers, and maybe not. But, riding Ontario’s Highlands – all four loops; more than 2,000 km – I did cross the rivers on which those men worked, travelled the same roads built by their kin and followed the Ottawa River, where timber rafts were once afloat. I rode through 500-year-old white pine forests, much of them long since thinned out by 18th-century lumberjacks, in Algonquin Park. I saw log houses, occupied as they were in the 19th century (sans satellite dish and Chevy pickup back then). And, when I took a careful look, I discovered remnants of abandoned buildings, old stone fences, dismantled railway lines and repurposed railway stations that showed me where Ontario’s early settlers used to live, work and travel.

Early on in my ride, I got a sense that the stories of my tour would include tales about the people and places of history I wouldn’t meet or see, and not just the ones I would.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Mid-corner, I awoke from my reverie. My 2013 V-Strom motorcycle was heading straight. The road wasn’t. It was turning left – sharply left. At that moment, I came closer to understanding the “pay attention or die” life of a river driver than I ever had before. This was the first time in more than 40,000 km of touring I had made such a dumb mistake. (I blame the scenery!) There were birds of prey – hawks, eagles or falcons (I couldn’t tell which) – circling above. Was I imagining that they seemed to hang around sharp corners in particular? Were they waiting for such a mistake? At that moment, I made a serious and solemn vow: “I won’t do that again, you bonehead!”

But that happened on my fifth day, when I was tired and maybe a bit complacent, so I’m getting ahead of myself.

On my first day, I entered the Highlands Loop at Havelock, Ont., and rode northwestward. I was excited because I knew what was ahead: County Road 507 and Glamorgan Road. Combined, they are listed on the list of top 10 roads to ride in the Highlands. Riding them was like a motorcycle version of a roller-coaster ride, and they were that much fun. Riding them while they were dry was a bonus, because they didn’t stay that way for long. I got dumped on between Dorset and Lake Waseosa, en route to where I was staying the first night. However, I had donned my wet-weather gear in Dorset, so it was all good. I arrived at my destination on time, wet but content.

Tough to Schedule

Then my punctuality went right out the window on my second day. Hard as I may try, hitting a preplanned itinerary is near impossible for me. Interesting people and places, compounded by photo opportunities galore, all conspire to make it so. Riding across Hwy 60 (on the top 10 list) through Algonquin Provincial Park certainly provides lots of reasons to stop, hike and explore. (Make sure you get a permit to stop in the park.) Thus, I was running late. I had ridden through the Barry’s Bay area before, so I detoured down Hwy 523 at Madawaska to ride Peterson Road, Elephant Lake Road and Loop Road (on the top 10 list). I had ridden these roads before too, but I wasn’t going to pass up the joy of riding their twists and turns again. En route to Calabogie Peaks Resort, where I would be staying that night, I got a chance to ride a couple of new roads: Matawatchan Road and Centennial Lake Road (on the top 10 list), both with lots more twists and turns. (I’m grinning now, just thinking about it.) Only two days in, three more top 10 roads off my list – and I was having a blast.

Calabogie

Calabogie Peaks Resort is ideally situated to be a hub for riding the eastern part of the Highlands’ loops. It’s also a great place to take a break for a day or three, as golf, hiking, cycling and water sports are on offer. I was tempted to stay an extra day or two past my planned two days, but, alas, I had places to ride and an article to write. So, the good people at the resort gave me some Calabogie Peaks honey made by their own bees, and I moved on.

From there, I headed northward to rejoin my route to the east of Barry’s Bay and headed over to Petawawa and down along the Ottawa River: a very scenic area with lots of farms. As I rode into Pakenham along County Road 29, my V-Strom bounced, shook and rattled over the rocks, ruts and gravel. I wondered, “Was this how the roads were in the 1840s, when Pakenham was just a new village?” (The road was bad due to construction.) A left turn would take me across Pakenham’s five-arch bridge and over the Mississippi River. Instead, I stayed to the right and went into Pakenham. There, I visited the General Store.

Archibald McAllister and Robert Brown opened this store in the 1840s. It is reputed to be the oldest continuously running general store in North America. The aroma of fresh baked goods greeted me as I walked in. I introduced myself to the shopkeeper and she showed me around her historic store. When I stopped at the bakery window, she said, “It’s too bad you weren’t here earlier. Our bakery shelves were full.” No worries, they still had fresh butter tarts. (Low-cal, I am sure.) YUM!

Watch Your Speed

The Rideau Ridge was the last of the four loops I would ride in my clockwise journey of the highlands. This loop is more scenic than twisty, taking me through towns such as Merrickville, Smiths Falls and Westport. But there was one exception: Road No. 36 heading down to Westport (on the top 10 list). This was the road on which I got a bit of a surprise and came to surmise that the speed on the suggested speed signs might be decided upon by each county.

You know the ones: the ones we motorcyclists usually ignore – the ones that give us fair warning: corner ahead; reduce your speed to 40 km. These signs can have vastly different meanings from county to county. In one county, a suggested speed of 40 km may be very conservative, and you can easily take the turn much faster, while in the next county, the speed posted on the sign may be much more literal, reduce your speed to 40 km – or else. I got caught and quickly had to stand my bike up, scrub off some speed and lean her back down to make the corner safely. Not a big deal if you’re paying attention, but that is when the light bulb went off. Ah, each county is different. Beware!

All Aboard

That night, I stayed in a bright reddish orange caboose at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls. According to the museum, “Although not steel, the caboose does have some modern accessories. One of these modern accessories is an oil stove instead of a coal stove.” Shiver me timbers, not just a wooden caboose! I was staying in a five-star, modern, 1947-era wooden caboose with a modern oil stove. And, with a continental breakfast included, to boot. Living the high life!

My stay included a tour of the museum. John Weir, a long-time railwayman and volunteer at the museum, gave me the tour. John clearly had an organized presentation he liked to give because he seemed mildly annoyed every time I interrupted him to ask a question, and I had tons them. OOPS! Sorry, John. He explained the two waiting rooms in the station, one for the men, where they could spit tobacco on the floor and talk business, and a smaller one for the ladies, where they could mingle and chat. Such were the times. After seeing the old railway equipment and learning how railways used to run, we went outside and I got my exercise trying out the railway handcar.

I also met Tony Humphrey, the museum’s president, who took me for a jaunt in the 6591, the museum’s 1950s train engine. But not without getting me to do some work. He made me get out and work the switch so we could head down a different track before returning the way we came. Maybe it’s the little kid in me, but I loved it.

One of the more interesting parts of the museum was the dental car – a sleeper car converted into a mobile dental office. This railcar served as a dental car from 1951 to 1977. The dental car operated 12 months a year and would be dropped off in communities that didn’t have dental services to provide children with the care they needed. The railcar would then be picked up by an engine, taken to the next community and dropped off to serve the next community in need.

The reddish orange caboose at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario was a charming place to stay. Seldom do I feel as welcome or as cared for as I did when I stayed at this unique Airbnb.

A Real Character

On my way into Merrickville, I saw the ruins of an old mill as I crossed the Rideau River. The Merrickville Blockhouse, built circa 1832 to protect the Rideau Canal, is situated along the canal and couldn’t be missed. Diagonally across from the blockhouse, the Baldachin Inn occupies a stone building constructed in 1860 to house a department store. The inn named its pub Harry McLean’s Pub in memory of a prominent, if odd, former Merrickville resident.

Harry Falconer McLean, 1881–1961. Now, there’s an interesting chap. Distinguishing between what’s true about Harry and what’s part of his legend is a difficult task. But one thing is for sure: Harry was an eccentric character. He was rich; he made his money building railways, tunnels and dams. He was a friend to William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s tenth prime minister. Harry liked to drink and once said, “My only problem is balancing my whisky with my carbohydrates.” He was philanthropic, often giving money anonymously or tipping people $50 or $100, an inordinate amount for the times.

But – and here is where it gets odd – McLean would often throw money out of hotel windows and watch people scramble and fight in the streets to pick it up. He liked to go toe to toe with people to test their mettle. If McLean needed money on a Sunday, he would throw a brick through the bank’s window and greet the manager with “There you are! I need $1,000” and then hand him $200 for the broken window. Or so the story goes.

While in Merrickville, you can also visit his home, the Harry McLean House, where he regularly entertained the prime minister.

Thriving Towns and Ghost Towns

On my Highlands tour, I learned a lot about Ontario. I was amazed by its diversity. I saw farms that were abandoned, others that seemed like they were barely holding on – old rusted cars and farm equipment littering the landscape – and still others that looked hugely profitable with new homes, new outbuildings, new cars and equipment.

I saw sparkling tourist towns with microbreweries, historic sites and parks and shops, and other towns that gave you little reason to give them a second look. I learned that many of the once busy arteries are now backroads to nowhere – the town no longer there and the people gone. Many towns that once were now are not: Balaclava, Newfoundout, Brudenell, Craigmont and others. (Riding Ontario in search of its ghost towns is another ride altogether.) I learned that Ontario’s Highlands has some great roads with lots of twists and turns. But a great road alone is like a person with a great body and no personality. Ride the Highlands, and you’ll find out that Ontario has great roads and personality: quaint towns, beautiful scenery and lots of history.

And great hospitality! Wherever I travelled, I found people were kind and welcoming. And that’s what makes Canada – and, in particular, Ontario’s Highlands – such a great place to ride.

I stayed the course and rode the better part of all four of the Ride the Highlands loops. After Day 5, I stayed focused and never had another moment of inattention. I got home tired, but safe, and with a story to tell. But I didn’t learn all I could learn, and I rode past roads that I didn’t get to ride. So, I guess I’ll just have to do it all again.

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