You won't believe your eyes
With summer a distant but fond memory, we thought it was high time to get out for a little autumn ATV adventure. As luck would have it, we had the opportunity to visit one of the most ATV-friendly areas in North America – Ontario. Specifically, we were heading to an area known as Ontario’s Near North, a region absolutely teeming with ATV trails.
Using Toronto as our home base, we loaded up the car and headed to our first destination – North Bay. We began our three-hour journey by pointing the car north on Hwy. 400. It doesn’t take long at all to escape the hustle and bustle of Toronto and the changes in scenery are jarring. Gone are the crowded streets and imposing skyscrapers, replaced by lush farmland, clear lakes, vast forests and the rugged Canadian Shield.
The most shocking change, however, was the colors. Fall had just arrived in Toronto and the leaves on the trees were only beginning change from green to gold. However, the further north we travelled the more intense the change was. By the time we turned onto Hwy. 11 about an hour north of Toronto the landscape was a rich palette of red and gold set against a clear blue sky. This had the makings of an awesome trip.
We stopped for a bite to eat about half way to North Bay, just north of Orillia at a legendary spot right on the side of the highway – Webers. Webers is an institution in this area, slinging burgers and fries since 1963. It’s so popular the owners actually had a bridge built over the highway so drivers heading north or south could stop in! After picking up our food we sat at a picnic table in the back and took in the fall colors, but an old train car is available for indoor dining.
After filling our bellies we continued the rest of the way to North Bay where we met up with the rest of our party at the Best Western North Bay. We got the keys to our rooms, relaxed and were able to check our email thanks to the free Internet connection. The indoor pool was enticing, as was the sauna and exercise facility, but we bypassed all that in favor of getting a drink at Joso’s Restaurant. The rest of the team soon joined us so we settled in for a night of fun and good food. Hotel General Manager Ruth St. Phard even joined us for a little while for a few laughs before heading off to our rooms for some shuteye before hitting the trails.
Sleep was fitful as we were as excited as a kid on Christmas to start riding. The team was gathered and we headed east on Hwy. 17 for a 30 minute drive to Mattawa, an entryway to the expansive Voyageur Multi-Use Trail System (VMUTS). We met up with some locals at Draper’s Bakery & Café for a cup of coffee and a BLT. Glen Draper is the proprietor and he also happens to be one of the driving forces behind the trail system.
“We have 300 kilometers of well-maintained trails,” says Draper. “We’re working towards a huge market. We have 3,000 kilometers mapped with GPS coordinates and we’re going through the process right now with the conservation authorities to have them all approved.”
If you’re not sure exactly how much 3,000 kilometers is – it translates to more than 1,850 miles. That’s more than a 100 miles longer than distance between Chicago and Los Angeles and it’s all available to be ridden by anybody right now! We were absolutely blown away to hear this and thrilled to start our two-day ATV journey.
Parked behind Draper’s was a fleet of brand new Honda ATVs just begging to be ridden, provided by Honda Canada. Honda is a huge supporter of VMUTS and Draper was rightfully singing its praises.
“We’re very fortunate with organizations like Honda because without the support of these manufacturers, organizations like ours…we can’t exist,” says Draper. “How do we get volunteers on the trails? Most of the people that have their own ATVs want to go ride. The carrot is what Honda has recognized is loaning us those ATVs to have a safe maintained trail. Now we can say ‘we’ve got a nice ATV for you to ride, will you come and help us?’ And they jump on the opportunity.”
We excitedly jumped on our Hondas and rode right through town until we hit the trails. It should be mentioned that the town of Mattawa is exceedingly ATV friendly, allowing ATVers to ride on public roads so long as they use proper hand signals and follow the rules of the road. Even local restaurants and accommodations welcome ATV riders with open arms. As Mattawa Voyageur Country Tourism Development Co-ordinator Mike Stiell tells us, it’s not uncommon to see a half dozen ATVs parked in front of a local restaurant.
It didn’t take long after hopping aboard the Hondas that we hit the trailhead and the real fun began. We were welcomed by a canopy of trees that were raining down multi-colored leaves. It smelled just like you’d expect it to – earthy and fresh. We played around all morning, darting here and there on wide-open trails. Because we were riding on a Monday the trails were almost empty. We only saw a couple of ATVs and a few hikers all day long, but you can expect to run across more people on the weekend or during peak summer weeks.
Besides the seemingly infinite trails at our disposal, most impressive was how well maintained everything was. Northern Ontario is home to hundreds of lakes and rivers and all the water crossings on this trail system featured a sturdy, honest-to-goodness bridge. That may not sound like a big deal, but we’ve seen so many hastily-built bridges over the years that we’ve come to appreciate quality when we see it.
We were fortunate to have a guide with us, but the trail system is so well marked with easy-to-find signage that it would have been pretty simple to find our own way. Our goal for the first day was to reach a lookout that we were told provided an incredible view. We were not disappointed. The lookout is basically a large wooden deck built on one of the higher points of the trail system. The view it provides is breathtaking – especially in the fall. You’re treated to a kaleidoscope of colors as the trees amble down to the valley below.
Of course, the VMUTS is about far more than the views. ATVers are lavished with a varied system of trails that has something to offer for just about anybody. Wide-open areas for high-speed riding; tight tree-lined and rock-strewn paths with sharp turns; steep climbs and descents that will test your nerves; even deep and silty sand washes. We found all that and more within 20 miles. Who knows what else we’d find if we had time to explore everything.
After logging some serious miles the first day we headed off to the beautiful Moosehead Estate and Retreat for some much-needed nourishment. Located on the shore of Lake Champlain, this history-rich century home serves as a restaurant and bed and breakfast and was the perfect place to wrap up our first day on the trails. Following dinner we checked in to our rooms at the Valois’ Restaurant and Motel for some hard-earned sleep.
Because Mattawa is low lying and surrounded by the Algonquin Highlands and Laurentian Mountains, the town is covered by a foggy mist in the early mornings. When it starts to break up and the Ottawa River reveals itself it’s a sight to behold. That’s the view we got to take in as we enjoyed an early breakfast. It’s hard to start a day any better than that.
The goal for the second day was to reach the mica mine for a little subterranean exploration. However, we had plenty of trails to investigate before got there. We were feeling a little more comfortable on the second day and the speeds started to increase as we tested the limits of our ATVs and our resolves. Bouncing over rocks and other trail debris while leaving a wake of fallen leaves was a top priority and it brought no shortage of smiles to our faces. Spend a day like this and life feels very good indeed.
On the way to the mica mine we took a short detour to check out a gorgeous lake that is connected to the trail system. A camping area is located right off the trail, but the lake was deserted and offered us a perfect place to enjoy lunch, which was provided by Draper’s Bakery & Café. We were tempted to jump in for a swim, but Ontario lakes can be pretty chilly in October so instead we fired up the ATVs again and continued on our journey.
As expected, the trail led directly to the mica mine. Everybody unloaded, grabbed a flashlight and headed underground. Abandoned mines are generally a little creepy and this one was no exception – helped no doubt by the hundreds of bats we saw dangling from the rocks. Still, it was fun to poke around and explore, but before long the ATVs were calling our names and it was time to head for home.
Our trip back to town was loads of fun. We had all the pictures we needed by then so we just played around and soaked it all in before we had to leave. Like school kids during the final days of summer vacation, the end was near but it was awfully hard to let go. You can bet we’ll be back to see even more of the fantastic Voyageur Multi-Use Trail System.