Challenging bliss in the heart of Central Ontario.
This past August long weekend, my friend Sunneva and I packed up our cyclocross bikes with camping gear and headed out on an adventure; one that was perhaps a little more epic than expected. Our goal was to complete Matt Kadey's version of the COLT (Central Ontario Loop Trail) - over 400km of gravel roads, ATV trails, mutli-use trails and some paved sections; mostly flat with some 'fun' hills around the northern portion of the loop.
With only having dabbled in bikepacking before, I'm not sure what enticed us to complete the loop in three days, when friends like Matt and Steve (Ride Cycle Spin), both of which are strong riders, did the loop in four days. I guess we figured we are both good at pedalling all day and would take enough breaks to keep us thriving.
Leading up to the COLT
Leading up to COLT, there were several signs that I should not be embarking on this trip.
My pinched nerve in my neck had flared up from the stresses of work and I knew that the rough terrain of the COLT had the potential to jostle it even more. I also had a swollen and bruised foot from watching a criterium race the weekend prior - a young racer fudged a corner and railed the sidewalk and collided into my foot as I turned around. (I have the oddest luck.)
It seemed like a good idea to bike 400km... right? That's what I thought too. Thankfully, my foot wasn't fractured and my physiotherapist was on board and agreed that it would do me good to escape and enjoy the outdoors; potentially balancing out the work stress, causing me to tense up and pinch my nerve.
Sunneva and I planned to camp out near the loop the Friday night so we could wake up and hit the trail early Saturday. Unfortunately, we were both crazy busy with work and neither of us could make that happen. Our revised plan was to meet up Saturday and carpool to the start. Luckily, Steve and I had done a practice bikepack to Elora and back a couple of weeks prior, so I knew what needed to be packed and got on with that as efficiently as possible. Here's what I ended up packing:
I didn't weigh my gear - there was no time for modifications. I stayed up extra late to prep some food to take, including blueberry chocolate-chip banana waffles from Matt's Rocket Fuel recipe book. They were such a treat to have.
Finally, some sleep with a 6 am wake-up call.
Day 1 - Packing 101 and Shoe Troubleshooting
Planned: 162 km. Peterborough to Gilmour.
Actual: 91 km. Peterborough to Marmora.
Sunneva and I met up at her friends' house tucked away in the countryside, just outside of Peterborough. Tina and Craig are both cyclists, so it was a great base to get started.
Sunneva was using gear I borrowed from friends, so when we arrived, we had to get everything sorted out - including peeling back some of her handlebar tape to allow the handlebar bag to fit. We also realized that the half frame bag we had was much too big for her bike. (I guess it pays to be tall in this scenario! I ride a 56 cm bike with space for a large frame bag.)
We finally hit the road close to lunchtime. Sunneva was super excited and jetted off down the road like a rocket. (Slow down there lady, I'm molasses when I start.) We had a couple of good gravel rollers off the bat on our way to meet the official loop. We found the trail shortly and some canopies, neat underpasses and wide-open rail trail greeted us.
It didn't take long to figure out that the handlebar bag on her bike was rubbing against the wheel. It took us a little while to figure out how to use some straps in an unintended fashion to hold up the bag. Seemed to do the trick!
Then not much further into the ride...her cleat came loose! We beelined to a RONA in Campbellford, which thankfully had dedicated employees that found her a replacement bolt in no time. (Note to self: pack spare cleat and bolts.)
Having only made it about 40 km by this point, we were wondering what the rest of the day had in store. The answer is navigation training and rain - just a little of each. To hop on the Hastings Heritage Trail travelling north, Matt had a wee bit of mystery connecting trail mixed into the route. Once we got on the main trail, the rain came down. I found it quite refreshing, but once we stopped in Marmora; I got cold.
I devoured the entire half of a loaded medium pizza (can you call it pizza if it doesn't have cheese?). While we were eating, we decided that reaching our Crown Land spot in Gilmour was a little far-fetched since we started so late. Also, we were wet and a shower would be really nice. So instead, we stayed at the KOA just outside of Marmora. We did a little laundry in a plastic bag and went straight to bed.
Day 2 - Rocks and Sand from Hell
Planned: 124 km. Gilmour to Haliburton.
Actual: 123 km. Marmora to Highland Grove.
I awoke to the sound of Sunneva boiling water for breakfast. Oatmeal for the win.
It took us quite a while to get packed up and jimmy up Sunneva's gear again (which prevented her from shifting her front ring the entire trip - she's a grinding champion!). We set out around 10 am, still optimistic that we could ride into dusk and make our destination. (It's almost comical reading that. Where was my reality check at the time?)
A mere couple of kilometres onto the Hastings Heritage Trail, we stumbled upon a washed out section. I joked it was training for The Rift's river crossings. We took two different approaches - Sunneva bushwhacked along shore and I took off my shoes and waded. It actually felt really nice on my bruised foot!
I find detours like this comical. However, this was a foreshadowing of what was to come. For most of the ride to Gilmour (about 50 km) it was just rock section after rock section - many of which you could pick a good line, but others with no such luck; you just pounded your pedals and took the vibrations. The low of the trip for me was through here - I really questioned my ability to complete the loop with my nerve on the cusp of a huge flare-up. I remember messaging Steve and asking if it will ever end - he replied: Bancroft.
The route to Gilmour had many ATVers, some of which were courteous, and others that ripped by and left you in a cloud of dust. I was thankful Sunneva wasn't drinking a lot of water because I was guzzling mine back and needed more. (There're no stops en route between Marmora and Gilmour.) About 10 km from Gilmour, we ditched the rocks and took the paved road - my nerve needed a break. We arrived in Gilmour to find that the Gate Family Restaurant was out of business and the convenience store around the corner was closed for the weekend because of a family emergency. (Note to self: when relying on a single stop in the middle of nowhere for water, call ahead.) We waved down some ATVers crossing the main road and they let us know a chip truck was located a few kilometres up the paved road. Phew.
Big Al's Chuckwagon was packed! Most people drove in on ATVs and crowded at the picnic tables, waiting for their meal. They had a cute cat that meandered through the crowds. Across the street, we filled up on water and gummies - I hung out with a doggo named Gunner while his owner went inside.
After this break, I felt oddly renewed, ready to tackle some more. The sand came next. Hours of sand with our ill-suited cross bikes, weaving, staying limber and letting the sand tell us where our bikes were going. Some parts were so deep that we had to dismount and walk.
About an hour from Bancroft, Sunneva decided she'd had enough and took the paved road the rest of the way. Since my mojo was still high, I kept going on Matt's route, which took me up and down some gravel roads as a trail detour; a welcomed break. I finished with some more sand, of course.
I met Sunneva at a pub in town and we enjoyed some food while hashing out our plan for the rest of the day. After all, it was already dinner time, and we were only in Bancroft. There was no way we would make it to Haliburton as planned. Sunneva was on top of things and had done some searching while I was still surfing the sand - she found a place in Highland Grove, about 25 km west of Bancroft.
As we were wrapping up dinner, a group walked by the patio and saw our bikes. They were doing the COLT too! And also had seen no other bikepackers their entire trip. We really thought we would have seen more people loaded up on two wheels. They were staying at a campsite just west of town. We would have stayed there but needed to put in a few more kilometres still. Off we rode into the sunset.
We biked through dusk and arrived at our AirBnB (Magnificent Hill) that had shared rooms or tent sites to choose from. After such a long day, we opted for a soft pillow and bed. The owner's dog was howling back and forth with the coyotes all night... the noise didn't bother me though, as I was too exhausted.
Day 3 - Just Keep Pedalling
Planned: 140 km. Haliburton to Peterborough.
Actual: 212 km. Highland Grove to Peterborough.
Both of us woke up before sunrise, feeling well-rested. This time we planned to leave by 6 am and enjoy some hills for breakfast. Since Highland Grove was a little off track, we made our own route to Tory Hill (25 km), which joined up with the COLT. When we got to Tory Hill, Sunneva and I split ways. I was determined to finish the loop, and she was sensible and took a direct path back, keeping in mind that her priority was Crank the Shield coming up.
I had another 35 km of hills to go before I reached Haliburton. My favourite part of this section was coming across Unicorn Road. A gravel road close to Haliburton that had some good technical sections. Although it was a holiday Monday, the Foodland in town was open - pleasant surprise. I thought I was going to have to get creative with some meals. I stocked up on water, baked goods, bananas, pepperoni sticks, chocolate bars, and gummies. I was set for the day.
After the grocery store, I told myself that my ride was really just beginning - time to reset. I knew that the section from Haliburton to Kinmount had some more sand, but I wasn't too worried. Nothing could be worse than the day before. I kept my spirits high by singing along to music coming from my cellphone speaker in my back pocket. The ATVers on the Haliburton County Trail surprised me- every single driver slowed down for me and most even pulled over and stopped and waited for me to pass. It was great!
The views on this part of the trail were really lovely. I stumbled upon a beautiful wetland and got off the bike for a bit.
I arrived in Kinmount, excited to make it that far. With the toughest sections out of the way, I knew all I had to do was keep pedalling and I would make it to Peterborough. I grabbed some fries and then stocked up at the convenience store. (Funny story about that, the following weekend I was racing Substance Project's Eager Beaver gravel race and a racer rolled up next to me and said he recognized my bike from Kinmount! He was at the laundromat and saw my bike outside the convenience store. Small world.)
The Haliburton County Trail turned into the Victoria Rail Trail as I continued south, and before I knew it, I found myself in Fenelon Falls. I took a small break for ice cream. This is when I noticed the ratchet mechanism on my shoe was broken! I just laughed - what are the chances that both our shoes malfunction on this trip? Thankfully, the top ratchet was still doing its job and held the shoe tight enough to my foot (Luck Cycling Shoes is on vacation until the end of August, so I've just been electrical taping it ever since...).
At this point Sunneva was back at her friends' house and enjoying a beer, knowing that she would no longer need to come rescue me. I was giving her updates along the way and honing in on Peterborough. Once I hit Lindsay, I hopped on the Rotary Trail, which turned into the Kawartha Trans Canada Trail. More beautiful landscapes along this stretch. I even spotted a heron that let me get close!
I followed the route onto some paved roads to Emily Provincial Park because that's where Matt and his group stayed. In hindsight, I should have changed the route and stayed on the trail. The cottage traffic in this area was nasty. Drivers were careless. I jutted off onto Grassy Road to avoid the traffic, but was subsequently met with massive gravel hills.
As I approached Peterborough and looked at the COLT route versus where I needed to go to in the countryside, I followed the route on Google maps and shave off a couple of kilometres. We still had cottage traffic to fight and if I stayed out any longer, I'd be arriving home past midnight. (I was sensible? Perhaps a first on this trip.) I had to tackle some good rollers on the home stretch, but had it in me knowing that I was almost done and breaking the 200 km threshold - something I had never done on any bike, let alone fully loaded on a large chunk of gravel and trail.
I arrived back - 212 km. My bike was covered in dust. I was covered in grit. It was great. For me, I love getting dirty. It's a reward to a challenging ride; an accomplishment that shows. My hydration and nutrition throughout the day were also top-notch; very grateful that I didn't bonk.
The COLT is a dynamic route in the heart of Central Ontario with ever-changing terrain and landscapes. What I appreciated most about the route was that it had many sections with rough terrain being complimented by serene views just past the trail. While sections of this trail may be quite a challenge, the beauty of it is definitely worth it! Get out there!