The Butter Tart 700 is a 760 kilometre loop that explores some of the prettiest and hilliest countryside in southwestern Ontario - leaving from St. Jacobs, the route brings cyclists up to Lake Huron, around Bruce and Grey counties, and shoots back down through Dufferin and Wellington counties - all in a fashion that is never direct and constantly delivers surprises.
Matt and Tabi have been scoping out the BT 700 route for years; putting in the time to piece together this journey full of wanderlust. Here's a snippet of the route:
The inaugural Grand Depart occurred in July 2019 and saw about 60 official riders and a dozen Waterloo Cycling Club members leading riders out on a day trip. Checking out all of the rigs and set-ups confirmed that this was a route I wanted to tackle in the future.
Fast forward to 2020 - I was planning to do the BT 700 in June so I would have enough time to recover before racing The Rift in Iceland in July. Plans shifted when COVID took storm, allowing me to partake in the Grand Depart Weekend. So glad it worked out this way! The route wouldn't have been the same without yo-yoing with fellow bikepackers and trail fairies working their magic.
BT 700 Recruitment
My friend Lise's plans also shifted this year. Due to COVID, her Ironman and Burning Man trips were cancelled and she was looking to do something new. She approached me about bikepacking, having never done it, and jokingly I invited her to do the BT 700 with me. The joke transformed into a reality in a matter of weeks - borrowing gear, sewing frame and top tube bags - Lise dove in deep. We did a 55 km practice pack one week prior to the depart - hitting gravel rollers, single track, rail trail and a wee bit of bushwhacking for good measure. She was still on board, phew. And even more importantly, having not ridden together outside of a race environment, we seemed to jive - skill-wise and attitude-wise, the perfect combo.
Despite there being no perfect rig for this route and our set-ups being very different, our bikes both came close to doing the trick the majority of the time. I used my drop bar gravel bike with wheels stolen from my mountain bike. Lise used her mountain bike with her tri-bars.
Day 1: TT on the BT
(206 km, 922 m elevation gain)
We left my house in Kitchener around 6 am, making a beeline to St. Jacobs. It was nice to see a few other riders trickle in and check out their gear before heading out. Matt and Tabi saw us off, no doubt chuckling at the adventure we were about to experience while simultaneously wishing us success.
The forecasted weather leading up to the event was ever-changing. Despite the headwind for most of the day, I was pleased with the overcast skies and mist compared to a scorcher of a day. We made good time, taking turns in the headwind and found ourselves quickly hitting Listowel. My sister, her husband and kids tracked us down on the rail trail and offered us our first butter tarts. (For butter tart lovers out there, you may shake your head at me - I declined, as butter tarts are not my jam.) The tarts were mixed in with a sprinkle donut though and I joked that if I found a butter tart with sprinkles I'd give butter tarts another chance.
The grey skies continued as did the straightaway gravel, with our water depleting. Lise and I thought that we had enough water to skip stopping in Listowel - our first oopsie daisy of the trip. We stopped on the side of the road to have a more substantial snack and a cute dog came out of the farmer's field. Her demeanor changed over the minutes when we did not give her something to eat - slowly putting our food back in our bags and pedalling away softly. (Apparently she chased some other riders down later in the day.)
Next up was Mud Lake Line - the signage was foreshadowing indeed. At first the gravel was pretty luxurious. We stopped for me to take a zillion photos of my bike in the corn field, Lise laughing at me all the while. I am so glad she took this photo break in stride, because there would be many more! (Honestly, I stop if a blade of grass or a tiny flower catches my eye.)
P.C. Lise Munsie
As we continued down the line, it ended with a sign: 'This Road Not Assumed by the Township'. How inviting; giddy up. We spent some time sifting through the mud here, thanking Matt for our first stint of hilarity. I emerged with my fork and mini panniers caked in mud. Lise did much better with her tire clearance.
P.C. Lise Munsie
At this point we were running pretty low on water and regretting not stopping in Listowel. The town of Mildmay felt so close, yet so far. We kept chugging along - Saugeen Conservation Area was our last bit of trail before the town.
We finally made it to Mildmay and took haven on Sandy's Family Restaurant patio. The late lunch and rest hit the spot. Just as we were leaving the convenience store in Mildmay, Dave rolled up. We hadn't seen another bikepacker enroute all day so were quite excited to chat. We assured him that he would catch us shortly and we could ride together.
He did catch us, just not 'on' the rail trail. Lise and I were lying in the grass, contemplating our progress and resting our backs. Dave strolled up and gave us a renewed sense of hope as we hopped back on our saddles. (Dave is full of bikespiration having done some amazing routes all over the world.)
The Brant Tract was nice and flowy; a well-deserved butt break from flat gravel roads and rail trail. Shortly thereafter we arrived in Paisley for a water top up. Having learned our lesson, we topped up whenever we could now, even if it was only for 500 mL carrying capacity and a quick chug. Paisley was super cute. I'd love to go back and spend some time there wandering around.
Dave backtracked out of town to follow the route to a tee. Lise and I decided to take roads back to the trail. We were greeted with a massive paved hill once turning the corner. Penance for our shortcut.
I was starting to bonk at this point in the day. Lise let me hide behind her as she hit the wind in her TT bars. We reminisced about Substance Project's Eager Beaver 100 miler race and having our souls sucked out of us in the wind turbine alley. (Dan - you prepared us so well for the terrain and weather conditions on the BT 700. Thank you!)
We eventually had some reprieve from the wind, only to trade it in for an ATV pump track. To enjoy this ATV trail, you really had to think of it as a mini pump track and get any energy savings possible out of each rut. We emerged in one piece at the other side and continued onto MacGregor Point.
The park was such a treat at sunset. Our timing could not have been better. It was absolutely stunning. Once out of the park, the sunset along the shoreline continued as locals flocked to watch. We were about to round the corner into town and spotted some fully-loaded bikes. Tom and Mo were taking a dip in the lake to end the day. They had spotted a park in town that looked suitable to stealth camp and invited us to join. We pitched our tents near a baseball diamond and called it a night.
Day 2: Soaker
(131 km, 776 m elevation gain)
The weather started out similar to the day before - overcast and dry. Our newly-founded bike gang set out in search of breakfast in town... everything was still closed except the trusty Tim Horton's up the street. It did the trick. Dave rolled up with his friend, explaining that he slept in town and needed to do the MacGregor trails still. As did the guys.
We parted ways and headed out on another day of surprise terrain, with the long-stretch goal of making it to Owen Sound. (We learned to have several goals for the day, to be modified based on weather and energy levels.)
P.C. Mo Alhaj
We had the pleasure of riding sand and woodchips out of town. The trails felt so cushy, but were a lot of work. We made it to Southampton in no time and popped into town for some extra water. Fool me once...
The Saugeen Reserve was flagged on the route as potentially having restricted access due to COVID. We didn't spot any signage to indicate closures, so continued on. The drivers were rather welcoming in this area too which was nice.
It was a long stretch to our next stop - about 65 km. Which even looks a bit odd writing, because that doesn't seem like a long distance, but it was a slog. Our butts were so sore from the day before and we wondered if they would ever feel better on this trip. Lise and I became synced on two wheels, taking coasting breaks in unison to give ourselves some time out of the saddle.
We came across one of the most serene landscapes - with hundreds of butterflies fluttering along the weeds and flowers of a narrow gravel lane. It was breathtaking. We made a turn onto an adjacent gravel road, and were hit with the sight of looming clouds. And just like that, we knew we were in for a doozy of a day.
It didn't take long for the rain to start and for us to become soaked. We didn't pack any long sleeves... since the weather was supposed to be in the 30s without the humidex. Oops.
We were cold and managed to overshoot Wiarton and my friend's cottage where we planned on taking a rest (second oopsie daisy). We only noticed when we were directly south of the cottage, with a bluff cutting in between. Our best bet was to head into the town of Big Bay.
The rain subsided as we rolled up to the general store, with a long line of ice cream patrons. We stood in line... and ordered 8 L of water. It was pretty amazing - they sold 4 L jugs. We sat on a rock across the street by the mailboxes and lit our stove to make a camp meal. Quite the spectacle we were. Some locals chatted with us and we shared our journey thus far.
The rain started again, cued by our water being boiled. We took cover at some picnic tables and ate our Pad Thai and pepperettes.
Not wanting to get back on the bike, we changed into our 'drier' bibs and went on our way. Thankfully we spotted some pockets of sunlight in the distance, giving us some hope of drier weather.
Our carrot at this point in time was making it to Lise's friend's house in Owen Sound, with the promise of drying off and having a proper meal. One last technical section and we were onto our home stretch. The Sarawak Switchbacks were just plain mean. Lise and I could barely get our bikes up the stretch walking, let alone riding. The first switchback we tackled solo, locking our wheels as leverage. The second was steep and wet so we worked together and did one bike at a time.
P.C. Lise Munsie
One last obstacle once we were out of the forest - geese littering the shoreline of Owen Sound. They were stubborn and throwing a hissy fit when we tried to weave by.
With that, we arrived at Patrick's house in Owen Sound and the hospitality that ensued was magical. We dried out our gear, washed our bikes, had a shower, did laundry, and ate sushi for dinner. Mo and Tom rolled up shortly after and polished off our leftovers.
I felt like I was cheating not sleeping outside (I'm a purist at heart) but common sense took over. Glad it did because I had the most restful sleep and was ready to rock and roll the next day.
Day 3: Two Bananas, Four Bananas, All the Bananas No More
(163 km, 1,816 m elevation gain)
We set out as a group in the morning, headed towards Thornbury for second breakfast at Tom's parents' house. There was promise of cycling cake - dense banana bread rich in chocolate chips and goodness.
After climbing part way up our first gravel hill we got stopped by construction and had to detour. Two options were available - a road detour and a trail detour. We should have known how miserable the trail must have been if Matt didn't take us through it purposely. Perhaps our third oopsie daisy. The trail was full of wet rocks and wood bridges, making the detour much longer than anticipated. The guys helped us haul our bikes up the steep climbs and eventually we made it out in one piece - Lise with a tender ankle from a misstep and Mo with a misaligned left shifter from a fall on a wet wooden bridge.
The rest of our trek to Thornbury wasn't as technical - filled with rail trail, lush forest, and wide open gravel.
P.C. Thomas Willington
P.C. Lise Munsie
We made it to Thornbury, stoked to pick up groceries at the Foodland. Our window for a second breakfast was far gone and we were into lunch territory. Lise and I had been craving bananas the last couple days and were ecstatic to grab a bunch (cue the banana saga). We got to Tom's parents' and his dad and Vicky were there to greet us. I really just wanted to stay and pet Vicky all day; so soft!
I guess I was starving because I didn't take a single photo of the food - barbecued sausage, salad, soft-boiled eggs, slices of cucumber, crackers and dip and banana bread.
Lise and I set off without the guys who were going to relax a bit longer. They had the bright idea to ditch most of their gear and do the next bit of the route, looping back to Thornbury to sleep.
The paved climb out of Thornbury was a tough start. I made it to the top, overheated and shed my layers (likely where I lost my sunsleeves). The photo doesn't do it justice - the climb, over 2 km long.
The rest of the day was a funny one. Lise and I basically kept ourselves going by joking about bananas and storage options. How do you like to carry your bananas? The following depicts how NOT to carry four bananas:
P.C. Lise Munsie
Lise's seatpack was swaying too much in the technical bits so I fastened her bananas to my two. I should have known better and looped them through different strings... The next bit of the route had some extreme rocky descents and the bananas managed to come loose without either of us noticing. Several kilometres from the trail and several gravel 'rollers' later, we realized and fell into potassium despair.
Lise and I were pulled over at the side of the road, starting to strategize about our water supply, thinking we had to make our remaining 4 L last to Flesherton. We saw two cyclists off in the distance and waited for them to pedal up. Not only did Spencer and Stephen remind us of the water set out at the Kimberley General Store (not too far ahead), but they had two of our bananas! We got one back and enjoyed a banana break on the spot.
The views were gorgeous at the plateau before the steep descent into Kimberley. The gravel road adjacent to the ski slope was about 2 km in length and had some bits that were 16 percent grade. Our hands were so sore from braking that we needed some recovery time before rolling into Kimberley. The General Store did not disappoint - we were happy to top back up to our 7.5 L total water capacity.
Beaver Valley was quite lovely and had so many streams we could have treated water from if we had packed a filter. (Perhaps the added weight is worth the assurance next time.) We dipped into the Eugenia Falls Conservation Area to check out the water feature. By this point in time we were pretty tired and wondering if we'd make it to the Bowering Guesthouse before dark - still about 50 km away.
Throughout the route Matt had marked three uphills as butter tart challenges. We were curious what these uphills could possibly look like - what differentiated a hike-a-bike ascent and a BT Hill Challenge? We finally found out. I made it, to what I thought was a decent way up the first challenge, only to find more ridiculousness once you rounded the corner. Definitely out of contention for a butter tart reward.
We wrapped up the day in the Little Germany trail system. There were lots of rocks and hike-a-bike in this section. We got out just as the sun was setting and beelined for the Bowering Guesthouse. (Matt - I know you're taking note - we skipped about 8 km of gravel road. We figure our construction detour in the morning more than made up for this!)
Lise and I were pleasantly surprised to find a crew of cyclists at the property - Dave, Spencer, Stephen and John. If anyone does this route or is in the area - this is a must for sleeping. Richard who runs the place is an absolute gem.
Mo and Tom rolled on by in the pitch black, finally catching us. We were hoping they would have our two remaining bananas but no such luck. We were gifted with some leftover banana bread though!
It was nice to have yet another shower on the trip; so spoiled. I insisted on sleeping out in the yard while Lise took a room. I slept well for about four hours, got up to pee and then succumbed to the bullfrogs croaking for hours. At least the sky was clear and I could occupy some time taking photos of the stars.
Day 4: Hills for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner
(125 km, 2,110 m elevation gain)
Lise and I were shocked that we had made it this far in three days. I had loosely put together an optimal five-day riding plan which we thought was out the window but we had managed to catch up. With nothing but a couple oatmeal packets, an orange, a spare dehydrated meal, and miscellaneous snacks, we were in search of some real food for breakfast. The Ravenna Country Market up the road hit the spot on so many fronts - breakfast sandwiches, water and snacks all available.
With full bellies, we headed on our way - happy that the day promised blue skies.
Almost off the bat was the 4 km loop in Loree Forest - a brownie point loop that I thought I would do while Lise waited. I won't lie - not my favourite first thing in the morning. It had a ton of roots, single-track with poison ivy and sketchy downhill eroded gravel on the way out. Also I missed the viewpoint of Georgian Bay... oops.
I got out of the forest just as Tom and Mo rolled up, ready to start their day. We headed out thinking we would see them shortly, but as the days had previously gone, we managed to miss them until the end. Dave and Stephen had skipped the loop and were just up ahead.
We meandered through the Blue Mountain ridge, mostly on foot, taking care not to tumble downwards. Lise tried a new banana-carrying strategy, which I will break the news to you - was unsuccessful and resulted in mush.
We stopped at the Blue Mountain lookout and had a laughing fit once we saw our resulting photo:
P.C. Lise Munsie
Lise cut me loose and let me do the Pretty River Valley section solo while she detoured around. I promised to check in after each BT Hill Challenge to let her know I was still safe. I would say the majority of my bruises outside of hike-a-bike pedal smashes on this trip came from this section. I fell twice - once in the mud when I hesitated putting my foot down in a puddle adjacent to an off-camber, and once on a rocky uphill ascent when I could pedal no more and my foot refused to unclip. Pretty River Valley did live up to its name though and glad I got to rip parts of this section.
Like clockwork, we arrived at our crossing intersection at the same time - Lise had put in an extra 5 km on the road to even things out. We were glad to be back together to be able to laugh at the relentless gravel hills Matt and Tabi had planned next. No photo evidence here - I was sweating profusely by the time I made it to the top and dropped down on someone's lawn.
We grabbed some water at the Highlands Nordic Centre and then experienced something pretty wild - a 2 km stretch of road, freshly paved, and only open to one-way traffic. The construction crew essentially held a line of cars while we spun out our legs over the stretch. It felt rejuvenating after the gravel climbs on busy roadways (really the only busy section of the entire route!).
Around the corner, the hills continued, but this time a fresh powdered gravel. Sand-like, really. I have an affinity for hills and love grinding up them at a fast pace. This finally caught up to me here, even with my left knee preemptively taped. Switching to using my right leg only, I was almost in tears at the top and wondered if this was it. Would I be able to finish the route?
Lise and I took a decent-sized break at the top and then continued on, me pedalling mostly with one foot. Photography breaks were high on my list at this point. The canola field had a buzz to it - hundreds, if not thousands, of bees working away pollinating.
We made it to Giffin's Country Market, where the crew had gathered - Dave, Stephen and John. I was tempted to try my first butter tart of the route here but settled on a lunch of champs: chocolate milk, pepperettes and chocolate-covered licorice (my favourite). I had learned earlier in the trip that Stephen was also on the fence with butter tarts. He ordered a cinnamon bun and when he opened the bag outside, found a butter tart. It was his birthday so he figured it was all lining up for a reason and should give it a go - he was pleasantly surprised. I didn't rush in to get my own, but vowed to try one given the next opportunity.
We decided to take the Lavender Hill detour to bypass Noisy River Provincial Park which would have some technical bits that would further aggravate my knee. Lise was such a sweetheart and walked with me up Lavender Hill. We planned our next rest stop - a shallow river in Kilgorie with dragonflies flying about. We spent a solid hour hanging out here, cooling down and essentially icing my knee. I taped up my knee with a different technique and surprisingly it was fine the rest of the day.
The canopied forest south of here was lovely. We debated staying on a fellow BTer's property, only 2 km from the river but decided it was too early in the day to stop and would continue on. Tom had arranged for us to stay at a family friends' house in Mono Centre so that was our new goal.
We completed one last technical section (Boyne Valley Provincial Park) prior to dinner in Primrose. Happy to be done, we settled down into a filling meal with the group. Here we finally met the infamous Derek and Karen who we had heard of but not spotted to date. The burger joint also had a fitting quote posted:
P.C. Mo Alhaj
Everyone in the group was staying in town except Lise, Mo, Tom and I. We said our goodbyes - Lise took roadways to our sleeping spot while the rest of us tackled the Mono Cliffs Provincial Park in the dark. We set up camp on the lawn and drifted to sleep.
Day 5: The Cold War is Over
(154 km, 1,447 m elevation gain)
Patti and Tim have the most whimsical property - it was a real treat to wake up here. This was the first day that I slept through my rooster alarm clock, still tired and confused with what was a real rooster and what was my phone.
We were invited inside for some toast, orange juice, coffee and tea before setting out.
At breakfast we learned that Tom and Mo had pretty much the worst sleep to date - sharing a tent, with no sleeping bags (they had dumped them in Thornbury to keep their bikes lighter). Tom's mattress also deflated in the night again. Eventually cracking from Mo snoring in his ear, Tom asked a groggy Mo to switch places and somehow in the turmoil, Mo's pillow deflated too. Needless to say, they woke up quite tired.
We filled our hosts in on our travels so far and Tom mentioned that today would be the end of the Cold War, joking that we have been yo-yoing back and forth for days. Lise and I planned to make a day of it and finish. Tom and Mo were still undecided and would suss things out as the day went on.
We left the guys as Tom was fixing his flat. Between Lise and I, we were joking that maybe Mo slashed his tire to get them to slow down and finish closer to Tom's surprise birthday party.
Our second breakfast was waiting for us in town at Linda and Craig's. A really solid aid station - full of bananas, pre-made PB&J sandwiches (on raisin bread!), snacks, water and tools. They also had a guest book which was a nice touch.
Our first goal of the day was to get to Sarah Caylor's, about 40 km away. I was itching to find out if she passed us while we were sleeping. Sarah departed from her home in Palgrave on Monday (two days after our start)... on a singlespeed bike. The mystery continued as we pedalled closer.
The Glenn Haffy Conservation Park was a pleasant beginning to our day, other than hidden tree stumps that needed to be avoided. The trail was surrounded by thousands of butterflies, it really was quite enchanting. We arrived in Mono Hills and had our third breakfast at Tim Horton's and continued on our way. After ducking out of Palgrave Forest, we were finally at Sarah's and she was there!
Sarah had cut her BT 700 attempt down to 600 km, deciding that she just wasn't feeling the race pace this time around. She arrived just 20 minutes before us and was already showered and in host mode. She had a slew of goodies tucked away in her bike bags - pre-crushed pringles, M&Ms, pepperettes, sour keys - all the goods. This essentially became Lise and I's food for the rest of the day.
We relaxed with Sarah and the dogs for quite a while discussing the bikepack community and the value of hosting aid stations on routes like this. Honestly, if Lise and I weren't determined to finish that day, we would have just slept there, truncating the day at 40 km. Sarah is such a lovely person to hang out with; really glad she was there when we arrived.
Mo and Tom rolled in with hand written tattoos on their arms, wearing bandannas. The bike gang was still thriving. Lise and I rolled out with the promise of only a few more hills and then an easy ride to the finish.
P.C. Sarah Caylor
We suffered up some big hills, fuelled by Sarah's snacks and prepared ourselves for one last technical bit before being glued to our saddles for hours. I managed to get stuck in my pedals once again and toppled over on a steep hill. Some areas leading into the Forks of the Credit were super sketchy and required us to walk a narrow path. The park has a really lovely canopy of sumac trees - some of our last cover of the day.
P.C. Lise Munsie
We settled into rail trail life. What should have been an easy spin was so slow. We had no desire to draft one another and instead settled into another synchro routine, debating whether synchronized biking should be a competitive sport. We managed to take a couple breaks - one in which we idiotically sat in a mound of fire ants that crawled up us. Derek strolled by and gave us a little renewed energy - home stretch! Kind of...
Fergus felt like a lifetime away from the Forks of the Credit. In reality it was only 40 km. We didn't stop for any food or water, only to go to the washroom at the Bellwood Conservation Area. We zipped through town and had Elora in our sights next.
Once in Elora, the finish felt so close. It was still 25 km away though, due to the winding nature of the route. We skirted the perimeter of the gorge on one side, passed under a bridge and then continued out of town on the other side.
My friend Kevin intercepted us somewhere past the Cottontail Trail, giving us some energy to finish. The sun set and there we were again, biking in the dark. My primary goal of the BT 700 was to finish. My secondary goal was jokingly to pet a barn cat (I'm forever trying to pet barn cats on my rides that want nothing to do with me). It just so happened that we were speeding down Jigs Hollow Road and there was a cat at the side of the road sitting still, not scared by our spinning wheels. If we weren't so determined to get to the finish promptly, I would surely have stopped for some pets.
We rolled up to the EcoCafe in St. Jacobs just after 10 pm - about 111 hours since our departure. As a nice surprise, Dave was waiting for us, having just finished 20 minutes prior. As was Tabi, Matt and Lise's brother. It felt really amazing to finish in one piece, with smiles still on our faces.
P.C. Matt Kadey
I still had some energy in the tank to bike home but opted for a car ride with Lise and her brother. Once home, I immediately did a double-tub soak, washing away the build up of dirt and grime while I waited for my pizza to be delivered. It felt so satisfying to be sitting in the tub, seeing the physical evidence of our hard-earned work being washed away.
The Butter Tart of All Butter Tarts
I am so happy Lise was able to join me on this adventure and that I could introduce her to bikepacking, in a monumental way albeit. We jived so well, developing a closer bond and I am so grateful for that. The route has also given me a renewed appreciation for adventures here in Ontario, reigniting my backyard wanderlust.
Leaving the Grand Depart Weekend made the route all that more special. The trail fairy magic and camaraderie between fellow BTers was amazing. Tom kids that we had a Cold War going but it was really quite the opposite.
While Lise and I were relaxing the following day, Mo and Tom were wrapping up their final leg from Fergus to St. Jacobs. Mo managed to disturb a hornets' nest going across a bridge in the forest and received dozens of stings and went to anaphylactic shock. Emergency responders were thankfully able to stabilize him with three doses of Epinephrine. After some monitoring in the hospital, the crazy guy that Mo is, decided he wanted to bike to the finish still. He described his thoughts after, similar to mine - cherishing the beauty of the route and connections he had made along the way.
P.C. Thomas Willington
Perhaps Mo was the barn cat I thought I'd meet on this trip? He definitely has nine lives. We met up the following night to celebrate life, completing the route and Tom's birthday. Lise made a batch of sprinkled butter tarts that hit the mark. As corn-syrupy as it sounds, I guess when they are made with love (and sprinkles!), I do like butter tarts after all.