Exploring Ontario’s Highlands

Photo Credit: Jake Jones

Most people plan a road trip using the shortest, most direct route from Point A to Point B, but not motorcyclists. We intentionally get lost looking for the roads less travelled – willing to go out of our way to find those squiggly lines on the map. An area known as Ontario’s Highlands in the Ottawa Valley is just such a place.

I recently participated in a three-day ride through the region with a number of media and influencers from Ontario and Quebec. Given that we’d be logging some serious miles exclusively on asphalt, I opted for a 2021 Harley-Davidson Street Glide as my steed. It offered decent protection from the wind and enough room in the saddlebags for everything I’d need for a few days away, including rain gear which would very much come in handy on the ride home. Given the task of leading the way, the GPS also helped us reach our destinations successfully.

Road building 101

The Canadian Shield was a challenging obstacle for road builders. Establishing a network of routes to support the lucrative lumber industry throughout the Ottawa Valley, they had the option of going over, around or through. Lee Perkins is the Director of Public Works for Renfrew County and an avid rider himself. His department is responsible for maintaining and refurbishing these roads, as well as keeping them clear of snow and ice during the winter to keep motorists safe.

“The men who originally built these roads chose the path of least resistance,” said Perkins. “It was cheaper and less time consuming to go around the shield rather than through, which left us with routes that are perfect for motorcycles.” Perkins admits that roadbuilding standards have drastically changed over the years, requiring flatter surfaces with softer, less aggressive bends. “Roads will never be built like this again in our lifetime,” he added.

Roads in the area wind around the Canadian Shield, rather than going over or through.

A small group of us who are based in Toronto congregated shortly after sunrise and made our way out of the city, riding up the Don Valley Parkway to the 401 east before taking Highway 115/35, then Highway 7 east before heading north up Highway 28. Not in any particular rush, we took our time and stopped at the Swiss Bear Restaurant in Apsley for some gigantic schnitzel sandwiches and fresh fruit tarts from their takeout window. You’ll see the odd Tim Hortons, McDonald’s or chain hotel in the larger towns, but most still have independent coffee shops, restaurants, and motels which I most definitely prefer.

You’re only as young as you feel

Eating our lunch standing by the motorcycles, a Harley pulled in beside us. The couple riding it hopped off and greeted us enthusiastically with big smiles. Jack and Laureen (88 and 83 respectively), were out enjoying the early autumn sunshine on his 2006 Sportster. Meeting just five years ago, she decided to take the plunge by being a passenger since she saw how much he enjoyed it. She bought a great vintage leather jacket and hasn’t looked back. Asking where we were from and learning that we were visiting from the city specifically to ride, he stretched out his arms, saying, “Welcome to our backyard! “It doesn’t get much better than this, does it?” he beamed.

Octogenarians Jack and Laureen out for a Sunday ride through the Highlands on his Harley.

Going our separate ways, our group continued on through Bancroft, taking Highway 62 up through Maynooth and Combermere to Barry’s Bay before heading east on Highway 60 through Wilno then Killaloe (Home to the first world famous BeaverTails), to our accommodations at Sands on Golden Lake.

Northern hospitality

After checking in at the motel, Alex, a fellow rider from Toronto, decided to head off to the local gas station to fuel up her Sportster for the morning (a frequent occurrence over the three days of riding). After filling up the bike and her spare jerry can, she realized she’d left her wallet back at the motel. Recounting the story later on, she said that the cashier simply said, “No problem, go get your wallet and come on back. I trust you.” That’s some small-town hospitality that you would never find in a big city. The area doesn’t feature the 24-hour access we’ve come to enjoy and expect, so make sure you watch your fuel gauge and plan food stops accordingly. The distances between towns can be a long way, but that’s the point when you’re on a motorcycle.

Local sights and suds

Once the bikes were parked for the evening, we enjoyed a private beer tasting from Square Timber Brewing Company’s founder and owner, Marc Bru. Based in Pembroke, they’ve got a delicious selection of beers for every palette and preference that even reluctantly gained the approval of an adamant non-beer drinker among us. It was an early night because the next day was all about riding.

The golden hour on Golden Lake.

The first destination was the Bonnechere Caves in Eganville. Roughly halfway between Algonquin Park and Ottawa, the geographical site is home to a series of caves that were carved into the surrounding solid rock roughly between 400 and 500 million years ago. Owners Chris and Val Hinsperger welcome school groups and visitors, inviting them to tour the caves and learn about the fossils found within. Motorcyclists also get $1 off admission!

After stretching our legs by taking a tour through the caves, we took the long route to Calabogie for lunch on the patio at the Redneck Bistro. Despite the name of the restaurant and menu items such as the Roadkill Burger, the food is actually delicious. It also happens to be directly across the street from Calabogie Brewing Co. if you want to grab a few beers for the saddlebags to enjoy after the ride.

Among the many highlights of the day were County Road 65 (Centennial Lake Road) and Letterkenny Road, which you may have trouble finding since the road signs keep getting stolen thanks to the popular television show of the same name.

A bit of history

The first stop the next morning was at Madawaska Coffee Co. in Barry’s Bay for some fantastic coffee and delicious pastries. We then rode to Crooked Slide Park (once again taking the longest route possible), to learn some of the history of the region firsthand. The park features a lumber chute (or flume) constructed during the early 1900s which was commonly used at the time to transport logs through the various waterways to the mill to be processed and shipped to market. Managing the transport was an arduous, dangerous job that claimed many lives. This chute provides a small glimpse into the history that shaped the region.

The refurbished lumber chute at Crooked Slide Park hints at the history of the area.

The nearby Kamaniskeg Lake Lookout tells the tale of a unique nautical tragedy. On the evening of November 12, 1912, a 77-foot-long steamship called the Mayflower was traveling from Barry’s Bay to Combermere to deliver the body of John Brown to family members. The boat capsized during a winter storm claiming nine lives, but three of the ship’s passengers were able to survive by clinging to Brown’s floating casket. They built a small fire which allowed them to stay alive until help arrived.

The Kamaniskeg Lake Lookout.

We then made our way to The Heartwood Restaurant in nearby Combermere for a fantastic lunch, before spending the rest of the afternoon exploring more great routes throughout the area, of which there are many. You can’t really go wrong with finding good riding roads. Even if you just pick a direction and start riding, you’ll find something interesting to see along the way. If that’s too overwhelming, Ride the Highlands is a great resource that offers route suggestions based on distance and riding preferences.

I’ll be back

I’ve been fortunate to visit the Highlands many times over the years, but there is always something new to discover. A different town, a new road or a restaurant you haven’t tried. It was immensely enjoyable to witness the reactions of my fellow riders who had never been to the area before. Their eyes shone as bright as a child’s on Christmas morning as they removed their helmets at each stop to exclaim their delight in the
absence of colonial grid and abundance of curves. “Each road is better than the next!” said Mondo, “I don’t know where to look, I’m trying to keep my eyes on the road, but the scenery is so beautiful!” said James, AKA Wobbly Cat. The area features beautiful scenery and rich geological characteristics, along with many rich and interesting pieces of history. The fact that they all happen to be connected by miles of beautiful winding tarmac is just a bonus. You’ll be exhausted from riding before you ever get tired of exploring these roads.

Photo Credit: Martin Lortz

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