Ontario is a dirt biker’s paradise, with a range of great opportunities for off-road goodness – everything from gravel roads outside the cities centers, to complex wooded trails systems maintained by local clubs.
Ontario Tourism recently put together a two-day tour of one of Ontario’s finest off-road riding destinations, the Voyageur Multi-Use Trail System in Mattawa. Amongst our motley crew were the chairman (Eric McSweeney) and president (Ken Hoeverman) of the Ontario Federation of Trail Riders. Ken and Eric are a pair of seasoned off-roaders, both on mid-size KTMs with all the trimmings. Ken’s special lady friend Tracey also came along on her Yamaha. Jeff McGirr of Mattawa Voyageur Country Tourism, AKA Lucrestyle of YouTube fame, brought his Honda CRF. Neil Paxton, a local operator who is in the process of creating an incredible zip-line experience just down the road from our hotel, rode along, as well as Glenn Draper, the president of this trail system.
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And yours truly, Mike Jacobs. I don’t consider myself an expert in anything, especially not dirt biking, but I know what I like. I like dirt. I recently purchased a 2012 BMW F650GS and have been putting it through the paces in the wilds of Northern Ontario on a 60-day road trip. But that’s another story.
We stayed at the historic Moosehead Estates and hosted by owners and operators Mark, Mel and Max who treated us like royalty. Mel, the venue’s matriarch, had actually hosted my father and sister over a year ago for a photography workshop in Mattawa. My sister, notorious for her cynicism, declared it her favorite place in Ontario. They specialize in groups, and it shows. Every meal was perfectly laid out at the enormous dining room table, where we spent many hours joking late into the evening after Mel’s gourmet homemade meals.
Ken even parked the iconic OFTR trailer out front and his dogs had the run of the scenic venue, with our hosts’ blessing, making it easy to unload the bikes when we were finally ready to head out on the trails.
On our first day we had breakfast at the Valois, coincidentally where we also purchased our (reasonably priced) day-passes for the trail. The piping hot coffee, fast service, and dazzling view of the river, mountains, and railway bridge set the tone perfectly. We’d spend the next two days riding through this geography and getting to know how it played out in the microcosm of the trail.
On day one Glenn Draper gave us the grand tour and took us to the main trailhead where the map of the entire trail system is stationed. While the Trail System was created over the past two hundred years by explorers, voyageurs and outdoor enthusiasts, it’s Glenn’s dedication as VMUTS president (with the essential contribution of dozens of volunteers) that has kept it a thriving trail system.
We pounded through some soft sand, a bit of rutted mud and some bald rock faces. We saw a beaver damn and rode higher and higher to the iconic Bird’s Eye View that looks out over the Laurentian Mountains and was a great place to stop for a photo. We passed a couple of ATVs touring the trail system at a gentlemanly pace, and they were kind enough to move aside so we could continue on our way.
That evening, Mel shared some of the storied legacy of the Moosehead Estate. Apparently the venue was the summer home of the Timmins family, who found it to be a convenient mid-way point between their dealings in Northern Ontario and Montreal. The Timmins brothers were at one time some of the richest men in Canada, operating both the largest gold and silver mine in the world at one point. Mel and Mark performed and extensive restoration of the building, keeping the feel of the place with key touches like a working bell on the roof and the glassed-in porches. The view from the cozy but large living room made all of us realize why these brothers, who could likely have had a vacation home anywhere in the world, chose this particular place.
Day two saw us ride out to an abandoned Mica mine that is definitely one of the highlights of the trail system. There are few places in the world where part of your off-road experience is walking into a four-foot wide chasm into a massive rockface. We also rode trail 12 – in my opinion the cream of the crop of the trail – although I can only guess that we saw less than a quarter of all the trails within this system.
Trail 12 starts with a huge sandy incline that gives way to a ribbon of trail cut in the undulating hills beneath the power lines that go through this area. The trail is so striking because this is one of the few places where the forest is cut back far enough to have a clear view of the terrain. It is nothing short of cinematic. The trails move up and down over hill and dale and are so visually entertaining that I rode them twice.
As we rode back we passed a pair of riders – horse riders that is. We pulled off to the side, shut off our machines and removed our helmets so the majestic beasts could pass in peace. One of their riders asked Ken if he could start up his bike, just to get the horse used to the sound. He obliged the young lady and before long we were back on our way home.
Jeff assured us there was plenty of single track going off through much of the forest around the trails, but most of our trip was spent on double-wide trails to accommodate the ATVs and MUVs that tagged along.
Back at the Moosehead Estate, we gathered up our gear, loaded the bikes and said our warm goodbyes as if saying farewell to people who we’d fought a great battle with, and won. Tracey said she couldn’t wait to bring her two boys back to ride these trails. From the sounds of it they’re exactly the kind of riders the VMUTS was made for.
Our companions on the quads seem to have had a good time, but somehow I think the deep ache I felt in my muscles and bones at the end of the trip was more richly deserved on two wheels than on four.
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