Ottawa Valley Motorcycle Adventure [Video]

Liz Jansen
by Liz Jansen

Picture a place with long scenic backroads, winding through forests, around lakes, changes in elevation, rolling countryside and very little traffic. Factor in that it’s easily accessible from any direction, within an hour of Ottawa and only five hours from Toronto. Listen for the restless call of adventure that still emanates from pioneer relics. You’ve found the Ottawa Valley, home to an intriguing array of scenic backroads.

This June, Ottawa Valley Tourism Association worked with Go Ride Ontario and Trillium Motorcycle Tours and Events to organize a five-day women’s tour through the Ottawa Valley and Algonquin Park. I had the good fortune to play in the Ottawa Valley with seven friends, each on brand new motorcycles generously provided by Deeley Harley-Davidson, BMW Motorrad Canada and Honda Canada.

Ottawa Valley lies northwest of the city of Ottawa. The Ottawa River, which flows through it, forms the border between eastern Ontario and western Quebec. Nestled in its heart, sparsely populated Renfrew County, the largest county in Ontario, contains over 900 lakes, four major river systems, and 2,700 residents scattered across 7,000 square kilometers of mostly wilderness.

Calabogie Peaks Resort

Calabogie Peaks Resort, less than an hour’s ride from Ottawa, makes an excellent base from which to explore the miles of paved backroads which surround it. Set on beautiful Calabogie Lake, hiking, golfing and boating are all available on site. After an exhilarating day of riding, all you need to decide is whether you want to eat at the beach-front bar and grill or dine in Canthooks Restaurant before unwinding under the stars in the outdoor hot-tub.

The following morning a hearty buffet breakfast readied us for the day. After filling our tanks in town we headed west on Route 508. Its twists and turns make it one of the most sought after roads in the area. Road surfaces in some areas are a little rough from winter damage so you do need to take care, but it still doesn’t take away from the thrill of hugging the curves through miles of natural beauty.

Causeway on 508

At Griffith on Highway 41 we headed east, crossing yet another of the area’s many waterways. A picturesque small park makes a great rest stop, especially in hot weather, when you can remove your boots and cool your toes in the refreshing water. We opted to continue on, cutting over to Renfrew on Road 132, then heading south on Road 52 to Burnstown, an oasis on the north shore of the rugged Madawaska River. The structures that remain hint at the mill town that thrived here beginning in 1825. The Blackbird Café, tastefully decorated with vintage artifacts served a delicious lunch with huge portions. Two could easily share one serving.

An alternative for more adventuresome souls is to take Road 34 south from just east of Dacre to Calabogie. It’s beautiful but the southern half is gravel. The Shanty in Calabogie is another fun spot to enjoy home-cooked fare.

Aerial view of Calabogie Motorsports Park

A sprint east on Road 508 and south on Road 511 brought us to Calabogie Motorsports Park where manager Jane Blinn welcomed us. Opened in 2006, this 5.05 km. road course hosts both automobile and motorcycle racing. We got a taste of the thrill potential when Jane led us and our touring bikes around the track. Booking a track day through one of the two independent racing schools that operate on site would make for a fabulous way to spend a weekend.

Pumped with track energy, we headed south on Road 511, then east along beautiful sweeping roads cut through the forests, winding around numerous lakes before turning north for a meandering scenic ride along River Road, overlooking the immense Ottawa River.

The strong winds that had blown us all over the road for most of the day were whipping up whitecaps as we fought to stay in our lane. Our accommodations in a tranquil woodland setting were a welcome sight at the end of the day.

London House Inn and Spa and River Run Rafting are housed on the same 160-acre property. While the Registration desk for both businesses is at the road, the Inn is a few hundred meters further down a gravel driveway. It’s navigable but an alternative is to park your bikes at the main entrance and walk in.

Other than the Inn, visitors can bring RVs, camp in tents or stay in one of the well-built cabins nearer the river. The tavern which serves drinks but not food is a favorite gathering spot where rafters meet and swap tall tales of the river.

An auspicious and courageous beginning, Tricia Szulewski, Pam Collins, Debbie MacDonald and Christa Neuhauser earned bragging rights.

If staying at the Inn, dinner must be planned in advance, either by bringing it along, or making other arrangements. The nearest town is several miles away and has limited dining – especially if you’re late.

It was with mixed emotions that we settled into the cozy rooms. On the one hand the evening respite gave us a chance to recharge and wander the grounds. We were also keenly aware that more adventure awaited the following day. The river at that point is calm, belying the world class rapids that churn upstream.

Since I had already gone swimming in the rapids a few years earlier, I opted for a spa treatment instead and let others experience the river. The fast moving water is at its highest in June and so with trepidation overcome by the desire for adventure, four of our group took on the river for what is normally a half-day run. The Greyhound Buseater rapids flipped their raft almost immediately, pitching them into the water and carrying them downstream. The expert river guides plucked them out and quickly had them back in the raft. Pumped with adrenaline, they managed to stay inside it for the rest of the ride.

After recovering over a delicious, homemade lunch, we were off again to experience more of the winding roads that lace the area. A relaxing ride through rolling countryside took us to Bonnechere Caves, site of fascinating geological history.

Rapids at Bonnechere Caves

The now exposed fossils and rock formations speak to the seabed which they lay on 500 million years ago. Carved out of the rock by the adjacent river, the caves are not only interesting; they’re a great place to cool off on a hot summer day.

Emerging from the caves, I suddenly realized to my horror that I had inadvertently left the last gas station before paying for the group’s fuel. Having no way of contacting the owners, we could only press on and make the call at the next town.

Madawaska Highlands overlooking Ottawa Valley

Continuing south and then west, we were headed for the Opeongo Line. The modern tarmac has long since covered the colonization roads which linked the Ottawa Valley with the Madawaska Highlands.

Lured to a fresh start by the promise of land grants, Scottish and Irish settlers cleared and homesteaded the area in the mid 1800’s. They soon discovered that the shallow layer of topsoil covering the Canadian Shield could not support substantial farming. Relics of broken dreams line the road and still evoke the sense of adventure that infused these early inhabitants.

The Opeongo Line brought us out to Highway 60 at Wilno, site of the earliest Polish settlement in Ontario. Although allotted 100 acre parcels, they got what was left after the Scots and Irish had claimed the best of land that was poor to start with. Imagine arriving in this hostile climate and not even understanding the language.

Christa Neuhauser and Debbie MacDonald enjoying Opeongo Line

It’s a fun place to stop. The Pickles and Quilts Deli and Quilt Shop serves delicious ice cream; there’s an art gallery and the Polish Kashub Museum run by descendents of the early settlers who keep their legacy alive.

Eight motorcycles parked in broad daylight on a main thoroughfare are hard to miss and easily caught the eye of an OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) officer on her way to a meeting. The cops had been alerted to keep an eye out for a bunch of bikers who had gassed and dashed. Fortunately, she was understanding and able to put me in touch with the business owner. The incident certainly added an element of humor for the record, one we’re not soon to forget.

Once the excitement died down, we continued east, arriving to a warm welcome at the Sands on Golden Lake. This is another ideal spot to use as a central base from which to ride around the area. The large, spacious rooms all look out onto the lake. The beds are super comfortable, the spacious tastefully decorated rooms are clean, bright and overlook the lake. The food served in the on-site restaurant is home-cooked and scrumptious. It’s no surprise that it’s the community hub where locals gather to catch up on all the news.

Unfortunately, there is only so much riding time in a day and although we made the most of our time in the Ottawa Valley, there are prime areas we didn’t get to. I’ve ridden the roads heading south from Barry’s Bay and twisting around Palmer Rapids and would have loved to show them to my friends. They’re going to have to come back to complete the experience!

Ottawa Valley Wilderness

The Ottawa Valley Tourist Association has just published updated motorcycle maps of the area, highlighting the roads we covered and more. They can be obtained by contacting their office directly.

Ottawa Valley Route

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Liz Jansen
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