Exploring Nature’s Mecca: The Heritage Trail

By Sarah Vance

 Staying fit and having fun, power-walking has become a favourite sport along the trail. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

Staying fit and having fun, power-walking has become a favourite sport along the trail. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

Does your sense of adventure ever make you want to get out into the wilderness and tork, gear, walk, run, or dance away from it all? Or, perhaps your pragmatism reminds you that you will need to push a baby carriage, help along a few tots on bicycles, or haul an ATV and dirt bike, to keep the whole family engaged … whilst getting away from it all?

If this sounds like you, then North Hastings’ meandering trails might be just the place for your family to meet your travel needs. With its rugged landscapes, lush flora and fauna, and dynamic human inhabitants, the circuits around North Hastings have come to be known as the “mecca of trails” with an estimated 25,000 annual visitors.

The biggest multi-use circuit is referred to as the Heritage Trail, and despite being an abandoned rail corridor this description does little to capture the multi-layered significance of this thoroughfare over time. Long before the railway lines were chiseled through the forests on the backs of rural labour, this trail (leading through what is now known as East Central Ontario), was a trade route for Algonquin Nippissing communities, who made their living on the land we now share.

 In our not too distant past, the steam locomotive was the only reliable method of transportation through our rugged landscape. Now outdated, the rails were removed and the Heritage Trail created. Photo by Sarah Vance.

In our not too distant past, the steam locomotive was the only reliable method of transportation through our rugged landscape. Now outdated, the rails were removed and the Heritage Trail created. Photo by Sarah Vance.

It wasn’t until the 1880’s that millionaire Booth began backing, and ostensibly paying for railway services to come through North Hastings. But despite all the fanfare in the history books, the railways were operational for less than 50 years. And within 75 years of construction, by the late 1980’s, the rails pegs and logs around North Hastings were being literally ripped out of the ground having become non-consequential barriers for contemporary motorized and non-motorized users.

In other words, they were obsolete.

 This old wooden bridge served as a trestle for locomotive travel. Photo by Sarah Vance.

This old wooden bridge served as a trestle for locomotive travel. Photo by Sarah Vance.

Ironically, it is the raspberries, the blueberries …  sumac … and the people, living, working, and walking along the trails that have out-played that grotesque showing of man against nature. And while they may be new growth, we’re seeing that even the forests that line the trails are making a full recovery during this post-Booth era.

Close to 24% of the population residing in North Hastings continue to be off-reserve Algonquins and Metis communities. Up-and-coming Algonquin youth, like Christine Luckasavitch, CAO of Waaseyaa Consulting, honours the spirits of her ancestors by telling their stories, and identifying their medicines, while working as an interpretive trail guide, along the Heritage Trail, in Bancroft.

 Many people connect with nature by riding horseback through the Heritage Trail. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

Many people connect with nature by riding horseback through the Heritage Trail. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

“I cover the Indigenous to Indigenous-settler history, geological history, plus as much flora and fauna (ethnobotany) as I can fit in,” says Christine who has also worked as an Economic Development Officer for the Algonquins of Ontario before returning to the Whitney area, where she organizes cultural anthropology projects.

 Equestrian enthusiasts depend on the trail for the health and fitness of their steeds. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

Equestrian enthusiasts depend on the trail for the health and fitness of their steeds. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

Family excursions like those offered by Christine help visitors become fluent in local medicines, and ostensibly, the trails are themselves coming to be referred to as medicines, as research bolsters links between health, wellness and outdoor recreation. In fact, The Ontario Trail Strategy, a document written in the early 2000’s identifies nature trails to “play a vital role in our well-being,” and indicates that 52% of the people living in Ontario are not sufficiently active.

In contrast, trails are becoming catalysts to increase activity levels and even low impact activities such as cycling, hiking and horseback riding are known to burn more than 100 calories per kilometer.

Mineral collection, which is a long-time pastime in North Hastings, is also being linked to mental health and well-being, and there are mineral collection sites along the trail, especially in the Town of Bancroft. In fact, some are theorizing that minerals have healing properties.

 Taking a break from cycling, two children reconnect with nature as they walk along the trail. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

Taking a break from cycling, two children reconnect with nature as they walk along the trail. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

“The mineral varieties so amply available in this area lend themselves to rest, renewal, and healing. Quartz is said to enhance meditation and is known as a master healing crystal,” says Monica Lumely-Piercey, a spiritual guide and medium who lives and works in the Bancroft area. “One of my favourite activities is to scout along the rocks whenever I am out walking to see the various formations and patterns within the rocks and natural landscape.”

Fitness recreationalists such as cyclists also make up a growing demographic of the users on the Heritage Trail. Recreational activity groups such as the Broken Spokes Bicycle Club and the Hikes and Spikes Club, strike out for their weekly excursions from Heritage Trail co-ordinates to intersect with other secondary trails.

With a vibrant children’s program and inter-generational riders gathering on various nights of the week, throughout the spring, summer and autumn seasons, there are plenty of roadies and trail tours to choose from. These team-based groups use Facebook to share schedules about their upcoming events and new members are always joining up. Children’s rides, such as the Cadet Run, often attract upwards of 50 kids who along with adult volunteers wheel down the trails on weekday evenings, and Saturday mornings, to merge on to the trail that is adjacent to the York River.

 The Heritage Trail is suitable for all ages, and with the added bonus of no traffic, families can relax while they enjoy beautiful autumn colours while cycling at their leisure. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

The Heritage Trail is suitable for all ages, and with the added bonus of no traffic, families can relax while they enjoy beautiful autumn colours while cycling at their leisure. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

“Cycling is an important and dynamic use of trails,” says Cathy Trimble, Chair of the Non-Motorized Trails Network Committee (MNTRC), a local interest group, working in trail conservation. “Our group is working at building trails and the tourism economy within what we call low hanging trails, that are currently under-utilized and we are learning more about the feasibility of revitalizing these trails.”

A sub-committee of the North Hastings Economic Development Committee, MNTRC received funding through the Trillium Foundation to study under-utilized trails in Bancroft’s outlying regions such as Lake St. Peter, Silent Lake, and Birds Creek and to make recommendations that might lead to their expanded use. This committee is eyeing a future where under-utilized trails will be developed for non-motorized uses, and will include connecting links onto the Heritage Trail, but that will be independent from this route.

 A map of the “the Mecca of trails” that North Hastings’ Heritage Trail system has to offer.

A map of the “the Mecca of trails” that North Hastings’ Heritage Trail system has to offer.

Despite there being close to 64,000 kilometers of systems to choose from in Ontario, North Hastings trails are alluring to tourists, in part because they border on thousands of kilometers of Crown Land.

Proximity to Crown Land make these trails gateways and they are in many cases the only access point into Central Ontario’s rugged interior. They also bring riders into the entrance for “Northern Ontario,” a designation that begins at Whitney.

 ATV trail enthusiasts enjoy close to 64,000 kilometers of systems. Photo by Sarah Vance.

ATV trail enthusiasts enjoy close to 64,000 kilometers of systems. Photo by Sarah Vance.

That being said, the wide flat track keeps the trails accessible for beginning motorists, who can ride as young as 12 years-of-age on private properties, making the trail ideal for day-trippers and for those with young children, who are just beginning their journey as stewards of this land.

Several old-growth trees keep these journeys authentic, but not without the familiar safeguards of signage leading to local shops and restaurants, online maps, kilometer counts, and the occasional Pokémon Go battle stop, for those who are packing Wi-Fi.

There are a growing number of festivals built around motorized sports, known colloquially as “mudding,” which take place along the Heritage Trail. Mudding is a sport that the Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance estimates brings $6 million dollars’ worth of tourism money into the region every year.

The Opeongo ATV Trail Fest takes riders along what is called the Loggers Loop that starts from Madawaska South, linking Barry’s Bay through to Hastings Highlands and back to Renfrew County. It’s an annual August scheduled event — with trailhead at the Madawaska Complex at 26A Major Lake Road, and lunch at the Porterville Diner in Lake St. Peter this festival takes riders through hundreds of kilometers of Crown Land.

In the spring, and for more advanced riders, the annual 75 kilometer Dungannon Four Wheeling Mud Run has tickets that sell out in 24 hours. This festival attracts hundreds of riders every year and takes about six hours to complete. The highlight of this run are the mud pits, some of which are quite challenging and require a lot of different gear ranges. It is not uncommon for riders to wear hip waders and to spend a good part of their run winching their bike out of puddles, before completing the circuit.

“Outdoor recreation is one of the five attractions that is identified in the Hastings County Tourism Final Report,” says Andrew Redden, Economic and Tourism Development Manager for the County of Hastings. “At the county we are very supportive and interested in the work being done to help more people get out onto the trails.”

 A solitary man on horseback settles in to enjoy a quiet ride in natural beauty. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

A solitary man on horseback settles in to enjoy a quiet ride in natural beauty. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

You will find an economy built around the trail circuits with several restaurants and accommodations such as the Bancroft Inn and Suites not only offering incentives and discounts for ATV and snowmobile travellers, but also openly attributing a good percentage of their off-season income to these industries.

Trail riders are welcomed locally by many businesses that are positioned close to the circuits by a short connecting link to the Heritage Trail and other secondary trails.

 A simple wooden gate opens to a trail through exquisite natural beauty. Photo by Sarah Vance.

A simple wooden gate opens to a trail through exquisite natural beauty. Photo by Sarah Vance.

“Our trails offer people, that don’t live here, a chance to explore scenic area on snowmobiles, 4 wheelers, side-by-sides and dirt bikes,” said Renata, of the Bancroft Inn and Suites. “They park, check-in, unload and away they go.”

Accommodations like the Bancroft Inn and Suites are also access points for purchasing multi-use trail permits that are offered through the Eastern Ontario Trail Alliance, and which support the preservation of the trail. It is important that riders purchase these permits and have them with them when they are mudding and cycling on the trails in North Hastings.

 A canoe portage isn’t all work and no play for these two friends as they take time to relax with their books. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

A canoe portage isn’t all work and no play for these two friends as they take time to relax with their books. Photo courtesy Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance.

“On the trail, riders can access many restaurants and shops; we have guests that make many trips using “Stay and Ride,” she adds. “This sport is getting bigger and bigger every year thanks to the awesome trail systems here.”

Whatever your purpose, and regardless of how heavy or light you are able to travel, the Heritage Trail offers a little something for even the most adventure seeking family. It is accessible to Hastings Highlands and the Town of Bancroft where there are parking lots to park trucks and trailers.

Whether you are on a canoe portage, a hiker, a cyclist, or a motorized rider the geography of the Heritage Trail offers a little something for you and the route is suitable for your whole family, even for those who are soaking it all in from inside a baby carriage.

And for those whose interest resides in cultural tourism, there is a wide array of cultural expressions and variations, represented by different uses and users, on the more than 7,000 kilometers of line extending from Algonquin Park to the Bay of Quinte.