On Friday, I left the house with three maps, two water bottles and one goal to “bike to Almonte”. This 60km trip was supposed to be a round trip in order to prepare (ahem “train”) for the much longer bike ride to Montreal in less than two weeks.
I chose the most protected route using the Trans Canada Trail which Google maps estimated to be a 3 hour long ride. I assumed this was based on a generous doddling pace and that my time would be under the three hour mark. I’d drop the boy off at daycare, have a leisurely croissant at home, head out and arrive just after lunch in Almonte. Once there, I’d have a well-deserved meal, do a little walkabout, hop back on the bike and be home for dinner. Easy.
Things did not go according to the plan. What would Scaredey Squirrel do? Playing dead was not an option here. (Dear Melanie Watts: next book idea – ‘Scaredy Squirrel goes biking in rural Ontario”)
It took much much longer. My bike computer tells me that I spent three and a half hours peddling, but that the total time from my front door to the Almonte pub was five hours. You may be asking yourself how I frittered away 1.5 extra hours en route. Indeed. The answer can be summed up in three words: mapfail, pathfail, and windfail.
1. The maps
I had on hand three maps: the Ontario Recreational Trails map, the NCC pathways map and my phone with GPS. Despite being absurdly prepared cartographically, I found myself confused by the NCC’s route markings which translated into a lot of stopping to check and recheck where I was going.
Most NCC pathway signs refer only to the name of the pathway (or if you’re lucky, a marker telling you how many kilometres to Parliament Hill.) This wayfinding strategy assumes two things about its riders. First, that you are using the pathways soley for recreation and do not need to “arrive” somewhere. And secondly, that you will ride the pathway more than once in order to “learn” it. We need to follow the lead of the Netherlands and their effective wayfinding system.
The Trans Canada Trail had no markings whatsoever and I relied heavily on my GPS phone to tell me how far from my destination I was. However, the snowmobile association had put up distance and destination signs at a couple of crossroads along the way – thank you, snowmobilers!
Let’s talk about the Ontario Recreational Trails map for a few minutes. In this map, they use the term “cycling route” pretty liberally and in ways I would not. I found their legend needlessly complicated since they mark “future trails” on the map. If the route does not exists, please do not print it on a map. (I can understand you may only print an edition of the map every few years and in that span maybe unicorns have aligned with the cosmos to build a trail, but let’s get real, that’s not happening in Ontario.)
To me, the routes labelled as “loops” or as an “Ontario Bicycle Route” were equally as useless as a “destination” cyclist and not a “fitness” cyclist. I like to travel from A to B and not pander around in a circle.
Let’s take this Almonte example:
I knew that last part of my trip would take me from the yellow Trans Canada Trail to the dotted “on road cycling route”. Or as normal folk would call them “a road with no shoulder”. Nothing about a rural road without a shoulder is in any way some sort of biking facility. It will get you to your destination, like any other road. I’d be very wary of using this map series again to plan a trip unless you are comfortable being a highway cyclist and traveling alongside vehicles going over 80km/h.
2. The paths
On paper, the route was mainly off-road by way of the Trans Canada Trail. Now, in small doses, a rail-to-trail path offers a nice alternative to sharing roads with traffic. However; after 30km on this pathway, I wished for smooth pavement at any cost. There were some very pockmocked sections of the trail that appeared to be damaged from horseback riding. I was riding my road bike and it didn’t have much sympathy for this type of terrain on my body. The vibrations traveled through my arms and made my brain feel lightly scrambled upon arrival. It’s probably a good idea to bring along a friend to take your mind off the bumps and the boredom that sets in after an hour of pedaling along a very straight path. It’s advisable to ride a bike with a good saddle and sprongy tires to help dampen the effects of long distance off-road riding.
But, don’t fret, it’s still a very rideable route. At the same time, I’m not interested in riding it again solo.
3. The wind
There was a very strong headwind for the final 12km stretch making the distance feel much farther than it actually was. It was especially challenging after being sheltered along the rail-to-trail route. But, there’s not much that I can do about the wind.
The bike ride
The trip wasn’t all doom and gloom. There were some surprisingly beautiful parts of the route and the destination was worth the effort.
Here’s what I saw along the way.
The river was still quite high along the Ottawa River Pathway and part of the path was “closed”. You can see the well worn track around the blockade. A little high river never stopped anyone here.
Here was the first confusing part of the trip. When you arrive at the Carling crossing, there’s a sign saying “Greenbelt (West)” trail, but according to my NCC map, the connecting route at this location is the “Watt’s Creek Pathway”. Hmmm. Check. Recheck. Yup. This is definitely the turn off.
You need to wait for a break in traffic to get to the other side – luckily I was passing through around mid day when traffic was light. Unsignaled crossings were a pretty common occurence on this trip.
When you do cross Carling, the sign on the other side of the road says “Watt’s Creek”. See, obvious! Watt’s Creek is very pleasant. I give it high pleasant marks.
The road crossings get wider and trickier as you continue along. Keen cyclists will spot the NCC trail marker on the far side of these five vehicle lanes. Do you see it? No? No? Amateur.
Continuing on, my smug levels peaked as the path veered near the Queensway. While my route was much more scenic, I did make use of the highway destination signs to orient myself.
Here’s another, “um, where’s the path gone” moment where the Watt’s Creek path meets the Corkstown Road. To the untrained eye, you would assume the sign is telling you to use the shoulder on the road to continue. Au contraire, mon frère.
The path continues through the soccer field on this gravel path. Obviously.
Onwards! I zipped by this little pathway on the left, but caught a trail marker sign out of the corner of my eye. I flagged a runner down for directions. Sure enough, the little side path was the route I needed to take.
Hey look! It’s the Greenbelt Pathway! Just like the sign at Carling told me about!
When I arrived at this old bridge, I had no idea where I was. There was a nice NCC trail map billboard and I realized that I was teetering on the outskirts of Bells Corners. I didn’t expect Bells Corners to be quite this nice – in fact, I mentally thought of it as a vortex of despair. The people walking and running along seemed happy. Cheerful even. Maybe I was wrong . Of course, there was no sign to tell me which direction to take to find any shops or services. So, I biked on.
There was a long stretch of lilac bushes. Again, high pleasant ratings.
The path was verdant until I arrived at the Terry Fox Drive crossing and needed to follow ‘cancer pole alley’. I’d be upset if someone named this stretch of road after me.
Approaching Stittsville, there’s a school that backs onto the pathway. I was surprised to see so many bikes. If safe facilities exist, kids can walk and bike to school. This isn’t rocket science.
I saw several people biking, but there were certainly more runners.
The railway route is long and straight. This is what you’ll see for a solid 20km.
Finally, I arrived in Stittsville. (Which oddly enough, didn’t feel SO FAR away.) I’m not sure what you can see or do in Stittsville, but the poster of the Senator peeing on a penguin didn’t give me much hope for a quaint village experience. I cycled on.
You know you’re in the country when you see the “no hunting” signs. The sun had faded the red away leaving a reminder to not shoot the evergreens.
I knew I was getting to the homestretch when I saw this nice directional sign put up by the snowmobile club. While the sign suggests cutting through a field, the path looked quite rough and the gravel much more flat tire-y. I also wasn’t sure if they smiled upon cyclists using “their” path. I decided to continue along the Trans Canada Trail.
Around Ashton Station, I ran into a couple of the e-bikes (the pedal assist type). This seemed like a good use of pedal-assist since it’s a pretty long stretch between destinations.
Finally! Pavement! Here is where the Trans Canada Trail meets Appleton Side Road. Now, recall that the Ontario Recreational Trails map has marked this road as an “on road cycling route”. I was not impressed when I arrived here and saw that there was no shoulder. I stood here for a few minutes and assessed how busy the road was. While the traffic was light, the speeds were high. With no other choice but to continue or turn around, I chose to hit the pavement and get to Almonte as fast as I could.
The wind was against me for this last 12km stretch making it feel much longer. The wind in my ears also made it hard to hear the cars coming from behind. I felt pretty stressed riding along here and heaved a huge sigh of relief when I saw the Almonte water tower in the distance.
There’s a little jog through “New Almonte” which features a Bank Street staple, Shoppers Drug Mart. And finally, you are in Almonte. Hurrah!
Ride Report Card
Distance to destination: 60km means you’ll want to stay overnight to enjoy walking around town unhurried
Route choice: B- Mostly off-road, but signs can be confusing and the last stretch is on a rural road with no shoulder.
Terrain: B (Mostly flat, but gravel path is sometimes rough and there is no road shoulder.)
Family friendly cycling: D (Family friendly until Appleton Side Road)
Destination bikefriendliness: A (Bike posts on Main Street)
Impression of Almonte: A (Great food, great architecture, friendly people. What more could you want?)
In my next post (if you’re still following along), I’ll write about my extended afternoon stay in the village and most importantly, what I ate. (Spoiler: there are some good eats here.)
- If you want to see a few more photos, you can check out my Flickr set.
- And if you want to see my full route, I’ve got the moves like Strava.