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Muskoka by Motorcycle: Riding in Ontario, Canada

The author’s yellow helmet and high-viz jacket act as camouflage alongside these yellow flowers. (Tip: Don’t ride through gardens.)

The author’s yellow helmet and high-viz jacket act as camouflage alongside these yellow flowers. (Tip: Don’t ride through gardens.)

Photo Credit: Scott A. Williams

Scott A. Williams
June 3, 2011
Filed under Features, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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I have never owned a boat. That is not to say I don’t enjoy them. I learned to sail aboard catamarans and to water ski behind speedboats. I have zipped across the water on many personal watercraft, none more fun than the Suzuki-powered Wetbike hydrofoil that behaves remarkably like a motorcycle on the water. Many times I have ridden my motor­cycle onto a ferryboat to reach the other side. While the recreational vehicles I’ve owned myself have always had two wheels, I still delight in opportunities to ask, “Permission to come aboard?”

A great place to mix my passion for motorcycle touring with my interest in boats is the Muskoka region of Ontario, Canada. Situated east of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, the area has long attracted visitors who enjoy outdoor recreation, especially on the lakes that are ever-present features of the landscape.

You can boat or swim in Boshkung Lake at the Clansman, our home base for the weekend.

You can boat or swim in Boshkung Lake at the Clansman, our home base for the weekend.

My riding buddies begin to assemble well to the southeast, in Havelock. With several lakes to our west we must zigzag toward our first destination, Bobcaygeon, for lunch on the lakeshore. The restaurant’s tiki-bar theme, complete with plastic palm trees, casts a festive mood on our gathering. The afternoon finds us zigging and zagging around more lakes as we head north toward the Haliburton Highlands and our home base for the weekend. The Clansman, an unpretentious resort on Boshkung Lake, is operated by colorful Polish immigrants with a gift for conversation. By evening dozens of riders arrive from distant points, check into a cottage or motel room, talk (and talk) with the innkeepers, then gather around the campfire to share route ideas for the weekend.

For landlubbers, a detailed touring map (available through www.discovermuskoka.ca) highlights six driving tours of the Muskoka region. These tours offer a good starting point, although the routes we’ve planned don’t follow any of them precisely. Instead, whenever possible, we opt for lesser traveled, winding back roads recommended by another riding buddy, George, who knows the area intimately from years of delivering firewood to his customers.

My cottage at the Clansman in Haliburton Highlands.

My cottage at the Clansman in Haliburton Highlands.

In the morning a group of six bikes and 10 riders begins the day riding north on Route 35 toward Dorset. A right turn off District Road 117 at Norway Point leads us to an old church and a scenic view of Lake of Bays. Morning sun bathes the lake and the air is dead calm. The profound quiet is broken as an unseen outboard motor springs to life. Soon a small boat comes into view beyond the point and we exchange waves with those on board.

Farther along DR117, in Baysville, we park along the riverfront overlooking the dam and file into Miss Nelle’s Café for breakfast. While my French toast is prepared, I peruse the antiques for sale. The region’s boating tradition is displayed in a vintage rowboat, cut in half abeam and modified by a skilled woodworker to hold a widescreen TV. It’s a nice piece, yours for $1,750.

A short ways north on DR46 near Port Sydney we take an up-close look at the dam on Mary Lake. Today the water flows rapidly through the dam, spills over the exposed bedrock, and blends into the Muskoka River below. Along the riverbank, we say hello to a mom, dad and their two kids who are walking tandem kayaks around the dam to continue their journey down river.

We ride west beyond Utterson and along Three Mile Lake. DR4 curves gently toward Windermere, where we reach the shore of Lake Rosseau. Our bikes are lined up on the pier by the marina, with stately Windermere House on the hill above us and several nice homes along the lakeshore. Steve and I admire one of the houses in particular, though soon we realize that this gorgeous structure is merely the boathouse. The main house with the matching paint scheme is largely obscured from our vantage point, but it seems sufficiently vast to complement such a grand boathouse.

Some boathouses on Lake Rosseau are small compared to the regular houses that go with them.

Some boathouses on Lake Rosseau are small compared to the regular houses that go with them.

At the top of the lake in the town of Rosseau, we stop to eat at Crossroads Pub and Grill. Over lunch, I convince my fellow riders to make a side trip to Parry Sound, birthplace of hockey legend Bobby Orr. To your humble scribe—a lifelong Boston Bruins fan—it’s something of a pilgrimage. The town’s giant welcome sign has the same image of #4 that graced my bedroom wall 40 years ago. We pass the Bobby Orr Community Centre. Heading back east we ride through Orrville (!) though later I learn it was named for John Orr, an early settler.

In Sprucedale our route turns south past lake after lake where some manner of boat is docked, moored or under way. Rejoining DR35, the scenic route returns us to our “port” on Boshkung Lake. I’m still stuffed from our late lunch, so I skip supper, park my bike and join other riders at the campfire to down some beers and share stories of the day.

Climbing 131 stairs to the top of Lookout Tower rewards you with vistas of Parry Sound, childhood home of hockey great Bobby Orr.

Climbing 131 stairs to the top of Lookout Tower rewards you with vistas of Parry Sound, childhood home of hockey great Bobby Orr.

Rain on the cottage roof is my morning wake-up call so wet-weather gear is in order. It doesn’t let up as
we go for seconds and thirds at the breakfast buffet in Minden at Dominion Hotel. Through Norland, Head Lake and Sebright rain falls steadily. We had planned to investigate the ghost town at Cooper’s Falls along DR6, but after a look around from the saddle we decide to press on.

Some say Canada has two seasons—winter and construction. It’s the end of August so thankfully we’ve enjoyed many roads where seasonal construction is complete, but a secondary road on our route is torn up. The main road running essentially parallel seems like a better choice. For a while it is, but soon we’re riding on an exposed roadbed. When pavement returns, my passing attempt finds me greedy with the throttle and the rear tire, mucked with limestone mud, abruptly loses traction. My bike fishtails. Gently rolling off settles the bike and the quick rush of adrenalin helps me focus on overtaking that slowpoke with less enthusiasm.

Pristine wooden boats at the Grace and Speed Museum in Gravenhurst. (Photo by Chris McKnight)

Pristine wooden boats at the Grace and Speed Museum in Gravenhurst. (Photo by Chris McKnight)

Days like today often cause spikes in museum attendance, but rain or shine a superb boat museum in Gravenhurst is among our planned stops. The Grace and Speed Museum, operated by the nonprofit Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society, houses pristine examples of wooden boats designed and built in greater Muskoka during the early to mid 20th century. Many were made-to-order toys for Torontonians who summered on the lakes. As wealthy boat owners constantly sought to outdo their rivals, boat builders such as Greavette, Duke and Ditchburn sought to outdo each other by creating faster and more opulent boats.

A more modest yet innovative craft on display is a disappearing propeller (“dispro”) boat. Want to pull your small motorboat onto a beach or wharf? Just lift a handle and the driveshaft and propeller move smoothly into a recess in the hull. This design enabled small rowing skiffs to be powered by lightweight gas engines without losing their ability to land wherever convenient. Over the years several Muskoka boat builders made dispro boats. Many are still on the water, some running on their original single-cylinder copper jacket engines.

Museum-speak for “Keep your hands off the boats!”

Museum-speak for “Keep your hands off the boats!”

At the opposite end of the Muskoka watercraft continuum are the steamships. Today there are three, but only the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Segwun has an historic lake pedigree dating to 1887. For decades she steamed the region’s lakes from early spring through late fall, carrying passengers, mail and freight to lakeside resorts and villages not served by railroads. When steamships stopped operating on the lakes in 1958, the Segwun was relegated to floating museum status. In 1973 a group of steamboat enthusiasts began an ex­tensive restoration, and in 1981 she returned to the lake as a cruise ship and cultural attraction. If your schedule and budget permit, a cruise aboard North America’s oldest operating steamship is a worthwhile diversion.

To the northwest of Gravenhurst on DR169, signs explain that we’re riding on the Canadian Shield, the Precambrian-era bedrock layer that covers two-thirds of the surface of Ontario. Low spots carved into the shield by glacial activity form basins that collect water, creating Ontario’s many thousands of lakes. On higher ground the shield’s jagged outcroppings sometimes resemble animate objects. Along my ride I see the shapes of an alligator and a dog within the crags, and occasional graffiti reveals other outcrop critters I might have missed.

Muskoka River lay-by.

Muskoka River lay-by.

Near Bala, left turns onto DR38, Route 400 and DR34 deliver us to a method of boat travel that must be seen to be appreciated. It’s the Marine Railway at Big Chute. This unique-in-the-world alternative to a lock enables boats up to 100 feet long, 24 feet wide and drawing 6 feet to pass overland between the Severn River and Georgian Bay, whose water levels differ by 58 feet.

At one end of the tracks, a steel carriage is partially submerged and boats simply float on board. As the carriage moves up out of the water, boats settle onto a system of nylon slings that hold them in place. Four 200-horsepower electric motors drive cables and pulleys to move the carriage along a railway. The front and back legs of the carriage follow separate pairs of tracks that keep the carriage level despite Big Chute’s steep slope. At the other end, the carriage enters the water and boats float on their way. The 748-foot trip takes about 10 minutes. It seems practically everyone who observes the Marine Railway in action has the same reaction: “That’s cool.”

The Marine Railway carries boats overland on tracks across Big Chute, to pass between the Severn River and Georgian Bay.

The Marine Railway carries boats overland on tracks across Big Chute, to pass between the Severn River and Georgian Bay.

Gord Fontaine, a Lock Operator for Parks Canada who works at Big Chute and other locations on the Trent-Severn Waterway, reports that some days hundreds of motor­cyclists, often on rides organized by owner groups, come to see the Marine Railway. Gord rides a Honda Gold Wing himself and enjoys talking with riders who stop at Big Chute for a closer look.

Pondering this engineering marvel, I wonder whether a conventional lock may have been simpler. Turns out the answer is yes, but the Marine Railway was built to prevent parasitic lamprey eels from migrating into the Trent-Severn Waterway from Georgian Bay. Boaters come and go, eels stay out and motor­cyclists are entertained.

The Marine Railway carries boats overland on tracks across Big Chute, to pass between the Severn River and Georgian Bay.

The Marine Railway carries boats overland on tracks across Big Chute, to pass between the Severn River and Georgian Bay.

From Big Chute we retrace our route to Bala then turn north on DR169 toward Glen Orchard. Route 118 points us east along the shore of Lake Muskoka to Bracebridge, then through sparsely populated lands and along rivers and lakes that come one after another. Rolling in past the cottages at the Clansman I am besieged by the aroma of tonight’s dinner—roast pig. Dessert includes a selection of homemade pies. What an end to the day!

Post-feast, I retire to the fireside and finalize plans for a pre-dawn departure and my 600-mile ride home. Much as I like boats, I’d rather make the long trek back to my family aboard a motorcycle.

(This article Muskoka by Motorcycle: Riding Through a Region Better Known for Boats was published in the June 2011 issue of Rider magazine.)

Roast master and BMW rider Ernst (left) concurs with Daryl that dinner is cooked.

Roast master and BMW rider Ernst (left) concurs with Daryl that dinner is cooked.

Time for a break.

Time for a break.

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