Agony and Ecstasy - Touring Ontario's Algoma Country
Most of my Snow Goer Canada tours go exactly as planned. But this mid-March one went off the rails from the get-go and sputtered to the finish line courtesy of Mother Nature. My experience was uncharacteristic. This Ontario ride is normally one that will exceed your expectations for good snow and great trails, plus make some fantastic memories (see Our Tour Itinerary).
Algoma Country is bounded to the south by the North Channel of Lake Huron and to the north by the flatlands of the James Bay Frontier. The snowmobile trails that parallel its shoreline link small towns like Spanish, Spragge, Blind River, Iron Bridge, Thessalon and Bruce Mines, and also access Algoma‚Äôs major city, Sault Ste. Marie (home of the famous ‚ÄúSnow Train‚ÄĚ through the Agawa Canyon). Alternatively, when ice conditions are good, riders can follow the stake lines on the North Channel of Lake Huron that lead to Manitoulin Island, and farther west, from Thessalon and Bruce Mines to St. Joseph Island. From there, snowmobilers can even cross over to Drummond Island in the United States, as I did to ride around Lake Superior several years ago. But that‚Äôs another story.
Located in the heart of the Canadian Shield, Algoma Country features some of Ontario‚Äôs most scenic and hilly ‚Äď dare I say, Quebec-like ‚Äď terrain, which makes for some mighty fine sledding on mostly land-based trails. In fact, in a region dotted with lakes, it‚Äôs amazing how few water crossings the Algoma trail network has, not counting the stake line trails on Lake Huron‚Äôs North Channel. And when the northerly ‚ÄúBig Loop‚ÄĚ tour, anchored by Dubreuilville, Hearst, Timmins and Chapleau, is added to the Algoma mix, you‚Äôve got one hell of a lot of riding opportunity!
Darren Chissold, Brad Harris, Glenn King, Don Webb and I towed our Triton Trailers to Elliot Lake to stage out of Dunlop Lake Lodge, operated by the super hospitable MacDonald family. Elliot Lake is an ideal starting point for a Northern Ontario tour. From the Greater Toronto Area, it‚Äôs about the same distance (516 kilometres) as New Liskeard and offers an outstanding alternative (and less traveled) destination with direct access to some of Ontario‚Äôs best trail riding. Dunlop Lake Lodge is your best choice as the place to stage from, not only because the MacDonald‚Äôs treat you right, but also due to a secluded location that‚Äôs safe and secure for leaving vehicles while on tour.
Things Go Awry, Part 1
We set off southbound on TOP Trail F with high hopes that Sunday morning, but my primary clutch broke after just five klicks. That was it for me, at least until Napa Powersports in Blind River opened on Monday. Our sixth rider, Jim Heintzman, hadn‚Äôt been able to join us on our first day. He was on the road heading up, with an empty space on his trailer, so I detoured him to take my sled and I to Blind River. The other four guys snowmobiled on to Searchmont Resort. Plan B entailed Jim and I trailering to Searchmont after repairs. If only life were that simple‚Ä¶
Jim called me en route saying that his tow vehicle‚Äôs ‚ÄėCheck Engine‚Äô light had just come on and the revs were going haywire. I suggested trying to make it to Dunlop Lake Lodge, where we would load his sled and mine on to my trailer to lighten his load. Then I would follow him in my tow vehicle to Blind River. Monday morning, he would go to the auto dealer and I to the sled dealer, and then develop Plan C depending on the outcomes‚Ä¶
His vehicle needed two new sensors and would take a couple of days to fix. Mine needed a complete primary clutch, which would take about three minutes to install ‚Äď if one was available. A quick call around found one in Sudbury, where Algonquin Equipment was willing to take one off a showroom sled for me. So Jim and I drove the three-hour, Blind River - Sudbury round trip and formulated Plan C: the guys would sled from Searchmont to the Wawa Motor Inn on this Monday. (They reported TOP Trail D was a good trail, primarily on old logging roads that meandered in and out of a major hydro corridor that was often a bit of a roller coaster ride. See Trail Closure Notice.)
Meanwhile, Jim and I would trailer to Wawa and rejoin the tour Monday night. And after being on the road for a total of almost nine hours, that‚Äôs just what we did. 1,130 kilometres of trailering so far on this tour, for only five klicks on the snow!
Tuesday‚Äôs ride more than made up for it: from Wawa, through Dubreuilville and Hornepayne and on to the Villa Motel in Hearst. TOP D and TOP D108A are without a doubt two of the most exceptional trail rides anywhere. For my money, these remote trails may be even more fun to ride than the flatlands of the Northern Corridor: the same exceptional trail quality, but with rolling hills and sweeping turns to up the excitement ante. These super wide trails are so effortless and so much fun to ride that the only downside is coming to their end much to soon. But then we hit TOP A of the Northern Corridor, and that kept those foolish-looking, ear-to-ear grins pasted to our faces for another whole day! No wonder our riding tally for Tuesday and Wednesday totalled 760 kilometres. As anyone who has already experienced these trails will attest: big trails = big distances!
We overnighted Wednesday at Cedar Meadows Resort in Timmins. This is a must-stay destination because owner Richard Lafleur has done a remarkable job to make his in-town complex snowmobiler-friendly. Directly accessible from TOP Trail C, Cedar Meadows has a new spa facility that will be a total hit with muscle-weary riders and any that want to pamper their spouses. He‚Äôs also just built new housekeeping chalets that enable riding groups to stay together and socialize under one roof. By the way, if you see Richard, ask him to show you his banana-eating moose and albino elk!
Thursday, we rode TOP C101F through Foleyet to Chapleau as the temperature rose to +6ňö Celsius. We couldn‚Äôt make the same kind of time on this trail as we had on the previous trails. While it was well groomed and wide enough, for the most part this trail is one of those apparently laid out by a drunken surveyor, with lots of turns, corners and not so many straightaways. It runs mostly through forest and the relative protection from the nearby trees on each side was a good thing, because it rained on and off all day. What a drag!
No one chooses to or likes riding in the rain, but sometimes in March it‚Äôs unavoidable, so be prepared. I was very impressed that my waterproof FXR Adrenalin jacket repelled the precipitation and sealed out any leaks, keeping me snug and dry to the ride‚Äôs end. My ‚Äúmoisture managing‚ÄĚ Ski-Doo Thunder gloves also kept my hands dry all day; the visor wiper on the left index finger was a major bonus in providing clear vision. And as usual, nothing penetrated to the inside of my BRP BV2S helmet either. The trail got softer as the day progressed, but with more than enough snow to get us into Chapleau okay.
Things Go More Awry, Part 2
From Chapleau, the direct way to ride back to Elliot Lake is on TOP F southbound through Aubrey Falls. Unfortunately, that section of trail did not open last winter (Be sure to check it‚Äôs status for the coming winter on the Interactive Trail Guide at www.ofsc.on.ca), so our itinerary routed us the long way around on TOP F north through Missanabie, then back on TOP D to Wawa, Searchmont and points south (see Our Tour Itinerary). But Mother Nature had other plans‚Ä¶
Thursday night, the mercury plunged to -10ňö Celsius, freezing trail surfaces and pooled rain water hard as rock. With everything icy and no fresh snow in the immediate forecast, we had little chance to continue on, what with no lubrication for sliders and reports of rain-bared trails to the south. Lounging in the decadent Valentine Farms hot tub, we talked over yet another plan: how to get to my truck in Wawa and the other trucks in Elliot Lake and Blind River?
By chance, another guest at Valentine Farms Bed & Breakfast was driving to Elliot Lake next morning, so Don and Glenn hitched a ride to their trucks. Meanwhile, Brad called relatives in Wawa who generously offered to drive to Chapleau to return Jim and I to my truck. Of course, all of us truckers then had to drive back to Chapleau to pick up our sleds. After that, we made the long drive home.
All in all, I spent 16 more hours on the road to do all of this sojourning, when we should have been snowmobiling. For me, that was a total of 2,107 kilometres of driving on this tour for a mere 1,025 klicks of snowmobiling. Top-notch riding, but still not an enviable snow to asphalt ratio!
But with thousands of kilometres of snowmobile trails accessible from Elliot Lake, your snowmobiling to driving ratio is bound to be much better than ours. Algoma Country even has six designated snowmobile touring loops to choose from, and the 10 clubs of the Algoma Sno-Plan Affiliation (ASPA) do an exceptional job of keeping their trails in shape for your riding pleasure, so what‚Äôs not to like?
Next time you plan a Northern Ontario tour, why not start in Elliot Lake, the gateway to one of Ontario‚Äôs premier snowmobiling adventures? It‚Äôs called Algoma Country, and I for one plan to go back for more!
Special thanks to Carol Caputo, John Chambers, Jamie Dellaire, Claude Aumont, Neil Tulloch (NAPA Powersports, Blind River) and Jim McGuire (Algonquin Equipment, Sudbury) for assistance with this tour. Craig‚Äôs tours are made possible by BRP (Ski-Doo), Gateway Powersports, FXR Racing, Murphy Insurance, Launch Helmet Cams, Triton Trailers, Woody‚Äôs and York Fire & Casualty Insurance.
Craig Nicholson is the author of ‚ÄúCanada‚Äôs Best Snowmobiling ‚ÄĒ Your Ultimate Ride Guide‚ÄĚ. His syndicated column ‚ÄúThe Intrepid Snowmobiler‚ÄĚ appears in newspapers throughout North America. He also hosts ‚ÄúThe Intrepid Snowmobiler on Radio‚ÄĚ and appears regularly on Snowmobile Television. For more info, click www.intrepidsnowmobiler.com
The Tour Itinerary
Who To Contact
‚ÄĘ Algoma Kinniwabi Travel Association ‚Äď www.algomacountry. com or 1-800-263-2546
‚ÄĘ Ontario‚Äôs Wilderness Region - www.OntariosWildernessRegion.com or 1-800-461-3766
‚ÄĘ Ontario Tourism - wwwgorideontario.com
or 1-800-ONTARIO (1-800-668-2746)
‚ÄĘ OFSC (for maps, permits and trail info) ‚Äď www.ofsc.on.ca
‚ÄĘ OFSC District 13 Trail Guide
‚ÄĘ OFSC District 14 Trail Guide
‚ÄĘ OFSC District 15 Trail Guide
‚ÄĘ OFSC District 16 Trail Guide
‚ÄĘ Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs Provincial Trail Guide
Our Tour Itinerary
‚Äď 2,291 kilometres in 7 days of riding
1. Toll free phone numbers are included only when they connect directly to the hotel (as opposed to an off site reservation system).
2. TOP = Trans Ontario Provincial; L= Club Trail
Trailer to Elliot Lake (drive time from Greater Toronto Area: approx. 7 hours)
Where To Stay: Dunlop Lake Lodge 705.848.8090 or www.dunloplakelodge.com. Located in a rustic setting about 15 kilometres north of Elliot Lake (fuel up in town) on the shore of Dunlop Lake, this cozy lodge features motel style rooms and on site restaurant (with excellent food!) and bar, plus parking for trucks and trailers. Add in warm hospitality and direct access to TOP Trail F and this is a great staging location for your ride. Take Highway 108 north from Elliot Lake and turn left on Dunlop Lake Road (not Dunlop Shores Road).
Ride from Elliot Lake to Searchmont. 260 km via direct route (TOP F/TOP D/L5) or add up to 60 klicks more by looping south from Elliot Lake through Spanish or Spragge. Fuel and lunch on TOP D: Iron Bridge
Where To Stay: Searchmont Resort 1-800-663-2546 or www.searchmont.com. Algoma‚Äôs premier ski resort offers two-level chalets with two to four bedrooms, fully equipped kitchens and large family room with satellite TV. Sled parking in front of chalet and access to cafeteria & bar, sauna and hot tub in main lodge. Fuel nearby in town. Direct trail access.
Option 1 - Ride from Searchmont to Wawa. 262 km via TOP D (closed for 2012). Fuel and lunch: Half Way Haven (closed for 2012). Or Option 2 (this shortens Day Four) ‚Äď Searchmont to Dubreuilville. 356 km (about 8 hrs.) via TOP D (closed for 2012).
Where To Stay: Wawa Motor Inn 1-800-561-2278 or www.wawamotorinn.ca. Accessed by road from TOP D, this lodging has both motel units and chalets with sled parking in front. On-site restaurant & bar plus ample truck parking, with fuel and convenience store across the street. For dinner, we recommend the North of 17 Restaurant in town for great home cooked meals ‚Äď well worth the $8 ride with Kookie‚Äôs Kabs! Where to Stay for Option 2: Chez Gaston 705.852.0128 or www.bbcanada.com/chezgaston.
Option 1 - Ride from Wawa to Hearst. 385 km via TOP D/TOP D108A/ TOP A. Fuel: Dubreuilville, Hornepayne (lunch). Or Option 2 ‚Äď Ride from Dubreuilville to Hearst. 291 km (about 6 hrs) via TOP D108A/ TOP A. Fuel & lunch: Hornepayne.
Where To Stay: Villa Motel 1-888-838-6129 or www.hearstvilla.ca. Friendly roadside motel offers spacious and comfortable renovated rooms with sled parking in front. Continental breakfast and ample truck parking with free shuttle to nearby restaurant. Fuel & convenience store available nearby. Located on Highway 11, 1,000 feet from local access trail.
Ride from Hearst to Timmins. Option 1 - 400 km via TOP A/TOP A106C/TOP C. Fuel: Kapuskasing, Smooth Rock Falls (lunch), Cochrane. Or Option 2 ‚Äď 355 km via TOP A/TOP C. Fuel: Kapuskasing, Smooth Rock Falls (lunch).
Where To Stay: Cedar Meadows Resort & Spa 1-877-207-6123 or www.cedarmeadows.com. Quebec-style inn with well-appointed rooms, new chalets, on site restaurant & bar, plus secure sled parking. Plus, fantastic new luxury spa facility with steam room, sauna and outdoor hot pool. Ample space for trucks & trailers. Be sure to leave time to visit their on site wildlife park! Direct trail access off TOP C just north of intersection with TOP A111C. Fuel south on TOP C about 3 km.
Ride from Timmins to Chapleau. 265 km via TOP C/TOP C101F/TOP F. Fuel & lunch: Foleyet.
Where To Stay: Valentine Farms Bed & Breakfast 705.864.1467 or www.valentinefarms.ca. Located on TOP F on the east side of Chapleau, this cozy, free-standing lodging features homestyle d√©cor and hearty breakfasts, with free shuttle to Honger‚Äôs Restaurant for dinner, where the Chinese food is superb and a Canadian menu is also available. Valentine Farms also offers a large common room and eating area, secure indoor sled parking, a large hot tub, steam room, washer and dryer. Great for riding groups to socialize, relax and enjoy the warm hospitality of hosts, Ross and Frenda, who live just next door!
Ride from Chapleau to Half Way Haven (closed for 2012). 323 km via TOP F & TOP D. Fuel: Missanabie, Wawa, Half Way Haven. Lunch: Wawa. (Note: we took this route because TOP F from Chapleau to Aubrey Falls was closed. For 2012, Day Seven would be Chapleau back to Dunlop Lake Lodge for 275 km via the now open TOP F.)
Where We Stayed: Half Way Haven. Note that this lodging and fuel stop is closed for 2012.
Ride from Half Way Haven to Elliot Lake. 380 km via TOP D/LT5/TOPD/TOP D106/TOP F. Fuel: Searchmont, Aubrey Falls. Lunch: Aubrey Falls.
Where To Stay: Dunlop Lake Lodge