Discovering Eastern Ontario: Cycling from Ottawa to Toronto

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Every summer I like to go on a multi-day longish-distance cycling trip and recently I biked from Ottawa to Toronto around the Canada Day long weekend. I started with a four to five day itinerary in mind spanning between 400-450km, but in the end I had to cut it short to 3.5 days and 350km due to heat and exhaustion. The ride was fun, and my first through rural eastern Ontario.

Peace tower, celebrating Canada’s victories in the War, at Parliament Hill.

Rainbow behind the Parliament Hill

A guy I contacted through craigslist rideshare agreed to transport me and my bike to Ottawa in his van for a modest sum of $35. After much confusion and arguments I got into this van and we started from Toronto at 5pm, reaching Ottawa around 9:30pm. I was couchsurfing that night in Ottawa and went to bed soon after exchanging pleasantries with my host.

↑ Rainbow over the Rideau falls just in time for the Pride weekend. And this had to happen at the Parliament hill, right under (our conservative Prime Minister) Harper’s nose.

Ottawa has a nice bike trail that runs behind the Parliament buildings along the Ottawa river. I was kinda sad to have missed the gay pride festival in Toronto that weekend but was delighted to spot a colourful rainbow, from the tumbling water of the Rideau canal, cheering me at the beginning of my journey. Slathering sunscreen and securing sufficient water, granola bars and fruit, I took off on the bike trail that runs parallel to the Ottawa river’s southern (Ontario) bank. The Ottawa River Pathway stretching from the Rideau Canal, Parliament Hill, runs for about 17km and is quite scenic and well paved. The trail passes under the Portage Bridge and the Champlain Bridge that connects Ontario and Quebec, continuing through Britannia Park, Dick Bell Park, terminating at Crystal Bay; throughout the journey you are right next to the river so the view is pretty.

The route then passes through the outskirts of Ottawa for about 5km before heading towards the Trans-Canada bikeway. I was hoping to get some supplies here as I was quickly running out of water, but there weren’t any places I could stop between the ugly subdivisions sprawling in the suburbia.

Spotting animals on the Trans Canada Trail

The old rail track between Ottawa and Carleton Place has now been converted into a beautiful trail that runs for about 30km. The path is covered in fine gravel, so it’s great for running, fine for cycling, but unsuitable for roller blades or wheelchairs. The trail passes through Kanata, one of Ottawa’s larger suburbs, continuing to Stittsville where I stopped for lunch: a sandwich and a smoothie.

I saw a number of animals on this gently ascending trail. An orange-tailed fox, a couple of deer, and the usual racoons, squirrels, and Canada goose. Birds and butterflies fluttered past the trail towards colourful flower meadows. Quite beautiful!

Getting pulled over by cops

The Trans Canada trail is more or less parallel and adjacent to the Trans-Canada Highway 7 and for a while I watched cars and trucks zip past me smoothly. Cycling on a fine gravel trail on a bike with thin tyres can get a bit bumpy, so I decided to exit the trail after Stittsville and merge with the highway.

Cycling on the smooth highway after an hour on coarse gravel was so relieving! I pedaled along the shoulder, waved back at cars, stopped on the side under the canopy of a bridge to snack on an apple, and generally enjoying my ride. That lasted for about 30 minutes or 10km, until I heard a Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) cop car behind me.

I pulled over after realizing that he was following me.

We exchanged pleasantries in the usual polite Canadian way.
Officer: Son, I need you to get off the highway for your safety.
Me: But this is not a 400-series highway. (In Ontario, cyclists are prohibited from biking on the 400-series highways. This was Highway 7)
Officer: Yes, but it’s now converted to a four lane highway, that makes it illegal for cyclists.
Me (cheekily): Okay thanks, I’ll take the next exit.
Officer: Well, no. I suggest exiting here (pointing at the merging lane with traffic in opposite direction); I will escort you. Good luck for rest of your journey.

Thus ended my brief highway adventure, and I was back on the cycling trail all the way to Carleton Place, kinda grumpy.

Attacked by bugs and getting lost on rural roads

Refueling at a McDonalds (yes you read it right), I sent a quick note to my next couch host about 20km west of Perth saying I’d be late. It was an older couple and they were looking forward to meeting me. I was supposed to be at their place in time to cook, but it was already 5pm and I was 50km or at least three hours away. I seriously contemplated staying at a motel, but I didn’t want to go back on my word and all the messages I had exchanged with the lovely lady who was expecting me.

The couch hosts lived on a rural country road, the type that is suited for pickup trucks, not bicycles with thin tyres. In addition, I was unable to located their exact address on the gps and the road signs were far and rare.

I was cycling on dirt roads through a thick forest at dusk in July. Terrible timing for a variety of reasons. I had to wear my sunglasses to keep the bugs out, but that made it hard to see potholes and bumps. I needed to bike at a faster pace to avoid being swallowed by a cloud of bugs, but I couldn’t bike fast on rugged roads. I needed to reach their place before it got pitch dark since there was no way I could find little roads.

I almost made plans to exit back to the highway and find a motel, but luckily I saw a middle-aged guy in a pickup truck coming from the other side. I vigorously waived at him.

A brown guy on a road bike on a dirt road at a dark hour in the middle of nowhere. You can imagine his puzzled look.

Me: Hello, sorry for stopping you. I am looking for this address.
Driver: Um, what are you doing here?
Me: Just cycling from Ottawa to Toronto, staying with friends.
(He probably found me suspicious and crazy to begin with, and I might just have confirmed it.)
Driver: It’s that way back there. (pause). Okay follow me.

It was my turn to be suspicious now; what if he was an axe murderer… Figuring I didn’t have much of a choice, I followed him and he did lead me to the right address. Thank you guy in a pickup truck!

A nice thing about traveling is that you quickly learn to rely your instincts and are generally trusting towards strangers, leading to random acts of kindness such as these.

The couch hosts were great, they made me dinner, shared their organics, and prepared breakfast the next day. I really like couchsurfing!

Need. Water. Now.

The next segment, Perth to Madoc, looked straightforward on the map. It was a long chug along highway 7 (now a two-lane highway, so no police cars no more!) or the Trans Canada bike path adjacent to it. I tried the bike path for a while, it was overgrown, unpaved, bumpy and very rocky, which reduced my speed greatly. Unwilling to cede to a swarming army of bugs, I quickly made it to the highway and continued from there.

My first stop was at the Silver Lake Provincial Park where I had some trail mix and jumped into the water for a quick swim. Feels so great, yea I know!

I typically pause for water break every hour or so and also take a short break every two hours to relax and refuel. There are lots of rest stops conveniently located along the highway. These stops have a few picnic tables, bathrooms, place for a quick wash (or right next to a lake), and plenty of shade to relax.

Unfortunately it was incredibly hot today (feels like 45 C) and I was taking a water break every 20 minutes. Soon I was out of water and there was just no place to fill up.

Hello stranger, may I come in?

So I decided to knock on someone’s door and ask for water. I saw a house with some children playing in the pool outside. I started walking up and parked my bike in the driveway. Thank goodness in Canada, unlike the USA, so there’s no fear of crazy gun people.

A lady saw me through the window and opened the door. She not only let me into the house and filled my water bottle, but also offered me soda, fruit and even tried to make me a sandwich. Thanking her profusely I took an orange, some bars and resumed my journey.

People in the country are so nice!

That night I stayed at the Spotted Dog, a cute bed and breakfast in the little town of Madoc. Rob (and his partner Scott) was exceptionally generous and kind – he ran a bubble bath for me so I could relax, made a refreshing lemonade, let me swim in their pool, and have a really comfortable evening. Breakfast next morning was perfectly poached eggs with basil and spinach, lots of fruit, cereal, juice, coffee and other assortments. Rob packed a little snack bag for me, with fruit and energy bars which came in really really handy. On top of that he gave me a discount for the room price. At the end I felt like he was the one paying me for staying there. I’d go back there next time I/we are in the area for sure.

↑ Beautiful church in Madoc

When the time stops

The route from Madoc to my next stop at Cobourg was about 110km and passed through some of the most beautiful parts of eastern Ontario. I deliberately took a rural route crisscrossing through concession roads and county roads, next to large farms, grain silos, and barn animals idly grazing and occasionally glancing at me. A dog would bark, a tractor would chug along, and a crop would dance in the wind.

It felt to me as if time had stopped and I was left observing subtle movements in the stillness that surrounded the rural landscape.

↑ Horses!

At Campbellford, I stopped at the lock #13 on the Trent-Severn Waterway, a 386km long canal that connects Lake Ontario to Lake Huron. In the past, industrial ships would navigate this water channel, but now the waterway is maintained for recreational and tourism purposes by Parks Canada. I am fascinated by the locks system on canals that made some of the remotest parts of the continent directly accessible from Europe.

↑ Trent-Severn waterway

The phenomenon of Canadian-Chinese restaurants

Almost every little town I passed through had a Chinese restaurant. Bizarre, I know. I had heard about this phenomenon, but it was the first time I was seeing it on my bike ride. At this little town of Campbelford, ON, I spotted a Chinese buffet restaurant and decided to give it a try. I had a plate full of cheap mediocre food, and then some.

↑ Happy Canada day!

Cycling on Shelter valley road, between Castleton and Grafton, was pure fun. I find roads that are not going in a straight line to be sexy, rolling hills fun, and low traffic routes cutting through a patch of big trees to be way more enjoyable. Before long I was on the old Toronto – Montreal Highway 2, back in traffic.

At Cobourg, I couchsurfed with a couple of urban homesteaders that had transformed their little yard into a large organic vegetable farm. I like couchsurfing for this very reason – meeting really cool people who are not only passionate about travel, but also very involved in sustainability causes and the community. We made dinner, exchanged stories, and had a great time.

If you are reading this and are wondering what couchsurfing is, check out their website and the wikipedia page. I’ve traveled to several countries and exclusively couchsurfed and made some fantastic friends.

Hitting the urban ugliness

Once I reached Oshawa, it felt like my romantic trip had come to an abrupt unceremonious end. Urban sprawl, ugly subdivisions pushing low-density high-cost housing further and further, broken roads with glass and metal fragments, ugh it was very uninspiring.

Very sadly, I decided to terminate my trip and take the GO train home the rest of the journey.

↑ Welcome to… some town..

Hope you enjoyed this journey through some of the beautiful parts of Eastern Ontario in this kind of longish bike trip narration.

Join me for the next trip!

Canada Travel Series: Blog posts | Photo gallery