Land of Reflections
The region known as Kawartha is an area an hour and half north and east of Toronto, dominated by the cities of Peterborough and Lindsay, and most readily associated with a chain of lakes linked together by the Trent Canal. The name itself was appropriated from the Anishinaabeg indigenous people who referred to the area as Ka-wa-tha, which meant “land of reflections”.
Anglicized to Kawartha by tourism promoters who billed it as “bright waters and happy lands”, today there is a municipality that goes by the controversial name of the City of Kawartha Lakes – an amalgamation of the former county of Victoria in the 1990s. Name aside – it is an important part of the ‘Land Between’ and a favoured cottage and tourism destination.
Famous for well known lakes like Stoney, Balsam and Sturgeon Lakes (among others) and smaller towns like Fenelon Falls, Bobcaygeon (of Tragically Hip fame) and Buckhorn, this area also has an extensive network of rail trails. As autumn descends upon southern Ontario, this is a great time to explore the rail trails of the Kawarthas.
There are more than 600 kms. of trails spread across Kawartha Lakes. The rugged hiking trail known as the Ganaraska Trail is an option for walkers – we will focus on the Kawartha Trans Canada Trail and Victoria Rail Trail Corridor, multi-purpose trails traversed by foot, by bicycle, by horse and in some cases by ATVs and snowmobiles.
The Kawartha Trans Canada Trail runs along an abandoned rail line that traverses east to west (or vice versa) from Peterborough in the east to the western border of the City of Kawartha Lakes just south of the village of Manilla. This is a very well signed, and for the most part extremely well-groomed trail that suits a variety of uses. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the trails, with the exception of snowmobiles in the winter – when the trails are not maintained between November 1st and April 30th.
With the exception of touching on the southern edge of Lindsay, the trail runs through farm fields and bush and across a variety of roads, highways and waterways. Being an old rail line, the route is relatively flat and straight, until it passes through the rolling hills of the Peterborough drumlin field east of the village of Omemee. These hilly remnants of the last ice age challenged railway construction, forcing the lines to curve around rather than try to go over the glacial till left behind by the continental glaciers some 12,000 years ago.
The trail can be accessed almost any place it crosses a road – in many places there are dedicated parking spaces, port-a-potties and signed trail maps. Traffic on the trail is comparatively light – and almost exclusively limited to walkers and their dogs near the settlements, and cyclists along the entire trail. There are a number of interesting places to stop at, like the bridge over the Pigeon River just north of Neil Young’s hometown of Omemee. Depending on the day and time you are there, it might be worth your while to take a spin onto the main street of town and visit Mickael’s bakery – known for their sourdough bread, pretzels and cookies, among other delights.
Another impressive site is Doube’s Trestle Bridge between Omemee and Peterborough. Built by the Midland Railway in 1883 and named after the Irish family that owned the land at the east end of the bridge, the original wooden trestle was replaced by a steel bridge totaling 175 metres in length. Rail service ended in 1978, but was purchased by the Ontario government in 1989. In 2006 the bridge was resurfaced to become a very impressive piece of trail infrastructure. The trestle affords an excellent view 29 metres above Buttermilk Valley and the drumlins surrounding the area.
The Victoria Rail Trail is a north-south corridor running from Bethany in the south to Kinmount in the north, a total of 85 kms. in length along an old CN rail line. The North Corridor extends from the suburbs of Lindsay, north through Ken Reid Conservation to Fenelon Falls, Burnt River and then Kinmount. The south corridor runs roughly between Bethany and Lindsay – but it is not great for cycling. Loose, sandy gravel covers a wide but frequently rutted trail. After trying it once, I would not do so again. The northern leg is fairly well groomed in most places, but if you like to speed you do have to keep your eyes open for divots in the trail that could toss you off your bike if you are not paying attention.
The trail north of Lindsay to Fenelon Falls is similar to the Kawartha Trail – winding its way through farm fields and woodlots. After traversing a few streets in Fenelon, and cycling along the locks of the Trent Canal, the trail takes riders along the shore of Cameron Lake – a pretty lake with cottages and homes along it. Fenelon Falls is a very pretty town, complete with restaurants, pubs, a brewery and a grocery store if one needs a break from the trail. The stretch north of Fenelon to Burnt River runs through along the river of the same name, impressive forests and large wetlands, with rare sightings of the odd farm and rural residences.
Like many pioneer mill and rail towns, Burnt River is a shadow of its former self – you can’t buy anything here, though there is a ‘port-a-pottie’ at the local municipal park. The trail from Burnt River to Kinmount exudes a sense of remoteness and wilderness – as there are long stretches of dense forest punctuated by some nice views of Burnt River and Cleghorn Creek. You might have to share the trail with ATVs and the odd dirt bike – but my encounters were polite and civilized as we both gave each other space and slowed down.
Kinmount is a rugged little village straddling the Burnt River. There is an excellent local museum at the old railway station and mill (when opened), a very nice park along the river and old mill and some stores to stock up on supplies if need be. Kinmount was once the site of a colony of emigrees from Iceland – who were sold a false tale of prosperity in the Canadian wilderness. Arriving on September 25th, 1874 three hundred and fifty Icelandic emigrants came to the banks of Cleghorn Creek. Living conditions were dismal in a winter that also had little food and jobs for this group – resulting in the death of thirty children and upwards of ten adults. Lord Dufferin, the Governor General of Canada, intervened and enabled the Icelanders to resettle in and around Gimli, Manitoba – where their descendants thrive to this day.
The trains may be long gone, but the rail lines left behind have become a great way to engage in some slow travel and see the back yards of places like the Kawarthas. To quote Agatha Christie, “To travel by train (or in this case their rail lines) is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches, and rivers, in fact, to see life.” Consider a trip along the many trails in the Kawarthas, or near your home, to get out and enjoy the fall.