Friday, 22 August 2014

7000 Lakes and Rivers, One Starbucks: Exploring Ontario’s Highlands

A post by Scott F

Seven thousand lakes and major river systems, one Starbucks. Twenty four thousand square kilometres, ONE Starbucks. Eight hundred thousand inhabitants, ONE Starbucks! Six hundred and eighteen heritage sites and buildings, ONE STARBUCKS!

Okay, I think I’ve mentioned Starbucks enough. It was just one of those stats that, as stats sometimes do, jumped off the page when I first read it. Having no major feelings about the coffee retailer, pro or con, why this Ontario’s Highlands stat stood out so strongly for me was a mystery; a scattered bunch of puzzle pieces nagging to be put together. It took a "mancation" to the region last weekend, kindly organized by the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization, to put those pieces together…

river, rocky
The wild Ontario's Highlands!
Ontario’s Highlands stretches from Smith’s Falls in the southeast all the way to where it wraps around Algonquin park in the northwest and includes the Halliburton Highlands, Hastings County, Ottawa Valley, Land O’Lakes and Lanark County. As Sam, Chris and I made our way to our first destination we couldn’t help but note how wild the region seemed. Rocky outcrops hung over the roadsides that gave way repeatedly to lakes and rivers that were at times pristine and picturesque and at others rough and raging. Our drive, which lasted over five hours, was made up of vast expanses of this glorious wilderness, spliced with pretty small towns forged out of the rocky environments or hugged by the lakes and rivers. We didn’t enter one city, and for good reason: the region doesn’t have any! The puzzle pieces began to click together…

After a brief pit stop in the quaint town of Tweed, we were summoned by manly hunger to seek sustenance. We pulled in at The Spud Box, a strange looking orange and black building/food truck in the town of Kaladar. The second we left the car we heard the sharp voice of the owner, Jerry, berating customers from the truck, 100 feet or so away. As we got closer and could make out what was being said, we knew we were going to like Jerry. Jerry’s the kind of guy who knows he’s got a good product, and won’t hesitate to let you know with a level of sharp intensity that could easily rub people the wrong way (as he clearly has, according to online reviews, HA!). When asked to give one line to sum up his operation, he replied (censored for our more sensitive readers) “the best (fudge)ing burgers in Ontario.” And the burgers didn’t disappoint.

food truck, food, burgers
You won't miss this from the road

Back in our swanky Acura MDX (kindly provided by Acura Canada for our trip), we bombed across the Trans-Canada Highway toward Renfrew. Renfrew, as we would learn, prides itself on being the birthplace of the National Hockey League. We were lucky enough to be greeted by Ray and Brittany at the NHL Birthplace Museum, somewhat inconspicuously placed on the second floor of Renfrew’s former post office. Ray, a hockey historian of some renown, recounted how a wealthy local businessman funded four of the first five teams of the original National Hockey Association (NHA), including Renfrew’s own Creamery Kings (nicknamed “The Millionaires,” the best team name ever, due to their owner. The NHA would eventually be renamed the NHL several years later due to legal issues. The museum, small and scattered with seemly random photographs, posters and hockey artifacts, came alive with Ray’s anecdotes and explanations. He spoke with an air of pride about the players in the photographs, many of whose family still resided in the area. His enthusiasm for hockey and the role Renfrew played in its early beginnings was infectious. The pieces were coming together.

The Flying Fathers were a hockey team of priests who traveled playing exhibition games to raise funds for good works
Hockey, NHL
Chris, Brittany, Sam and Ray at the NHL Birthplace Museum in Renfrew
Our night was spent listening to the iconic sounds of Canadian legend David Wilcox at the Class Axe Guitars Calabogie Blues and Ribfest. We chowed down on copious amounts of meat from the ribbers and enjoyed a few cold Steam Whistles while discussing the amazing drive and the people we’d met. The festival was held at the beautiful Calabogie Peaks Resort, and after the concert had ended and a misguided hike up the mountain complete, we found our way to our ultra-comfortable mountain condo to recharge for the next day.

hotel, resort, conference centre
Calabogie Peaks Resort
hotel, room
Our mountain condominium
The ribbers at the Class Axe Guitars Calabogie Blues and Ribfest

To David Wilcox: "Play Layin' Pipe!"

We spent a rainy Saturday in the care of Wilderness Tours (more on our rafting adventures in a future post) and by the time Sunday rolled around we were fully enthralled by the wild beauty of Ontario’s Highlands, not to mention a little tired and sore.

We sped the MDX along the Ottawa River and banked through the farm fields and small towns that dot the Ottawa Valley. Passing military vehicles on training (out of Petawawa, we assume), we made our way to Eganville to explore the Bonnechere Caves. Our guide, Liam, a plucky young man with an unexpectedly dry sense of humour, took us through the caves and the heroing tale of Tom Woodward, who discovered and explored the then water-filled caves in the 1950’s. Liam also took us through a fine selection of fossils from the Ordovician time period. The kids in the group loved answering Liam’s trivia questions and getting hands-on with the fossils. Us grown up kids had fun too.

Our guide Liam wears his fossil love on his sleeve
Everything is better on a stick
From there we followed the Bonnechere River into Eganville where we enjoyed a less-than-manly but absolutely delicious lunch and a Whitewater Brewery Farmer’s Daughter Blonde Ale at Frisco’s, overlooking the water. Eganville is known as the Ordovician Fossil Capital of Canada and the local Bonnechere Museum features Geoheritage walks. After checking out the museum, full of local stories and artifacts, we set out for our walk. Our guides Megan and Miranda, university students who returned to their hometown of Eganville for the summer, spoke fondly of their small town and explored its history and the many eccentricities so common to small town life. The hour-long walk took us through town and to an abandoned quarry and trench where the remnants of limestone mining spoke to the town’s past. We were able to explore fossil pits where the ground was literally littered with little fossils (how’s that for alliteration!).

Lunch at Frisco's in Eganville
View from Frisco's

It was time to start home but not before a stop at Charlie D’s in Barry’s Bay - yet another cool food truck (note, food is always manlier when it’s served from a truck. Fact). Bev took good care of us, helping us select one of over ten poutine varieties from their menu. Sam, the adventurous one he is, choose the classic while I dug into a Mexican variety. Chris opted for ice cream.

poutine, chip truck, food truck

Mexican poutine
Driving home my mind went back to the Starbucks puzzle that had been assembling itself in the back of my mind for the whole of our trip to Ontario’s Highlands. As I stared out the window at the still waters on Golden Lake and belted out a few verses of Tim McGraw’s “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” with the boys, it all came into perspective.

I grew up in a small town in a rural community and barely knew what Starbucks was until I was in my teens. I went on to live in the city for almost five years before I was drawn back to a smaller town to settle down. Small towns, usually, don’t have a Starbucks. And that was it! Those same things that draw us out of the city – room to breathe; beautiful countryside; friendly, genuine people; fresh air; adventure; disconnection; tradition – are all the things we experienced throughout Ontario’s Highlands. Jerry, Ray, Liam, Megan, Miranda and Bev along with the folks at Wilderness Tours, treated us kindly; we were enthralled by the small town stories, traditions and heritage of Renfrew and Eganville; the terrain that we drove past and hiked upon and the rivers we swam in were picturesque and wild.

Twenty three thousand square kilometres of all of the above, but only one Starbucks… go figure!

Special thanks goes to the Ontario's Highlands Tourism Organization for inviting us to experience their region. Their website and mobile app are exceptional ways to plan your next trip to the region. Also check them out on FacebookTwitter and Instagram as they frequently run contests for trips and GoPro cameras. Follow their hashtag and use it during your adventures: #OHletsgo.

Thanks to Acura Canada as well for loaning us a Acura MDX for the weekend. It was the classiest whip I've ever taken on a road trip and the air conditioned seats, three-zone climate control and exceptional ride kept us comfortable the whole time.


Post a comment