If you are looking for something to do this year, I have a suggestion for you: a multi day bike holiday.
But don’t get excited just yet. I am not talking about a leasurely ride along 16th century canals, with a lunch stop at a French chateau and dinner on a patio with sunsets over the Loire.
The trip I am talking about is of a different kind. How about cycling on Ontario and Quebec’s gravel backroads, unpaved trails such as abandoned railways lines, rail to trail pathways and here and there a bit of asphalt if absolutely necessary? Right at our doorstep.
You (can) bring all your own stuff and stock up on food in a hamlet’s only general store, or you can stay in a decent bed at a hotel or a B&B and dine out at local restaurants and greasy spoons. Go explore the countryside of Ontario and Quebec at your own pace.
Network of trails
It is not too obvious if you are not into it, but Ontario has a vast network of incredibly quiet roads and trails that are used by people who’d like to be away and enjoy a bit of a challenge. Dive into it and a whole new world of cycling routes opens up for you. One of those routes runs through Ottawa and it has a name that harks back to Ottawa’s logging history.
Log Driver’s Waltz
There are trails and there are routes. A trail usually is one stretch between two points, such as the K & P Trail, from Kingston to Pembroke. A route consists of a combination of trails and pathways and roads. The Log Driver’s Waltz is such a route. It is 796 km long and if you start in Ottawa it makes a big loop southeast and north of Ottawa in Quebec.
If you are bikepacking, you’ll have to bring your own stuff, tied to your bars, squeezed between your frame, mounted on your front fork and hanging off your seat. Others bring panniers at the front and rear of the bike. You may have to sleep in the wild, face bears, stare down coyotes, tiptoe around a snake, get drenched, replace broken spokes, fix tires with the help of a million deer flies and miss a day or two showering after 250 km of pedalling.
But that is the worst case scenario.
It can also be a fantastic one of a kind experience, with peaceful roads passing lakes and pine trees, crossing farmed valleys and rivers. You’ll cycle through small towns, sleep in the wild or at a camp site on a lake. You’ll cook your own food under the most incredible starry skies you have ever seen and stop for coffees along the way. How’s that for an adventure?
BT700 as inspiration for Log Driver’s Waltz
The Log Driver’s Walz is the brain child of Jen Adams and Eric Betteridge from Ottawa. After they rode another Ontario bikepacking route, the BT700 (as in “Butter Tart”) in 2019, they realised Eastern Ontario and Quebec offer a similar opportunity to create a long distance bikepacking route through forests, along lakes and crossing a number of rural Ontario and Quebeqois towns.
As the Log Driver’s Walz is a loop, you can start anywhere, which is convenient for those without a car. In Ottawa, it runs across the Ottawa River and across the Experimental Farm. In fact, I discovered that the Log Driver’s Waltz basically runs through my front yard in a matter of speaking.
You may have cycled parts of it already
If you cycle in Ottawa, you have likely ridden parts of the Log Driver’s Waltz, such as a stretch through the Gatineau Park, the aforementioned Experimental Farm and the stretch towards Stittsville and Carleton Place. But other places are a lot more remote, such as the ride from Sharbot Lake to Calabogie following part of the K & P trail. You really have to know what you are doing there: your cell phone will not always have reception and you won’t find water stations or bike repair shops in walking distance. But there is an advantage: there are hardly any cars or other environmental eye sores either.
Where is the Log Driver’s Waltz exactly?
You can see a lot more detail on the route on the Ride with GPS, but I designed a clean overview that allows you to understand where the route runs. Obviously, this is a stylised version only to glance over the route. The Ride with GPS page gives you a great overview of all the amenities.
The route runs from Ottawa south west to Sharbot Lake, then north to Renfrew, than further northeast to Gracefield and then back to Ottawa. 800 kilometers later, you’re home again. On a map, that would be a stretch from Amsterdam to Switzerland or from Glasgow to London or from New Delhi to Jaisalmer (I rode a camel in the desert outside of Jaisalmer, a beautiful city from what I remember).
Interested in the Log Driver’s Waltz?
Jen and Eric created a website for the Log Driver’s Waltz with lots of detailed information on equipment, food supplies, overnight stays and when to go. I am guessing for me that late summer/early fall might be the best time to be out in the woods, when water levels have receded, temperatures are bearable again, the insect population is lower, and the bears are well fed. But there are reports of people who cycled it in spring and survived.
The Log Driver’s Waltz consists mostly of gravel riding. Gravel riding in general is not about speed (although there are exceptions, such as Mr. Cowan, who cycled the 800 km in 3.5 days), but about enjoying nature, beer and -apparently- butter tarts.
If 700-800 km sounds a bit extreme to you, there are many other shorter options which can be done in a (long) day. Jen and Eric have several other route suggestions on their website, as long as 250 km and as short as around 70-80 km.
No need for suffering or big investments
Gravel riding doesn’t equal suffering per se though. There are also places where you can stay overnight and enjoy a proper shower and dinner at night. You also don’t need fancy equipment. As Bill Bourne, who is setting up a group for gravel riders, says on the Ottawa Bicycle Club website:
“In spite of all the industry hype, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to enjoy mixed-surface riding. The most important thing is larger tires. How big depends on your own skills and desire for comfort. “Bigger is better” is common advice. 32mm will get you access to many well-maintained unpaved roads and prepared trails. 35-36mm will be comfortable on pretty much any open road. 38-40mm is the current “standard” if you want to tackle some unmaintained roads or ATV trails. Most recent endurance bikes, and many touring bikes, can handle the tires sizes to get you started”.https://ottawabicycleclub.ca/index.php/gravel-rides
Where does the name come from?
The name goes back to a time when the forests around Ottawa were clearcut. The logs were an important source for construction for the colonists as well as an export product. After the trees were cut, the rivers were used to bring the logs down to the mills. Log drivers would manage that all would go well, including unclogging the trees where needed. A very dangerous job as you can see in this National Film Board video (3 minutes).
If you are interested in trying out gravel riding before you are hitting the Log Driver’s Waltz, check out some of the links below as well as the shorter trips that Jen and Eric posted on their website. There are many other options too though.
Here is the Log Driver’s Waltz website with lots of info
More about the Log Driver’s Waltz and how it was designed: Designing a route
If you want to know more about gravel riding in Eastern Ontario, you should also check out this link to Ride Gravel
Read Jonas Bonnetta’s three day diary about his shorter trip from Sharbot Lake
Another website you might like is Bikepacking.com
If you’d rather stay in town, but want to bike around for a few days in a more ‘civilised’ fashion, check out Escape Bicycle Tours on Sparks Street in downtown Ottawa (Disclaimer: I work there)
Tourism draw for rural Canada
I can see this might actually become a bit of a tourist magnet for people from further away and although it is a small subset of cyclists, it might be a welcome shot in the arm for small town Ontario and Quebec if marketed properly.
Thoughts about gravel riding or the route in general? Share it with us in the comment section.