On a satellite photo, the quilt of farmland spanning the broad fin of southern Ontario ends abruptly at a line running from Georgian Bay eastward to the Ottawa River. Here, a few hours north of Toronto and roughly equivalent to where Pleistocene glaciers stopped scraping and started dumping, stands the vanguard of a vast forest that runs uninterrupted some 2,400 kilometres north to Hudson Bay. Weaving along this line, stitching together the limestone plains of the south to the edge of the granitic Canadian Shield, runs Country Road 503 — formerly Highway 503.
When I was a kid, driving from Toronto to our family cabin in the Haliburton Highlands, 503 was the often-used "back way in" — a meandering, frost-heaved, Ozarkian diorama of harsh history and brutal reality. The rare breaks in forest along this backwoods boulevard of broken dreams were dominated by abandoned buildings, rock fences, and heaps of rusted metal — the installation art of failure and misery. Driving it you imagined newly arrived homesteaders in suspenders and print dresses, standing amidst their worldly belongings at a railroad whistle-stop, children wailing at the sudden isolation, each of them staring into impenetrable bush and wondering why they'd left the cricket pitches and afternoon teas of Britain for such a hardscrabble existence.
They left for one reason: lumber. Voracious European markets begat logging camps, towns, and railroads on this side of the pond, and all life and commerce, no matter the season, funnelled down various watercourses to the mills. Despite the abundant industry, however, no one got rich save the lumber barons, far-removed from the Highlands' brutal winters and bug-infested summers, ensconced in their Victorian mansions in Toronto and Ottawa. When the wood was gone there wasn't much left; a few tried farming, but the thin, boulder-strewn soils of this heavily glaciated area wore them down. Today there's nothing of lasting value from that era — save the trails.
Even as the forest grew back, logging roads continued to see use for one thing or another, and darned if they hadn't turned out to be sweet mountain biking fodder as well. In recent times , hundreds of kilometres of what are used in winter as snowmobile and cross-country ski routes have been converted into mountain bike trails. The largest network, in the Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve, plies the Precambrian topography of the world's oldest mountains, but numerous other trails in the area are equally challenging — tacky, rock-strewn singletrack that grinds over rolling hills, around dark lakes, and through foreboding swamps. Challenging enough to lure two ex-Ontarians home from B.C. for a quick history refresher.
Things aren't much different from what I recall as a friend and I retrace my childhood route along 503. In addition to a parade of decrepit buildings and overgrown foundations there's little to keep our attention beyond a snapping turtle crossing the road, the sign on a sleepy motel proclaiming "Elvis stays here," and an ancient arbour in the middle of nowhere with hundreds of shoes improbably nailed to its trunk.
Reaching Lake Kashagawigamog — "long and flowing waters" in the Ojibway tongue — with the sun at its zenith, we're delivered back to the present, a hedonistic world of recreational sport that the hard-working pioneers and loggers could only have seen as ultimate decadence. Sailboats beat against warm winds on the lake, water-skiers skip across indecisive waves, and canoes ply a shoreline where children squeal on dockside diving boards under the soupy eyes of cocktail-cradling adults. At the cabin we make like the masses, cooling off in the lake and lounging on a shoreline log until we're chased away by a plague of horseflies. Time to indulge in more time travel.
We start on a familiar snowmobile trail that winds through a long-abandoned attempt at farming the unforgiving soil. The 25-metre-high closed canopy gives no hint of once open country, but clues are nevertheless abundant: rotted stumps, some two metres across, dominate the understory. On one side of the trail, remnants of a century-old wire fence remain strung between cedars that have long since grown around the metal threads, which exit the wood dragging bark like skin pulled up by a fishhook. It's a bizarre amalgam of an expired relationship between man and nature; as always, man moved on while nature held sway, eventually swallowing his silly forgotten dreams.
We break off along a deer-trail singletrack that bucks and berms through the hardwood pelage, passing artifacts of homesteads, barns, woodcutting, and sugar shacks with their oil-drum cauldrons, sap buckets, and vintage whisky bottles strewn through the leaf litter. At one memorable corner there's a Model A Ford, trees growing from every window, roof barely discernible behind an impenetrable wall of raspberry.
Well above the lake, we stop by a beaver pond, still as a postcard. Minus the wind, the woods are quiet. But like the roar of the sea in a conch shell, if you listen closely you can hear the old shantyman songs echoing across Kashagawigamog as they drive logs toward the Gull River and the mills at Coboconk and Minden. Or at least that's what I tell my friend, and he has cause to believe.
On the way to the cabin we'd stopped to ride a short trail near a fantastically preserved log sluice at Hawk Lake. The massive structure sits below a dam in the bottom of a precipitous canyon and — more than any other decaying structure in a litany of such things — evoked the sweat and toil involved in winter cutting, skidding, and ice-stacking the timber that would then be driven out in the spring. You had but to touch the moss-laden wood to conjure lumberjacks with bushy moustaches snapping their suspenders with a mixture of pride and melancholy as the last of the spring boom — logs these men had come to know intimately over the frigid months — shot down the sluice's watercourse and out of their lives.
It was those lives we were now shooting past on our bikes...
Next week: Shantyman Spirits 2: Giving up the ghost
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.