Exploring the Grand River is not just for the warm months of the year. After a recent snowstorm I headed out to Fergus, Elora and West Montrose on a cold Sunday morning, to view the river in its winter coat.
First stop: Fergus, built of stone by Scottish immigrants to the area. Without the leafy green of summer, the lichen-crusted limestone banks of the river stood out, set off by some red berries and a frozen miniature waterfall.
Between Elora and Fergus, the Wellington County Museum and Archives overlooks the Grand River. This is the oldest remaining “House of Industry and Refuge” building in Canada, otherwise known as the dreaded 19th century “workhouse”.
My next stop was Elora, another quaint stone village built by Scottish immigrants. The Elora Mill Hotel and Spa, built in a former grist mill, towers over the river and presides over the village. In summer, the town bustles with tourists, but today it was almost deserted except for a few people walking their children and dogs. The Elora Mill has harnessed the power of the river in partnership with Shaman Power, building a new green hydro station on the footprint of an old power station, tying the mill to both the past and the future.
A reminder of the old industrial past of Elora can be seen on the banks of the river, opposite the mill. Converted to black and white, the photograph of the old foundry seems timeless.
At my next stop downstream from Elora, these red berries overlooking the river caught my eye.
Balsam Grove Parochial School is a century-old one-room schoolhouse, still in use.
The West Montrose Covered Bridge is the star of any visit to the Grand River in Waterloo Region. It is photogenic in any season, but a mantle of snow sets off the dark red timbers.
As I stopped beside the bridge a group of local Mennonites drove past in their horse drawn buggies.
Beside the bridge stands a beautifully preserved old stone cottage.
My final stop was at the one-lane buggy bridge in Conestogo. Here a large group of Canada Geese and mallards were feeding in the river, oblivious to the ice.
Environmental Defence, an organization dedicated to “clean water, a safe climate and healthy communities”, has released a photo series about people and their connection to Lake Erie. The Grand River is a major tributary of Lake Erie, which has faced enormous challenges from agricultural and industrial runoff. Any degradation of water quality in the Grand is a threat to the health of the lake.
Back in BC (before COVID), I signed up for a supported bike tour, organized by Ontario by Bike, called the Waterloo Guelph Explorer. I was eager to join cyclists from outside our region, to share their experience on our trails. I had half expected that it would be cancelled, but given that cycling readily supports social distancing, the tour went ahead as scheduled at the end of September, with minimal changes due to the pandemic.
A group of about 40 cyclists assembled in the parking lot of Riverside Park in Guelph, on a slightly nippy but gloriously sunny early fall morning. We were welcomed by trail staff from the City of Guelph, who handed out Guelph-themed loot bags. The ride began through a small cemetery along a multi-use trail, proceeding to a short section on a busy road. This led to the Kissing Bridge Trailway, part of the Guelph to Goderich Trail. The stone dust trail has recently been upgraded and was a pleasure to ride. As the day progressed, layers of clothing were removed and packed away. We made the obligatory stop at the historic West Montrose Covered Bridge, our first encounter with the Grand River.
The tour made a short detour into Elmira for a tasty boxed lunch outside Kitchen Kuttings. We stopped by the small farmer’s market and admired the produce and local crafts. The tour continued on the trailway until the little village of Wallenstein. After a short section on a fairly busy road, the route took us on quiet gravel roads to St. Jacobs and beside the Conestogo River (where I saw a bald eagle a couple of years ago), passing a plain white traditional Mennonite meeting house and cemetery. Unfortunately, the Mill Race trail into St Jacobs was closed due to COVID, so we had to detour through some back streets into the village. We took a well-needed break at the EcoCafe, now doing takeout only, which serves fair trade organic coffee and treats, such as locally made FourAll Ice Cream. Then we were back on the bikes, riding alongside the Conestogo River again, until we turned along a trail that parallels Highway 86. We rode on a ridge high above the traffic rushing past oblivious to the stream of environmentally friendly cyclists nearby. By then I was at the back of the pack and by the time we reached the St. Jacobs Market it was closing down for the day. We followed the Great Trail (aka the TransCanada Trail) through the University of Waterloo, and Waterloo Park. After crossing another Grand River tributary, Laurel Creek, at Silver Lake (dammed to supply water to Jacob Erb’s mills, which formed the historic nucleus of the city of Waterloo) the tour proceeded to the Comfort Inn, where the participants stayed overnight. I rode the short distance home to my own bed in Waterloo.
Early the next morning, the group met in the parking lot of the Comfort Inn for a greeting from a Region of Waterloo staff member who rode with us for most of the day. I was most interested in this section of the ride, as I had never ridden from Kitchener to Guelph in the past. I hoped our route would feel safe and comfortable enough for our trail network to recommend. Once through Uptown Waterloo, the route led us on to the Iron Horse Trail, a heavily used pedestrian and cycling trail that traverses Kitchener. Fortunately, early on Sunday morning, the trail was quiet. From there, we took a short multi-use trail under Highway 8 and turned onto a quiet road to cross the LRT tracks. As we reached the tracks, the bells started ringing and the group had a front row view of a sleek new LRT train.
Then we headed along the new multi-use trail along Homer Watson Blvd to the Waterloo Region Museum and took quiet roads through Doon to Conestoga College. Here the Walter Bean/Great Trail crosses Highway 401 over a pedestrian bridge, where I love to watch the traffic zip by, totally oblivious to the cyclists above.
Once across the 401, we were in Cambridge. Our route then crossed the Grand River again, now a much wider and faster flowing river. We rode along a new multi-use trail, safely separated from traffic, except for a very short section along Fountain St, entering Preston, Cambridge.
Soon we were in Cambridge’s own Riverside Park, following the Speed River, one of the largest tributaries of the Grand River, up to the village of Hespeler, Cambridge. We crossed the 401 again, this time through a tunnel, right beside the Speed River. At times the trail was a little rough, perhaps because it gets washed out by spring flooding, but manageable on most bikes. In Hespeler we took a welcome break for a picnic lunch at Jacobs Landing.
Four Fathers Brewing Company was gracious enough to let us use their washrooms, so of course I had to buy some of their craft beer. Now I was on new territory for my bike. The route took us up Guelph Avenue and along Black Bridge Road, crossing the Speed River at the historic Black Bridge. I stopped to watch some kayakers on the river, before riding on into Wellington County.
We zigzagged along quiet paved country roads to Downey Road. Here we had 650 m on a busy road, before the start of bike lanes at Hanlon Creek Blvd, as we entered Guelph. From here it was mostly plain sailing along quiet suburban roads and community trails until we returned to the Speed River and the Royal Recreation Trail. The trails and parks were busy with people enjoying the early fall sunshine. There were long lineups at the Boathouse Tea Room so we made a note to come back on a quieter day. Here a bridge crosses the Speed River, offering a great view of the confluence with the Eramosa River, another large tributary of the Grand River. Leaving the Eramosa behind, we took the Guelph Downtown Trail through Guelph, admiring the old stone buildings along the way, and followed the Speed River back to our starting point at Riverside Park.
It was a great way to spend a fall weekend. Apart from some very short sections on busy roads, totaling about 5 km, which could be walked if someone was uncomfortable riding in traffic, the entire route was a pleasure to ride. A number of participants who had never cycled in this area commented on how much they enjoyed the trails, particularly the Kissing Bridge Trail, Iron Horse Trail and Guelph trails along the Speed River.
Luther Marsh is in the headwaters of the Grand River. The Grand River Conservation Authority maintains a dam that has created a lake, which helps control water flows in the river. The marsh is a birder’s paradise, especially during the spring and fall migration season, as 263 species have been identified. Watch out for the endangered spotted turtle and Butler’s garter snake, which have been found here.
We took advantage of an hot, sunny day in August to go for a paddle on the lake. There were half a dozen other cars in the parking lot and a couple of other pairs of paddlers heading out onto the lake. However, once we were on the lake no-one else was visible. It was a windy day and a bit choppy, but we paddled hard into the wind, passing a beaver lodge and a flock of ring billed gulls feeding on a raft of floating vegetation. Returning to the access point, we coasted, letting the wind push us back.
A few ancient willow trees, reminded us that the Mohawk name for the Grand River was O:se Kenhionhata:tie or Willow River.