Snow Hunters in the Madawaska Valley

While so many complained of no snow last year, all you could hear in Barry's Bay was the roar of sleds on the trails. And at only 4 hours from Toronto, it's a smart bet again for the 2017-18 season.

2017 was a bit of a “Twilight Zone” winter for snowmobilers in the province of Ontario. It came late and didn't have the same punch of the classic Canadian winters we’ve come to expect. (I live in downtown Toronto, and only had to shovel my car out twice the entire winter.)

Of course, as the wiser sledders say, "seek and ye shall find." So, rather than complain about where there wasn't snow, the What A Ride crew went to where we'd heard there was. On one expedition, we found the white stuff and true winter conditions of -25C° in Timmins at the Horwood Lake Lodge. Totally worth the drive, by the way!

By the time March rolled around, we wanted to find something closer to home. As the photographer, I was glad to get one last epic adventure in and end the season on a high note. Thankfully, there was a place within four hours drive from Toronto that we'd heard had good snow conditions and many happy sledders on the trails.

Welcome to the Madawaska Valley

A welcome sign greets guests to the region

The Madawaska Valley region in Ontario’s Highlands is notorious for strong snowpack late into the winter and early spring. We assembled our cast of characters, comprised of riders, a guide, and photographers. On mild, grey March afternoon we hit the road blasting northeast to Barry’s Bay .

Best place to fill up your belly after a long ride: The Wilno Tavern

We had to make a stop at The Wilno Restaurant and Tavern, where a live cover band twanged away some of the greatest classic rock hits from the 60’s and 70’s to a crowd of appreciative locals.

Rocking into the night at the Wilno Tavern

Word is the town of Wilno is mostly made up of hippies who retired from the grind and went out in search of the quiet lifestyle that small country communities offer. The Wilno Tavern is also famous in the area for some seriously good food (try the jumbo pierogies!) and anytime I've been it's packed with a waiting list to get a table. A very good sign in a small community.

Where to Stay

No matter what or what time of year you ride, you're welcome at the Spectacle Lake Lodge

Our accommodations for the 3-day trip were at none other than the snowmobile-friendly Spectacle Lake Lodge. A staple of ours when travelling in the area, Spectacle Lake Lodge has been owned and operated by the same family for over 20 years. As an interesting side note, the owner was also one of the original founders of the famous RAP (Ride Around Algonquin Park) Tour loop. We were greeted and shown to our private lodge , which featured a complete kitchen, good Wi-Fi, and satellite TV.

The cozy dining room at Spectacle Lake Lodge has lots of room for big groups

After long days out riding and shooting, a cozy space with all the amenities makes a big difference on a multi-day trip. Conveniently, we also ate all our meals at Spectacle Lake Lodge and the food, as always, was superb. The kitchen staff even prepared us bagged lunches for us for when we were staying out on the trails for the day.

Time to Explore

An early start, but a sunny one too

Day Two greeted us with a 6 am wakeup call in hopes of catching a sunrise shot over Spectacle Lake. And to our benefit, Mother Nature cooperated with ridiculously warm +10C° temperatures and brilliant sunshine. After a quick breakfast, we set out for the Town of Combermere to visit The Mission House Museum.

A unique museum in this small community

The museum houses all sorts of interesting artifacts, but none more popular than the relics from the steamer ship “Mayflower.” This is the ship that famously sank on Lake Kamaniskeg, drowning nine people. This tragedy remains the greatest loss of life in an inland waterway in Canada to this day.

 Smaller museums are a great way to learn the history of an area

The next attraction we visited was something I never expected to see in Ontario and looked to me to be something straight out of Game of Thrones or Harry Potter. We were taken on a brief tour of the Madonna House in Combermere with the crown jewel of the property being the Our Lady of the Woods Chapel, a solidly built all-wood church complete with a golden “onion dome” (similar to what’s found atop the Kremlin in Moscow) and giant cross.

Our Lady of the Woods Chapel
 in the woods of Combermere, Ontario

As impressive as it was outside, once we entered it really became jaw-dropping. The intricacy and detail put into the ceiling and trusses was nothing short of amazing. The light had a warm orange glow and, despite it being empty, there was a feeling of fullness inside its walls. A bible sat alone in the centre of the floor waiting for someone to pick it up.

An orange glow gives the space a warm feel

As cool as all this was, our mission up here was to find some snow, so we packed up and headed in for an early night, ready to hit the trails the following day.

It's Snowtime!

There was no shortage of snow in the Madawaska Valley

As luck would have it, we not only found good snow but the sun made an appearance—which is so rare in winter. Our guide Randy took us on a gorgeous loop of the Opeongo Snowbird's OFSC B Trail, meandering through rolling hills, next to rushing rapids and swamps, ending at an epic lookout sitting atop the grandiose Madawaska Valley. With the warm temps, the snow was in great shape: traction was ample and the carbides felt glued to the ground. Snow coverage was also surprisingly thick, as you can see in the photos; it could pass as a prime wintertime.

Our final day was comprised of shooting recreational outdoor winter sports for the local tourism region. A group of photogenic 20-somethings swished around the trails on snowshoes and cross-country skis, as we scrambled to keep up documenting the fun. Sure, it’s not snowmobiling, but it looked pretty cool.

It might not be snowmobiling, but it's still fun in the snow

ended the day out on Paugh Lake, as the group tried to pull a few fish through an ice hole. With the winds cutting through us on the open lake, it was time to pack up and hit the road for home. A great lesson was learned from our time in Madawaska Valley: you can always find some snow if you know where to look! And the area, I should note, is a snowmobiling haven in better winters too.

About Virgil Knapp

Virgil Knapp is a freelance motorsports photographer and writer.

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