Cycling the Mennonite Country of Ontario
Mennonite country, Ontario, Ontario - Saturday, September 13th, 2014
The thunder and lightning of last night has cleared out and left behind a glorious sunny morning that should be perfect for what we have planned for today – forty kms. of cycling the Kissing Bridge Trailway and the surrounding backroads of Mennonite country. We are headed out from Nith River Campground to meet our guide at the by now familiar St. Jacob’s community parking lot. It’s about a half hour drive and I cannot help but be inspired by the beauty of the morning with willowy wisps of mist lying in the hollows and the sun rays glistening off the dewdrops on the leaves and corn stalks. John Keats’ great poem Ode to Autumn comes readily to mind and I think to myself that this landscape must be similar to what he had in mind when he described this time of year as “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun”. I just know that this is going to be a great day.
Sjoerd Vermeyden is a guide with Grand Experiences, a Paris, Ontario based company that specializes in outdoor experiences on and around the Grand River including canoeing, kayaking, rafting, hiking and in today’s case cycling. He is waiting in the parking lot when we arrive and explains that we are going to travel by van to West Montrose where we will get on our bikes and cycle back to St. Jacob’s via first the Kissing Bridge Trailway and then on backcountry roads – sounds good to me.
The West Montrose covered bridge is the only original covered bridge in Ontario and one of the nicest you will see anywhere.
I have donned my Captain Canada cycling outfit and am psyched for today’s journey even if my two companions are less than half (one third in Sjoerd’s case) my age.
In the interests of full disclosure, the Kissing Bridge Trailway does not actually start at the Kissing Bridge as the West Montrose covered bridge is usually called, but rather on a rails to trails system just outside this tiny community.
The entire trailway runs 45 kms. from Guelph to Milbank, but the portion we are going to cycle today is the central part from West Montrose to Wallenstein.
This is part of the Trans-Canada Trail system and unlike the imbeciles in Nova Scotia who have forsaken TCT funds in favour of ATV use, this trail is for Active Transportation only. We won’t have to worry about hitting the ditch as some trogolodyte comes roaring up from behind on his four-wheeler. According to the sign we shouldn’t need to be worried about being shot by either a rifle or a bow or cycling through horse manure. OK, let’s get moving.
If you’ve been reading my posts on this trip to the Waterloo area you will know that I have fallen in love with the pastoral countryside of the region and I can say from experience that if you really want to appreciate the sights, smells and sounds of the agrarian landscape there is no better way to do it than on a bike. The portion of the Kissing Bridge Trailway we cycle this morning is a perfect mixture of open country interspersed with frequent places where the trail enters a copse or small forest and there is a canopy of leaves overhead to give relief from what is rapidly becoming a very hot day. So you go very quickly from this.
We pedaled at a pretty good pace most of the way with the occasional stop for pictures or a drink of water. Since this was a former rail bed the cycling was quite easy. It reminded me very much of the cycling Alison and I had done in Holland this spring – lots of greenery, plenty of cows, horses and sheep and many silos to host the abundance of this fertile land. The windmills however,were of the 21st century design. Approaching Elmira, Sjoerd pointed out the hundreds of trees that had been planted on the side of the trail to commemorate departed loved ones and that will in the future provide not only shade, but a great variety of flowers, nuts and fruit as well.
One of my favourite fall flowers is blue chicory and there was an abundance of it along this trail.
All too soon we reached that part of the trail where a detour on busy roads is necessitated by the removal of a bridge over the Conestogo River. We reached the tiny village of Wallenstein where you will find one of the last true general stores in Canada.
This is the heart of Mennonite country and if you are traveling by horse and buggy there’s a good chance you will not want to make the trip all the way into the Walmart or Costco in Waterloo to get your supplies. Besides it’s unlikely those places will carry the type of clothing favoured by the Mennonites, thus the ability of this one store to survive in the face of relentless competition. There were a number of buggies and wagons parked out back by this sign indicating that the place had been around for over one hundred and fifty years.
Inside the store was quite fascinating. The staff were all dressed in traditional Mennonite garb and the goods on offer were clearly aimed at old school Mennonites. Instead of ready made dresses and other clothing, there were seemingly hundreds of bolts of cloth, threads and everything else required to make the clothes from scratch. There were dozens of styles of baby shoes, but all in black as were the men’s overalls. I had to repress an urge to buy one of the straw hats that are part of every male Mennonite’s millinery. They are so plain and simple that they are once again in fashion – truly a case of ‘everything that is old will become new again’.
I bought a really good tuna salad sandwich and ate it while sitting in a rocking chair on the store’s porch watching the trucks roar by on what had once been a road built for horse drawn traffic only. The horse drawn vehicles are still here, but now limited to the side of the road. I’m sure there is a moral to that story, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it is.
Leaving Wallenstein Sjoerd explained that we would make our way back to St. Jacob’s via a series of side roads, mostly unpaved, that would parallel the course of the Conestogo River. If you look at the map you can see the route marked by dotted lines. Even though there was a fair amount of up hill climbs on this route I can honestly say that it was one of the nicest cycling rides I’ve ever had. I am not bsing when I say that the Conestogo River valley is simply breathtaking. John Constable would have loved to paint here and looking down at it from some elevation I could see why the horseback ride two days ago along the river was so alluring.
Another painter who would have liked this view was Rene Magritte who frequently painted skies that look remarkbly like those in this photo.
Another attraction in addition to the landscape was the fact that we met more people in a horse and buggy than we did in cars. Pretty well all the farms were owned by Mennonites many of which had the traditional men’s and women’s clothing hanging on a clothesline. I met a lady on the Holland trip who only painted clotheslines – she would have been in seventh heaven on these backroads. Sjoerd took us unto a huge barnlike structure that had no sign out front. It was a tack shop that was literally stacked to the rafters with every possible item that a horse owner could ever possibly want or need. We talked to one of the clerks who said that while they still made most of the leather items on sale right on the premises, that they had started importing the horse collars in recent years. Dale found what appear to be a really good pair of leather gloves for $10.00! It turns out the reason there was no sign indicating that this was a business was so as not to violate the rule against self-promotion or aggrandizement.
At the top of one of the larger hills there was a large Mennonite Meeting House and a large cemetery. There were dozens of hitching posts and it must be quite a site on a Sunday when the entire community arrives by horse and buggy for services.
They would also have this view.
Not too far outside St. Jacob’s we returned to a bike path that crossed over the Conestogo at the point where the river was dammed to create a mill race that once powered the industry of St. Jacob’s.
After being on the road for just over four hours we arrived in St. Jacob’s and conveyed Sjoerd back to his van in West Montrose. We said our thank yous and good byes and headed back to Nith River Campground where I took the wheel of the RV and Dale followed in the SUV. We headed to our next stop, the Falls Reserve Conservation Area just outside Goderich. I had originally planned to take Highway 8 which makes a beeline for Goderich from Waterloo, stopping in Stratford on the way, but because we were running a bit late I decided to take that route on the way back on Friday. Today we meandered a bit through the villages of Brunner, Monckton and Walton before reaching Falls Reserve where we had a lovely campsite beside the woods.
Not long after arriving , Regional Tourism Rep Napier Simpson pulled up in a truck with two brand new bikes that he dropped off. He drew a map showing us how to get from Falls Reserve to Goderich via the highway and then onto a rails to trails right into town. Our plan is to do that in the morning and meet up with Napier in the afternoon for more cycling.
It was a beautiful still evening and we had a roaring fire going in no time. The stars were at their finest and the almost pleasurable tiredness of my thighs made sure I had a greet sleep. So long from Falls Reserve.
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