Elora Gorge, Mennonite Country and Fording the Conestogo River
This is the third post from the 2014 RV trip that my son Dale and I took to the Kitchener/Waterloo region of southern Ontario. So far we have canoed the Grand River, explored downtown Kitchener and visited the pretty little town of St. Jacob’s. Today we are scheduled travel through Mennonite country to Elora Gorge and follow that with a horseback ride along the Conestogo River. Please come along and join us.
We were scheduled to spend our next two nights at the Nith River Campground just outside New Hamburg, about twenty minutes west of KW as I now knew many residents referred to their cities. Rather than take the RV on the route I had tentatively planned I hoped we could check in early, hook up the Leprechaun and use the SUV for touring that day. We pulled into the campground at 8:45 and I walked up to the office where a sign basically said emergencies only before 9:00 AM. Somewhat apprehensively I rang the doorbell and a bear of a man came to the door and said,” You’re RV better be on fire” and then he broke into a grin and said, ” You must be the Dale’s”. This was Doug Rielly, the owner of Nith River Campground and as it turned out a fountain of useful information about what to do in the area.
Talking to Doug I found out that he had just bought the campground after retiring as a real estate salesman specializing in the sale of RV parks – talk about a niche market! He said you might go two years between commissions, but when they came they were worth waiting for. We discussed the RV park business in general and its future, which apparently is in a consolidation of ownership into bigger and bigger corporations so that common cost saving practices can be applied across the board. He said that ‘Mom & Pop’ operations like his were becoming the exception rather than the rule as was once the case. We had this discussion as we toured the park looking for an open spot – it was Labour Day Monday and the place was full, except for one nice spot we found.
The park is centred around a large circular cement pond that acts as the swimming pool, but is larger than most. There is a nice community area just off the pond and trails to the river and a catch and release pond which Doug says has big bass in it. Dale and I both liked the ambiance of Nith River Campground. Rather than families, most of the more permanent residents seemed to be couples.
Once we got settled Doug produced a map made especially by the park which shows the attractions in the area. I told him we were headed for Elora gorge, but wanted to take the backroads through Mennonite country and he drew us a route and said ‘You will see the Amish’. We started off by making a wrong turn right off the bat, but this gave us a chance to get on some really nice back roads like this one.
If someone landed from outer space and said “Show me what a pastoral landscape looks like”, I would take them on the route we traveled this morning. The gently rolling hills are clothed in fields of corn and beans, interspersed with pastures of sheep, cows and some of the most beautiful horses you will see north of Kentucky. The fieldstone houses are spaced far apart and look like they have always been part of the landscape.
The occasional orchard adds more colour to the natural palette, like these apple trees overflowing with fruit.
The corn is so high that it makes you think something supernatural must be at work here.
Our journey took us first through the hamlet of Phillipsburg and then on to the pretty town of Wellesley which hosts an annual Apple, Butter and Cheese Festival which sounds like a killer combination. Just as we were arriving in Wellesley they were preparing to close the road for a soap box derby. We could see the potential racers signing up at a booth in the Rotary Park. Dale checked out this bright red antique McCormick tractor which was for sale on the side of the road near Bamberg.
Doug soon proved to be right about seeing the Amish or old school Mennonites as most refer to them in Ontario. Apparently the only difference between the Amish and Mennonites is that the Amish practice of ‘shunning’ or the disownment of those who leave the sect, is not on for the more forgiving Mennonites. Between the villages of Bamberg, St. Clements, Heidelberg and Elmira we came across many Mennonite horse drawn buggies of many different types from open two seaters to some that carried entire families and looked more like old Black Marias than anything else I could think of. Equally interesting was the uniform dress of the Mennonites – women in dresses and bonnets while the men generally wore black with a beard and straw hat. If they went into the city dressed like that they might be confused with hipsters.
The Mennonites do not like to have their pictures taken as they believe it breaks the commandment forbidding ‘graven images’, so I have no direct photographs. However, after this family passed us while we were stopped I took this shot from behind. If you look closely you can see a little boy looking out the back window. He was not so worried about breaking God’s laws.
Lest you think the Mennonites taciturn and unfriendly, the opposite is true. Every Mennonite we met said hello, often with a smile. They seemed quite secure and comfortable in the role that they have chosen to adopt for this life. Here is a shot of a parked buggy by one of the Mennonite meeting houses. There was a young couple inside the house sweeping it out after yesterday’s meeting.
One thing you can’t help noticing in this part of the country is the many items offered for sale at the side of the road on an honour system. Flowers, produce, honey, pickles and pop and water in coolers are often sitting at the end of a long driveway or at a country crossroads without anyone tending them. My favourites were the many colours and variety of gladiolus offered for sale at prices a fraction of what you would pay, assuming you could find them, in a flower store. Based on the number of glads we saw in gardens and for sale, this region must surely be the gladiolus capitol of Canada.
As we gradually zigged and zagged our way towards Elora Gorge, I could not help but think that the word ‘goodness’ was the most apt I could think of to describe Mennonite country. The soil is good, the landscape is good and the people are good. This is something worth traveling for to experience.
Elora is apparently named for the Ellora Caves in India, I presume because of the porous limestone in the area that is easily eroded by water into unusual shapes, some becoming small caves. What Dale and I wanted see was the Elora Gorge which is by far the most famous natural landmark in the area and one that draws tourists from great distances, including us. Yesterday we had been canoeing the Grand River and experiencing its gentle side. Today would be a different story.
There are opportunities to explore Elora Gorge both on land and water. There are hiking trails on both sides of the gorge with several look offs which was all Dale and I had time for today, but had we more time we definitely would have rented tubes and seen the gorge from the water – another reason to come back.
On the way to Elora Gorge you pass this.
It boggles my mind that the good people of Elora decided in 2000 by a 4-3 vote to build a ‘raceway’ as it is euphemistically called when everyone knows it’s just a bloody slots operation. In fact the signs advertising this place point the way to the Grand River Slots. Token harness racing takes place three months a year, but its 24/7 for the slots sucking the lifeblood out of the community. Who in there right mind would think that the Elora area, with all it has to offer, needed this monstrosity? Maybe someone should check the bank accounts of those four councillors who voted in favour of it. The only good news is that they built it outside of town so it doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of what Elora really has to offer.
To be honest I was a bit underwhelmed by the Elora Gorge at first because the trail was well back from the edge. This makes sense since the limestone erodes quickly and putting it too close would be inviting disaster. So, if you think that you will have a constant view of the gorge while walking the trail you are mistaken. However there are a number of places where you can see Elora Gorge and it is well worth the time to hike from one to another. To hike the entire loop is 10 kms. which is a decent half-day hike with frequent stops.
Our first stop was at Hole-in-the-Rock which is either the place where the staircase from the parking lot descends through a hole in the rock or a small cave with an elevated entrance that is visible from the bottom of the staircase. According to the information panels a find of ‘wampum treasure’ was made here in the 1880’s. Here’s a link to a really interesting history of the wars between the Iroquois and the Hurons in the area and why this treasure was probably secreted away.
We noticed a group of people descending a stairway on the other side of the gorge with tubes in their hands and made our way to a spot overlooking some nasty looking rapids that culminated in a small water chute, to watch the fun. It did look like a lot of fun too, except for two little girls whose tubes got stuck in the undertow at the bottom of the chute and wouldn’t move until each them in turn fell off the tube and were swept away by the current with only their yellow helmeted heads visible, bobbing like corks. Yesterday I was worried that the tubers would die of exhaustion and exposure, today it looks like it will be a lot quicker. In the picture you can see one of the little girls holding her father’s hand, but only seconds later they parted and that is when she went over the chute and then into the water.
I was genuinely alarmed at what I had seen and ran as quickly as the path would allow (which wasn’t easy considering the cedar roots on the surface everywhere) to the next bridge where to my relief everyone was back in the tubes and no worse for wear.
But I’ll bet those little girls had a scare they won’t soon forget.
So the Grand River has a mean streak, but one I would not hesitate to take in on a moment, providing I had a good inner tube.
The town of Elora is one of the prettiest I have visited in Canada. It has a beautiful location on the Grand River and has maintained an architectural integrity that is always the secret to these properly preserved places. That in turn attracts artisans, restauranteurs and innkeepers that make the place a tourist magnet. Some places can become too cute, but I didn’t get that impression of Elora. These houses backing on the river are something you are more likely to see in Europe than in Canada.
Here’s the view of the Grand from the highway bridge that leads into town.
One corner of the principal town crossroads is a small garden with some interesting sculptures including this guy I called Lavender Man.
There also seemed to be a lot of unusual old cars around town including this well preserved Checker.
I could have lingered in Elora for hours, but we had a 2:00 appointment for – get this – horseback riding.
I hadn’t been on a horse in forty years, but when Minto Schneider who helped organize this trip asked if I was up for it I said ‘Sure, if Vladimir Putin can do it, then so can I’. Conestogo River Horseback Adventures offers trail rides from its location not that far outside Waterloo. The Conestogo is a tributary of the Grand so I was counting this as one more thing to do in connection with that storied river.
There was one other couple ready to ride and I was quite happy to learn that they had never ridden a horse before; that encouraged me to check ‘beginner’ on the information sheet, although at my age it might be too late to start. My previous memories of trail rides involved horses so docile that they often had to be led by a rope in order to get them moving. I was hoping for something a little more stimulating than that.
Meanwhile Dale was clowning with these goats in the hay barn.
I was assigned a nice looking little mare named Brandy who as it turned out was the best behaved horse on the trail today. A quick lesson on how to start, stop and turn a horse ensued and we were ready.
We set off with a guide in front and at the rear, or at least we tried to, but Dale’s horse Curt decided he didn’t want to go, but eventually was cajoled into it by the two girls who were our fearless leaders. After making our way down a fairly steep and rocky path and passing by a corn field that was taller than myself on horseback, we entered a sea of tall native grass and I realized ‘ This is neat’. This wasn’t just a walk in the park type of trail ride, but the real deal. Visions of Cullen Bohannon from Hell on Wheels came into my head as I spurred (figuratively, not literally) Brandy into a trot and looked around for menacing Indians or dry gulchers, but all I saw were the R.I.M. buildings on the horizon.
One unusual thing we did see was this great white egret on the banks of the Conestogo.
This horse riding business was really a lot of fun until Curt, who was in front of me, started farting prodigiously. I reined Brandy back to an olfactorily safe distance.
Eventually we came to the banks of the Conestogo which was about 100 feet wide at this point and the guide plunged right in. This was no dried up little stream bed, but a real river so with a bit of trepidation I and the others followed and we forded the Conestogo with the water at one point up to the stirrups. The horses stopped mid-stream to drink and then Curt started pawing the water with his front right hoof creating a barrage of water everywhere and the Brandy and the other horses joined in. They were having their fun as well. We did get across and had to recross on the way back about an hour later. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me that crossing a river on horseback was something that would be on my bucket list, but it is now and it’s crossed off – twice.
The ride lasted about two hours and was way more enjoyable than I anticipated. At the end, even though Dale said it was juvenile, stupid and I would look ridiculous, I could not resist. Here is my Vladimir Putin on a horse imitation.
It had been a very full day. We headed back to Nith River, buying steaks, mushrooms and sweet corn on the way which was our evening meal,\. The sweet corn from Herrle ‘s market was absolutely delicious and did not need butter, salt or pepper to spice it up.
It was a lovely evening and as the sky darkened I saw a sight that almost brought tears to my eyes – one tiny bat winging his way to God knows where, but alive. This is the first bat I have seen since white-nose syndrome came to Nova Scotia and devastated our bat population including the ones that lived in the spruce trees on our property. We used to sit on the deck and watch them as they flitted around the house every night snatching up mosquitoes. Now the bats are gone and the mosquitoes are laughing.
It was nice to end a really great day with a ray of optimism. Auf Weidersehen.
Tomorrow we’ll return to the Grand River with fly fishing rods. Please join us.