The Hella Hastings Tour

Table of Contents

It’s been almost two years since we took our first self-supported bikepacking trip through Hastings County, just north of our home in Belleville, but lately I’ve been thinking about dusting off the route for a renaissance. We have begun to adapt to a slower pace of life and plan to camp more this summer than we have been able to in recent years. After twenty-two months, I’ve finally made the time to document the trip in writing. There’s a lot of sentiment – at least in the content circles that I’ve surrounded myself with – that there’s no better time than now to try something new. Why not immerse yourself in nature on two wheels?

Hear me out: I know that there are many things that are better off delayed, but this pandemic pause, or rather, rethinking of regular life has, if nothing else, afforded me the brainspace to consider a variety of pursuits I wouldn’t otherwise entertain.

Marrying the owner of a bike shop has also seen me considering things I’d never imagined myself doing. Riding a bike? Loaded with camping gear? For 500 kilometres… in October? Apparently it’s a thing.

We set off on our second – now officially annual – fall tour in October 2018 from our bike shop in Belleville. Our choice of route considered a variety of factors: as small business owner-operators, we wanted to maximize our precious days off and avoid spending days in transit; we wanted to keep the trip cheap and cheerful by cutting the gas and plane ticket line items; we wanted to stay within shouting distance of friends and family for our first truly self-supported bikepacking trip, lest we need to make the dreaded call for a bail out.

The route itself comprised a variety of roads we’d ridden down or past on shorter rides in Hastings County, plus a few mythical roads and trails we knew only from their rough outlines on Google Maps’ satellite view. Adam spent days poring over the maps, roughing the route out on Ride with GPS, adding notes like water stops and potential campsites, options to shorten or lengthen the day’s kilometres and vistas not to miss. I stayed out of it – I didn’t want to think too much about the fact that once we set out, there would be 500 kilometres of riding between myself and my bed.

Putting the “Pack” in Bike Packing

We dubbed it (unofficially) the “Hella Hastings 500”, crawling east out of Belleville through Tyendinaga Township and north towards Tweed, with Potter Settlement Winery as our loose destination for night one. The first delay happened well before the wheels hit the asphalt: despite its local nature, packing a bike for a trip like this is not to be taken lightly. When the goal is to avoid main highways and stay off the beaten track, it’s tough to factor restaurants or grocery stores into the plan.

We spent four hours that morning preparing to set out. In retrospect it makes perfect sense: weight distribution, food storage, power banks, clothing choices and the check-double-check all need to be taken slowly and planned with care. Once we hit the road and left the city limits behind, the scenery was immediately worth the wait.

A woman placing a jar of peanut butter into a backpack attached to a bicycle.
It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time.

We had looked forward to the Daley Road section as we worked our way out of town, and it didn’t disappoint. Daley is where things would get rustic: it starts as a pretty classic Hastings County backroad and peters out into a cleared trail the further north you trek. Fall colours created an umbrella over the trail and I was transported back to the previous year’s trip cycling through Vermont’s Green Mountains.

We’d wanted to head down to the United States to ride again, but couldn’t make the timing work – the Hastings route was our way of finding a place similar to Vermont for cycling, but within Ontario. We stopped to indulge in a spork-full of peanut butter at a fork in the trail. This was perfection – and not a mountain in sight!

One of my now-favourite aspects of bikepacking came to light on that first day: the food! When you’re exerting yourself all day, the promise of a Kit Kat slathered in peanut butter carries only positive energy.

The sun set quickly as we exited the trail, reconciling with the fact that we’d only travelled about 60% of our intended kilometres on day one. Suddenly, camp was imminent. We’d never set up our bike-based camp before, and we were losing light as we wound between pastures and barns. The first semi-protected spot we found became our de facto site for the night.

Our campsite meal of rehydrated Pad Thai wasn’t quite as idyllic as the roadside peanut butter had been, but it still hit the spot as the temperature dropped. The food re-packed securely, we crawled into the tent to look forward to sunrise.

Overnight we learned exactly which pieces of gear to move to the top of our to-buy list.

Woman, Laura Voskamp (left), stands with her bicycle  beside man, Adam Tilley (right), who stands with his own bicycle; both are standing in front of a wood stack.
Writer, Laura Voskamp, and partner Adam Tilley,
co-owners of The Brake Room in Belleville, ON.

The upside of being cold overnight was that lingering wasn’t appealing the next morning. The morning sun rose as we packed our frost-coated gear onto the bikes in a sliver of the time it had taken to gear up at home. Bleary-eyed, we took comfort in the fact that getting on the road earlier would allow us more time to get through the second leg of the route, which now included 20 kilometres we’d have to make up from yesterday’s plan. But we were on vacation! That had to count for something.

Morning sunrise over the vineyard at Potter Settlement Winery in Tweed, ON.

The day started with a slow climb to Potter Settlement Winery. Not the afternoon break we’d planned on for the previous day, but still a beautiful backdrop for a morning snack stop. Knowing we were moving a few kilometres an hour slower than expected, we got going quickly to try to warm our bodies and make every minute count. It worked: within the hour, both the cold and the tired had started to wear off as we immersed ourselves in the Land o’ Lakes.

Shore Lunch

We approached Highway 7 before noon. The route showed a chip truck at the crossing point, but once again: we hadn’t factored restaurants into our plans, just in case it didn’t work out. It was a Sunday morning in mid-October. I knew the chance of it being open was low, but I felt my cadence increase as we approached the highway. No such luck.

We crossed the highway onto Upper Flinton Road knowing that by the time we made it to Flinton we could justify a full lunch stop.

The conservation area was a sight for sore eyes. Protected from the wind by tall White Pines, we boiled pasta for lunch on the picnic table next to the dam. With a tin of fancy conservas stirred in for protein, all thoughts of chip truck fries disappeared. It was the ultimate camping meal, and we knew we’d never camp without tinned seafood again.

Somehow it always surprises me how a great meal can improve my entire outlook. We set off with renewed energy for a long stretch in the saddle on Hughes Landing Road.

A scenic bridge along Old Hastings Road.

Classic Hastings Gravel

Hughes Landing Road featured prominently in our plans: it would effectively carry us nearly due-west to the end of our second day of riding at St Ola. Knowing there was essentially only one road left for the day kept me going every time a steep descent was met with a steep incline. And that was often. The up-down pattern happened over and over again as the scenery changed from cottage road turn-offs amongst the lakes, to logging sites and little other sign of civilization. We hadn’t seen a car in hours. I turned on a podcast to keep me company as Adam rode ahead with his camera.

This was a gravel tour: remote but within our reach, challenging but within our scope. Well, my scope. I kept reminding myself that Adam wouldn’t have gotten me into something he didn’t trust I could handle, but part of that sentiment required me to admit that I could handle more than I thought.

The sun set and we were still riding. It seemed impossible to me that we were still on the same road, but as I started to doubt that the St Ola cabin would ever materialize, I saw the lights of cottages around Wadsworth Lake. We still had to pedal, but the end was in sight.

Country Comfort

I’d always enjoyed visiting the cabin in St Ola, but I’ve never appreciated it more than when I slogged up the rocky driveway that night. Somehow simultaneously hot and cold from the final 15-kilometre push in the dark, I could have cried when I stepped in the door. Maybe I did. It’s all a blur of chilli and apple crisp and hot showers after that.

We hadn’t factored in a rest day, but there was no way we were leaving first thing the next morning. We waited out what turned out to be a rainy day eating pancakes and playing cards beside the wood stove, the cabin’s hot tub melting away the challenge of 12 hours spent in the saddle. I won’t pretend I didn’t consider calling for a ride home: a straight-shot down Highway 62. I’m a creature of comfort and I’d just tasted it for the first time in two days. It was hard to imagine getting back on my bike, let alone the thought of camping the next night.

But it had to happen: we were just over halfway through the “Hella Hastings 500” and while succumbing to the rest day meant we’d have to alter our plans around our remaining vacation days, we still had to make it back for a triumphant return from the 350 km round trip. Does a trip still count if you bail? I didn’t want to risk it.

Old Hastings Road

Given the nature of the county, it wasn’t difficult to change course and still marry our desire for scenic vistas with a conscious avoidance of major roads. From St Ola, we dipped south of Steenburg Lake onto Old Hastings Road, one we knew was laced with history.

One of the few remains of the 1850’s settlements along Old Hastings Road.

Old Hastings Road, once part of the government’s plan for colonization, is dotted with the remains of 1850’s settlements. It’s the type of back road that twists and turns around obstacles rather than plowing through them to create the most direct route possible.

It’s old stone bridges and fences and abandoned farms and tiny pioneer cemeteries that remind the beholder of what it meant to build the colony that would become Canada as we know it.

I knew I was prone to taking history for granted, so being immersed in it with only the power of my own legs to carry me felt fitting for the occasion. We had cut kilometres off of our trip, but we didn’t sacrifice it’s soul.

The forest’s tall trees keep for great company along Old Hastings Road.

Homeward Bound

When Old Hastings Road crossed over the Eastern Ontario’s Trail Alliance’s Hastings Heritage trail, I felt a sense of familiarity: I hadn’t seen the stretch before, but I’d been on other sections of the trail many times.

As we trundled toward Madoc, jogging on and off the trail for intervals, I started dreaming about food again. Combines growled around fields on either side, wrapping up the last harvests of the season. I busied my mind thinking about exactly the right time to call Burger Revolution in Belleville for takeout. I looked at my clock, speed and map constantly.

A break to catch the sunset along the Hastings Heritage Trail.

The road names became familiar: Crookston, Sills, Moira. Home – and burgers – felt so close, yet so far. Even as we headed into the city, restaurants and grocery shops couldn’t factor into our plans: as hard as I tried to speed up, the minutes edged us closer to closing time.

We ended up at our own kitchen table with heaping bowls of pasta, the dream of burgers now an impossibility. But somehow, all we could talk about amidst jelly legs, loads of laundry and grocery list writing was how we’d experience the Hella Hastings route next time.

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