Calabogie Madawaska River Bikepacking Circuit

3-day trip in the Ottawa valley

Photos and Text by Mike McGuire

To start off the 2017 bike season, our extended bikepack group decided to do a loop in Lanark county that runs from Calabogie, ON, up around the Norcan Lake and back to Calabogie though Lanark County.

Over the winter, the Ottawa Valley Bikepacking Collective Facebook group really started to take off and we met a bunch of new like-minded riders with slightly different focus including gravel riding and bike touring.  The proposed route was a combination of ideas that had been previously tried and some new thoughts.  Our goal for the weekend was to get some early season riding in to strengthen our legs, test out our equipment, and check out the proposed route, seeking out some new camping spots and refining what we knew about the trails and roads.

Our group was made up of 8 different riders, all experienced in bikepacking with a few rides under everyone’s belts.  One group of 3 only had 2 days to ride, so they planned do one overnight and about 1/3 of the main route and then head back to the start point.  The second group would camp 2 nights and complete the 100km (or so) of the full loop.  Everyone was very stoked for this season opener.  I figured it would be relatively straight forward, having spent some time up on those ATV roads in the past.  It seemed like a good trip to see if our personalities fit well and we could all have fun together.

The route is made up of a combination of ATV trails, Hydro cut roads, dirt roads and the odd highway section.  The terrain is varied and has some big hills and flats along the river.  It was early in the season so we didn’t know what the ground would be like.  Much of the route was dry, but we did hit a bunch of mud sections and many of the steep hilly Hydro cut climbs had been washed clean of dirt down to exposed rock and rubble.  I had already decided to run 3” wide tires on 27.5+ wheels on my Fatbike and the wider tires definitely made for easier going in spots and didn’t really slow us down on the long fire roads of day 3.  Within the group, 3” tires turned out to be the widest anyone was running.  The other riders used to biking longer distances all ran 29” wheels with 2.1” tires on trekking bikes like the Kona Unit.  Everyone made it through the route pretty well, but the fatbikes made for easier going in places, especially on the sustained downhills.

We ended up with 3 groups all departing at slightly different times.  The plan was for everyone to converge on the first “secret” campsite on the same Friday evening, about 20km from the start spots.  The first group left before us around lunch time.  My trusted adventure buddy Kelly and I made up the second group to head out Friday after lunch.

Kelly and I decided to park in town, sample some beers at the local Calabogie Brewery, and have lunch at the Redneck Bistro before hitting the trail.  The burger at the Redneck Bistro was spectacular.  One of the best burgers I’ve had anywhere.  With a few beers down the hatch, we parked at the public park on the dam in the center of town and kitted up our bikes.  I ran all my soft bags and 2 fork cages so I had plenty of room for my cold temperature sleeping bag, insulated hammock pad and puffy coat with the rest of my gear.  Because I ride an XL frame, my frame bag is pretty big and I don’t need to carry much on my back and I just used my Hauser 10L Hydration pack with the bladder removed.

The weather was sunny and warm and we headed out across town towards the ski hill and down the newly paved road into the Barret Chute Estate development.  This road used to be dirt and rugged but has been developed for new housing.  Tucked at the end of the road, is the access gate to the Hydro easement road.  There’s a sign that says “Private Property” or “No motorized vehicles” or something, but the gate is not locked and it’s illegal to block access to crown land so I wasn’t worried.  But we hurried through quickly just to get out of sight and not draw any attention.

At this point we came to a fork in the trail and the GPX track that we’d been provided went up the hydro road.  I saw the tracks from the earlier group, but Kelly insisted we take the lower route by the river.  Which turned out to be amazing!  The lower path is an old ATV trail that has not seen traffic in a while.  It had many small trees downed and a few small mud sections with no tire tracks.  We followed it along the scenic river until it climbed out of the river valley into an old farm field and rejoined the ATV track.  Into the forest the ATV track was packed with a few mud sections and then we hit some big climbs.  I was glad to be running a 28t front ring and managed to get up everything even with 55lbs of bike, gear and food.

At the top of the highest climb we met up with the first group, had a quick beer and then bombed down the other side of the mountain into the ravine.  The year before on a scouting trip some of the group had found a river campsite by accident that was not visible from the double track.  There’s an old ATV track and deer stand just off the road but it’s overgrown and hard to see.  As we dropped down we could see nobody was canoe camping there.

It’s a great campsite.  Lots of perfect trees for hammocks, a picnic table, an outhouse, and even a tiny canoe dock!  We quickly set up and then plopped down beside the river to enjoy the later afternoon.  It was fun getting to know our new friends.  We talked about gear and food and just as the sun was setting the other 3 riders from the late start group showed up.  We settled in with a cozy fire and some spirits and continued the fun conversations while we all cooked dinner.  Over a 3 day trip, I usually bring fresh meat to barbeque and packs of potatoes for the fire.  Everyone had their own food routines; Ted and Vanja brought burritos which they heated in tinfoil.  Joe, Adrian, Loïc and Grant ate rehydrated meals.  Kelly had leftover pizza.  Clearly my Jerk Chicken breasts and spicy potatoes were the winner that evening.

We partied a little late that night, retiring into our respective hanging shelters well after midnight.

On day 2, the weather was warmer.  The sun was shining and people woke up slowly.  There may have been a few hangovers in play.  This day was a mixed day of travel including double track, gravel road, a little highway, and some rugged double track with rough climbs.  Group 1 was planning on heading back to the start point today.  They would split from the pack after a few hours.  The rest of us would head towards where we thought there would be a few campsites.

We packed up and hiked up the steep embankment back to the ATV track.  It was pretty clear that there was an old ATV track in the morning sun.  But fortunately, the deadfall surrounding the road and the extra 1km down the hill probably keeps most people off this particular site.  Back on the road, we started the day with a few steep climbs and deep mud holes before we emerged onto a well-used gravel road with several boat launches on it.  Over the next hour we cranked along past another boat launch and campsite at Waburn Lake and saw lots of offshoot trails.  It seems like there must be a lot of intertwined roads in this are that probably lead to great camping.

At the highway, group 1 headed North back towards their vehicle and the rest of us headed south to Mountain Chute Dam.  After a quick spin on pavement we crossed the bridge below the dam where the water was raging through the spillway.  We took a break to enjoy the spectacle; It was an impressive site I’ve never seen here before due to all the rain in the spring.  We could have continued on the paved road up the next climb, but instead decided to take the much rougher and looser ATV track directly up the hill.  Again, I was impressed how well the bike and 3” tires connected on the loose trail and I was able to make it all the way in one clean climb.  Regrouping at the top a the main trail intersection, we checked the map to make sure we were heading down the right trail.  A local guy in a pickup truck, Kevin, stopped to check out the bikes and chat.  He said that he’d never seen anybody biking out here before and was quite interested in our equipment and soft bag set ups.  He also told us about a ranger cabin on our route that had recently been opened for overnight stays.  He told us where to turn off if we wanted to check it out and we decided to scope it out on our way for future use.

The next section of route progressed from gravel road to dirt road to rougher double track and we moved deeper into Crown Land.  The grade was mostly easy going, but after a few hours, hangovers stated to slow some of us down.  We saw a few ATV’s and we were actually passed by a pair of Provincial Police ATV.  Apparently, they patrol the trails here for speeding and drunk drivers.  It was good to know that in an emergency we might be able to get help.  When we found the turnoff to the secret cabin that Kevin mentioned, we decide to break for lunch and rest for the last push to camp.  Loïc and I decided to look for the cabin down the track but discovered a fast flowing and cold stream raging across the road about 100 yards in.   A beaver dam had broken open and the deep water was moving fast.  Loïc decided to take off his shoes and socks and fjord the stream; I opted to keep my feet warm and dry and joined the others for lunch.  We used our water filter to refill hydration packs and water bottles from the cold stream and everyone chowed down.  Loïc returned a while later, reporting that he walked down the trail about 1km but did not find the cabin.  We’ll have to search again next time.

After lunch we pushed towards Lake Muir to find a campsite.  And found a few.  It turns out that this more southern area is maintained by the North Frontenac Park Lands Association. You are supposed to reserve and pay for these maintained campsites online, but we decided we would squat on the nicest one we found at Hungry lake since we didn’t know about them in advance.  When we found the site, there was a guy there with a truck, but he didn’t look like he was camping.  He said that he wasn’t staying the night and we should grab the site.  His name was Kevin too.   He also thought we were a little crazy using bikes to access the area.  He was chatty and friendly and when I took out my pocket saw to start hacking wood for a fire, he laughed and grabbed a chainsaw from his pickup.  He then proceeded to cut up a huge log for us so we would have lots of wood for the night.  Kelly was sly enough to ask him if he would mind sharing a little Pepsi with us, since we had Rum but no mix.  Thanks again Kevin.

That night was a little more chill than the first night.  Grant had a long hangover nap before dinner and Loïc spent most of the evening setting up and taking down his hammock and tarp, trying different configurations.  After a few hours, it looked like he had a good set up.  But in the morning he reported that he woke up on the ground a few time during the night due to rope stretch.

Day 3 was our home stretch on logging roads with big, long climbs.  We broke camp mid-morning and hit road in sunshine and cool temperatures, headed back to Calabogie.  The roads were pretty well graded, other than one or two spots where streams had broken through and wiped out the entire road.  We slogged up and down roads for a few hours, gaining elevation until we reached the highest point on this stretch.  Descending back down to Barret Chute Dam, we connected to the old K&P Rail Trail and headed for town, turning right at the golf course and then left on the highway back into town as a pack.

Naturally, we regrouped at the Redneck Bistro for more Calabogie Brewery Beers and food.  Everyone was a little tired, but excited about the route we’d just completed.  A great adventure with some new friends.

  • Distance: 77km
  • Total climb: 1280m
  • No. of nights: 2
  • Terrain type: combination of ATV trails, Hydro cut roads, dirt roads and the odd highway section.
  • Bike: Panorama Chic-Chocs fatbike – 27.5×3” wheelset
  • Food and snacks
  • Cycling clothes
  • Camp/night clothes
  • Jetboil + camp kitchen kit
  • Water filter
  • Hammock
  • Sleeping pad + sleeping bag
  • Bike multi-tools + spare tube
  • Headlamp + Leatherman
  • 1st aid kit / Phone

  • Distance Instructions

Altitude VS Distance


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