I’m in Parry Sound, Ontario, on assignment to capture the fireworks of fall colours on digital camera. I’ll be chasing the leafy rainbow via the platforms of air, land and water.
At this moment, I’m hitting the trails. It’s worth noting that I’ve spent a good deal of time racing my mountain bike on a variety of trails throughout Muskoka. I’ve ended up biking some pretty hellish ATV trails, cursing the deep water, mud and rocks, not to mention the ATV’ers. Today, though, I get to experience those trails from the other side, with the recreational ATV company Bear Claw Tours. The mountain biking thing aside, this one has been on my bucket list for awhile.
Before meeting the Clawing Bears, I lunched at Kudos Kuisine, which sits on the same strip as pretty much everything in the Sound. This building stands out on the waterfront with its purple curtains shading the wraparound porch. Within is a distinctly urban lounge ambiance with a matching haute cuisine menu. So far, the one small town stereotype to hold true involves every citizen being somehow connected. To wit: I soon discover that my waiter is the son of the owner/operator of Bear Claw Tours. Small world? Sure. Small town? Definitely. My waiter warns me about his father’s sense of humour and advises that I dress for mess: The trails are largely dry but, I’m assured, I’m still going to get dirty. I can’t suppress my grin of excitement.
The first to arrive, I’m greeted by said father Andrew Ryeland, who gives me a rundown of his operations and ATV fleet. The machines we’ll be riding today are 2011 Honda Canadian Edition FourTrax models: 420cc, with power steering, disc brakes, fuel injection and independent suspension, and all of them are switchable 4-wheel-drive and manual/automatic units. Not even six months old, these beasts were built for tough terrain. Bear Claw Tours operates on 1000 acres of privately owned land up here in the Canadian Shield, meaning there’s no shortage of said testing ground.
To capture some shots and video on my bash-proof Canon D10 while we’re rambling, I attach a suction-mounted tripod to my ATV’s hood. At the guide’s suggestion we secure it further with about a meter of electrical tape. (Don’t tell Red Green.) I’m bringing my regular Canon G11 as well, but that will stay securely stowed until we’ve stopped.
The riders arrive, a dozen people, all first-time ATV’ers. Most are Ontarians but there’s a group of three from France. Again: Parry Sound really is an international destination.
After our operation and safety instructions we head out: one big long motorized conga line into the woods. The throttle takes some getting used to. I lurch in fits and starts down the road, and I’m not the only one. I get the feel for it quickly enough — but also just in time, as we head up a rocky slope into the trails. At the top it becomes apparent that something isn’t quite right. Half the group has gone ahead while those of us in the back are sitting in a line waiting. Andrew moves in and restarts a stalled machine. We are on the move again but it’s only a few hundred metres before it happens again, only this time to a different machine. I take the opportunity to pull out the G11 and snap some shots while I wait.
The ride continues in this manner for a few short kilometres, and the stalls get longer. It becomes clear that there is something terribly wrong with a number of machines. A few ATVs get left behind and riders double up where possible. Finally, Andrew calls a stop to the tour. It’s not clear what the issue is in the moment (much later, Andrew will update me that is was a common-enough and unfortunate annoyance, fuel contamination; the machines themselves were performing just fine). Still, it’s affecting a number of machines and safety is becoming a concern.
The group takes it in stride; no one is irate or rude. Before heading back, our guides pull out snacks. We observe that, disappointment aside, it’s still better to be outside on a warm fall day, under the stunning canopy of red and orange leaves, than sitting in an office. For the purposes of my assignment, there’s boatloads (trail-loads?) of material at hand. While the group snacks, I wander a short distance and grab some stills of a nearby lake, a scenic gem among scenic gems. I did shots of the trails themselves while deeper in the woods but now, late in the day, the colours are most pronounced where the trees open up a bit more. When not bashing along the trail, my G11 is ideal for easy, high quality vivid photos. Later on, for instance, with the sun low in the sky, I was able to capture the fiery glow of the trees across the lake, behind Bear Claw HQ. See the DailyXY “Trail” photo gallery here.
First, though, we need to get back. Turning around the convoy means I’m no longer stuck at the back of the group — now I’m leading us. Although my ATV did stall once, it behaves the whole way back. and lets me open up without a line up of vehicles in front of me. This feels familiar: A rush of adrenaline with each bump, turn and dip, my confidence growing as I press the throttle to get more. I rip through every puddle I can. I’ve been here before. It’s like mountain bike racing, but my ride’s on steroids! I take a shot of my ATV post ride only to find I’ve muddied my G11 and so the focus is a bit wonky.
On returning, Andrew apologizes and offers refunds or credit to future tours. Client safety is his main priority. He knows we’re here for an experience he can’t deliver today. He’s honest and upfront about the matter. Bear Claw Tours has been operating for 10 years and, given his professionalism and disclosure in difficult circumstances, I’m confident he’ll be operating for a long time to come.
As for me, consider me a convert: I’m nothing short of anxious to give ATV’ing a second try. I’ve had a taste of what trail-riding can be and I’m hungry for more. That will have to wait though, because now I have a date with a kayak.
Tour arranged by Explorers’ Edge.
Image courtesy of Alison Waddell.