The Great Waterfront Trail Adventure | GoNOMAD

Commemorate the War of 1812 with a Historic Lake Ontario Bike Tour

By Peter Sacco

Soldier reenactors in Toronto in War of 1812 uniforms. photo:
Soldier reenactors in Toronto in War of 1812 uniforms. photo:

Perhaps America’s finest moment came 200 years ago during the Battle of Fort McHenry. Shells erupted overhead, bullets whistled through the air, and when the smoke had cleared 35-year-old American Francis Scott Key stood tall aboard the HMS Tonnant. A prisoner of war, Key had been forced to watch helplessly as the battle raged throughout the night, but now, by the dawn’s early light, he witnessed the American flag flying high above the Fort McHenry battlements.

What came next has been used to pay tribute to the United States of America on the grandest and most profound stages; the Olympic games, the Super Bowl and the 9/11-memorial service.

This summer, the Waterfront Regeneration Trust will be hosting its annual Great Waterfront Trail Adventure in celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Commemorate the history of our great nation on two wheels while cruising along the shores of Lake Ontario in the warm mid-summer air.

Discover a unique and striking countryside, explore off-the-beaten-path lakeside towns and villages, satisfy your thirst for history, and accomplish something of which you can be proud.

This recreational bike tour will span eight days, cover 720 kilometers, from Niagara-on-the-lake to the Quebec border, and visit several iconic War of 1812 battle sites.

It might sound like a lot, but don’t get intimidated. The ride is fully supported, meaning riders of all abilities are welcomed and accounted for. The 720-kilometer trail will be broken by dozens of locally sponsored rest stops, and riders will always be able to hop aboard one of the many support vehicles for a short (or extended) reprieve.

Route map showing the 720 km route of the Great Waterfront Trail Adventure ride this summer.
Route map showing the 720 km route of the Great Waterfront Trail Adventure ride this summer.

“We rely on a core of 20 volunteers that assist in bike repair, first aid, and all sorts of little things,” says Marlaine Koehler, Executive Director of the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, “They play a huge role in keeping the ball rolling, we couldn’t do it without their help.”

The cost per person sits at $699 Canadian. Included in this price is:

  • 7 nights camping in host waterfront communities
  • Long term parking in Niagara-on-the-lake and Cornwall
  • Programmed events and activities other than cycling (some may be subject to additional charge)
  • Luggage transfer (subject to weight and size restrictions)
  • Support vehicle
  • A team of experienced volunteer cyclists
  • Celebration dinner (Day 7); breakfast (Day 8); pizza lunch at finish
  • Commemorative finishers medal
  • Tour organization and support

Discover the Great Lakes

“We’re opening eyes in a very dramatic way,” says Koehler.

Koehler coordinates the Trail Ride each year, and frequently goes along for the experience. She tells me that this years oldest participant will be 78, and the youngest 13.

“Most people don’t realize that the Great Lakes are beautiful,” She says, “They offer loads of diversity. We have coastal wetlands, forested tracts, and gorgeous meadows. People like to think that the area is very industrial, when in truth there are dozens of rural villages tucked away along the shore.”

A bike rider on a Great Lakes Ferry during the ride.
A bike rider on a Great Lakes Ferry during the ride.

Each year Koehler works closely with 41 different waterfront communities in order to coordinate the ride. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, riders are exposed to the charm of small town coastal life and the local towns receive a welcome boost of income and the chance to display their unique culture.

“Each year we stay in different towns and try to alter the theme of the ride,” Koehler says, “This year we’re doing the War of 1812, and the area happens to be loaded with history.”

So where do 150 exhausted bike riders sleep each night? Try the town park.

“Its really important that we keep the number of riders within the limit,” she says, “It helps keep the experience intimate, and a lot of the time we end up camping out right in a town’s the central park or on the waterfront. We have to make sure that the towns we stay in have the capacity to host us, or it can be a tight squeeze.”

Koehler tells me about a time when she and the riders camped out in front of one town’s city hall, and she explains that the communities willingly waive their bylaws in order to properly host the riders.

Likewise, riders are encouraged to make the most of their time in the hosting towns. Communities often arrange concerts showcasing local musicians, host out-door movies, and generally illustrate their unique culture. Additionally, many of the rest stops along the ride are hosted by local charities, and sell snacks and beverages for a nominal price.

Local cuisine is sourced from many farmers and purveyors along the route.
Local cuisine is sourced from many farmers and purveyors along the route.

“The local communities are an invaluable partner,” she says. “They see the ride as an opportunity to showcase their community. Its great because it gets people to stretch their imaginations and expectations on what this area has to offer.”

And apparently it’s working. Koehler tells me that 92 percent of people who ride with the Great Waterfront Trail Adventure consider another cycling holiday, and 81 percent will revisit a community they passed through while riding.

Take a 200-Year Leap Back in Time…

Your first real look into the history of the region will come with your arrival to Niagara-on-the-lake. This year’s Great Waterfront Trail Adventure kicks off from the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Cenrtre on July 14. However, organizers expect many participants will arrive in Niagara-on-the-Lake early to take in the many celebrations signature to commemerating the War of 1812. There will be a naval encampment at Navy Hall with public access during the day, as well as a military encampment at Fort George. Various scenarios will be presented, both on land and on the lakes, to recreate battles and instill unforgettable memories. Camping is available, but reservations must be made.

Fort George was the object of many battles during the War of 1812. Built by Britain in 1796, it was captured by American troops during the Battle of Fort George. Following a successful amphibious assault, British troops were forced into a scattered retreat, leaving Fort George in American hands. Today Fort George stands on the banks of the Niagara River, looming tall above the waterline and staring out on the cold waters.

The next morning the ride sets off at 9:00 am, so be sure to have your bike tuned and ready to go.

At a Day's Inn along Lake Erie.
At a Day’s Inn along Lake Erie.

A scenic 82-kilometers later, you will arrive in Toronto. This is a historic stretch of trail, with many building dating back to the time of the War. Don’t miss historic downtown Oakville, which once served as the final destination along the Underground Railroad. Here you’ll witness many houses still proudly flying their loyalist flags.

Upon arrival in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, you will move to Fort York to explore this fascinating wartime relic, and eventually bed down within its walls. Originally built in 1793, the fort was virtually destroyed by American troops during the violent Battle of York in 1813. Rebuilt in the years that followed, Fort York now encloses Canada’s largest collection of original wartime buildings.

The Fort includes shower facilities, and be sure to hoof it to the armory for sunset, as the sun sinks it reflects off the glass buildings of the city, resulting in a dazzling view.

In the days that follow you will ride along rolling country roads and through sprawling farmlands with your eyes wide open, taking in the unique history and identity of each stop along the way.
Learn about the many well-preserved shipwrecks that lie beneath the turbulent waters off the coast of Kingston, or take in the proud loyalist culture of Napanee, a community that cherishes a score of well preserved 18th and 19th century heritage buildings.

Every kilometer you cover with the Great Waterfront Trail Adventure will bring you to the next diamond in the rough. This region is home to a virtual treasure trove of hidden gems, and it is an absolute delight to discover them from the seat of your bike.

More information about the Great Waterfront Trail Adventure can be found at their website.

Peter Sacco is an editorial assistant at GoNOMAD. He also writes our Travel Reader blog, updated daily.

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