Friday, July 13, 2012

Short Hills Thrills

Southern Ontario’s Niagara Region, a peninsula wedged between Lakes Ontario and Erie and the Niagara River, is famous for its vineyards, orchards, canal, and big ol’ waterfall. But its also got some damn fine road cycling. When I head back there to visit my old stomping grounds, I bring my road bike so I can hit the excellent network of quiet, paved roads that criss-cross the region’s main topographical feature, the lushly forested Niagara Escarpment. I grew up riding my bike around Niagara and thought I knew most of the best back roads in the region. But this past two weeks in Niagara, I’ve found that my bike keeps taking me to a spot I hadn’t paid much attention to in the past: the area around Short Hills Provincial Park.

How's this for a road?
This little gem of a park squats astride the Escarpment just south of St. Catharines, in an area called Pelham, and it’s surrounded by a series of crazy little roads that have been blowing my prairie-dwelling mind: twisty-turny, up-and-down, and so thickly forested with enormous maples and walnuts that barely a ray of sunlight penetrates the canopy. It’s enchanted terrain; I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Ents walk out of the forest there. 

I recall some of this area from the bike rides of my teen years, but the roads wouldn’t have seemed exotic to me back then. Now, after having lived on the prairies for the last 20 years, where I’ve gotten used to riding the flat, tree-less grid roads, the Short Hills seem to me as foreign and magical as Mars. I’ve tooled through the Short Hills area at some point on every road ride since I’ve been back.

After a week of riding around Short Hills Park, I decided it was time to venture through it. So I teamed up with the Musette’s young intern, Gil Morgan, and rented some serious mountain bikes from Canal City Cycle in Thorold and set off to ride the trails. Little did we know that Short Hills is considered to feature some of the best mountain biking in the region, with a terrific network of well-maintained trails taken care of by Short Hills Cycling Club, Friends of Short Hills, and the Bruce Trail Conservancy. 

Being such a novice at mountain biking, I hadn’t realized how tricky it would be to use the old sign-and-map method of navigating new territory.  Luckily, Gil and I had the good fortune to be joined on our ride by the owner of Canal City, Erik Oleson, who offered to escort us around the trails. (It could be that Erik took one look at us and decided it would be unwise to let us loose on the unfamiliar trails, alone, with his bikes. Or maybe he’s the kind of guy who’s always looking for an excuse to hang a “Gone Riding” sign in the window.)

Decew Falls and Mill
For starters, Erik took us to some fine singletrack around picturesque Decew Falls, tucked between Short Hills and the Brock University grounds. It was a chance for Gil and I to get acquainted with our rentals before hitting the park. These Decew trails were surprisingly sweet, snaking around the forest beside Lake Gibson and offering occasional viewpoints down the Escarpment and out across Lake Ontario. 

But that was just the appetizer. The main course of Short Hills beckoned. These are multi-use trails, which means we encountered a few smiling hikers, a couple of horses, and several large toads. Now I do have a faint memory of camping at the Scout camp in Short Hills back when I was in short pants, but I’d forgotten about the almost creepy limestone cliffs and caves, the deep creek beds, and general wildness of the place.  Plus it turns out they don’t call ‘em Short Hills for nothing. There’s nary a stretch of trail that’s flat, nor are there any big, big climbs. It’s all, well, short hills—challenging but do-able for a couple of novices like Gil and I.

Erik’s serious bikes were a bit pricy, but having him along as a guide sure was swell. He knew his way around Short Hills, and us not having to navigate made the ride way more relaxed and the rental cost much more palatable. He was an attentive guide, calling out warnings of tight corners, steep climbs, big logs, and piles of horse crap. When Gil started to get pooped himself, Erik ad-libbed a bushwhacker short cut back to the van, just in time too. It was smoking hot and we were ready for dessert: a well-earned Slurpee for the ride home.

My Short Hills experience is a good reminder of two home truths: sometimes there’s good riding to be found right under your nose; and sometimes you just need the right guide to show you what you’ve been missing.

1 comment:

  1. This post is filled with some of my favorite things: water doing neat things, interesting rock formations, a toad, and, best of all, slurpees! Sounds like you guys had a great ride, Jasper. Bravo!


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