The butter tart is an iconic Canadian treat. The culture surrounding our delicious little brown pies is deep and varied. Many intrepid snackers will travel far and wide in search of the greatest tart of them all. Butter tart festivals, tours, and competitions have recently cropped up all across the country. But nowhere in our fair nation is the butter tart more revered than here in Ontario, where legend has it the One Tart was forged in the fires of Mt. Don, destined to unite all tart lovers under its exquisite gooeyness.
It was only a matter of time before tart culture crossed over into the rapidly expanding world of adventure cycling. With that in mind, I shouldn’t have been surprised last fall when I first learned of the Butter Tart 700, a 715-kilometre self-supported bikepacking event through the wilds of Bruce, Grey, and Dufferin Counties. The inaugural run was to kick off on July 14, 2019, with a Grand Depart from the village of St. Jacobs. Ride organizer Matt Kadey and his partner Tabi Ferguson had spent well over a year scouting the trails, byways, and bakeries of the region in order to develop the perfect blend of terrain, scenery, and butter tarts that could satisfy even the hungriest adventure rider. Matt is a registered dietician and author of Rocket Fuel, a recipe book for endurance athletes, which serves to confirm my firmly-held belief that butter tarts make for an ideal energy food.
Needless to say, my interest was sparked and I immediately went to making plans. I spent the next eight months scouting campsites, dialling in my setup, and trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to convince my friends to join me on the journey. Two longtime friends from my local gravel club, Alex and Harris, were keen, but I had booked several group campsites and we needed a few more bodies and bikes to fill them. Luckily, Mr. Kadey had created a forum on the BT700 website, and through this tool I was able to assemble six riders who would go on to form the Fellowship of the Tart.
Alex, Harris, and I came in from Toronto. Greg and John traveled from London. Jay represented the city of Guelph. The six of us varied in background, riding experience, and bike choice, but we all shared an insatiable hunger for adventure and tarts.
Day 1: St. Jacobs to Walkerton
There was an electricity in the early morning air in downtown St. Jacobs. A smorgasbord of fully-packed bikes lined the walls and fences up and down the block, from carbon cyclocross race machines with 33mm of rubber to full-suspension trail bikes and everything in between. Nearly sixty cyclists had arrived for the Grand Depart—a number unheard of in the first year of operations for any bikepacking event. The crowd was buzzing with a sense of anticipation as we chatted amongst ourselves, sharing and comparing plans. I was personally surprised to hear how many people were hoping to make it through the course in three days. I smiled in amazement and wished them all luck, secretly happy that I was not blessed with such an ambitious nature.
We met up with John and Greg early on, but Jay rolled up to the start line a mere two minutes before the Grand Depart. We agreed to make camp and stick together for the start, but as the journey went on we would each ride at our own pace. We lined up for a group photo just before fearless leader Matt Kadey himself sounded the horn. We took off towards the Conestogo Mill Race Trail, a narrow riverside walk that created an immediate bottleneck. Unsurprisingly, a number of riders took the opportunity to utilize their XC race skills, sprinting out in front in order to get an early lead. Personally, I hung back to take photos, eventually settling in next to local legend Sarah Caylor, who was setting a steady but relaxed pace on her single-speed. Packed with little more than a bivvy, Sarah had her eyes on the prize and knew how to pace herself. Eventually the trail opened up onto the latticework of rolling gravel roads that blanket the Waterloo region. This is the heart of Old Order Mennonite country, so besides dodging the usual craters and ruts, we had the additional challenge of avoiding small mountains of horse excrement as we weaved across the countryside. Though there were horses and buggies abounding, I can’t remember seeing a single automobile over the course of the first thirty kilometres.
The wide, empty roads that characterize this section of the BT700 provide an excellent environment for conversation. A mood of camaraderie carried the day and many new friendships were forged as the group spread out along the dusty byways and rail trails. Our fellowship grew to seven after we met Jocelyn, a recent French expat living in Toronto. He planned to make it to Walkerton for the first night but had not booked accommodation. Awed by his gorgeous custom 650b gravel bike from French boutique builder 2.11 Cycles, I invited him to share our group site. Anyone riding a bike like that must have a story, and I wanted to hear it. Equipped with a high-end camera, advanced bike-handling skills, and gobs of endurance, Jocelyn was destined to become an excellent riding partner.
While it’s nice to ease into such a difficult endeavour, these pleasant, gently rolling early sections can lull you into a false sense of security. There are many words that can describe the BT700, but pleasant and gentle are not among them. The first challenge of the ride came about eighty kilometres in, as we arrived at our first unassumed road. Though speckled with golf-ball sized gravel, deep ruts, and sandy wheel traps, the road was pancake-flat and barely two kilometres long. It was only a small taste of what was to come, leaving me foolishly hungry for more. Be careful what you wish for.
A short twenty kilometres later we reached our first optional singletrack section. The Carrick Tract lies a scant 500 metres off the standard course, halfway between Lakelet and Mildmay. While most riders would wisely stay on the charted course, I found that a short pedal through some tight mountain-bike-oriented trails can provide both a welcome change of pace and a perfect opportunity to switch up muscle groups. If your BT700 plan of attack includes at least five days and two-inch tires, I would highly recommend exploring some of the side trails along the route. If, like Harris, you’re riding 40mm file-treads on a gravel racing bike, stick to the main route. The standard BT700 will beat you up enough. Our loop through Carrick only added about three kilometres to the day, just enough to leave us feeling both physically and mentally refreshed. The last thirty kilometres to camp would be a breeze.
Our goal was to make it to Walkerton before 5 pm—a hard deadline set by the Sunday hours of the Walkerton LCBO. We set a fast pace that day and made it with time to spare. We geared up for a celebratory evening at Walkerton’s exemplary Saugeen Riverbank Campground.
If you plan on staying in Walkerton for any reason, I cannot recommend Saugeen Riverbank Campground enough. We were heartily welcomed at the camp office and store, an outpost stocked with ice, drinks, firewood, and plenty of snacks. To top it all off, camp proprietor Shannon Quest baked us a batch of fresh butter tarts! We settled into our picturesque riverside site and enjoyed a few cold beers along with some delicious homemade tarts.
Day 2: Walkerton to Owen Sound
Anyone who’s done even a little bit of bike touring in Southern Ontario knows that the region is blessed with an extensive network of rail trails. Many of the highly trafficked trails in and around the densely populated Golden Horseshoe region are veritable recreational highways—smooth, fast, and well-maintained thoroughfares perfect for cyclists, joggers, or families out for a Sunday stroll. If, however, an enterprising cyclist ventures far enough into the countryside, things get a little more interesting. Today’s route from Walkerton to the Huron shores falls in the latter category: interesting, to say the least.
Progress along the Bruce County Rail Trail was neither quick nor easy. Up here, the trail surface is rough, a testament to the fact that these trails are more often frequented by ATV’s and snowmobiles. If desired, one can follow this trail continuously to the lakeside city Port Elgin, nearly sixty kilometres north of Walkerton. Luckily the BT700 mixes it up a bit with a quick rip through the Brant Tract at kilometre 20 and another detour onto some hilly country byways some twenty kilometres later. We extended our stay in the Brant Tract in order to explore some outstanding mountain bike trails. Armed with detailed maps from OSM and TrailForks, I convinced my six companions to venture deep into one of the forest’s most technical sections, confident that my route-planning skills would lead us directly to the area’s northern exit. As it turns out, my confidence was misplaced. We travelled down a long, windy descent that led to a rolling black-rated trail strewn with rocky step-downs. According to the map, this trail should lead right out of the woods, but after leading the Fellowship through the rocks and roots, I was horrified to find myself at the bottom of an eerily-familiar long descent…right back where we started. Scenes from The Blair Witch Project flashed through my memory as I explained panic-stricken to my companions that something must have been wrong with the map. The seven of us wandered around, swatting at mosquitoes whilst trying to find the outlet trail until a kindly local happened upon us. “Oh! That trail’s not there anymore!” he told us. The only way out was to climb back up that long and winding descent. That was the last time I convinced anyone to follow me into an unknown trail area.
Mishaps notwithstanding, no one had any regrets. The Brant Tract really is a fantastic ride and was definitely worth the visit—even if it resulted in a difficult and unnecessary climb. Brant is a solid two-and-a-half-hour drive from Toronto and contains less than twenty kilometres of singletrack, so it doesn’t get a lot of out-of-town visitors. Still, I have to hand it to the local builders. They have done a mighty fine job on these trails.
On the northern edge of Brant we immediately found ourselves back on the Bruce County Rail Trail. The rugged surface proved difficult, but happily the trail had a slight downward grade from here to Port Elgin. We pushed the pace perhaps a little too hard as John and Jay fell off the back. And thus the fellowship was reduced to five.
Port Elgin is home to MacGregor Point, one of Ontario’s most beautiful parks. Its lakeside location makes for an idyllic camping spot, and many riders pushed 185 kilometres on their first day in order to spend the night here. To reach the lakeshore, the BT700 sends riders along the Deer Run biking trail—a fast, wide open, and marvellously flowy trail that meanders through pine groves, meadows, and dense Carolinian forest as it winds its way to the shore. Riders are then routed onto the Old Shore Road Trail, a repurposed 19th-century trapper’s road that once served as the only route between the settlements of Kincardine and Southampton. Breathtaking views of the lake and secluded spots perfect for skinny dipping abound along this trail.
South Stables Coffee House in Southampton provided a delicious lunch, free WiFi, and a chance to check the afternoon weather forecast. Sapphire-blue skies had accompanied us so far, but a grim turn was on the horizon. The radar showed a major thunderstorm working its way west, due to arrive in Owen Sound around 5:30 pm. With two and a half hours and sixty kilometres to go, we hit the road with a new sense of urgency. Determined to set up camp before the storm hit, every last hammer was dropped along the forest roads of northern Bruce County. Somewhere along the way we lost Greg, and then there were four.
Our swift progress came to a screeching halt as we reached the first truly tough climbs of the BT700. Crooked Hill and Allenford Road are not particularly long climbs, but the grades exceed 15% and the fine white gravel provides precious little purchase. Even Alex the Usually Indomitable lost traction and had to walk the last kicker on Allenford.
The Georgian Bluffs Rail Trail provided the home stretch to Owen Sound, but the rugged surface put even the Bruce County Trail to shame. Alex did the lion’s share of the work along the line as we dodged massive puddles, figurative babyheads, and literal snapping turtles. Jocelyn and Harris, each riding on relatively narrow tires, fell back early on, and after a while Alex’s pace proved too much for me as well. The four of us rolled into Owen Sound individually, but we all made it to camp at Harrison Park before the rain hit. Public WiFi allowed me to receive an email from Greg; he met up with John and Jay and the three of them booked hotel rooms in town. None of us could blame them.
Day 3: Owen Sound to Flesherton
Grey County is famous for a number of things, high-quality butter tarts not least among them. To cyclists, Grey County means challenging climbs and blistering descents. Day 3 of our journey led us into what I now consider the true heart and soul of the BT700. The next three days would provide some of the most difficult and gratifying riding of my life.
We started the day with a grueling climb straight up Harrison Park, powered by instant oatmeal, camp coffee, and the promise of a breathtaking view of Inglis Falls at the top. We were not disappointed. Inglis Falls is a stunning sight, made all the more worthwhile by the work we put in to get there. This was to be the first of a number of waterfall views over the next few days, but Inglis is by far my favourite.
The falls were only one of many favourites today, as our Day 3 covered some of the most unique and interesting sections of the BT700. There were too many highlights to list them all, but at the end of the day we all agreed today’s ride would be hard to beat. After Inglis Falls, the next standout moment was St. Vincent/Sydenham Townline Road. While technically a public thoroughfare, I can’t imagine many motorized vehicles can successfully navigate this passage. Over the course of about ten kilometres, this “road” covered such a remarkable variety of terrain and surface conditions that in retrospect it can serve as a microcosm of the BT700 as a whole.
After visiting the lakeside towns of Meaford and Thornbury, we had the singular pleasure of climbing Side Road 33, a four kilometre quad-buster of a climb made even more enjoyable by the direct headwind gusting at 40 km/h. The hill starts out with a long false flat and gradually steepens until it reaches its grand finale: nearly a kilometre of grades between 7-13%. The road is one of those perfectly straight Ontario country roads, which provides the demoralizing sensation of being able to see the top the entire way up. Somehow, the summit never seems to get any closer.
Not long after the climb, we reached one of my absolute favourite sections. This three-kilometre-long, mostly downhill unassumed road is labelled on maps simply as “3 Line”, though only in the vaguest sense can it be called a road. Some might call it a trail, though I feel a more accurate description might be “trough through the woods”. I believe it was somewhere along this section that we first exclaimed “What the f**k, Matt Kadey?!” Truly, some of the steeper moments would not at all seem out of place just across the ridge at Blue Mountain Bike Park.
Shortly after somehow navigating 3 Line without incident, we faced another big climb. Side Road 33 was still fresh in our memories, and this one was longer, steeper, and mostly unpaved. Beginning on an unassumed road with the misleadingly pleasant name “Quiet Valley Road”, this one quickly got steep and loose. The summit was a full 200 vertical metres later—an ascent nearly unheard of in Southern Ontario. Our group spread out quite a bit over the long climb, and we all took a much-deserved break in a shady grove at the top.
The day finished on Lower Valley Road, a lazily-winding ribbon of red gravel that courses through the forested lowlands of Beaver Valley. Near the end, riders are rewarded with a short trek into the woods to view Hogg’s Falls in all its sylvan beauty. On any other day, I would have been positively tickled to ride such a gorgeous route. Today, all I cared about was a soft bed and a beer at the motel in Flesherton. My wishes were granted a few kilometres later, and the four of us enjoyed reliving one of the greatest rides of our lives while guzzling tallboys in the motel parking lot. The motel’s WiFi allowed us to hear word that Sarah Caylor had just crossed the line in St. Jacobs, finishing in an astonishing 2 days, 11 hours…on a singlespeed. Brava, Sarah. Brava.
Day 4: Flesherton to Duntroon
The day began with a bit of bad news. An emergency arose which forced Alex to head directly back to Toronto, and our fellowship was reduced to three. It was sad to see him go, not only for his sake but for ours, too. Alex is the kind of guy who will motor up front all day without complaint as the rest of the group casually hangs onto his wheel. Chapeau, Alex.
Today was to be our shortest day at a mere 96 kilometres, but certainly not the easiest. The course weaves through the Blue Mountains and Grey Highlands and features some relentless climbing. About fifteen kilometres into the day, our peaceful gravel road abruptly turned left and transformed into a washed-out forest dual track as it fell into a quiet gully with a primitive yet picturesque bridge. We stopped to take a few photos before tackling the first of the BT700’s three incentivized climbs. On the course description, Matt Kadey has the ascent out of the gully labelled “Matt’s Climb Part 1: Free butter tart for riders who make it clean”. The track is steep, eroded, and littered with fist-sized rocks. It’s a beast, and there were several moments I was certain I’d lose control, but luck was on my side. For the record, I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly claim my free butter tart.
Heading north towards the Blue Mountains, the course jogs around the Kolapore Uplands, home to some premium Ontario singletrack. Kolapore is one of the gems of Ontario’s mountain bike scene, and anyone riding the BT700 on a capable enough bike should seriously consider a jaunt through the woods here. The technical level may be too much for skinny tires on a gravel bike, though Harris managed it with aplomb. That said, Harris boasts a nearly superhuman capacity for suffering.
After a raucous descent on the Kolapore Church trail, we rolled up and down the famous gravel climbs of the Blue Mountains region, interspersed with more steep, jagged unassumed “roads” that had come to characterize the creamy centre of the BT700. We were at times astonished that Matt was even able to find these passages, let alone link them into one contiguous route. We learned after the fact that these lines were but a small sampling of the seriously rugged byways he scouted around the Grey Highlands. An adventurous cyclist can easily create a route linking up dozens of these rough-cut tracks. Just over halfway through the most difficult multi-day trek of my life an I was already making mental plans for another trip through this region.
We tackled the rock-plated Blue Mountains ridgeline traverse under the blazing summer sun before dropping down into the Pretty River Valley on Osprey/Blue Mountains Townline. This loose and meandering descent is regarded as one of the best gravel cycling roads in Ontario and I was ecstatic that it was included in the BT700. Of course, what goes down must come up, and we ate our just desserts on the five-kilometre climb to our camp destination at Highlands Nordic.
Highlands Nordic is not a public campground, but they generously opened their vast swath of land to BT700 riders who needed a place to stay. We strung up our hammocks next to a babbling brook and settled in for a solid night’s sleep. We had just completed two consecutive days of arduously difficult climbs in severe heat, yet inexplicably we all felt better today than we had at almost any other point in the ride. It seems we had grown accustomed to the daily challenge, but were ill-prepared for the nightmarish ordeal that awaited us on Day 5.
Day 5: Duntroon to Albion Hills
This was going to hurt. Nearly two thousand metres of elevation gain awaited us over the next 125 kilometres.
We made an early start and rolled towards the intimidatingly-named Devil’s Glen Provincial Park with a misplaced sense of trepidation, as the traverse around the park proved to be one of the most wildly enjoyable downhill sections of the entire course. The excitement was palpable as we reached the bottom, so much that we had to bro out with high-fives-all-around before continuing into Glen Huron for breakfast at Giffen’s Country Market.
Let me just take a moment to talk about Giffen’s Country Market. I have a great deal of respect for all of the impeccable athletes who managed to tear through the BT700 in four days or less, but concurrently I feel a mild sense of remorse for anyone whose self-imposed targets forced them to miss out on the sheer delight that is Giffen’s. I have eaten a lot of butter tarts in my life, but none have even come close to the sublime heights achieved by the Giffen’s tart. A sign outside the humble storefront advertises Ontario’s second-best butter tarts, though my imagination is not vivid enough to even begin to conceive of a better butter tart.
I could have munched tarts at Giffen’s all day, but adventure awaited. Countless interminable climbs awaited us as we traveled over the wrinkled landscape of Dufferin County. The first was Matt’s second incentivized climb, this one with the promise of a “jumbo” butter tart for anyone who can clean it. The terrain and grade were quite like yesterday’s segment, but the hill was at least twice as long. It was early in the day and the legs were fresh but I still only barely managed to muscle my way through the ruts and rocks. Matt, that’s two butter tarts you owe me.
A few more climbs passed before we found ourselves at the foot of the charmingly-named Garden of Eden Road. A day and a half later, we downed a few pints and recounted our favourite moments with a number of other BT700 finishers. A wide array of segments were mentioned, but nearly everyone at the table fondly listed Garden of Eden Road. This stretch of hardened clay wends through Noisy River Provincial Park at a gently increasing grade. Over four kilometres, riders experience the full spectrum of wild Ontario landscape as the climb gradually ramps up to its steep and exposed apex. This climb is famous among locals, and we were happy to have the chance to behold its wonders.
A quick descent leads to “The Punisher”, the BT700’s final and most harrowing incentivized climb. No butter tart for this one, but Matt promises that “anyone who makes it clean to road’s end is a BT Hero”. While short compared to the other monster climbs in the area, this brute makes up for it with grades over 20% and a moonscape surface of sand, scree, and exposed bedrock. The Punisher is so steep and loose that I was forced to scale the entire hill in my drops in order to keep my front wheel grounded. I could see the tire tracks and footprints left by Tarts who came before as they pushed their steeds up the unforgiving slope; I would have happily joined them if it weren’t for the promise of glory and bragging rights at the top. I yelped for joy as I reached the summit then caught my breath as I watched Jocelyn dance up the final grade after me, my partner in BT Hero-dom. The road quickly proved too much for Harris’s skinny file-treads, but the death-march by foot left him just as broken at the top. A hero nonetheless.
Only a few more hills stood in our way before screaming through Mono Cliffs Provincial Park on a descent which is colloquially known as “Vomit Hill” when ridden in the opposite direction. At the bottom of the park, my friend Linda had set up an aid station at her house. Linda would have loved to tart it up herself, but circumstances were unpermitting. Nevertheless, she was happy to live vicariously as we regaled her with our tart-tales while she plied us with watermelon, trail mix, cold cans of Coca-Cola, and (of course) butter tarts.
Reinvigorated by Linda’s hospitality, we set off through the woods of Mono and up our final big climb before reaching the Bruce Trail for our last push of the day. The progress from Duntroon to Mono Mills is fierce, but riders who make it are rewarded with nearly thirteen kilometres of mostly-downhill singletrack through Glen Haffy and Palgrave along the Oak Ridges Moraine Trail. We would have loved to stay and explore the smooth and flowing trails of Palgrave some more, but our frequent stops and 16 km/h average speed left us racing the sunset to camp. The end of the day could not come soon enough as our broken, exhausted, yet smiling fellowship rolled into Albion Hills.
Day 6: Albion Hills to St. Jacobs
Harris and I both woke up singing John Denver’s “Take me home, country road”—a song I despise, yet somehow it felt right. Spirits were high for today’s ride, a mostly flat victory lap spent primarily along the Caledon and Elora-Cataract rail trails. We set a brisk pace and had the singular pleasure of chasing a few wild turkeys for about a hundred metres along the Caledon Trailway. It was a jocular start to what looked to be a great day.
The flat, smooth rail trails were a pleasant change of pace after the beating we took on Day 5, but the BT700 can be a cruel mistress and we were quickly administered one last punch in the face as the course diverted onto McLaren Road—a three kilometre grind to the top of Forks of the Credit Park. The suffering doesn’t stop there, another four kilometres of overgrown singletrack stood between us and our lunch stop at Belfountain.
Higher Grounds, a cafe legendary among gravel cyclists, and sits a short two kilometres off route in the quaint village of Belfountain. We sat down to enjoy our final butter tarts of the ride and laughed as John Denver’s “Country Road” came on the radio. How appropriate. We finally got caught in a thunderstorm as we made our way back to the Elora-Cataract Rail Trail, but it was a welcome respite from the midday heat. Luckily the storm cleared up enough for us to enjoy the scenery as we crossed the Shand Dam over the Grand River and snaked along the edge of the Elora Gorge.
Upon exiting the gorge, only 30 kilometres remained between us and cold beers in St. Jacobs. We were on the home stretch, but more punishment awaited. The Grand Valley Trail is a primitive hiking path through dense deciduous forests, reedy marshes, and thick meadows. Its five kilometres of rough and jungly singletrack serve as the cherry on top of the proverbial hot-fudge-sundae-of-suffering that is the BT700. Some riders were not happy to have this section included in the ride, but I disagree. The BT700 aims to include all of the challenges our local landscape presents, and narrow trails that cleave through shoulder-high grasses are an integral part of Ontario adventure riding. An easy finale on smooth country roads would have been discordantly out of character for an epic ride like this.
As much as I enjoyed being incessantly battered in the face by sedge grass, we were happy to make it back to the road. Soon we found ourselves plummeting towards an abandoned bridge with a familiar face on the other side. Matt Kadey, the Tartfather himself, waiting to ride us home. Matt was eager for us to spin our yarns and share our impressions of the route as we casually cruised back to St. Jacobs.
A festive atmosphere greeted us at Block 3 Brewery. A number of other riders had finished in the last hour, all of whom we had met at least a few times over the course of the last six days. We were all good friends now, sharing a bond forged in blood, sweat, and soil. We were happy to see that Jay and John, two members of our original fellowship, had rolled in just before we did. The party was brief as we were all too gassed to get past a second pint, but we exchanged contacts and promised to see each other again next year.
It’s a testament to the quality of this route that every rider at the finish fully intended to return to the BT700 in 2020. Matt’s goal was to create a truly original bikepacking epic that never gets boring, and in that endeavour he was wildly successful. The crowd at Block 3 prodded Matt and Tabi in an attempt to share some of the additional sections that might be included in next year’s ride. More singletrack? How about an extension to Wasaga Beach? Why not a BT850? What about a BT1000?!
The butter tart is an iconic Canadian treat, and if my experience riding this incredibly varied and constantly surprising route is any indication, the Butter Tart 700 is destined to become one of Canada’s most iconic bikepacking adventures.