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Simcoe County's vast forests become popular pandemic attraction (7 photos)

'A lot of people, I think, have discovered our properties that hadn’t been out to them previously,' says county forester

There’s no doubt we’ve got 'sole', but if the foot traffic on local trails  along with the horse and wheel traffic  is any indication, we seem to be wearing through them these past 16 months or so.

The wilds of Simcoe County, with its vast tracts that make up the province’s largest municipal forest, has been beckoning, as have the pockets of local Crown land, provincial tracts, vast trail networks within Barrie itself, and a bounty of waterways all around. 

More people have been heading to the great outdoors as traditional recreational offerings have been out of reach during the pandemic.

“A lot of people, I think, have discovered our properties that hadn’t been out to them previously,” Simcoe County forester Graeme Davis told BarrieToday. “We’ve certainly had a very large increase in recreational use of all kinds.”

The county and the city don’t measure the traffic of the trails, but for the county the increased use of parking spaces has been noticeable.

“Some of our properties that had historically seen very little use suddenly have got demand for eight, 10, 20 cars parked at a single time for people just out for a hike. We’ve never had to provide that level of space before, so we’re keeping up the best that we can,” said Davis.

Then there’s the increased attraction of the local user groups.

Davis points to the growth of some clubs that actively use the forested lands, cutting trails and maintaining them. 

The Simcoe County Off-Road Riders Association claims the title of the largest off-road riding club in Ontario with more than 2,000 members and inventory of more than 350 kilometres of maintained, designated trails in 2019. 

The Simcoe County Mountain Bike Club also boasts a membership south of 2,000. It, too, maintains a series of trails in the Simcoe County forests as well as through some privately owned land with the help of its volunteers.

Simcoe County Mountain Bike Club president Joe Pearson says the pandemic has brought a huge focus to the bike industry, which has been overrun by the explosive demand for bikes locally and internationally.

“It’s been exciting to see the growth,” he said. “We’ve seen a huge positive vibe in the community itself. ... And people helping people. Our Facebook group we have for our membership has been nothing but positive.”

The parking lots, which were quickly filling up, was driving the need for additional spaces which he said municipalities responded to with expanded and new lots.

The bike club maintains 160 kms of trails throughout Simcoe County and 60 kms of fat bike trails available year-round, with 'The Hub' at Line 7 North in Oro-Medonte Township as its base where it set up a complete bike maintenance stand.

In past years, its membership remained steady at around 1,000, but that’s jumped to 2,200, partly as a result of the pandemic, making it one of the country’s largest clubs of its kind.

“This area is sort of a mecca for mountain biking,” said Pearson, pointing to the vast forests available, the Hardwood Ski and Bike facility in Oro-Medonte Township with Horseshoe Resort’s downhill riding program nearby  all close to the country’s largest population base.

Simcoe County has more than 33,000 acres under management of what it calls multi-use working forests, always adding to its land base. The long-term management plan for the forests focuses on the different types of environmental benefits  such as stabilizing soils, keeping the watershed healthy, carbon capture and storage.

The properties are also financially self-sustaining  managed tree harvesting generates revenue allowing the county to reinvest in management of existing land and expansion. Signs indicate trail closures where there is logging in progress.

The social benefits of the working forests are widely available to a range of recreational users.

The Hendrie Tract near Anten Mills was the start of the Simcoe County forests 99 years ago and remains one of the most popular with a variety of uses with hiking and ATV trails as well as snowmobile use  a system that has a network that criss-crosses county and private property.

There’s been an increase of use with the expansion of a large block of forest at the edge of Midland, Penetanguishene and Tiny Township.

The forests, which exist across the county, also attract particular local use.

Davis points out the majority of the trail development has arisen through use agreements with recreational partners, such as the cycling and off-trail groups.

“For example, the Ganaraska trail association has permission to mark and maintain hiking trails through a whole range of our properties,” said Davis. “They really help to provide a safe hiking experience.”

He suggests checking out maps of the county forests to see the trail and uses of properties.

Davis also points out that there are no facilities at any of the locations and users are expected to take out anything they bring in, which can be a challenge with more people using the trails.

“It’s been great to have all that available,” said Pearson.

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About the Author: Marg. Bruineman

Marg. Bruineman is an award-winning journalist who focuses on justice issues and human interest stories
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