WATERLOO REGION — Len Jewitt took a solo journey in a skid steer last year, clearing and levelling about 70 kilometres of the Goderich to Guelph Rail Trail.
The trail is a former Canadian Pacific rail line that was decommissioned in 1988. With the entire trail now cleared, levelled and stone-dusted, the G2G Rail Trail team is preparing for the next step in a plan to connect the entire trail and make all 132 kilometres completely accessible.
The team has shifted its focus to a section of the trail in West Montrose that is intersected by the Grand River. The rail bridge was removed in the 1980s, and trail users must access a detour beginning on Katherine Street. To get to the detour, people currently need to use a steep set of stairs. For those with accessibility issues, it is an impassable block in the trail.
Beginning this spring, the trail team plans to upgrade a side trail that leads from the main trail to the detour section with a grade of no more than five per cent.
“Wheelchair users usually stop at Katherine Street and turn around or choose another section,” said Chloe Klopp, a spokesperson for the organization. With the detour trail fixed, trail users with mobility issues won’t have to limit themselves and choose another section, she said.
This new detour trail will be 750 metres in length, graded and stone-dusted to form a 1.5-km loop, said Doug Cerson, the organization’s executive director.
Another major project this summer will be clearing a filled-in tunnel under a busy highway in Blyth.
Jewitt is ecstatic about the trail, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
“It’s a dream that’s still happening,” he said. “I can’t help it, I am really excited about it. I’m engaged 120 per cent and I don’t get a cent for that. I just think that it is so fantastic to be able to have this in your backyard.”
Jewitt bought a skid steer and volunteered full-time hours, operating it from April to August. He cleared brush, cleaned out ditches, moved boulders, levelled and widened the trail from Millbank to Blyth, and then from Blyth to Auburn in preparation for the stone dust to be laid.
The retired poultry farmer was also able to negotiate with disgruntled farmers who questioned the project or worried about trespassing and garbage from trail users.
“Because I was a poultry farmer, I identified with them.” His conversations turned some negatives into some very strong positives, he said.
Jewitt’s work prepared the trail for the stone-dusting crew of Wilfrid Laurier University geography students.
The work immediately led to an increase in trail use.
One of Cyndy McLean’s favourite sections of the trail is between West Montrose and Wallenstein.
“I’ve actually gone back and done that section two or three times since, just because it was so beautiful and it was really a lovely section,” she said.
Jewitt and the rest of the crew widened, levelled and stone-dusted the trail in time for McLean and her partner Sylvain Painchaud to travel the entire trail using their handbikes — arm-powered road cycles. McLean estimates they rode 175 kilometres, including round trips for six of the segments.
“I’ve lived in Guelph a long time, and I certainly heard about the trail, but I’m quite embarrassed to acknowledge that I had never accessed it,” she said.
“But then, as I’ve come to realize, had I accessed it much before now, it might not have been suitable for me.”
McLean suffered a spinal cord injury in 2003 that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
“Before my injury, I was more of a marathon runner,” she said. “Using a hand bike is the closest I can come to running post-injury.”
Handbikes present unique challenges. The wheels are narrow so gravel and rough roads can be a problem. The rider sits lower to the ground, so visibility in traffic can also be an issue. Since the bikes are powered with the upper body, crossing hilly terrain can be very tiring.
McLean and Painchaud were able to handbike the entire rail trail, only needing assistance to move McLean across a few of the more difficult barriers, like getting up and over the busy highway in Blyth.
Crossing Highway 25 was stressful and dangerous, and the most difficult part of the journey, said McLean. The Kathryn Street section that requires stairs to go down was also a challenge. She ended up finishing up the day at that point and then starting the next ride after it.
But overall, “I was incredibly impressed,” she said.
She and Painchaud plan to bike the length of the trail again but will take time to stop and take photos and document some pieces that might help with accessibility.
The Canadian Pacific Railway line from Goderich to Guelph was decommissioned in 1988. Ten years later, Waterloo Region and Wellington Country jointly leased the land that ran through their municipalities to form the Kissing Bridge Trailway.
In 2009, Doug Cerson had recently moved to West Montrose. He was looking forward to biking along the rail trail but was disappointed he couldn’t make it to Lake Huron where he grew up. He decided the trail should be connected all the way through. He took on the position of business manager for the Kissing Bridge Trail organization.
Connecting the entire trail seemed insurmountable.
“Even my closest and dearest helpers in the first days that stepped up to become our first board members will tell you that they secretly thought this is never going to happen,” said Cerson.
The group persisted and by 2014, the Goderich to Guelph Rail Trail Inc. was a registered charity and upgrades to the trail officially began.
Today the organization has grown to become very large.
“We have 13 communities, 17 municipalities, over a dozen local steward groups and hundreds and hundreds of volunteers,” said Cerson.
Trail maintenance is done by volunteer communities like the Elmira Lions Club or the Guelph Hiking Trails Club along the length of the trail.
The goal of the Goderich to Guelph Rail Trail organization is to connect the entire trail seamlessly from Goderich to downtown Guelph to connect communities. This will include rebuilding bridges across the Maitland, Conestogo and Grand rivers.
Cerson estimates rebuilding the bridges will cost $5-10 million dollars, a long-term investment. “By funding and donating to the trailway today, we are going to maintain and hold 132 kilometres of linear green space, for multiple generations to come.”
Leah Gerber’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about the Grand River Watershed. Email email@example.com
Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record