My wife, Kathy, and I crossed a paved road and took a trail break beside the dilapidated remains of a structure that had once provided shelter for persons now long departed. Who stayed there? Was it a full-time residence or another seasonal dwelling like the dozens we had passed earlier? It was hard to tell, and we would probably never know.

It really didn’t matter anyway, because we were in Muskoka to make miles and memories in our never-ending search for quality snowmobiling — not to conduct a housing study.

Ontario’s Snowmobile Central

Stretching from the shores of Georgian Bay to the man-made boundary of giant Algonquin Provincial Park, Muskoka’s rocky hills and dense forests have been one of Ontario’s most popular playgrounds for generations. Known as “Cottage Country” due to the thousands of summer homes dotting the shores of its 1,600 lakes and ponds, Muskoka emerged as a prime snowmobile destination early in the development of our sport. Its proximity to Toronto and other population centers of Canada and the United States, plus its annual accumulation of lake-effect snow, have made it a snowmobile hub in the big province.

Nine snowmobile clubs of the Muskoka Snowmobile Region (MSR) maintain more than 1,000 miles (1,500 kilometers) of powersled trails. Most trails are eight to 10 feet wide, generally well-signed and well-groomed, and feature large map boards at most major intersections. A trail permit from the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) is required to ride.

Other MSR services include a full-color regional trail map, a monthly newspaper for trail permit holders and a Web site for trail and weather condition reports. There are also many trailside rest rooms, but not always where the map indicates.

The First Resort

We checked in at Deerhurst Resort, near Huntsville, on Monday afternoon. The elaborate estate was the first resort hotel in the northern Muskoka region and has welcomed snowmobilers with open arms for several decades.

Our spacious Sports Villa suite had all the amenities including a kitchenette, two closets, a stocked mini-bar, cable television with loads of channels, a DVD player, a gas fireplace and a second big-screen television in the bedroom.

Outside, parking the truck alongside one of the many electrical outlets allowed me to plug in a hair dryer to warm up the snowmobile windshields before applying our trail passes. It wasn’t cold enough to bother plugging in the truck’s block heater, but comforting to know the option was there if needed.

We had dinner with another couple who were staying in the time-share condominiums, joining them in Deerhurst’s Pub. Afterwards we decompressed from our drive in our friends’ plush cliff-side villa.

On The Trails

Hitting the trail late on Tuesday morning after a sumptuous breakfast buffet and a little shopping in one of the boutiques, Kathy and I spent the day getting oriented to the Huntsville area.

Our initial foray was north over the hill on regional connector number D102B. The trail wiggled through the thick woods with sharp turns and short, steep climbs and descents over the glacier-gouged granite. Finding a beautiful little frozen waterfall right above the trail, we paused for a few pictures. Gradually we worked our way up to Arnie’s Cat House, a dealership in Novar, and got a minor helmet repair done on the spot.

Later in the afternoon we examined all the trail connections from the resort. A breezy blast across Peninsula Lake let our sleds stretch their legs. We dodged some slush here and there, but there were no ice heaves to worry about.

That evening we met our friends again and drove into Huntsville for a water’s edge dinner at the Cottage Bar and Grill. They departed for home the next day.

The next morning Kathy and I rode south to Baysville, where the Muskoka River meets the Lake of Bays, one of the largest bodies of water in the region. From there, a trail loop took us farther south beyond Leech Lake and onto Trans-Ontario Provincial (TOP) trail B for a short distance.

In retrospect, this loop was the best ride of whole trip. The expansive southern end of D102B allowed easy, laid-back cruising more akin to that of Quebec. After a gas stop and a late lunch at the Baysville Pavilion, we headed back north to Deerhurst. We noted cottages almost everywhere we went, ranging from high-roller havens on the heights above the lakes to humble hunting camps back in the woods.

Our Thursday ride took us south through Port Sydney and then west to the other side of Highway 11, the Main Street of the entire province of Ontario. We did another trail loop using TOP D and secondary trails into the back woods before returning through Port Sydney. And we checked out yet another secondary trail on our return run.

As we had seen both days before, the main trails around the towns were getting whipped from the warm weather and the traffic. But in the cool of the deep woods, the often-narrower secondary trails were superb, except for one place where we encountered a logging operation. During the three days, we cruised nearly a dozen secondary trails maintained by four different clubs and found them all very pleasing. It’s not that the TOP corridors and connectors were bad, because they weren’t for the most part. It’s just that the lesser-used secondary trails were that good.

Trail’s End Delight

We celebrated the conclusion of our Muskoka stay with a sunset dinner at the upscale Eclipse Restaurant that overlooks the lake from Deerhurst’s main Pavilion. The presentation was artistic, the assorted vegetables were cooked perfectly, and the peppercorn-coated tenderloins done in a red wine reduction simply melted in our mouths.

The next morning we checked out and headed home with fond memories of the elaborate Deerhurst and the tranquility of the deep forest in Muskoka.

Royal Treatment

Recently voted as the “Best Resort in Canada” by an international hospitality industry magazine, Deerhurst is a historic landmark that offers a unique blend of luxury accommodations and winter activities.

Established in 1896 by a young Englishman named Charles Waterhouse, Deerhurst is the oldest major resort on the northern lakes of the Muskoka region. After growing slowly under three generations of family ownership through most of the 20th century, the property saw a $30 million expansion and modernization program following its acquisition by the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company six years ago.

Today the 800-acre grounds encompass a large hotel, numerous Sport Villa suites, and dozens of luxury condominiums. Three restaurants are open in the winter. Other year-round facilities include two indoor pools, a spa, a fitness room, six indoor racquet sports courts, and two children’s clubs for different age groups. Multiple gift shops offer resort logo apparel and other souvenirs. Deerhurst also hosts Canada’s longest running stage show, and, yes, this is the show that launched Shania Twain’s career.

Strategically located on Peninsula Lake just outside of Huntsville, Deerhurst welcomes snowmobilers with special mid-week rates and an outstanding array of snow traveler services.

OSFC connector trail D102B runs through the resort grounds between the main Pavilion and the Sports Villas, providing trail access to the Pub, the most casual of the Deerhurst restaurants. The snowmobile photo on the back of the menu lets riders know they are welcome.

Snowmobile rentals (low displacement) are available — more powerful sleds are available through local dealers. There’s on-site sale of gas and trail permits. Kids’ 120 mini-sleds may be rented for use in an adjacent enclosed area, with adult supervision required.

Those looking for a break from snowmobiling can try dog sled or sleigh rides, cross-country or downhill skiing, snow tubing, ice skating and in mid-to-late-March, a maple syrup festival.

For more information

Muskoka Tourism

800/ 267-9700

www.muskoka-tourism.on.ca

Muskoka Snowmobile Region

Trail permit line: 800/328-7245

www.msrsnowtrails.com

Deerhurst Resort

705/789-6411

www.deerhurstresort.com

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