On a snowy October 28 I got off the porch to take in some of the natural beauty of the Madawaska Valley. I had the pleasure of accompanying Steve Brunke of Valley Adventure Tours on his last ATV excursion of the season.
Truth be told, it was my first experience driving an all-terrain vehicle, but Steve gave me a brief lesson and within a few minutes I was driving my own machine. (See selfie, left) It took a bit longer to feel confident and in-control, but after thirty minutes I was testing the shocks and enjoying the spray of mud when I hit potholes and crossed creeks. According to Steve, that is a common response. He says,
Typically, people start off a little tentative as most of my clients have never been on an ATV or SxS, but within minutes of hitting the trail the smiles come out and don’t stop for the rest of the tour.
Given the option of several routes, I chose the old rail bed heading west from the Barry’s Bay railway station to Opeongo Forks. This appealed to me personally and historically. Personally because my grandfather and uncles maintained that section of track as CNR employees, and historically because Wilno, Barry’s Bay and Madawaska will be celebrating the 125th anniversary of the arrival of railway between 2019 and 2020. Most importantly, however, the whole point of my trip was to learn about Steve’s new and growing business which is drawing first-time and repeat visitors to the Madawaska Valley.
View from Burnett’s Mountain (Photo: Mark Woermke)
I met Steve near the caboose and we set out past the Railway Station, along Kelly Street and picked up the trail after crossing Paugh Lake Road. We passed the site of Murray’s old planer, Cybulski’s farm and Martin Siding. West of Carson Lake, we left the old rail bed and took a trail to our first stop – the remarkable lookout at the top of Burnett’s Mountain. There, we spent a few moments appreciating the view of the Aylen Lake Fault and a valley that was once a glacial spillway draining into Lake Shawaskong (the ancestor of Bark, Kamaniskeg and Papineau Lakes). The flurries could not diminish that. With that panorama as a backdrop, Steve and I had a chance to talk about his business.
Steve is no stranger to the Madawaska Valley. Since the age of ten, he has spent many weekends and most vacations at a family cottage on Lake Kamaniskeg. He lived here between 2002 and 2007. He wanted to live here again, but knew he needed a plan. So, he created a business based on two things that he loves – nature and ATVing. (At left Steve Brunke of Valley Adventure Tours along the trail Photo: Mark Woermke)
Steve considers the Madawaska Valley to have “some of the best ATV trails anywhere” and he believes the region is “blessed with an abundance of forests, lakes and rivers to rival any location in the world.” In his research, he also noticed a significant change in the types of visitors coming to this area over the last ten years. He says,
I think the work the snowmobile clubs and the Renfrew County ATV Club have been doing with the fantastic conditioning of the trail systems has started to put this area on the map as a premier wilderness playground for ATV’s and snowmobiles.
In January 2018, he said goodbye to his seven-year job as assistant superintendent of Camelot Golf and Country Club in Ottawa and brought his family to the Madawaska Valley to begin their new adventure.
We left the lookout, returned to the rail bed and continued west to our destination: the poplar grove and clearing above the Opeongo River just south of where the trail crosses the Aylen Lake Road. Usually called Opeongo Forks because the Aylen and Opeongo Rivers join nearby, it was also identified on maps as Opeongo Station since there was a station and section crew located there. In the early twentieth century it was also the site of Daly’s Sawmill. We stopped to admire the scenery and look at the mill’s remains. Steve says his visitors find the remains of settlement and industry along the local trails interesting, but they are blown away by the gorgeous views. This stop was another opportunity to chat about Valley Adventure Tours.
In his first season Steve had clients from the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Israel and Turkey, as well as many parts of the United States and Canada. Steve particularly remembered the reactions of two groups from the Netherlands:
They could not believe that we live in such an amazing place. My wife made a comment to them that Holland must be beautiful as well. They just looked at her and said, “Nothing like this … not even close.” Makes you realize on a global scale how fortunate we are to live here and what we can offer to visitors from around the world.
Steve offers visitors memorable trips that are tailored to the needs and interests of his clients and which show off the natural beauty of the Madawaska Valley. In the summer season, he planned trips on a variety of trails for individuals or groups which could include picnic stops, snacks and stops for swimming or photography. For the winter months Steve is offering visitors guided ice fishing tours where he will provide transportation and supply all the gear to take people out in all conditions including heated shelters, rods, tip-ups and bait.
Ice fishing with Valley Adventure Tours (Photo: Steve Brunke)
Overlooking the rusty turbines of the old sawmill, I sought Steve’s view of the Madawaska Valley’s economic future. He was quick to respond:
I see ecotourism as being the future of the Valley and I believe this place must be marketed on a global scale. It’s great to have a presence at local trade shows, but, in my experience, online marketing is the key. Our proximity to Algonquin Park, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal make us a hub for tourists coming from around the world.
By then the sky was getting dark and, not knowing if it were bringing rain or snow, we decided to head straight back to the Bay. As I drove I thought about Steve’s words:
People just want unique experiences that take them out of their comfort zones and push their ideas of what they are capable.
I was experiencing just that. I was having a great time, feeling confident, pushing the ATV harder and swallowing some mud and swamp water. I had a great time.
When we got back to town, Steve’s parting words were, “My clients constantly tell me how lucky I am to live in the Madawaska Valley – I couldn’t agree with them more.” And I agree with Steve: we are fortunate to live in an area with such beauty and such potential.
Featured image: Part of Steve Brunke’s fleet of ATVs (Photo: Steve Brunke)
About the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A high school teacher in Ottawa, Mark spends as much time as he can in the Madawaska Valley gardening, writing and enjoying its cultural wealth and natural beauty. Mark also blogs at https://prussianhillsblog.wordpress.com and manages the group Renfrew County Germans on Facebook.