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ATVs and Their Impact on Canoeing Country

Start of the old portage, at Cox Lake in the Kawarthas, Ontario .jpg (177452 bytes)


ATV have arrived here about 20 years ago and have somewhat ATVs - on top of the world!.jpg (17939 bytes)matured into affordable and reliable technology. They are 4-wheel drive vehicles, with large and soft knobby tires so they grip well on varied terrain. They are both a plaything and a workATVs - 3-wheeled ATVs are rare now.jpg (23092 bytes) horse: even though they have small engines, many still use 2-cycle engines, have no effective pollution controls and release significantly more pollution per mile travelled than your family car. Add to that the high torque that the engine/transmission generates, and you will realize that this thing can chew up the ground really well. A skilled and careful operator can minimize such damage. But on some types of terrain, such as hills and in wet areas, ATVs - what the heck is he doing here in the first place!.jpg (16912 bytes)damaging the soil and vegetation is unavoidable. Even though there are careful riders, there are plenty of yahoos amongst the ATV community that don't care. The industry is not helping either, with their commercials that advocate boisterous freedom as the ATVs criss-cross the wilderness. Last not least, where one vehicle may have nearly no impact, repeated travel over the same spot will start the damage.


Here's what I have witnessed in the fall of 2000, by walking the 1 km portage from Cox to Triangle Lake. This area is located in the Kawarthas, an area which is about 2 hours drive NE from Toronto and has recently received protection from Ontario's Living Legacy Land Use Strategy, possibly to become a Provincial Park. The good folks from the MNR and the Kawartha advisory board will set the strategy on the use of this park in the next months. They will have to decide how they want to curb the advancing destruction wrought by these machines. The intensive use of ATVs in the area is relatively new, and the damage has just started and unless ATV use there is stopped, the damage to the environment will deepen and multiply.

Originally, the two lakes were connected by a single portage trail undisturbed portage trail, with marker.jpg (188142 bytes), no wider than 20 to 50 cm on the ground and bushes cropped back by occasional trail clearing to create an unobstructed path that would allow the passing of a 3 ft wide canoe. The soil was typically undisturbed, and the canopy not broken.pointing down old snowmobile trail.jpg (177903 bytes)

A snowmobile trail appeared as these machines became popular (maybe in the late 60's) and left its imprint on the land: a 6 ft wide swath with vegetation often clipped back on its width. Damage to the ground was rare, because the machines run for most of the season on snow and ice. A typical sign of snow mobile use are the scratch marks left on rock surfaces - unsightly but of little consequence to the environment- and the garbage that some of these folks leave in the bush. (picture of abandoned sled). Not wanting to create a stir, canoeist noticed and lived with it.trash in the woods - from snow mobilers.jpg (226219 bytes)

I have noticed the first signs of ATV use about 15 years ago, when the single trail started to deteriorate on the uphill sections, with the tell-tale evidence of tire tracks. In the last few years, many ATVs now use the area and have changed it drastically. Here's how:

Trails multiplyATV Trails, Cox to Triangle (QV Image) scaling = 2.jpg (42914 bytes): the once single trail has grown several side trail, as shown on the map clipping on the right. You will need to click on it to bring out the details. The track was generated by walking all trails with a GPS and overlaying that track onto a topo map. The old portage is one of the lines, starting where the text intersects the shoreline of Cox Lake near the top of the image, and terminating on the shore of Triangle Lake at the bottom. The ATV trail continues further along the red line to the west but was not walked and thus is not shown.
There is an additional impact on portaging canoeists: he is confused as to where the real portage is located and becomes frustrated as he sorts out the mess.

note about the map image: Extract of the data set ORRVILLE_31E05 at 1:50,000
    İHer Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada
    Reproduced with the permission of Natural Resources Canada

Trails widen: damage to portage - widening from single path.jpg (213679 bytes)As the ATV is about 4 ft wide, the trail becomes damage to portage - widening thru multi tracks.jpg (192272 bytes)a double set of ruts, much wider that the original path. In addition, as ATV drivers perceive obstacles, they go around them and thus create a new tracks, each time chewing into the soil and vegetation. Consequently, what used to be a single path is now a myriad of parallel trails.

 damage to soil and vegetation - at early stage.jpg (163537 bytes)The surface of the path itself is destroyed and so is the adjacent soil and vegetation. Aside from the damage to the environment, canoeists portaging a boat is now having trouble getting safe footing. damage to portage - standing water at early stage.jpg (200493 bytes)

damage to portage - standing water.jpg (180804 bytes)

As early hill erosion, on portage down to Triangle Lake.jpg (179478 bytes)the ATVs frequent the portages on grades, the once simple path starts to channel run-off water and the path turns into a creek bed. This results in severe erosion which over time changes the land drastically. For the canoeist, there is risk of injury from falls when the heavy gear is carried across such portages.

The ATV folks destroyroad work in protected area - concrete near Triangle Lake.jpg (186466 bytes) the nature as they try to rectify problems. newly created trail, leading west from Triangle Lake.jpg (169166 bytes)There are attempts at smoothening out a rocky uphill section with concrete.
At the shore of Triangle Lake, leading west and then up the hill, in order to facilitate the new trail, vegetation was eradicated and large rocks were moved. Did these folks get a work permit from the MNR? Even if they applied, I doubt that anyone charged to be the steward of this land would sanction such a travesty.

makeshift ATV camp.jpg (162532 bytes)Some ATV folks considerATV garbage.jpg (191059 bytes) it their right to establish a camp in the woods, and thus bring destruction of nature and heavy-duty garbage.

wetlands damage - out of the forest.jpg (161994 bytes)wetlands damage - towards Cox Lake.jpg (111817 bytes)Wetlands suffer. Take a look and see how the shore of Cox Lake is chewed up by ATV tracks. I'd think even ATV users bemoan this. How come no one has laid charges yet - if this was private land, the owner would be furious! Why does the ATV community not put a stop to such abuse?

wetlands damage - detail.jpg (167034 bytes)

You have seen the damage that ATVs will do, so think. We all value nature, that's why we are out there in the first place.Something has to change:

  1. ATV users need to rethink the unrestricted use of the machines.
  2. The ATV organizations have to establish an ethic that will preserve the woods rather than destroy them.
  3. The ATV industry has to be pressured to manufacture less damaging machines.
  4. The MNR, as the steward of our lands, has to recognize the threat and must establish tools that allows them to regulate the use of ATVs on crownland.
    (new.gif (941 bytes) Is there light at the end of the tunnel: the Draft Recommendation of August 2001 prohibit the use of ATVs for recreational purposes in this area! See here for info on the draft recommendations and canoist's response)
  5. Parks management will have to protect their land from ATV damage.
  6. And the soft-shoed public - naturalists, skiers, hikers and canoeists - must speak up and stop this rape of the land.
If you are curious and would like to read more, here are the links to some of the players:
ATV Ontario, a roof organization for ATV users
MNR (Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources), meant to enforce sustainable use of our public lands
MOE (Ontario's Ministry of the Environment), responsible for stopping pollution
Some ATV Manufacturers
FON (Federation of Ontario Naturalists), active to protect nature, such as forests and wetlands
CPAWS (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, with its Ontario chapter called the Wildlands League), dedicated to stop destructive use of wetlands, forests and our special ecosystems
WCA (Wilderness Canoe Association),  a paddling club that aims to preserve the wilderness experience

PS: to see the damage that is done by ATV's to cross country ski trails, look at the observations made in the Sudbury area.

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