As the G2G Trail marks 10th anniversary, Chris Lee of Walton reflects
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
On Tuesday, Aug. 22, the Goderich-to-Guelph Rail Trail will mark its 10-year anniversary as an end-to-end trail, connecting nearly 130 kilometres of communities, nature and people.
No special events are planned to mark the milestone, but those at G2G Inc. are asking that supporters and users of the trail consider contributing to some of its ongoing projects to help celebrate the occasion.
Chris Lee of Walton, who was instrumental in the creation of the trail over 10 years ago, took time earlier this week to reflect on the origins of the trail and how far it’s come in the decade since.
Lee says he has been engaged with the trail - first as a railway and now as a trail - since he was a young boy living just a few hundred metres away from the railway in Walton. As a kid, he said, he could remember seeing the lights and hearing the sounds of the train as he was making his way out to milk cows in the morning. In those days, smaller train stations like Walton, Blyth and others were bustling with activity and people (and animals) were always coming and going with the trains.
When the railway shut down and the infrastructure was dismantled, Lee says he was among the earliest users of the trail. Familiar with its destinations, he would often walk, run or cycle on the trail years before anyone considered it a trail. Then, he and other nearby landowners would do their parts to clear it of downed trees when necessary or repair small imperfections along the way.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century and beyond that the concept of an end-to-end trail began to really take shape.
Lee says it all began with smaller portions of the trail being revitalized and developed in the wake of the railway infrastructure being removed. At the time, he said, usage was discouraged. The infrastructure was removed in a way that made it difficult to access the line, as concerns about liability and bad actors led the former owners to want to make the trail as unattractive of a recreation option as possible.
However, development of the Kissing Bridge Trail in the east and the Goderich to Auburn Rail Trail (GART) in the west and the Blyth Greenway Trail in and around Blyth began to show local trail users what could be possible on an abandoned old railway.
In the years following the development of those trails, it was Doug Cerson, who had ties to the Wingham area but was living in West Montrose at the time, who really got the ball rolling on the concept of a trail that would run the length of the old railway from Guelph to Goderich with no breaks in between.
Cerson made a simple presentation in Brussels about the idea of curating a trail experience along the entire 132 kilometres and it scratched Lee right where he itched. He immediately became involved and asked how he could help.
As a result, he, Cerson and a handful of other early advocates became the inaugural steering committee for the trail, working to understand the logistics involved and gauge interest among members of the public.
One of the first ventures in that vein that Lee remembers is attending an outdoor activity show in the Toronto area. Among eye-catching and interactive booths from all manner of outdoor adventure vendors, Lee said it was the humble G2G Rail Trail booth, consisting of a few people and a map with a line on it (the trail) that attracted much of the attention. He says there was a line and people crowded around wanting to learn more about the trail, which hadn’t even yet been approved or created.
That was a real eye-opener for Lee, he says, when he saw the potential for the trail and the interest from outdoor enthusiasts based in the Toronto area, he and the others felt the trail could be something special for Huron County and the other communities situated along the trail.
As the group began to lay the groundwork for the trail, they discovered that the former railway was being held by a company contracted by Infrastructure Ontario to manage property on behalf of the provincial government. That was a unique and important piece of the puzzle, Lee said, because it meant that, aside from a few leases that had been issued before the trail was proposed, the trail was kept intact, rather than fragmented to a number of landowners, which would make an end-to-end trail a near impossibility.
Lee credits the foresight of the provincial government with that decision that paved the way to make the trail a reality. However, there were no supports or funding for such a project at the time. The government was in touch with Lee and his group regularly, asking if they were ready to move ahead with an end-to-end lease and keen to see the project move ahead, but without any sort of monetary support.
Then, one day, Lee said, a lease arrived and it was time to get started. The group would then incorporate to take control of the lease, which is the anniversary being celebrated this year.
However, another phase of the project then began, as some of those living adjacent to the trail and local farming groups opposed the development of the trail, citing concerns about misuse, trespassing, litter, cross-contamination on farms and more.
As a result, Lee and other trail advocates began consultations with municipal and county councils, as well as farming groups and individual stakeholders to try and demonstrate the potential they saw in the trail.
While those were difficult times, Lee said, he felt he could see the light at the end of the tunnel. In addition to the enthusiasm he saw at that outdoor show, the group behind the Kissing Bridge Trail was a few years ahead of the G2G clan. They had faced similar opposition, coming out the other side with few of the worst-case scenarios coming to fruition and some of the most vocal opposition to the trail had since become some of its most fierce defenders and dedicated users.
With those two things in their back pockets, Lee and the team felt there was support for the trail just waiting to be discovered.
Naturally, the G2G team approached those behind the Kissing Bridge Trail and the Maitland Trail Association (which had worked to develop the GART) and neither of them were interested in or capable of taking on an end-to-end project like the one being proposed. So, they began working on it themselves and garnering support from wherever they could find it.
While the group was facing opposition from some in the community, the practical aspect of readying the trail to welcome users wasn’t going well either. Lee said there was a lot of hard work to be done by just a handful of people and not a lot of money with which to do it. However, as progress was made (and people saw that progress being made), more supporters came on board in the form of both individuals and service clubs wanting to help.
Significant progress was made in 2017, ahead of the International Plowing Match being held in Walton. Then, Lee said, the group was able to purchase some gates and signage and other improvements that were able to show people that the project was real and moving ahead.
The wheels really began turning in late 2019 and early 2020. The group received a Rural Economic Development (RED) grant to improve the trail and then some other supporters came on board because they believed in the trail, one of whom underwrote a line of credit. (It was expected to be paid back within three years but the group paid it back within one.)
That was when significant clearing, grading and stone dust application began to take place and the trail, as users know it today, began to take shape.
The funding really would have only covered about 20 kilometres of stone dust, Lee said, but the support from the line of credit was able to accomplish so much more. As a result, one group worked its way west from about Millbank to Blyth. Meanwhile, Lee said the group got lucky when a group of farmers and supporters of the trail began doing the same work on the other side, beginning in the Auburn area and working its way east. In fact, the two groups finished in Blyth within a day or two of one another.
Then, last year, the group was able to remove about 8,000 dead ash trees from along the trail, which went a long way towards beautifying it even more.
In addition to the support from different grant programs and supporters of the trail, Lee said there have been a number of individuals who have stepped up over the years and municipal partners like North Perth, North Huron and others.
Over the past 10 years, Lee said a lot has changed. Not only has the trail improved significantly, but the usership has changed as well.
At that outdoor meeting all those years ago, Lee said the people really taking an interest in the trail were hardcore, outdoor enthusiasts who were committed to activities like mountain biking and hiking. Now, many average people are cycling, hiking, riding e-bikes and walking on the trail who wouldn’t have all those years ago.
That’s been rewarding to see, Lee said, as has been talking to users of the trail who have come from all over the province to use it. That has been really fulfilling, Lee said, and shows that the project was worth undertaking.
But, the work is not done. Major projects include a tunnel just west of Blyth, a bridge in Wallenstein and a way around the lengthy detour on the way to Goderich to ensure a true, accessible and smooth end-to-end trail experience.
Fundraising has been successful for the Blyth tunnel project. The group has raised about $300,000, which is more than halfway to its goal. Huron County has the tender documents ready to go for that project, but needs the money in hand before the process can begin. This comes after a year of partnerships with groups like the Blyth Lions Club to install infrastructure along the trail last year and, in total, about $750,000 in investment.
Reflecting back, Lee says it’s amazing to see all that’s been accomplished and all the trail has become. He said the trail would be the envy of most in the province and those in Huron County are slowly but surely realizing the gem of a trail they have in their backyard.
Visitors are also amazed with the beauty of the trail and the doors it opens for them. To be able to cycle on a magnificent trail and end on Lake Huron in a town like Goderich is magical for many people, but Lee says it’s also easy to take for granted for those who live in the area.
To contribute or to get involved, visit the G2G website online at g2grailtrail.com.