There are more than 260 snowmobile clubs currently operating in Ontario but the Bonfield Snowmobile Club (BSC) near North Bay has an ace attraction for avid sledders—a Northern Ontario trail system within easy reach of Southern Ontario. In November, while the grass is often still plainly visible along the Southern Ontario/United States border regions, Mother Nature is already laying down the first fluffy layers of snow in Northeastern Ontario. The same thing happens at the other end of the season. Even after the winter white has long disappeared in more southerly climes, Bonfield snowmobilers are often still enjoying snow packed trails in March and sometimes even early April.
Thanks to recent improvements to the 400/401 highway system, the drive from Toronto to North Bay can now be safely accomplished in under four hours. Bonfield is just another 20 minutes east along Highway 17 at almost the exact halfway point between North Bay and Mattawa. The landscape along this stretch of road is a stunning panorama of rolling hills, pristine lakes and rivers, tall stands of mature forest, working farms, and hobby horse stables. In the warmer months, Bonfield is a magnet for fishing fans, cottagers, and nature lovers but once the snow begins to fall, the area becomes prime snowmobile country.
The Bonfield Snowmobile Club is one of the oldest in the province. It was formed in 1969 just as recreational snowmobiling was just starting to catch on with the general public. The BSC was also one of the pioneers in establishing trails that connect to neighbouring clubs. “Now, with one permit you can start at the Quebec border and keep riding until you hit Manitoba,” says Vic Trahan, the current president of the BSC.
But once snowmobilers experience Bonfield’s own 150km of wilderness, they tend to hang around. The trails are excellently maintained by a small army of BSC volunteers who regularly clear fallen trees and recondition the snow with two specially designed vehicles.
“All the hard work is worth it,” Vic says. “Our trails pass through some of the best scenery in the North.”
Several snowmobile routes follow the historic paddle strokes of French explorer Samuel de Champlain who passed through this area by canoe in 1615. Others have their own geographical charms. One of Bonfield’s favourite destinations is Boulter’s View which rises 1250 feet above sea level. “On a clear day, you can easily see 20km from the top of the hill,” Vic says. Another favourite destination is Devil’s Canyon. No one knows for sure why this beautiful gorge acquired its diabolical name. One theory is that the name harkens back to the era when the primary commercial activity in this area was lumbering. Log jams happened so frequently along the canyon’s creek course that the Prince of Darkness himself was blamed for the mischief.
Fortunately, thanks to the well-maintained trails, 21st century snowmobilers have a much easier time of it. Eight bridges span steep gorges and still flowing rivers that occasionally cross the trails. There are also six ice crossings over deep water, known as lakes Talon, Sheedy, La Chappelle, Turtle, Nosbonsing and Trout.
The Mattawa River system running through Bonfield is the unofficial boundary line between Northern and Southern Ontario. Using Bonfield and their sibling clubs’ connecting trails, it is possible to spend one or more days travelling in Southern Ontario and then return on a nearby route in Northern Ontario.
“One of the most popular round-trips out here is to go on a circuit from Bonfield to visit the North Bay trails in the east and Mattawa trails in the west. It’s up to you which direction you start with but you can go for hundreds of kilometers without having to double back once,” Trahan says. For most snowmobilers, a Bonfield-Mattawa-North Bay trip would require overnight accommodation. Fortunately, there are ample overnight motels, hotels, resorts, and Bed and Breakfasts in the nearby towns of Mattawa and North Bay that are snowmobile friendly.
The Dinner Bell Restaurant and Motel is the preferred staging area for many out-of-town visitors to Bonfield. It is conveniently located at the intersection of Highway 17 and 531, which is central to all of BSC’s trails, and the motel offers free parking to visiting sledders. The restaurant is open seven days a week and serves hearty diner fare that is a perfect meal before you head out on the trails or return after a long day. They have rooms available but if you wish to spend the night you are advised to reserve a room in advance. The Dinner Bell often fills up to capacity during the peak season.