Farewell to Mike’s Buckwallow MTB Trails

Farewell to Mike’s Buckwallow MTB Trails

Over the winter I had the opportunity to chat with Mike McLaughlin, the owner of the Buckwallow Cycling Centre, which unfortunately has been closed for the last two years due to Covid-related issues.

We had a couple of long phone chats about the history of Buck, its closure and future, and Mike’s retirement, with a few funny stories in between.

I thought it appropriate that this OBT site should pay homage to Mike and his beloved “project.” Buckwallow was truly a unique location in Ontario: one of the few private enterprises that took a chance on mountain biking and offered trails to ride on private land, at a great value.

Located just north of Gravenhurst off Hwy 11, Buckwallow was well managed and clean, with a folksy, country vibe to it. Well-designed loops made the most of Buck’s Canadian Shield location, using the area’s rounded granite mounds as part of the trails with great effect. 

The singletrack had a hard-packed, smooth base with occasional root clusters to negotiate. It wasn’t overly hilly, nor were there wooden structures with extreme jumps or ramps. We came for the challenges and the variety of rocky trails we couldn’t find further south in Ontario. Eventually, the trail network included 12.5 km of wide main trails plus 19.5 km of singletrack22 loops in all.

Getting there from Toronto was a two-hour drive. There weren’t many signs to help you find the place, or an official website. There was no budget for that. Mike wasn’t looking for large numbers of people; he preferred word of mouth to bring in “good people.”  And it worked: over the years, Buck grew and was loved by many. 

Early days at Buckwallow
Early days at Buckwallow

You were sure to meet Mike (or his hired student helpers) whenever you pulled into the parking lot. They always had an inviting, friendly greeting to get you started, a sign that this was to be a special MTB day. 

Mike’s connections with the area began many years ago when his dad ran the KOA campground across the road. The main trails at Buck were established as cross-country ski tracks in the winter. 

He tells me the origins of Buckwallow were small and the growth was gradual. Mike had no plan or grand ambitions and felt lucky in his situation. Owning the land, living nearby, and working on-site led to good things. It was a very fulfilling, successful endeavour, he recalls. Perhaps not so much financially, but it was the best job he ever had and you could tell he loved doing it.

Back around 1994, Mike saw MTB races being held on the Santa’s Village property (now called Porcupine Ridge). A friend, Jeff Hill, was running them and Mike suggested hosting a race on his land. Jeff was a mountain biker/promoter first, while Mike was more into building trails, so they were a good match.

Mike and Jeff came up with the name Buckwallow and created the logo featuring a deer on a bike. The first singletrack they builtTrail #1—was Moose Mayhem. (They numbered the trails in the order they were made, which Mike admits did confuse things a bit.) His favourite trails are Missing Link (# 13), Still Here (#21) and White Tail Fawn – WTF (#22).

old trail map

old Buckwallow map

Buckwallow MTB trail map

Buckwallow MTB race
Buckwallow MTB race



It took them a few years to get trails ready, and by the late ’90s Buckwallow hosted races Tuesdays and Sundays. Mike remembers his first race had only seven riders. 

It was a small start, yet every year numbers kept increasing. Hosting O-Cup races gave Buckwallow credibility among serious mountain bike enthusiasts; Mike would go on to host these races for a dozen years.

Word of mouth is how Mike likes to run a business. It brought in good, caring people, who are loyal and respectful of the trails, leaving no litter and giving the wildlife their space. “And there were no bike thefts, either,” he adds.

By 2002 you had to put a mere $2 in the dropbox for hours of thrills and spills. A season pass was twenty bucks. There were still only six loops back then, yet 600 riders paid the first year, then 800 the next.

Mike could see he had a good thing going, so he closed his business as a millwright to give more time to managing and maintaining Buck. The building you see by the parking lot was his woodshop where he would produce trim for cottage renovators. 

Buck was not a large operation. I can tell from how Mike speaks that he most enjoyed building and maintaining his little “bit of paradise;” actually riding the trails was secondary for him.

Mike is thankful for Bert, Donnie, Cal, Mark, Terry and the many other volunteers who pitched in over the years. Their help was indispensabletheir reward, a free place to ride. 

He encourages other groups to take on the task of cutting new trails in this province, noting that places like the Hydrocut and The Farm, achieved by the Waterloo and Kingston bike clubs respectively, came from riders working successfully with landowners.

MTB at Buckwallow
Mike on his Fatbike
Mike on his Fatbike

Mike McLaughlin
Mike McLaughlin

Mike recalls a few storiesI assure you he has manythat are too good not to share. 

One is of a woman coming back from a ride complaining about a large black dog (bear) in the woods. Another time, the parking lot was full of high-end sports cars. As usual, he left a slip of paper on the windshields to say hello and remind them to chip in and pay the toonie when they got back. They did not. He laughed this off, noting that real mountain bikers know better. 

Then there was the mess left by a tornado that knocked down 100 trees. And the classic lost-riders scenario, where each rider would come back to the trailhead looking for the other rider, all afternoon!

He chuckles about the roadies who would initially boast how much mileage they usually did. But upon returning from the ride, dripping in sweat, they were humbled by how few miles they actually did on Buck’s trails.

Though some of us mountain bikers are serious riders and racers, Mike says most visitors to Buckwallow were families who would ride about 12 km in an hour and a half. They tended to be white-collar workers who needed exercise because of their sedentary occupations. Those in the trades, doing physical labour, were more inclined to rest on the weekends at home.

And the only nasty crashes occurred during races, when riders pushed too hard.

When Covid came along in 2020, Mike felt MTB riding was a safe activity. He got the trails ready and was attempting to start up things for July.  But when regulations required him to track users and lock up the outhouses, and he was unable to get any hired help to manage the gate, he had to keep Buck closed. 

By May 2021, a posting on the Buckwallow Facebook page stated that Mike had decided to retire and keep Buckwallow closed. As reluctant and emotionally difficult as it felt to end it, he could see that it was going to be another summer of Covid hassles.

As well, he had come to terms with the fact that working 12-hour days during the riding season to maintain the trails is a “young man’s game”. Nature had started to take over the network and there was just too much labour ahead of him.

Mike trail building
Mike trail building, again!



The Future of Buckwallow

 

Mike’s wish is that someone in the family could take over the enterprise, but that seems unlikely. There have been 20-odd proposals by other parties to reopen Buck, but none have suited Mike and the certain way he sees things.

No one seems to understand fully the amount of labour and time required to keep it running. 

As of April 2022, Buck remains closed and Mike is in no hurry (being retired) to reopen under new management, if ever! (Even good things have an end date at some point.)

For Mike, it’s never been about the money; it’s always been about “customer relations,” good service, goodwill to the MTB community, and delivering good times on the trails.

You can leave your best wishes for Mike below in the Comments, on the Buckwallow Facebook page or as a phone message – 705 687 8858. 

He is sure to appreciate them, knowing that he brought joy to many, many mountain bike riders young and old over the last 20 years.

That was always his greatest reward.

 

You can learn more about Buckwallow on my trail review page.

Buckwallow MTB riders
Photos courtesy of Bert Schuh, Rick Smith and the Buckwallow FB page.

mtb trail guide
April 14, 202216 Comments,
  • Julie Rossall (and Ollie Tuchel) says:

    Hi Mike, Ollie and I have missed you and Buck dearly since his boat was sold 8 years ago. Sadly, the lure of mountain biking vs boating had mostly turned it into a floating cottage. I cut my mountain biking teeth at Buck and sincerely thank you for that, even for a couple nasty injuries, as I began later in life and continue to ride lots- those were fabulous years and you spoiled us with your great trails. We hope you enjoy your retirement in good health.

  • Doug Litchfield says:

    Best variety of trails around. Always enjoyed the ride and the chat with Mike in the parking lot.
    Thanks for years of great riding Mike, you’re the best

  • Mark Dunseith says:

    The thing I will remember the most about this great place was the ever present warm welcome from Mike. Whether you knew him or not , if you were on a bike you were a friend. See you around town good friend!

  • Craig Hughes says:

    Thanks Mike. Trips to Buckwallow always had a special feeling. You are appreciated and missed.

  • Belinda Hosey says:

    Mike we do miss your smiley face and always appreciated your hard work on those trails. Buck was the destination where we could improve our skills. We all hope it will reopen one day, but in the meantime thank you thank you for many years of adventure and post ride beers around your fire pit, Belinda

  • The Tylman family says:

    Buckwallow will always remain dear to our families’ hearts. My boys literally grew up on those trails! We hiked and biked them every season. The fondest memories were roasting marshmallows after riding, coming up with new riddles for the board, ringing the bell, and just getting lost on the trails!! Still cherish my buckwallow bumper sticker!!

  • James Hunter says:

    Thank you Mike for the years of great trail riding. Your smiling face will be missed .
    Always was a great day riding Buckwallow.

  • Jennifer Bennett says:

    I only visited Buckwallow once, it was a rock paradise (and rocks are terrifying for me). After meeting Mike, I felt instantly comfortable because of his friendly personality and charming venue. Sarah Trotter coached my 2 girlfriends and I through the trails. Coming from the sandy land of Turkey Point trails, (we have to import our rock features) we were happy to be under her tutelage to negotiate the rocky terrain. Cheers to your retirement Mike! You certainly built a very special place that lives on it the hearts and memories of many.

  • Gordo Walter says:

    Its was another sad day for Ontario Mtn biking. Blue and Buckwallow were two of my favorite places to ride. Great times were had and will never be forgotten! My kids and I had some great days at Buckwallow!!

    Thanks for all your passion and time you put into our amazing sport Mike!!

    Enjoy retirement, you were a great ambassador to our sport!

  • Richard says:

    Thanks Mike. I had a good time riding my custom recumbent on your trails, despite the weird looks I got. Thanks for all the work you put in.

  • Kate says:

    So many amazing rides and painful races had at Bucky. Thanks for all the years of Fun. Hope it’s resurrected someday and maybe by then I’ll have learned the skills to ride it all!

  • Joe Mendoza says:

    We really appreciate your good leadership and your contribution to our cycling community.
    Best wishes. God bless your heart.

  • Ralf Vollmer says:

    Wish you all the best Mike, only been up there for a couple of races, but loved it! Wish I could find a way to keep this open!
    All the best to you and fingers crossed somehow it will re-open!

  • Colleen Harris says:

    Thanks Mike for the great memories! Always remember your sandpaper reference to the rocks! No sliding on your rocks like 80 Grit! Cheers and enjoy retirement!

  • Bert Schuh says:

    Nice homage to Mike and Buckwallow! Great, great memories for sure!

  • Katie Ward (Fisher) says:

    Buckwallow was my favourite place to ride. Mike was the heart of Buckwallow and he and the trails are missed by all. I’m so happy that we had three generations of riders get to experience Buckwallow. My son still asks to go see ‘Mike Bikewallow’ whenever we drive by. Thank you for years of great riding and for having a fun place to share my love of mountain biking with my family.

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Hey, this may be interesting for you: Farewell to Mike’s Buckwallow MTB Trails!

This is the link: https://ontariobiketrails.com/farewell-to-mikes-buckwallow-mtb-trails/

Lets get together and do a ride soon.