Offroad and Service-Road

How do we find the Forest Service Roads in Ontario

The Forest Service Roads (FSR) may have different names depending on the purpose. These roads provide access to hydro lines, rail road tracks, mining and logging resources and recreational areas. Some of them are being used, others are dormant or abandoned. But most important, they are often rugged and far away from the noise and traffic.
"It is an offence under the Railway Safety Act to trespass on railway tracks". In short, you are not permitted to cross railway tracks except at authorised and properly marked railway crossings.
We refer to the Ontario resources in this document, but most provinces have similar websites.

The roads we are looking for in Ontario are north of Lake Huron. That is north of the cities North Bay - Sudbury - Sault Ste. Marie. It is a four hour drive from Mississauga or Toronto to get up there and this is not a day trip destination.
The two highways going west and connect to Manitoba are Hwy 17 along Lake Huron - Lake Superior and Hwy 11 that makes a wider turn to join Hwy 17 again in Nipigon, 100km east of Thunder Bay.
Hwy 11 is possibly less travelled because it adds about 65 km to the trip. There are smaller and fewer towns along the way, that being the case, we take any opportunity to fill up the tank. We passed more service roads with no names than driving on any other highway. No surprise that the choices are limitless, it is a 1,000 km stretch from North Bay to Nipigon.
Hwy 17 passes through Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. When we take Hwy 17, we look for an overnight place around Sault Ste. Marie, usually north of it. That's 700km on the first day with mostly highways and plenty of dining options to avoid a lengthy cooking routine in the travel trailer. The area up to here is populated and the service roads lead to remote and established cottage areas. There is still plenty of Crown Land to be explored and we will eventually get to them.
Taking a service road by chance and hope for a surprise does actually work sometimes. but we typically enter these roads after doing some research. And that is exactly what our story is about.

Click on any of the pictures with a white frame to get a better look at the road. A collection of all links to other pages are at the end of this document.

The first two pictures are from Tower Road and Rabbit Lake Road.
We found the Tower and Barnet Lake Road on the Topographic Map. This service road connects Hwy 627 with Hwy 101. We drove it all the way and passed two lakes that are stocked with fish according to the Ontario: Fish-online . Next to the trail are places where camping is possible. This is Crown Land and you need to bring all your food and gear.
The Rabbit Lake Road was posted as a Service Road, Game Preserve and is the access road to the boat launch at the lake. The Rabbit Lake has two main arms, each over 10km in length. Several trails exit the Rabbit Lake Road into the woods, likely to other lakes. We did not explore these roads much.

Forest Service Road in northern Ontario Forest Service Road in northern Ontario

The next two pictures are near Esker Lakes Provincial Park and further north from the Timiskaming District. Both areas were actively forested some years ago.
The one near the Esker Lakes PP is all sand. This is the blueberry capital of the Kirkland Lake District . New trees were planted and will eventually shade the area. That's when we have to look for a new blueberry patch.
The area in the Timiskaming District had already established trees. Both areas are immediately beside a highway and the only service road that was built is within the harvested area. We were hoping to find an access road to the Montreal River, but no such luck. They don't build roads if they are not needed. Who knows, maybe a recreational access road and boat launch will be constructed one day.
The logging patches in Ontario are generally close to one square kilometer. A road follows the layout of the land with some smaller side trails. They all end with a turn around. It is a very functional layout.
We often see signs of camping activities, like a fire pit and unfortunately garbage that was left behind. These open areas attract new wildlife. We saw sandhill cranes, their very distinct trumpeting call is hard to miss.

Area that was forested many years ago Area that was forested about five years ago

Once you leave the main service road to explore a sideroad, recovery gear may be needed. Early in the year, the trails are wet and muddy. You may be the first vehicle to take the trail and you will likely have to clear the path from fallen trees.
When you see a water passage and the ground is not rock, do not enter, and do not drive around, you will cause serious trail damage. We visited the Finlayson Lake in May 2018 and were the first ones to do so that year. We cleared a few small trees and branches out of the way. A long stretch of the trail was flooded, but the surface was all rocks and gravel.

Trees may be blocking the path Water and mud may cause problems

The next two pictures are near the Nusatsum River in BC and a trail somewhere in Ontario.
We took the side trail off the Nusatsum River Access Road to climb up the logging road. It is one of the few places where we could see the river, the valley and the mountains. The road is flanked by trees and we very rarely got a glimpse on the river.
The road in Ontario dropped down to the river. Technically you could launch a boat from there, but practically it was very steep. The track was all round-ish pebbles. We even had problems walking up to the Jeep again. No, we didn't drive down there.

Boat Launch Forestry Access

The next two pictures are both a dead end due to water. The first is a road wash-out on Marter Road near Englehart ON, the second is on the way to the Odegaard Falls Trail on the Nusatsum River Road.
The Marter Road must have been an important side road at one time. The road sign was still standing there and we had no doubt that we eventually exit further north onto the 117. Well, a few kilometer in, the road was gone. It was even a problem to walk. The ground was a mix of sand and round pebbles, a leftover from the glaciers over 15,000 years ago. A few days later, we attempted to drive from the northern end, hoping to see the missing road again. We had to turn around due to very soggy passages. Half way back we stopped and waited for the sun to set. We enjoyed an amazing night sky with the waxing crescent moon.
The dead end on the Nusatsum River Road was at the creek. The bridge was still in good condition, but the ramps were missing. It didn't look like a recent wash-out. A new road was plowed through the creek just a few meters above. We didn't drive through the water, our Jeep was not prepared for driving in water. This was not the first time we were held back by a water flow and it is one of the top upgrades on our list. We plan to extend the breather tubes and truly seal the gears of the Jeep.

Bridge gone Road Gone

Finding places on topographical map
This process often starts with a point of interest. For example, we wanted to see the Odegaard Falls and followed the sign. There is actually a trail there, but the weather was not very appealing. This was not our first time in Western Canada and most excursions are based on an interesting location, like the water falls, the Big Bar Ferry, the Badlands and Blerriot Ferry in Alberta or the Kananaskis.
It is different here in Ontario, it's not only flat, but we spend much more time around here. This year in 2020, we researched abandoned mines and having some basic ideas about locations is essential.

Topographical Map We use our digital devices mostly to record our route by car (Garmin) and foot (smart phone). They both record the GPS coordinates regardless of cell reception. There are Apps for the smart phone or tablet that have map data available from locally stored databases. We don't use them since the information is available for free from Natural Resources Canada. Yes, the maps are Canada wide. Read more about them in our document Digital Topographic Raster Maps. We printed out several of the maps, on a 11 x 17 paper @ the local printing store. It requires some work to bring them to this size, but a 1 : 50,000 fits on two of the 11 x 17 pages, that is about half the intended resolution from the downloaded file.
The image on the right is the actual size of the 1 : 50,000 map from Cobalt. Many of these maps were not updated in the last 20 years and roads are incomplete. We can't even say that the lakes are a constant, the beavers are doing a fine job to change that. And since we don't have mountains as a reference, we can only use the GPS coordinates from the smart phone and the good old compass.

Finding lakes for fishing
Ontario Fish Online Another resource we use is the Ontario: Fish-Online to find the lakes and if the fish are edible. There is plenty of mercury naturally occurring in Ontario. Other lakes or rivers may be contaminated by mining activities or even pulp factories. This index provides some level of comfort when eating a fish from a specific lake. On the Fish-Online page, refer to Guide to Eating Ontario Fish. The index has actually all the relevant links that are needed for fishing.
The map lists the popular lakes that will have some sort of access road or boat launch. You can always cross check with the topographical map or set a GPS marker on the smart phone or Garmin.
Ontario Fish Online

Finding Crown Land
CROWN LAND USE POLICY ATLAS One important piece to the puzzle is the Crown Land Use Policy Atlas. Once we find the spot to explore, we make sure it is Crown Land. When the area is part of a General Use Area, eg. document 'G1963 Pine Lake', we verify that the activity is listed under the Recreation Activities and Facilities. The activities 'All Terrain Vehicle...' and 'Fishing' and 'Camping' are of interest to us.

Other resources
Document from Mining Division 1946 There is much more information from Natural Resources Canada or the provincial sites. The public data related to survey data in Ontario is amazing. Not only can you find rock formation, ancient lava flow, mineral deposits and any mining related detail. We found a library with claims dating back to possibly 1888 on first glimpse. But this one here is a more recent document from 1946. Not that we are going to stake a claim, or are we?
Information about geology is everywhere. Wikipedia knows everything about Apatite, Baryte, Nepheline, Pyroxenes and Sodalite to name a few. We have no idea what they are or look like, but as we said before, find them in Wikipedia.

Now you know what we know
We can not stress enough that cell phone coverage does not extent much beyond the Hwy 11 and Hwy 17 corridor. Once you venture 2 or more kilometer into the woods, you are exactly there, in the woods.
If you never did much of exploring, we recommend to read our document The Great Canadian Outdoors, especially the paragraph about Offroad Safety and How To "Outdoor".

Enjoy the outdoors.

First published on October 30, 2020 Contact Us  Help