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Get your passport to a hiking and biking adventure

John Challis - bike rally

The first time I laid eyes on a heronry, I almost went over the handlebars of my bicycle.

I was so excited by the prehistoric flavour of the swamp scene complete with a complex of stick nests that I failed to notice the volunteer leading our nature excursion on bicycle was bringing our group to a stop.

That volunteer was Washago resident John Challis, a rare mix of naturalist and cyclist.

With my eyes fixed on this community of more than a dozen great blue herons clustered in dead trees looming over a swamp, I plowed into the people in front of me and careened into a ditch amidst the guffaws and howls of my companions. Half a dozen heads on long, graceful necks rotated toward me and gave me a look of disdain. One or two other great blues opened their impossibly massive wings and dropped off the sides of their nests to glide away like pterodactyls.

The heron community’s verdict couldn’t have been clearer: idiot.

John, a kind man as well as a fine birder, may have agreed with the birds, but he didn’t let on, instead asking after my health.

This tale the may deter some from mixing nature appreciation with cycling, but the truth is one of the best way to see wildlife is from the saddle of a bicycle, and Washago area residents have an opportunity to follow — not too closely — John, his partner Gayle Carlyle, and avid cyclist Bob Omerod as they lead the next event in The Couchiching Conservancy’s Passport to Nature series.

Gayle and John will take participants on a 14-kilometre hike and bike route that will showcase two Conservancy properties: Alexander Hope Smith Nature Reserve I and II. The event starts from Centennial Park in Washago at 9 a.m. Participants will cycle to the two properties, hike the trails and return to the park by 1 p.m. You have to bring your own bicycle, water and snacks. Helmets are mandatory (see above).

Gayle has faithfully served the Conservancy for years, both as a staffer and a volunteer, and she’s an outstanding naturalist with a lifelong passion for the outdoors. A walk with her can help you read a forest like a good book. She was the mastermind behind a pair of successful cycling events the Conservancy held a few years ago and Bob Omerod was a key organizer. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more passionate about cycling than Bob.

With this trio of volunteers in the lead and a great itinerary, be sure to register in advance so as not to be disappointed. The most recent Passport event — a paddling expedition to Roehl Wetland on Sparrow Lake — was so popular we had to close registration a week ahead of the event. You can register for the Hike and Bike by going to

This event and most of the others in the Passport series are free of charge thanks to a number of generous sponsors, including this publication. These businesses support the Conservancy and its work because they understand that protecting wild spaces is a key ingredient to a healthy community. I hope you will support them, just as they have supported us.

One last word: keep a few bike lengths between you and the next person.

Written by Mark Bisset.