Impasse over snowmobilers’ use of Elora Cataract Trailway could be nearing its end

ERIN – Three years after the Hillsburgh Snow Roamers were forced off a 14km stretch of the Elora Cataract Trailway owned by the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA), the club is calling on town council to advocate for its return.

In 2019, the Ontario Federation of Snowmobiling Clubs (OFSC), which provides insurance coverage to clubs across 17 districts, reviewed trailway land use agreements, identifying clauses that could expose club volunteers to uninsured risk.

As a result, the Elora Cataract Trailway, with portions owned by both the Grand River and Credit Valley Conservation authorities, was closed off to the snowmobilers.

Though the club struck a new agreement with Credit Valley Conservation in 2021, allowing for a return to 9km of the trailway, discussions with the GRCA haven’t been as successful.

Riders are currently travelling down roads and ditches for long distances to get around the barred portion running from 6th Line in Hillsburgh to Wellington  Road 26 in Belwood.

Reinstating the trail’s use would reconnect Hillsburgh, Orton and Belwood for the hundreds of riders using around 100km of local trail systems.

Orton-based rider Paul Collette, who considers himself part of the “stranded snowmobilers of Orton,” told the Advertiser he’s riding several kilometres along roadways to bypass the prohibited trail portion.

“It’s a huge inconvenience and it’s more dangerous,” he remarked.

Road-running also isn’t good for the machine, Collette said, and that discourages riders.

Speaking to Erin council on Jan. 19, Hillsburgh Snow Roamers club president Drew McKillop said, “The key issue with the existing GRCA licence agreement, as it is today, is that it transfers virtually all liability of trail usage to the [club] … even if it does not relate in any way to snowmobiling.”

In December, the OFSC provided the GRCA with an adjusted version of its 2019 agreement, along with a report classifying issues into priority categories.

The GRCA has indicated it remains open to negotiations and gradually bringing segments of its trail system back into use, as has been the case in Mapleton starting in 2021. 

(In 2019, all 47km of GRCA trails across Wellington County were taken off the map for snowmobilers.)

“This is where we could really use your help to proactively reach out to the GRCA,” McKillop told council on Jan. 19.

“The residents along this section of trail are currently cut off from our trail system.”

McKillop added reinstatement of trail use would “eliminate the road-running that is occurring now to access our trails.”

Councillors John Brennan and Jamie Cheyne voiced support for McKillop’s request.

“We would be glad to do whatever we can to advocate on your behalf,” Brennan said.

In an email to the Advertiser, Brennan stated town staff is meeting with McKillop this week to understand “what type of assistance the club is looking for, and to explore how the town may be able to support the club.” 

Speaking by phone, McKillop said he’s feeling optimistic the impasse can be resolved considering the positive 22-year history between the club and authority (though it will be the OFSC that the conservation authority negotiates insurance issues with).

GRCA board chair Chris White confirmed to the Advertiser the authority intends to meet with town staff and “do everything we can to get snowmobilers back up and running.” 

The authority is figuratively breaking the trail system up into parts and figuring out “where we can make it work, and where we can’t,” White explained by phone.

“We have to go out to these trails, take a look at what it would take to make sure everybody’s happy with the insurance.”

White said the GRCA isn’t anti-snowmobile — “we love it, we want that to continue” — but snowmobiling, he added, “is not a core mandate service of the GRCA.” 

So the authority cannot simply spend the money and time for staff to inspect trails for snowmobiling and determine what is acceptable for liability, according to White.

“I don’t know what this looks like yet, but it’s going to be a three-way conversation between the GRCA, the snowmobile people of course … and then the [town],” White said. 

“So the municipality may in fact be a partner — that’s why we want to talk to them.”

White said he hopes the issues can be resolved quickly, with a goal of bringing the entire stretch of trail back into use “hopefully by next snowmobile season.”