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Groups trying to reopen Cabot Head Road as a pretty wilderness trail

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A plan to turn the picturesque but storm-damaged Cabot Head Road into solely a walking and cycling trail has the money and stakeholder support to complete the job this year, says a coalition of Bruce Peninsula charitable organizations proposing it.

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The compacted gravel road leads to the Cabot Head lighthouse at the end of the road, and the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory, a scientific monitoring station along an international migratory bird route.

The road offers kilometres-long views of Georgian Bay as it hugs the shoreline.

It has been closed since high water in 2019-20 washed out about 450 metres of its eight-kilometre length. It’s privately owned by individuals and Ontario Parks, which complicates repairing and reopening it as a public road.

Not allowing cars on the eight-kilometre trail would mean an eight-kilometre hike or bike for anyone wanting to access the lighthouse, Elizabeth Thorn acknowledged Monday.

She’s president of the Bruce Peninsula Biosphere Association and vice-president of the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory, two of the three charitable groups pitching the plan. Friends of Cabot Head Lighthouse is the third.

But fixing the road “is going to be prohibitively expensive and there are a number of stakeholders who much prefer to have a bike path,” Thorn said.

Residents in Dyer’s Bay are tired of all the traffic, roadside parking, litter, some thefts and have endorsed this plan, the groups’ report says. They’re also concerned about damage to ecologically sensitive areas, including from any parking lot expansion, and oppose increasing the area’s tourism capacity.

The groups warn the lighthouse may be torn down and vandalism will continue unless a solution that restores visitor access is found.

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At the same time, the proposal calls for no expansion of the Dyer’s Bay parking lot by the trailhead, it advocates against a shuttle service to the lighthouse, no active marketing of the trail by the charities or municipality and possibly use of a reservation system in future.

The annual Gravel Gran Fondo bike tour fundraiser, which starts at the Lion’s Head lighthouse and runs to the Cabot Head lighthouse, would still be permitted. The event is scheduled for Oct. 3.

Consultations have involved Cabot Head landowners, Ontario Parks, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Northern Bruce Peninsula municipal staff, the Dyer’s Bay Property Owners Association, local Bruce Trail club members and staff and Saugeen Ojibway Nation.

“(A)ll groups have indicated support for the proposal or are evaluating . . . ,” the groups’ presentation to Northern Bruce Peninsula council on July 12 said.

The only opposition Thorn said she knows about has come from individuals who would like to continue riding their ATVs on the road. Some continue to use the closed road, the trail report to council says.

The proposal is subject to review by Bruce County and the municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula. More meetings with the municipality are to happen over the summer, with a final presentation to council in late summer.

A $124,000 Trillium grant the groups received would be used to turn Cabot Head Road to a “wilderness trail” and fix the four damaged sections of the single-lane road. The money must be spent by year’s end or it’s lost.

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The trail would restore access to the lighthouse, bird observatory and allow for recreational trail uses, with car use limited to volunteers and emergency crews. No ATVs would be permitted but certain pedaled e-bikes would.

Parking fees in the Dyer’s Bay municipal lot, plus trail-access and lighthouse fees are proposed to keep the trail financially self-sustaining while feeding revenues to the charities involved, while locals should have free access, according to the proposal.

All three charitable organizations have suffered financially due to the closed road and revenue losses due to COVID-19 and so they took it upon themselves to work out a solution.

Cabot Head Road has been municipally maintained and so the group hopes discussions produce a municipal commitment to maintain the trail, Thorn said.

The report says there needs to be a formal, legal agreement between all relevant parties to “solve long standing ownership/access rights and issues” too.

Cabot Head lighthouse, which is owned by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, used to draw 16,000 to 18,000 visitors annually. It was leased to the municipality, which sub-leased it to the Friends of Cabot Head Lighthouse.

The municipality didn’t renew its lease in February 2020. The Friends ran seasonal programs, a gift shop and museum there without municipal tax support.

But the lighthouse has been closed since the 2017 tourism season and so revenues dropped to nil while utility costs continued.

Initially it was closed for a $1.3-million makeover, primarily undertaken to reface the lighthouse and remove toxic lead-based paint and other contaminants. The washed-out road kept it closed.

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