Amy Stuart thought she could avoid cottage-bound long weekend traffic last summer.
A Friday afternoon bumper-to-bumper crawl up Highway 400 would be gruesome with three kids under five years of age in the back seat. She and her husband decided to leave early Saturday morning.
“I was loading the car at about 8:30 a.m. when a bad feeling crept over me,” says Ms. Stuart. Up and down her street, near Bloor and Ossington, five other families were cramming coolers and life jackets into cars.
“It took us 3 1/2 hours to get to Barrie,” says Ms. Stuart, enough time for several conversations about turning back.
Past Barrie, they picked up speed briefly before turning into their leafy cottage lane east of Huntsville, but there was little dock time for them that day.
The long-weekend haul to the cottage is an increasingly daunting prospect for cottaging Torontonians wanting to take advantage of an extra day off work.
Ministry of transportation data show that for the Victoria Day long weekend, traffic volumes on Highway 400 are 25 per cent higher than normal summer weekends. They are 50 per cent higher on Highway 35/115 heading to Haliburton and the Kawarthas. According to the ministry, long-weekend highway volumes have increased about two per cent over the last five years.
Of course, cottage types tend to be resourceful. Whether by shifting schedules, finding new routes or even new means of travelling, weekend warriors are finding ways to get to the end of the road.
New departure times are the most effective ways to adapt.
“Go home, have a nice dinner, and then get on the road,” says Cam Woolley, a 30-year-veteran of the O.P.P. and current traffic and safety specialist for CP24. He says that while outgoing Friday traffic can be stop-and-go by noon or earlier, over the last four years the roads have been clearing in the evenings. “As long as driving and arriving in the dark isn’t a problem, traffic on the 400-series highways starts getting up to the speed limit by 7 p.m.,” says Mr. Woolley.
As for the Saturday-morning strategy of Ms. Stuart, Mr. Woolley says the roads get busy by 7 a.m. and stay that way until mid-afternoon.
Beach bums find themselves at a distinct advantage at exodus time. Anyone heading west to Lake Huron’s sweeping shore still have to fight their way through Mississauga on the 401, but as soon as they hit Guelph an angled grid of rural roads offers a choice of relatively traffic-free northwest routes.
Those heading for shield country north and east of Toronto have fewer options, but can still find ways to fight the hordes. Here’s how.
To the north: Planes, trains and automobiles
Even if a peak-period departure is unavoidable, a slow trudge up the 400 isn’t.
Cam Woolley laments the fact that map-reading is becoming a lost art in the age of GPS. “So many people only know one way to their cottage,” he says.
If you’re heading to Barrie and beyond, lose the tunnel vision and shift west a few kilometres to Highway 56, 5th Sideroad or Highway 27. Top speeds might be slow but you’ll be moving faster than drivers tragically wedded to an unloving Highway 400.
Those destined for Highway 11 will need to ease back onto the 400 by County Road 90 (Ron Taylor, who maintains 400eleven.com, a cottage-country travel info website, suggests steering deep into Barrie proper for a bite before heading for Orillia via Regional Road 20).
For anyone heading to Georgian Bay or western Muskoka, the Highway 27 route puts you in position to bypass Barrie entirely. Mr. Taylor suggests that where Highway 27 meets the 90, you jog west to Highway 28 and continue north. The road turns into Highway 26 west, which you’ll follow for three kilometres until heading east back to the 400 via Highway 22. From there it should be smooth sailing on a highway that’s been newly twinned to north of Parry Sound.
As for highway expansion, the only north/south project under way is an extension of Highway 404 to Ravenshoe Road. When it’s completed in two years, the dream of an alternative multi-lane route to Muskoka that goes east of Lake Simcoe will be 13 kilometres closer to realization (only 84 kilometres more to go).
Avoiding road traffic altogether isn’t possible for everyone, but trains and planes promise big payoffs for the right travellers.
The railroad tracks that delivered Ontario’s first wave of frilly-dressed cottagers to Muskoka are still in service. Ontario Northland trains leave Union Station at 8:40 a.m. every day except Saturday, bound for Washago, Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Huntsville and beyond. It takes just over two hours to get to Gravenhurst and costs $41. More critical from an avoiding-traffic point of view, return trips head south late Sunday and Monday afternoons. It’s a civilized option for those who travel light, and can be picked up at the station.
A handful of air charters (including Georgian Bay Airways and Cameron Air) leave from the island’s Billy Bishop Airport and deposit customers at the dock of their choice. Flights take about an hour and cost roughly $350 per person for three to eight passengers.
To the east: Goodbye 401, hello apple orchards
Over the course of three decades, Michelle Kelly watched her family cottage north of Kingston get farther and farther away.
“In my mind, it was always a three-hour drive,” says the executive editor of Cottage Life magazine. “Lately, I realized it was routinely five hours, depending when you left.”
“True cottagers have a secret passage to the cottage,” maintains Ms. Kelly. All it takes, she says, is a willingness to explore and see somewhere new while leaving soul-crushing traffic behind. To get to points between Belleville and Ottawa, she favours Highway 2, running south of Highway 401. “It’s a beautiful drive through apple country,” says Ms. Kelly.
Popular alternatives to the Highway 35/115 route to the Kawarthas and beyond include the Highway 57 route up the southeast shore of Lake Scugog, and the Highway 14 sneak across the Chemong Lake causeway at Bridgenorth.
Of course, before route-finding can get too fun, you have to clear the city. Kingston Road is one eastbound route out of the city on which the traffic lights can be less demoralizing than the brake lights on the DVP and 401.
To familiarize yourself with peak periods and routine backups, even on normal weekends, start studying the MTO’s important-sounding Traveller Road Information Portal (TRIP) site. In addition to construction updates, you can view Compass traffic cameras for as far east as Ajax.
Above all, don’t lose sight of the end goal. “People who love their cottages are willing to tackle the traffic,” says Ms. Kelly. “As soon as you see the lake and start your ritual, the traffic just falls away.”
Special to The Globe and Mail