Winter Just Got Awesome!– Ice Climbing at SOIceFest in Maynooth

Story and photos by Michelle Annette Tremblay. Video by Sean Buk.

I’ve got some really good news. You know how sometime around the beginning of February, Canadians – with scarves pulled up, and heads bowed down – can be heard collectively muttering about the slush, the snow, and the shovelling? If you’re not a skater or a skier or a snow-person maker, the cold days can get you down. But here’s the good news. There’s another winter activity that’s been gaining traction, and it’s accessible, affordable, fun, and full of adventure.

For five years now, the uber-hip community of Maynooth in Ontario’s Highlands has hosted the Southern Ontario Ice Festival (aka SOIceFest), an event organized by experienced ice climbers who want to show others how exciting winter in Ontario can be.

Dry tooling at Diamond Lake

“Ice Climbing is the best winter Ontario sport ever!” exclaims beginner climber, Fathima Razik, who attended the 2019 festival. “It’s so amazing. It’s just the coolest feeling being up there,” she says, out of breath and smiling hard. “I don’t really like skiing much, but this is different; you can just go at your own pace. It’s awesome!”

Beginner climbers are provided with all the gear they need

Fathima rented all the equipment she needed for around $30, and made the three-hour drive from Toronto with experienced climber Ashan Corea, who showed her the ropes. She also got a lesson with one of the certified trainers on site.

“It seems intimidating, but it’s really not,” says Fathima. “The instructor gave me some really helpful tips. It’s all about foot placement.”

Ice climbing can be as fun to teach as it is to learn

Festival organizer, Josh Smith, explains that SOIceFest is a perfect venue for beginner ice climbers. The two-day event has several clinics at various locations where anyone from a first-timer to an intermediate ice climber can get hands-on instruction. In addition, top ropes for safety are already in place, and equipment – including boots, crampons (the teeth-like boot attachments), ice axes, harness and ropes – are all provided for beginner climbers.

When else is it ok to wear these gnarly things?

“We bring out fully certified instructors from Yamnuska, and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides,” explains Josh, who started the festival in 2015 with Andriy Kolos and Peter Hoang, out of sheer passion for the sport. “These instructors are the best folks you could ever learn ice climbing from in the world. And they love coming here.”

The climb is individual but the spirit is very communal

Located equidistant from Toronto and Ottawa, Maynooth is a small but vibrant community, surrounded by some of Canada’s most breathtaking wilderness. The region is laced with rivers and lakes, has rolling hills, dense forests, and stunning rock cuts. The area has long drawn rock climbers from all over the province, but it’s ice climbing and dry tooling (climbing rock with ice tools), that really have people flocking to the area in recent years. Even competitive climbers like Rebecca Lewis, who competes all over the world with Team Canada, love coming to Maynooth.

Beautiful day for a hike across a frozen lake

“Every guide that comes up here for the first time just gets this grin on their face,” reveals Josh, chuckling. “Firstly because they get to sled into the climbing area, and secondly, the reward is amazing. You just walk across a beautiful lake and you’re there, ready to climb. The pitches aren’t super high – you’re not going to climb three or four hundred feet like in the Rockies – but the quality of climbing is just fantastic. The locations are abundant, easily accessible, and very steep – like straight up and down. And everything’s so close that you can climb a lot of pitches in one day.”

The quality of the climbs in the area are superb

If you ask enthusiasts what they love about ice climbing, you’ll get a multitude of different answers. Some love the thrill of being up high, others enjoy the physical challenge, many will say they love the level of focus, and how it takes them far, far away from their day job and regular life, and still others will talk about the meticulous planning and problem solving that scaling an ice wall requires. Everyone at SOIceFest agrees, though, that community is at the heart of climbing culture.

It’s all about having a good time

Like traditional rock climbing, ice climbing is done in groups of at least two, with one person belaying, or holding the safety rope, while the other climbs. That required trust, along with hikes through the frozen landscape, and the shared sense of adventure, brings climbers close fast.

Fun in the sun

“Ice climbing is very communal. You can go all over Ontario and a lot of the climbers know each other. Everyone’s really welcoming, and really pumped for each other,” says Krysten Patrick, who originally grew up near Maynooth and is pleased that it’s become a climbing hot spot.

Getting prepped for the next climb

“Ice climbing is such a small tight community, and for SOIceFest to be here, in small Maynooth, and to have such big sponsors like Mountain Equipment Co-op and Arc’teryx is pretty awesome. It’s awesome to see people supporting such a grassroots festival.”

The historic and lively hub of SOIcefest: The Arlington

After a long and physically demanding day of climbing, the adventurers invariably end up at The Arlington, where there’s always a Saturday night social during SOIceFest, with games, prizes, vendors, presentations, and plenty of merriment. The hostel and pub, set in the historic Queen’s Hotel building on the main drag of Maynooth has become an ice climbing hub. Many climbers book rooms on the upper levels, and downstairs the pub is packed with passionate ice climbers, eagerly discussing the day’s adventure over a few pints or hot toddies.

After a long day of climbing The Arlington is the place to unwind

2020 marks the 5th anniversary of the Ice Festival, and it’s gearing up to be an amazing event, with even more pitches, more opportunities to learn, and more chances to fall in love with winter all over again.

“There’s nothing quite like it,” Josh sums up. “You’re climbing something that’s not there half the year or more, that’s different every time, and every time you go out ice climbing you’re surrounded by good friends, in the camaraderie of a cold winter day, but also getting great exercise. There’s really no greater way to spend a couple days out in Ontario in the winter.”

Make the most of the season in Ontario’s Highlands

For more information about the Southern Ontario Ice Festival, visit them online at, and be sure to follow them on their Facebook page for updates about events, registration and programs.

If you’re looking for more ways to enjoy the winter in Ontario’s Highlands, be sure to check out for tons of fun experiences!

For the Love of Garlic – Wander Over to Maynooth for the Garlic Festival

Video by Sean Buk, photos and writing by Michelle Annette Tremblay

It’s the festival you can smell a block away. Live music snakes through the crisp morning air as people greet each other with hugs, and share their mutual appreciation of nature’s great antibiotic. A vampire hunter casually says hello and assures you there are absolutely no undead in the vicinity. To your left the dancing garlic man strums his ukulele and sings about soup. To your right, someone is devouring a garlic sausage roll. Everyone is smiling. No one has fresh breath (and for once, that’s a good thing). You guessed it, you’re at the Maynooth Garlic Festival. Now an annual event, the Garlic Festival is sponsored by the Bancroft Area Stewardship Council, and takes place each August at the Maynooth Farmers Market.

Garlic, garlic, GARLIC!!!!

“The Maynooth Market is a fantastic market any day,” says Kat Stevens of Moonshadow Designs, “but this is an extra special day of course.”

Sweet garlic treats by The Chocolate Harlot

She is set up for the festival, selling garlic themed jewellery. Around her, other vendors offer all manner of garlicky items, from savoury baked goods, preserves, crafts and decor, to pottery, art, and of course lots and lots of fresh garlic of all different varieties. There are even garlic sweets, like garlic flavoured ice cream, gourmet black garlic chocolate, and garlic cookies. Shoppers stroll from table to table, pausing for a snack or to listen to the Bad Breath Blues Band.

Garlic art by Wendy Shefjella

Displayed inside the community centre, you’ll find garlic themed art, including a beautiful silk painting of garlic scapes curling up into the night sky, and a darling hand-woven garlic headdress. There are other regular market goods on display, too, such as farm fresh produce, crafts, soaps, candles, and maple syrup. But today, the focus is on that versatile, delicious, aromatic, treat. Garlic. In all its glory.

You might be surprised at how many people have come together to share their love of garlic, but then again, you’re in Maynooth. Known for its creative economy and hippie vibe, the small village just south of Algonquin Park boasts a groovy little downtown area mostly comprised of curios shops, cafes and art galleries. The historic Arlington Pub doubles as a hostel, and has live entertainment every weekend. There’s also a small grocery, a state-of-the-art library, an LCBO, and gas station. It’s an idyllic little village. But the real magic of Maynooth is found in its people. Artists, homesteaders, farmers – these are the people of Maynooth. It’s rural enough that people have space and solitude when they want it, but friendly and connected enough that there’s never a shortage of companionship or things to do. It’s one of the most engaged and supportive communities you’ll ever see.

Garlic lovers gather at the Maynooth Garlic Festival

“There’s a crazy number of people here,” says Christine Hass of Memories Bakery and Tea Room. She brought lots of garlic sausage rolls, garlic scones, and garlic Cornish Pasties. But they sold out mid-way through the festival. “We’ve got nothing left. Next year we’ll have to bake double!”

And next year we’ll have to bring a few more friends, to share the awesomeness that is the Maynooth Garlic Festival! The Maynooth Market runs from June until mid-October, on Saturdays from 8 am until 1 pm. It’s best to arrive early before everything is sold out. Follow the Maynooth Farmers Market, the Bancroft Area Stewardship Council and the Maynooth and Hastings Highlands Business Association on Facebook to stay informed about upcoming events, including the annual Garlic Festival.

See you in Maynooth!





Wandering Through the Special Madness of Maynooth

Video by Sean Buk. Photos and story by Michelle Annette Tremblay.

There’s a certain kind of madness that gets under your skin when you spend time in Maynooth. The small town has become a magnet of sorts for artists and dreamers, attracting a small but steady trickle of city-folk who are what the kids call ‘woke.’

“I’m very, very fortunate to be an artist here,” says Ren Lonechild, as he chills in the shade outside Wildewood Gallery. Inside, his paintings of ravens, dancers, turtles and the vast night sky are on display, with numerous other stunning works by talented local artists like Henry Melissa Gordon, and Freddie Towe. It is the Labour Day long weekend, and Maynooth is bursting at the seams.

Local artist Ren Lonechild chats about being an artist in Maynooth

“It’s the 29th annual Maynooth Madness,” explains festival organizer, Joey Shulman. He has been involved from the very beginning, and has watched people return to the madness year after year.

It’s not uncommon for a town to have some sort of homecoming weekend, which is what Maynooth Madness is in a sense: an opportunity for people to come together and celebrate the harvest, life in their community, friendships, art, heritage, and the passing of the seasons. But Maynooth Madness has an undercurrent that you won’t find anywhere else.

Fresh local produce at the market

“Over the years it developed two monikers,” says Shulman. “People would either say, are you going to the loggers games, or they’d just say, are you going to the madness? They wouldn’t even have to name the location… Nowhere else has the madness.”

So what is the madness? What’s so special about Maynooth? What’s so woke about this little scenic village?

It can be summed up in one word. Authenticity.

The streets of Maynooth don’t fill up every labour day weekend because of any big corporate sponsors, or big budget tourism strategies. The vendors are not the same old franchises that you see at various festivals across the province. Oh no. This festival has grown out of three decades of love. Love for art. Love for homesteading. Love for hobby farming. Love for music. Love for community. It depends on countless volunteer hours, donations, careful planning, and a shared burning love for village life.

Lakehouse on the Run gourmet food truck serves up great meals in Hastings Highlands

John Foreman, a well-respected old-timer in the area, plays his penny whistle and sings old shanty songs as he demonstrates authentic hand hewing of logs with a broad axe. A crowd of people wander over to listen to his stories, toes tapping. There are no animatronics or rides, or line-ups. Just people sharing stories, enjoying good food, taking their time, and enjoying the day. It’s the perfect festival for a wanderer. The whole downtown strip comes alive with horse-drawn carriage rides, a formidable farmers market with over 40 vendors, live music, kids activities, a car show, and so much food. And it feels like everyone knows each other. Even if they just met for the first time yesterday.

Master canoe builder Chuck Commanda of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation demonstrates his skills

“I’ve never been in a community like this before,” says Lonechild. “It’s got a nice vibe, and everybody jives really well. All the artists get together and compare notes. We praise each other and congratulate each other when we sell work.”

Perhaps it’s the physical beauty of Maynooth, located less than an hour from famed Algonquin Provincial Park; or maybe it’s the low cost of real estate and low cost of living, that attracts so many artists and homesteaders. Or maybe, the rockhounds are right, and it’s crystal magic. Whatever it is that attracts you to Maynooth, you’re not alone. There is a madness here. A glorious madness that puts people above profit, and peace above progress.

Local musicians sharing songs

“Certainly over the last 30 years here, I just continue to be in awe of how much talent there is here,” says Shulman. “Musically, visual artists, writers, poets, designers… It’s a very expressive community. And it’s thriving.”

Do you feel the madness within you? Mark your calendar for the 30th Annual Maynooth Madness next Labour Day Long weekend. Learn more at