It’s three days of scavenger hunting, clue searching, and careful driving, and it’s lots of fun. The fourth mostly-annual Mazda Adventure Rally pitted 10 teams of Canadian automotive media against each other on 1,000 kilometres of twisting roads in Ontario’s cottage country.
By Mark Richardson
The competition was intense and the stakes high: the winning team would take home $10,000 as a donation to the charity of their choice. And to cap it off, the rally cars would be the brand-new Mazda MX-5 RF – the just-released, Targa-roofed versions of Mazda’s best-selling roadster. Who cares that temperatures were below freezing?
Autofile’s team was Mark Richardson (me) and Emily Atkins. The charity we were competing for was the Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre in Cobourg, Ontario – a women’s shelter that would make very good use of any donation.
There have been three previous Mazda Rallies, in the Colorado Rockies, the Appalachian Mountains, and in 2015, the B.C. Rockies. We competed together for the first time in the B.C. rally and came in second place, driving a Mazda CX-3, so we really wanted to win this one. One other previous team – the B.C. winners – were also there in Muskoka, and they were clearly the team to beat.
We started after a brief introduction near Toronto’s Pearson airport and were given turn-by-turn directions north to Creemore, ON. No GPS. No published distances. No room for error. Along the way, we had to keep a watch out for clues along the highway, and answer questions about things we had to locate. There were more than two dozen questions and most of their answers could be anywhere.
It sounds easy, but it’s a lot of questions to keep in your head, especially if you miss something and keep searching long after it’s passed. If you’re looking in the other direction when you pass this statue of a rooster, for instance, you’ll never be able to answer the question about its colour and you’ll miss a half point.
It didn’t take long before we started driving on dirt roads. There was still plenty of snow in the ditches, though this was the first day of spring, and by the time we reached the lunch stop at Creemore, the little targas were filthy. Most of the teams kept their roofs down but we were in it to win it and kept the roof in place for now. It was a bit noisy but otherwise warm and comfortable.
After Creemore, we carried on to Muskoka, headed to Bala but taking bumpy cottage roads for most of the route. The best way to keep on top of the questions was to write them on sticky notes and plaster them to the instrument panel. This was a trick we learned from B.C., and it helps remind you of what you need to be looking for. The clues could be in plain sight, or they could be hidden in the trees – we didn’t know.
Nobody earned a perfect score that afternoon. The top team at the end of the day was the previous winning team from B.C., who missed only one question, writing down an incorrect emergency street number for the main Caledon ski lodge. There are two lodges at the Caledon ski club – who knew?
One team almost earned negative points. They hadn’t realized the time constraints – you have a time limit for each section – and stopped for “a picnic.” They were enjoying themselves, but they weren’t winning. We arrived at the hotel with only a few minutes to spare, but it was enough to avoid a brutal five-point penalty.
We came in second place at the end of the day, half a point behind the leaders. We never did see one clue – it was at the same site as another clue, and we were so pleased to get the one that we missed the other. That wasn’t the worst, though: the other half-point we lost was in our answer to “the model of Mazda you are driving is…” The answer, of course, is MX-5 RF, but I thought that too obvious and wrote down the trim level, which is GT. Overthinking – Doh!
The next morning started a long day of driving. We were close to the leaders in points, but others were also close to us, nipping at our tailpipe. It was cold so we kept the top up. The rally was anyone’s to win or lose.
Directions were set on our special GPS units that told us where to go, but that meant we only knew which would be the next road – we really didn’t know where we’d end up. We headed east into the morning mist.
At the last moment, we were given an extra task. Somewhere along the way, we’d see a building that was once used in an obscure 1999 TV movie – we had to recognize the building and describe three differences from back then. Emily spotted it as we drove through Bala, barely 10 minutes away. We were behind four other rally Mazdas that carried on past without noticing. We made sure they didn’t see us pull in and hide the car.
Only one other team was there, also with their car hidden. We watched other Mazdas pass, then moved our car to the front of the hotel for a required photo. Half a point!
More clues to find, and roads to identify, and signs to spot. One of the challenges was to find at least 10 Adopt A Highway signs and write down the names of the organizations that adopted that stretch of road.
We saw at least 20 Adopt A Highway signs. This was the easiest challenge of the day.
I drove on this second morning. The roads were terrific and took us out toward Bancroft. Emily kept track of the questions and clues, and the two of us scanned constantly.
At Wilberforce, a tiny community in the Kawarthas, one of the questions asked to name “three weekly activities” at the local Legion. The answers were not at the Legion itself but posted on a sign several kilometres from town. We saw the sign; the team in the lead did not. Score!
Also at Wilberforce, we were asked to write down the GPS coordinates that we’d see on a building, except the sign had blown down. The first drivers through missed this, but when other drivers started asking in the community, the post mistress helpfully posted a notice. We were holding back, so another point to us!
We were doing better, but we also had a secret weapon: my lucky fuzzy dice. I bought them a couple of years ago on Route 66 in the States and they’ve not failed me yet. I’d not hung them from the mirror on the first day but they were there now, and by lunchtime, we hadn’t missed a single find.
The cars were cleaner today and the weather was gorgeous. Still only a few degrees above freezing, but clear skies and still wind – when we were parked, at least. Most of the other teams had their tops down all the way.
Some kept their tops down after lunch too, but this hurt them in the next challenge. We were still searching for clues, but we also had to use as little fuel as possible for more than 100 kilometres of driving back west through Algonquin Park and on to Huntsville. Putting the top down is fun, but it makes the car much less aerodynamic. Emily drove this afternoon and kept a very light foot on the gas.
The road was near empty through the park and we drove slowly, 10 km/h below the speed limit to conserve fuel.
It was frustrating to drive slowly when you’re still on the clock – we had to return to the hotel within a certain time, and still had a few clues to find – but our fuel consumption stayed low. Here, we were averaging 5.2 L/100 km, but when we eventually reached Huntsville, we’d got it down to 5.0. The best team recorded just 4.8 L/100 km, setting their cruise control to 71 km/h and closing the roof, while the worst team, driving carefully but with the roof open, averaged 5.9 L/100 km.
It was easier, of course, to spot clues at slower speeds. What is the statue outside the Dwight Trading Post? A bear, of course! But we still missed one – a small CB radio sign at the back of a parking lot that most teams also missed. Down a point.
The roads were still beautiful, if slippery in the shade, and the weather was lovely for the MX-5 RF. It’s considered to be a convertible for people who don’t really like convertibles. It looks good with the roof in place, and Mazda believes most buyers of the “Retractable Fastback” will only drop the top 20 per cent of the time, while regular MX-5 roadster owners will drop the top 80 per cent of the time.
Emily doesn’t like convertibles, especially in freezing temperatures, and we kept the roof closed. But we were confident we were up in the rankings, and at the end of the day found we’d moved into first place with a razor-thin margin of 1.5 points over the second-place team – it must be the dice!
The third and final morning was very cold, after the temperature dropped to below -10 Celsius overnight. Even so, most of the teams lowered their roofs and drove off on the last scavenger hunt. This time, we had to follow paper maps and find some craft breweries. More “mature” drivers like Emily and I had no problem with this, but some of the young whippersnappers said they’d never used a paper map in their lives.
We were optimistic, but not yet confident. There was still a long way to go, and many opportunities to slip up. We kept the roof in place and drove south, with Emily following the map and calling out directions.
This time, we had to answer questions from road signs – phone numbers and missing words – but also identify objects that were only partially seen in poor-quality photographs on our clue book. This object we felt sure was a kayak.
It was not. We saw only a flash of blue as we sped past this pedal boat. It’s a good thing we went back to check – another point!
The final big challenge of the day was to identify murals that commemorate paintings from the Group of Seven, and correctly state if our drive route took us past them or not. There are dozens of these beautiful murals in Huntsville and Baysville and other Muskoka towns, where the famous artists painted, but not all the 11 paintings in our clue book would be seen alongside the drive route.
We spotted Tom Thompson’s Autumn Foliage as a mural above the Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville, but it wasn’t in our book. The challenge was, if we didn’t spot a mural and just guessed at whether we should have seen it or not, and got the answer wrong, we’d earn a minus point. No way we wanted that.
The last challenge, though, was more of a reward. We had to stop at Sugarbush Hill Maple Farm and sample some maple syrup and maple butter, given to us by the owner, Tom Stehr.
This put us in such a good mood that we finally put the roof down for the final half-hour drive back to the hotel. We weren’t sure of the points yet, and we were worried we’d messed up the murals because we’d not seen two of them, but we were optimistic we’d be back on the podium.
That evening, the results were announced by rally organizer Jud Buchanan, whose events company had mapped out the route and come up with all the questions. His was the last word on whether an answer was correct or not, and we were all nervous.
And yes – we won! In the end, we were a clear five points ahead of the second-place team, with a total of 75 points overall.
We won a $10,000 donation to the Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre. The second-place winners from Exhausted.ca won a $2,000 donation to Intercede International, and the third-place winners won a $1,000 donation to the Canadian Cancer Society.
The charities were the real winners, of course, but Emily and I were happy to have been able to help by having such a good time behind the wheel of such a fun car.
In fact, we were so pleased that we celebrated by driving back to Toronto in minus-6 sunshine with the top down all the way. We cranked the heat and wore warm hats and never even felt the cold.
Many thanks to Jud Buchanan and the Vehicle Dynamics Group, for preparing such a challenging but enjoyable rally, and to Mazda for supplying such a fun car and making generous charitable donations in our names. See you at the next Adventure Rally!
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