Victoria Day in Canada is always a tempting time to take a short road trip and enjoy the progressively more pleasant weather of late May. Of all the enticing places to visit, for me Québec is always hard to resist. Thus we packed up for what would become our last 2-up motorcycle trip (I got my own bike less than a month later). The destinations this time would be north of St. Lawrence River, going as far as the towns of Saguenay and Tadoussac. 5 days of bike riding and good food? We should do it again some time…
We left Toronto on a Thursday afternoon, aiming to get to Montréal before nightfall. The temperatures were reaching almost 25 ºC midday, but by the time we reached Québec, it was below 10 ºC. Needless to say, wearing the same gear throughout, we were shivering. At the first available gas station after crossing into Québec, we got out some additional sweaters and continued on with a bit more comfort. In Montréal, our hotel welcomed us with a room on the upper floor with a very reasonable view of the city, but what we really wanted was dinner! Food is something I rarely get disappointed with when visiting our francophone province, and that night’s meal at Reuben’s was no exception. A restaurant that’s open from early breakfast to midnight AND has awesome food? That’s why I book downtown hotels, 5 minute walk away from the good stuff :).
Friday — Montréal to Chicoutimi
The morning was cool but sunny, starting up with a delicious breakfast on the now deserted rue Sainte-Catherine. It was just past morning rush hour as we headed out by rue Notre-Dame, but the city roads were still a tiny bit congested.
Sharing the road with various motorized vehicles were several horse driven carriages. Clearly aimed at leisurely tourists, they did not have a whole lot of business on a Friday morning. It strikes me as a bit odd though, when I realize that I have seen such attractions in Montréal and NYC, but not in Toronto. In Toronto horses are a serious matter — reserved for serious stuff like police duties.
Rue Notre-Dame turns into Route 138 and continues incessantly along the north shore of St. Lawrence River. It goes way farther than most would be willing to travel, and we parted ways with it in Québec City. After stopping for lunch in the old part of the city, we turned north by route 175, away from the numerous towns lining up the river bank and into the open wilderness.
To compensate for the long time spent sitting on the bike, we decided to take a short hike in the Jacques-Cartier National Park. The vegetation in the area is not unlike that in Ontario, but what sets it apart are the elevation changes and the beautiful mountainous vistas opening up every now and again between the trees.
By the time we were ready to leave, the sun was setting and we were still over an hour away from Chicoutimi. Then there was also a minor issue of running low on fuel. This being for most intents and purposes a middle of nowhere kind of area, gas stations were far between. At least I still had reception, and my phone promised me that there would be a gas station just about 10 km before we would run dry. The obvious question was, would it still be open, or would it be closed for renovation, or lunch, or a fishing trip? Thankfully, it was still open. (That’s why I love Québec more than say, New Brunswick. If it were NB, they’d close up at 8 pm. I know because I had the pleasure of fuelling up in the Middle-of-Nowhere, NB at 7:55 pm.)
Somewhere along the way, in almost complete darkness, after the fences separating the highway from the wildlife habitat ended, we noticed something shifty ahead. Turned out it was a group of 3 moose chilling right near the edge of the road. We slowed down and honked to drive them away, as there were a few cars behind us, and it seemed like a good idea to reduce their chances of getting close and personal with the moose.
And so we made it to Chicoutimi without having to resort to hitchhiking.
One of the cool things we planned to do on this trip was a whale watching boat tour. To make the best of our time in the Saguenay region we booked a 9 am boat tour to have the rest of the day free to explore on the bike. As I was looking over the booking information to figure out what time to set the morning alarm to, I realized that while we were staying in Chicoutimi, the boat departed from Tadoussac, some one and a half hours away. Our B&B hosts would only serve breakfast at 8 am, and in general, the prospect of waking up a full hour before sunrise and riding through the cold pre-dawn air did not seem very appealing. We decided to call the tour operator as soon as we wake up next morning and hope for the best.
Saturday — Saguenay River
Our hopes for seeing whales that day were realized: the tour was rescheduled for noon, with plenty of time to indulge in a tasty breakfast, served with loads of fine maple syrup. As we left Chicoutimi, the air was cool and crisp, the sun shining in the most vibrant way since the beginning of our journey.
Route 172 follows the Saguenay River very closely for a brief while, and then goes a little further inland, passing through numerous lakes and creeks, with the occasional waterfall descending from the ridges towards the lowlands. To call this place picturesque is a major understatement.
The Saguenay Fjord National Park that surrounds the river could easily be a destination to spend a few days in, but our trip being only slightly longer than a weekend getaway, we had to keep going. We reached Tadoussac with plenty of time left to check out a cute diner a walking distance from the docks, where we picked up some burgers to eat on the boat. I love seeing these inviting signs that say Ouvert. It’s my favourite chain of restaurants in Québec (Fermé, on the other hand, is a total buzz killer). 😉
It took about half an hour for the boat to leave the docks and go far enough into Le fleuve Saint-Laurent to see our first whale – a minke. They were few and far between, and did not want to stay around the boat for too long. Another half an hour later, with the boat finally straddling in the middle of the gulf, we saw a group of beluga whales, together with a small calf. There were at least 6 of them close to the boat. These guys did not mind our company as much and kept swimming around, doing their thing. Blowing air, mostly.
May is still only the beginning of whale watching season, so after the beluga encounter, the rest of the trip was uneventful. The wind outside was quite cold and we got inside the main cabin to warm up. Upon getting back to dry land we decided to walk around a bit, and noticed a scene near the pier not unlike what we had just seen.
Soon we headed back by the same beautiful route 172, where a groundhog bid us farewell on the way out of the town.
With a couple more hours of sunlight remaining, we decided to check out the area south of Monts-Valin National Park. In essence, the moral of this outing can be described as, so much to ride, so little time.
The sun was hanging just a degree or two above the horizon, so we headed back to Chicoutimi, and were treated to a wonderful view of the town from across the river, basking in the warm glow of the sunset.
Sunday — Réserve faunique des Laurentides
With the trip at its halfway point, it was time to turn back. Alex was quite disappointed that we did not have enough time to explore the off road areas north of Saguenay, and wanted a real off road adventure this time. Laurentides Wildlife Reserve seemed like a place to do it.
The wildlife reserve takes up the bulk of land between Chicoutimi and Québec City, with small portions turned into a couple of national parks for good measure. It is split in two by the highway, so there are lots of opportunities to enter it as you go along. We tried a few of them and had to go back when the road turned out too weird or simply blocked off. While stopped at a gas station I was looking over the various maps on my phone (versions that show off-road trails), and finally found a promising route that would give us about 30 km of potentially interesting terrain. We found the trailhead, and soon realized it was the right trail to take.
The path was hard packed dirt, with the occasional porcupine walking by. The trail was lined with sign posts marking pathways towards lakes and rivers for fishing. Lots of bridges, lots of rapids, lots of places that just take your breath away.
The deeper inwards we went, the more elevation we gained. Some parts were fairly steep, and this being a sport touring motorcycle rather than a dirt bike, one would have to really question the sensibility of what this Suzuki was going through. Still, the lack of deep sand and soft mud were to our advantage and there were only a few places that felt a bit too challenging for riding with a passenger.
Every now and again the road opened up to a view of a gorgeous mountain valley, or passed over river rapids. Several times we passed side roads that lead to cottages on some of the reserve’s thousands of lakes. As we were getting closer to the point where the trail exits back to the highway, the traffic got busier (we met two cars), so I suspect it’s quite a popular summer retreat among the locals.
For lunch we stopped in Québec City, again. Indulged in a bit of window shopping, before continuing further west along route 138.
The weather turned a bit sour, with thick clouds covering the sky and promising to burst into rain at any moment. It took us about 2 hours to reach Trois-Rivières and as menacing as the clouds were, their timing couldn’t be better. The rain did not break out until we arrived and unpacked at the B&B and were safe under cover eating dinner at an Italian restaurant in the heart of town.
Monday — La Mauricie National Park
It was raining all night, and any dust accumulated on the bike during the previous day’s off road venture was washed right off. It was overcast outside, with just a hint of being gloomy. Trois-Rivières was only a one night stopover for us, but that is hardly enough when it comes to pretty little towns along the shore of St. Lawrence. We took a stroll along the waterfront after breakfast to get a better feel for the town in daylight. I’m betting everything seems better with the sun out.
To satisfy the craving for curved roads and inspiring landscapes we headed to La Mauricie National Park, just a bit north of Trois-Rivières. A very well maintained, moderately twisty road passed through the park. Not as twisty as some, but definitely more varied than the highway passing through Algonquin. Lakes, rivers, and modestly sized mountains line up the landscapes, with lots of opportunities for hiking, if you have the time.
A highlight of the trip was a particular observation point that showcased a beautiful river valley with the road passing in close proximity. I took a few video shots of the bike in motion against the gorgeous backdrop of the valley (post production still pending), and after fighting off the pushy bugs that tried their hardest to get under my visor, we kept going to explore more of the park.
Once we reached the opposite end of the park, we turned around and rode the exact same way back, except this time with fewer stops, and trying a little harder in the curves.
By the time we got out of the park, it was past 3 pm, and we were starving! Usually Québec is a very satisfying place food wise, but this time all the places we stumbled upon (or found online and rode to) were Fermé, Fermé, and more Fermé. Just outside the park boundaries there was a small town that had an envious location on the shore of the Saint-Maurice river, but seemed to be in the process of becoming a ghost. Almost every house had an à vendre sign on it, and no viable lunch spot was seen either. A lot of places had a case of the Monday’s, and it took a while for us to find something that was open and seemingly decent.
After lunch we made our long winded way to Gatineau, avoiding the freeways and trying to find a route we have not taken before. It wasn’t the best weather, overcast and with fairly dull light. Farmlands and rivers, over and again, passed by at the posted speed limit of 90 km/h. As the sun set and darkness began to slowly creep up on us, we switched to freeway 50, and arrived in the city at nightfall. Although dark, it was not yet that late, and after unpacking we took a walk around the quiet neighbourhood to the nearest convenience store, where we got some sandwiches and ate them in our room.
Tuesday — Cloudy Ride Home
The last day of our trip was just as cloudy as the previous one, quite in contrast to the sunny days earlier in the trip. We crossed into Ottawa, and although we initially considered stopping by at Parliament Hill or other city landmarks for some photos, it did not look so tempting once we got there. The weather was gloomy, and the only splashes of colour were provided by the orange construction fences and cones. The entire downtown core seemed to be busy building and restoring things, which is great in the long run, but caused many potentially interesting places to be hidden from view.
On our way out of the city we took highway 7, which actually goes all the way to Toronto and beyond, but not in the most straight forward manner. It can be enjoyable to take the less-than-direct route if the location is interesting, but the majority of land on this stretch of hwy 7 is flat, and rather boring. One of the few curious encounters came near Crowe Lake, when we noticed weird looking cows grazing in a forest clearing near the road.
These are not your typical domestic cattle, but I don’t know the bovine species well enough to identify them.
The flat boring roads eventually got to us, and upon reaching Peterborough we switch to the freeways to expedite our arrival home. The trip ended less gloriously than it started, but there was lots of new beginnings to come, as I would be taking my motorcycle course the following weekend :).