P’tit Train du Nord Bicycle Tour 2015

P'tit Train du Nord - Bicycles Loaded for the Shuttle Ride to Mont Laurier
P’tit Train du Nord – Bicycles Loaded for the Shuttle Ride to Mont Laurier

Copyright 2015 Ed Wojtaszek

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June 20 was a travel day between Alma, where I had just completed my bicycle tour of the Veloroute des Bleuets, and St-Jerome, where I would start my tour of the P’tit Train du Nord, in Quebec. I was advised to use highway 55 rather than 169 through Quebec City. It was a good choice because it was a ride through hills and along rivers that avoided the Quebec City congestion.

Since I was in Canada, a stop at Tim Horton’s was mandatory. For lunch I had salad de poulet sur croissant. Actually, I ordered by number by holding fingers up. My French vocabulary is equivalent to the vocabulary of a dog: “Oui“, “no“, “cest bon“, and “boeuf“. A smart dog probably has a larger vocabulary than my French.

I used Auberge Chez Ignace in Nominingue to make all of the reservations for my three day and two night tour. That included a shuttle from St-Jerome to Mont Laurier, the northern trail head, and the overnights. My overnight stops were at Nominingue where I stayed at Auberge Chez Ignace and Mont Tremblant where I stayed at Auberge Le Voyageur. The total distance that I rode was 128 miles or 205 kilometers.

After checking in to the Best Western motel in St-Jerome, I did a dry run to my shuttle pick-up point and it was a good thing that I did. The pick-up area has so many attractions and I could not identify my pick-up point. I called the shuttle service to confirm the location. The woman who was managing the reservations for my trip answered the phone and told me that the office was the second caboose, the other being a restaurant. Before disconnecting I asked, “Are you there now?” She said, “Yes.” I walked to the caboose and introduced myself.

I had a question about where to park. Got that answered. You park in the large unpaved lot near the caboose, pay a fee by using the machines in the lot, and leave the ticket in the dashboard. There is a seven day limit, which is plenty. I confirmed the pick-up time, which was 7:15, and the exact place, which was in front of the caboose.

Day One – June 21

At 8 AM we boarded the bus, headed to the trail head in Mont-Laurier. The weather was cloudy and the temperature was in the low 60s. Thirteen riders were headed north to begin their ride on the P’tit Train du Nord. I was the odd one. There were five pairs from Ontario: two sisters and four married couples and I would see them frequently on the trail.

We arrived in Mont-Laurier as promised at 10:30. The bus driver pointed us in the right direction and also issued an animal warning. He said that if you see a large swan on the trail, stay away. He explained that if the male is nearby it may attack you. Apparently a woman was in that situation last year. The bird jumped her and knocked her to the ground. It proceeded to beat the crap out of her with its head and beak. She was taken to the hospital.

I loaded my bike and began to ride with the intention of stopping at the IGA grocery store on the trail for some food. It was only 55 kilometers to my auberge, but I needed a chocolate milk hit and some fruit before the ride. I also bought some stuff for a late lunch.

This part of the trail is paved and very nice although occasionally pocked with frost heaves. The bumps were not difficult to avoid and are generally well marked. The trail transitions to stone dust after Mont Tremblant. There are small signs almost every kilometer that mark the distance remaining to St-Jerome starting with km 200 in Mont Laurier. My auberges were at km 142 and km 82.

The scenery is great and varied. I like that you ride through wooded areas, past streams and meadows with mountain backdrops, and around lakes. It’s still bug season, so some of my stops were plagued by horse flies, mosquitos, and a little bug that reminded me of black flies. Still, I stopped because some of the views were exceptional. There are many points where the trail overlooks meadows, little valleys, and bogs, all green and lush.

As I rode through the town of Lac-des-Écorces I couldn’t help notice a large tricycle decorated with colorful knitting. It was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the local knitting circle. It was a sight that was very welcoming to cyclists as they pass. Many of the local businesses had signs as well that read “Bienvenue Cyclistes”.

In mid-afternoon I found a shelter that overlooks a lake and decided to stop for a snack. It was peaceful and I lingered there for some time. I was surprised when the entire group of ten Ontario people who shared the bus this morning passed me. When we departed the trail head this morning they were well ahead of me because they didn’t stop at the grocery store. I probably passed them when they found a place to stop and eat.

I rode with the group for a while until they came to the road for their B&B at about km 145. My auberge was another 2 miles down the road at km 142. Auberge Chez Ignace was easy to find because it is right on the trail. This auberge is owned by Yolande and Ignace, Belgians who immigrated to Quebec 1996. Ignace was the person at Chez Ignace that I originally contacted and he is the person who arranged the shuttle and overnight lodging for my trip.

As I checked in Yolande mentioned that I can walk to the lake to swim or use one of their kayaks. It was 3:30 and dinner was going to be at 6:30. I decided to check out the lake.

When I got down there it was clear that I was the first person to use the kayak this season. I needed to shoo the spiders out of it. It didn’t take long for me to launch it from the dock. There was a little excitement as I dropped into it from the dock. The seat was only a few inches below the dock, but it was still a small challenge to get in without getting soaked. I was wearing my cycling clothes. I managed a deft move and successfully dropped into place in the seat.

Just after getting away from the dock there were three other paddlers passing. They own a home on the lake and we talked for a while. I paddled about a half mile along the shore before turning back. I was out for about an hour. It was a pleasant way to relax before dinner, especially since I love the water.

Later, after my shower, I had one of my most memorable meals. I had a choice from among several items for each course. I tried to choose the most adventuresome items. Entrée – smoked salmon and deer pate, both made by Ignace, together with a small salad. Soup – Belgian leek soup. Main course – elk and deer sausage in gravy with potatoes and vegetables. Desert – Belgian chocolate mousse

As I was eating Ignace arrived and we continued a lively conversation as he served the food. Ignace is a busy and interesting person. I’m sure his wife is as well, but we were constrained by my language limitations. In addition to running the auberge with his wife, he works full time at the nearby medium security prison as the kitchen supervisor. He is vice mayor of Nominingue and just opened a museum of his own in town, L’Arche perdue de Noah (The Lost Ark of Noah). He offered to take me there for a special tour after dinner.

His museum is in an old barn that he renovated himself over the previous two years. The museum theme is mostly animals. He has a large collection of preserved birds and mammals. His stamp collection display features animals as well. There are some odd items mixed with the animals: Roman coins, carved bone items from his trips to Cameroon, and an exquisite apothecary balance scale, among other things.

After a visit to the museum and good conversation, we drove home and I went to bed.

Day Two – June 22

Breakfast of an omelet with a serving of Ignace’s smoked pork was a bit too much for me given the large dinner the night before. I ate the pork and some of the omelet before hitting the trail. I was starting early, 8:30, and I didn’t have far to go: not quite 38 miles.

In mid-morning I came to an old railroad station in L’Annonciation that was converted into a tourist information center. There was an inviting gazebo next to it where I sat to hydrate and snack before continuing my ride.

On the other side of the trail there is a historic old saw mill that represents the lumber industry of the past. Just beyond the mill the trail straightens and passes through groves of low lying shrubs and trees. I stopped at a refreshing view point over a river and listened to the water for a while.

My strategy was to move slowly and stop for as many scenic experiences as I could. By noon I had gone only 21 miles. Yet I only had another 17 to get to my auberge for the night.

At about the right time, around noon, I came to the restaurant La Gare right on the trail just before km 106 it the town of Labelle. It is a salad and hamburger kind of place. I didn’t want much and had a Caesar salad with grilled chicken. The salad was very good, but I couldn’t help but think wistfully about the great meals that I had thus far in the tour.

The trail transitioned to stone dust for the next 15 kilometers. It was well- packed so that I made good progress when I wanted. I finally came to the lake that adjoins Mont Tremblant.

It is a pretty lake surrounded by hills and forest that give it an alpine feel. I rode until I found a public bench with a nice view. This was at about km 92.

After a short rest with a nice view, I got back on the bike and rode for a couple of hundred meters when I saw a loaded touring bike propped against a tree. As I passed I looked toward the lake and saw a lone figure, sitting on a dock, stark naked. He apparently had a need to take a swim and forgot his swimming gear. He smiled and I smiled back. I should have given him a big thumbs-up.

At km 91 I was in Mont Tremblant. You enter the town in a picturesque section with a public beach, art gallery, and park. I stopped for a Slush Puppie before peddling the remaining 9 kilometers to the auberge. It was an easy trip because at km 91 the trail transitioned back to asphalt.

After checking in to the Auberge Le Voyageur I was given a voucher for dinner at an Italian restaurant Le Vieux Four a little less than a mile away. That was disappointing. I was spoiled by the convenience of eating at the auberge on the previous evening. I was expecting the same kind of service since this too was an auberge. My bike was also hanging in the shed and I didn’t want to take it out. I dealt with it by walking to the place.

The restaurant was alright, but again I was expecting more Quebec cuisine. I didn’t have a need for a very exquisite meal. I was just looking for something with a local flair. The meal was good, just not what I expected.

I did the twenty minute walk back to the auberge and sat with Ontario Canadians who are cycling together until it was time for bed.

Day 3 – June 23

Breakfast at Auberge Le Voyageur is served at 8, which is a little late for me. It was raining rather heavily at 8, so I was happy to eat while hoping it would stop or at least let up before I started my ride for the day. That worked out well. It wasn’t raining when I left at 9:15.

The rain started again shortly after I departed. At that point I had already realized that the trail all the way into St-Jerome is stone dust. The 1-1/2 to 2 percent grade also begins shortly after km 82. I wasn’t going to let any of this bother me.

The grade ascends for about 10 miles. My speed to the summit was 8 or 9 miles per hour, which is good for me with the load. The grade wasn’t bad, but when I saw the street sign for Rue de Sommet, I was happy.

At the summit there is a large sand pit to the east apparently used to mine sand for construction. It is a large scar in the otherwise lush and green landscape. While there are downsides to an operation like this, it is mostly hidden from view, it provides employment, and it supplies a resource that is needed to support our lifestyles. The large scale of the operation was interesting.

Nearby I also found a mill that produces finished lumber. There were stacks of tree trunks in a long row in front of the plant building. On the other side of the plant there were pallets of finished boards.  The lumber industry is an important employer in Quebec.

The trail is somewhat level for the next 10 miles, so I made good time. Just after noon I was at 25 miles and spotted a nice shelter next to a river that had gentle rapids. It was nice music to accompany my lunch. I pulled out the flatbread, peanut butter, and honey to make a sandwich. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a glass of milk.

The sun was beginning to pop out occasionally as I began the downhill trend to St-Jerome. There are a few more small towns in this stretch of trail and many of them have old railroad stations.  They have all been repurposed as restaurants, art galleries, bicycle shops, or tourist information centers. They are all cheerfully decorated on the outside and are pleasant features of the trail.

Within 10 miles of St-Jerome I could hear thunder in the distance. When I came to a town I decided to stop to determine the direction of the storm that was passing to the south. Fortunately it was moving west to east and the worst had already passed the town. I found a place that served crushed ice drinks and used the time productively to enjoy one while I waited.

The sun was returning again as I left the town. The trail suddenly transitioned from country to city as I entered St-Jerome. It was 3:45 and I had covered 53 miles. I used the visitor center to change into my driving clothes and I was ready for the drive home to Boston.

It had been a fun ride through beautiful country with overnights at two of the many B&Bs available along the trail. Do not consider language as a barrier to taking a tour on P’tit Train du Nord. The people of Quebec are wonderful and I felt safe and welcomed the entire trip. The trail is nicely maintained and the stone dust is bearable since it is well packed. I was happy that I had taken time to stop and enjoy the rivers and lakes along the way.

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