Veloroute des Bleuets Bicycle Tour 2015

Veloroute des Bleuets Information Center, Alma, Quebec
Veloroute des Bleuets Information Center, Alma, Quebec

Copyright 2015 Ed Wojtaszek

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Introduction

For my tour of the Veloroute des Bleuets I decided to ride from inn to inn since I was not satisfied that I could reliably find a safe place to camp each night. I made all of my reservations in advance after studying the map and the Veloroute des Bleuets web site. It took four days and three nights to complete the route around Lac St-Jean. There are many ways to ride the Veloroute and the route that I chose was 188 miles or 300 kilometers. The town of Alma would be my starting point and I decided to ride clockwise around Lac St-Jean. It turns out that most Canadians ride counterclockwise.

I departed Chelmsford at about 10 AM, headed to the Almatoit B&B in Alma, Quebec. There was sporadic rain all the way to Alma and some traffic in Quebec City. The funniest thing that happened was at the border crossing. I can’t seem to cross into Canada without an unusual event.

When I drove up to the booth with the border agent, he asked the usual questions. “Where are you going? How long will you be in Canada? Do you plan to leave anything in Canada? Do you have any firearms? Do you have any pepper spray?”

“Why, yes, I do have some pepper spray.”

“Can I see it?”

“Yes, of course.”

I was very aware of the line of cars behind me as I fished through my panniers to find the spray. I finally located it after what seemed like an interminable search. I handed it to him and mentioned that I brought it to use as bear spray.

He examined the canister and when he was finished he said, “I understand why you have this, but I can’t let you take it into Canada. I need to confiscate it. Drive into that bay up ahead and come inside.”

He explained that the concentration of the active ingredient makes it a controlled substance in Canada and, therefore, not allowed. There are pepper sprays that you can purchase in Canada for the express purpose of protecting yourself against bear. I decided to look for some the next day before I start the ride, but I continued to put it off and never purchased any.

I parked, went into the customs office, and watched the agent fill out the required paperwork. He gave me a copy as my “first souvenir of Canada”. I got back into the car and headed north.

I arrived at the Almatoit B&B, owned by Vincent and Aurelie, at about 7:30 PM. Aurelie showed me to my room. There were no other guests so I had my choice of rooms. The rooms are comfortable and the house is a classic farm house built in 1905. My host asked me to remove my shoes before walking on the floors. I don’t mind house rules like this and I can understand their desire to do everything they can to preserve the fine wood floors, some of them being pine.

The house is nicely decorated with antiques and the living room has a warm glow. It sits in a largely residential neighborhood in Alma. The large front porch would be a great meeting place for a large group of guests. That wasn’t going to happen tonight since I was the only guest. I was in bed before 10.

Day 1 – 16 June

After a wonderful breakfast that included local yogurt and cheeses, I drove to my long term parking lot. Vincent recommended parking on the east side town across the highway 169 bridge. The bridge crosses a small bay in the lake. There is a ferry that connects the Veloroute des Bleuets across the same bay and since I was travelling clockwise I would cross the bay from east to west at some point in the trip. Since I’m going clockwise I parked on the eastern side of the bay and crossed the lake east to west at the very start of the tour. This avoids the risk that I arrive late on the final day of the tour when returning to Alma and miss the last ferry. The ride to the parking lot was about 10 minutes from the Almatoit. I parked and easily found the ferry.

The ferry was a surprise because it wasn’t what I expected. My vision of a ferry is a barge with a pilot house to one side. This ferry is an aluminum pontoon boat like any of the privately owned pontoon boats on the lake. The primary purpose of this ferry is to bridge the Veloroute des Bleuets and there is no charge to use it.

After the ferry ride, the weather got worse as I started cycling the trail: it began to rain steadily. I was wearing my “breathable” rain coat and pants. The outfit works in a misty situation, but not real rain. This was real rain and I was getting soaked, although it didn’t bother me because I wasn’t cold.

The dams on the lake are on the southern side and I crossed several of them at the beginning of the ride. The hydroelectric plant is also on the southern end of the lake, visible from the ferry. It is used to generate hydro power for aluminum production and wood pulp processing. When I learned that fact I thought, “This is a great way to generate power for energy-intensive industries.” The dams are used to manage the water level in the lake and to adjust for the variations in the amount of water flowing into the lake. There are several significant rivers in the north that flow into Lac St-Jean. I planned to ride a trail along Riviere Mistassini, which is one of them.

The rain stopped at around noon. At that time I happened to come to a dam that had a shelter nearby. It was a good place to stop, have a snack, and enjoy the lake for a few minutes. I could see two men fishing below the bridge across the dam.

During much of the morning and some of the afternoon, the lake could not be seen from the Veloroute. There were occasional places where you can take little detours and steer off the trail to vantage points on the lake. The views were not spectacular, but were a nice way to stop, reflect for a moment, and enjoy the lake.

One of those spots turned out to be another nice place to rest for a while. It was a concrete dock with a ramp and a small anchorage for pleasure boats. There were a few sailboat masts poking into the sky from behind a breakwater. From that vantage point I could see blue sky on the horizon and nearby islands covered by mini-forests.

East of Chambord you come to the first stretch of highway 169 where you share the road with vehicles where the speed limit is 90 kph. That includes tractor-trailers and logging trucks. That lasts for about 3 kilometers. There was a generous shoulder, but I am never comfortable on busy roads. The Veloroute uses 169 in several places where there is no alternative.

There are many other places where great care is taken to keep the Veloroute bicycle traffic away from the big scary vehicles. The trail takes little excursions from the highway at times to route bicycles through safer areas. These are small side roads with little traffic and sometimes residential neighborhoods.

In early afternoon I stopped for lunch at Boulangerie Medard. There was a small fromagerie near the restaurant that sold local cheese. With lunch at Boulangerie Medard I realized that this might become a food tour. I had soup and sandwich. The soup was a potato soup that was the highlight of the lunch. It had a slight leek and cheese flavor that was exceptional. I anticipated that there would be many more opportunities to experience local Quebec cuisine.

The sun was shining brightly when I arrived in Roberval, my first overnight. My first B&B was Gite Les 2 Soeurs, built in 1892. For many years it was home for Presbyterian clergy. It has been a B&B for 6 years. I registered and Martine, the owner, advised that the Club Nautique Roberval would be a good place for dinner. After a twelve minute walk, I had a window seat with a view of the lake and the club slips. For dinner I had poulet brochettes that I found to be well presented and very good. Thus far I was two-for-two in the successful dining category.

Day 2 – 17 June

Breakfast on the porch overlooking the lake was delightful. It was a simple breakfast of yogurt, fruit, cheese, and an egg poached in ham. That seems to be a popular breakfast theme. It was similar to the breakfast at Almatoit. Martine’s presentation differed slightly and it was a great way to start the day.

The day was very sunny and it contrasted sharply with the previous day. My spirits were lifted by the blue sky and the impressionist cloud streaks. On the northern edge of Roberval I made an early stop at a dock on the lake to contemplate the good weather.

About an hour later I came to a park called Site Uashassihtsh. It is a historical site that recalls the lives of the Innu people, the aboriginal inhabitants of parts of Quebec. Since the entire tourist sites in Quebec are based on the French language, I wasn’t able to make much sense of the exhibits.

The small accident that I had in the park forms my best memory of it. In an awkward turning move from a standing position on my bike, I was unable to unclip from my left pedal and I tipped over. This was my first tip-over of the year. The plastic frame of my rear view mirror was cracked, but usable, especially if reinforced with a little duct tape. I had a few scratches, but nothing serious except being upset at my ineptness.

Just before lunch I rode across a picturesque little bridge where several cyclists passed going in the opposite direction as I stopped to enjoy the scenery. Not far from the bridge I found one of the many places where fresh water is available for cyclists and hikers. I filled all of my water bottles with the cool water from the tap that was attached to a 4×4 wood post with the sign “eau potable”.

At about 11:30 I reached St-Felicien and I began looking for Maison Banville, the place Martine recommended for lunch. It was a little early for lunch, but the patio in front of the restaurant was filling up fast. I had a salad of carrots and greens. The shredded carrots were blended with a sweet dressing. My sandwich was lightly smoked trout with capers and mayonnaise in a whole wheat flatbread. Outstanding!

The Veloroute followed the roads for most of the afternoon. In mid-afternoon, in front of me at a turn in the road there was a large white building rising behind a row of trees with several stacks rising from among them. After the turn I came to the entrance of a paper mill run by SFK Pate. The company has a shelter in front of it for cyclists with an informational sign. I could decipher that the plant employees 320 people and that the company is proud of its environmental practices, including use of hydro power and treatment of effluents.

The Veloroute transitions from a road back to a bicycle path as it enters Normandin, my next overnight. The trouble was that the B&B, Les Gites Makadan, is three kilometers from the center of town on a dicey road with gravel shoulders. It also has a speed limit of about 80 kph and some traffic. I got off the road and onto the shoulder every time there was traffic approaching from the rear. I got tired of that and began to walk, but was upset with that approach when I realized that I had quite a distance to go.  I jumped back on the bike and just kept a lookout toward the rear.

When I got to Gites Makadan, there was a “For Sale” (A Vendre) sign on the front porch and the sign “Les Gites Makadan” was hanging crooked from one hook. It didn’t look good and I walked around to the side door and found a note written in French. It wasn’t for me because my name wasn’t there.

I walked around to the back and peered through a door to try to find someone. There was nobody and the place was dark. Could it be the place sold and they didn’t notify clients?

As I returned to the side door, a couple arrived on bicycles, a man in his early sixties and an appropriately sixty-ish wife. I gave them the news that nobody was there and that there was a note on the door that I could not read. He walked up to the door, scanned the words and said, “The note’s for me.”

According to the note, the proprietor had prepared their room and it was a room that had an outside entrance. They would be returning at about 5:30. It was only about 3, so I camped on the front porch with a can of beans and a peanut butter and honey sandwich from my panniers.

The proprietor returned earlier than promised at about 4:30. That was great, except she didn’t speak or understand any English. Believe me, as a U.S. citizen I am not complaining, but only stating the facts. We have little right to complain when our lives and primary emphasis is the English language. The language barrier caused an introduction-fail: I didn’t learn my host’s name.

She called her daughter who spoke perfect English to the extent that she had distinct Canadian accent. With her help we found that my reservation was in the book for 17 July instead of 17 June. They had plenty of room, so the problem went away.

It was here that I learned that “gites” has a specific definition, at least in Quebec. A gites has five or fewer rooms and serves only breakfast. The auberge seems to be a classification in between a hotel and a gites. An auberge has more rooms and often also serves dinner, although that is not guaranteed. Sometimes you can find an auberge with a restaurant that is available to guests who are not staying there.

The Gites Makadan provided a ride into Normandin for dinner. I had dinner with the couple who were from Switzerland. They were visiting their son and his family in Quebec province. They are avid cyclists and took the opportunity to tour Veloroute des Bleuets.

Soon after we returned from the restaurant, I went to bed with a dread about the ride back to Normandin the next morning.

Day 3 – 18 June

Breakfast was good as usual. It was hearty enough to provide fuel for most of the morning. The Swiss couple and I said our farewells and we took off toward Normamdin. They were riding counterclockwise and I would not see them again on my tour.

I changed my strategy for dealing with the traffic. I decided to ride hard and to avoid bailing out to the shoulder unless there was oncoming traffic in addition to the traffic approaching from the rear. That worked great and I was in Normandin very quickly.

I resumed the Veloroute des Bleuets in Normandin and headed to the town of Albanel where I would deviate from the Veloroute and turn north toward Girardville. From Girardville my plan was to take the Au Fil des Rivieres trail south  along Riviere Mistassini. The key attraction on this trail is Chute 9e, a section of river where there are interesting rapids. The Veloroute des Bleuets app on my iPhone was extremely helpful for this excursion.

The first problem that it helped solve was to find the road north. In Albanel it isn’t marked in any special way. I overshot and used the app to get me back to Rue Principale for the turn north. Earlier I had seen a reference to the same road as Grand Rang Nord. On some maps Rue Principale is referenced as Grand Rang Nord for the leg going north from Albanel and Grand Rang Sud for the leg going south. That was confusing.

The road appears unbelievably straight both on maps and in the app. It is in fact straight for almost 20 kilometers and the grades were not bad. It is not a busy road so the lack of a paved shoulder was not a problem for me. Farms dominate the scenery on both sides of the road.

It didn’t take long to get to Girardville. I was there by noon. The app once again helped me to find the unmarked trail head across from a small grocery store, L’inter Marche. At the back of the store I was delighted to see the sign “Pret A Manger”, a name that I associate with the well-known international chain of sandwich shops. It’s not certain that this particular Pret A Manger belongs to that group, but the sandwiches were similar in type and quality with those of the famous chain. I enjoyed a chicken wrap that was delicious, a real surprise in the out-of-the-way small town. After lunch, I rode across the street to begin the trail ride.

The trail approximately follows the course of the Rivière Mistassini. The maps were misleading because there are few places where you can see or hear the river. Still, I found the trail interesting and the scenery green and beautiful.

I was on the trail alone and very aware of safety and animals, especially since I never found the time to buy bear spray. At about 1:30 in the afternoon, I came to a spot that had some loose stone dust and bear poop. There were also footprints that clearly showed foot pads with claw marks in front of each pad. I rode quickly to get past the part of the trail where a bear had been walking.

Later I had an incident that caused some alarm, especially after seeing the bear prints. I was riding along and heard a rather loud rustling sound behind me. I turned slightly to catch the animal from the corner of my eye. It seemed that a small black animal of some kind was chasing me down the trail. Very quickly I was able to outrun the creature and knew that because the rustling sound stopped.

I stopped and looked back to see a large, blackish, rooster-sized bird walking toward the side of the trail. A male black grouse is one of the few birds that size that could have come running after me. The grouse is primarily a ground dweller, but I haven’t been able to find any evidence that they can be aggressive. I continued southward.

From the trail head in Girardville to Chute 9e, the path meandered left, right, up, and down and the distance to Chute 9e is 16 km. I needed to walk the bike up two of the hills because I was getting too bogged down in stone dust. I also used the app several times because there are crossing roads and trails that are not marked very well and very confusing.

There were two good view points. The first one was a short hike from the trail to a marked shelter. The shelter is about 200 meters from the trail. At that location there is a good view of a wide spot in the river. The shelter is screened so that if you needed to take a break there, you can escape the voracious mosquitos.

The second view point is at Chute 9e, which is a little more than a kilometer from the main trail. It was worth the detour because you can see the power of the river in this location. The rapids have names besides the “9e” designation. The most upstream one that you can see from this spot is Neuvieme Chute. The one that is nearest you at that point is Huitieme Chute. The large, wide rocks along the shore provide a good vantage point. Just to the left of the rocks, there is a sandy bay that shows signs of being a high water eddy when flooded. To the right you can see the river flow toward the south and my next overnight, Dolbeau-Mistassini.

After Chute 9e the main trail was a lot flatter. It was about 12 kilometers back to the Veloroute des Bleuets from there and it went fast. When I got there I was quickly back on my favorite road, Route 169.

As I arrived in Dolbeau-Mistassini it began to rain hard. Fortunately the motel, Motel Chute des Peres, is right on the trail. I was able to roll in before getting soaked. The motel conveniently served both dinner and breakfast. The dinner was surprisingly good, although I don’t remember what it was that I had. There was a good view of the river from my room.

Day 4 – 19 June

The day did not begin very well. Breakfast was just food and I wasn’t feeling well. I did have a goal to get started early and I was successful. I was on the road by 8:15, the earliest start of the trip. However, it took me longer than usual to get motivated and get moving once I was on the trail.

Riviere Mistassini just past the motel was impressive and I took several opportunities to rest and view the river. At one spot I could see the motel in the background where the river ran past my room. The frequent breaks alternated with bicycle activity were beginning to rejuvenate me.

By the time I reached Ste-Jeanne d’Arc at 9:30 I was feeling much better.  I was intrigued by a mill that was built in 1902 and in operation until 1974. The river powered machinery used in the production of blueberry crates of all things. Water still runs through a flume and into the basement of the building where it does nothing. Inside they explained how the mill operated. On the outside and from the opposite side of the river it was picturesque.

Peribonka was the next interim destination that was important and I arrived there at about 11, which I thought was good, given the circumstances. It was time for some food and I stopped at a gas station that was across the road from a small marina. My plan was to jump the ferry from Peribonka to the Parc National de la Pointe-Taillon. The trail through the park is a much shorter route back to Alma and I would avoid many highway miles by using the park. The maps strongly suggested that this was the place.

Two women were tending the store and the younger one understood English well. I asked about the ferry and she hadn’t seen it. She thought that it may be too early in the season for it to be operating.

Resigned to take the long way on the highway, I went outside to eat my snack before continuing. I saw a pontoon boat approaching the dock and didn’t think too much about it until both of the women came out of the store all excited. They were both pointing at the pontoon boat. The younger one said, “That is the ferry. You can see bicycles on it.”

The captain sold me a ticket and a park pass. Within fifteen minute we were in our way. The day was looking better and better. I was delighted that the storekeepers didn’t stop thinking about the ferry and were kind enough to help.

After a few miles in the park the trail turned to follow the coast of Lac St-Jean. There were great places to stop and enjoy the lake. There are picnic tables and shelters dotting the shore along the lake as you ride toward the park entrance. Moose hoof prints on the trail made things even more interesting and I was hoping to see a moose in one of the bogs along the trail. The stone dust trail was nearly flat for the entire 20 kilometers.

At the park entrance I realized that I was within 22 kilometers of Alma. At the time I didn’t know that I was off by 8+ kilometers and the distance was closer to 32 kilometers. In my bliss I decided to eat the sandwich I had bought at the Peribonka gas station. The park store had some other stuff that I needed to eat, such as a Slush Puppy and an ice cream cone. The wind had whipped up by this time and I was able to enjoy my feast in the lee of the park building.

I took off again after a very relaxing afternoon at the park entrance. 14 miles later I realized my error in estimating the distance to go. I pulled out the app once again and was disappointed that the little current location icon was still quite a distance from Alma and my parking lot. Once again I found myself on my favorite highway 169.

Not quite a mile from the end I found the Veloroute des Bleuets information center. That was a nice surprise, especially when I saw the word “boutique” in front. I purchased a baseball cap and a cycling shirt with the Veloroute logo. My day was complete and I was about ten minutes from my van.

I arrived at the Almatoit B&B at about 5:30. I showered and asked Aurelie about local restaurants for dinner. In my mind her top recommendation was Chez Mario Tremblay. Tremblay, the owner, played forward for the Montreal Canadiens from 1974 to 1986. When he retired from the sport of ice hockey he opened the restaurant in his home town of Alma.

It was a great meal and I needed to get back on the gravy train after the disappointing breakfast. I had poutine to start. It was recommended by the young man working in the Veloroute boutique. This particular poutine had a bed of French fries, brown gravy combined with local cheese, and duck meat. Poutine usually doesn’t have any meat. I think of it as Quebec nachos. Duck meat is something that I normally avoid, but I found it to be tasty in this dish.

As the main course I had breaded sole served with vegetables and a mixed greens salad. There was also rice pilaf that had a very nice green and red pepper flavor undertone. The sole was very good. I finished off with blueberry pie and ice cream.

I walked back to the B&B and wrote for a while before going to bed.

Summary

This was an interesting trip with a decided French Canadian flavor throughout. Although I was not able to enjoy some of the French language tourist attractions, the people of Quebec were friendly and helpful. My lack of fluency didn’t detract from the experience as a cyclist. Besides, other than the beautiful scenery, food is a major attraction that trumps most tourist sites. The parts of the Veloroute des Bleuets that were on the highway were a little distracting to me. I understand why the Canadians prefer to get the major highway segment out of the way at the beginning of the ride by riding the route counterclockwise. I bypassed most of that by using the Peribonka ferry and going through the parc national, which I would recommend in either direction. The use of B&Bs is also something that I would recommend on this route because of the food and people experiences are memorable. This tour was worth every bit of the effort to make it happen.

From Alma I drove my van to St-Jerome to experience the P’tit Train du Nord.

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