When we started planning this trip a year ago, one of the tips we got was to ride along the north shore of the St Lawrence River, heading east from Quebec City, so that’s how our first day went. The tip was good: this quickly became much more scenic riding than we had seen before, starting through the villages in the Beaupre area, and then up and down mountains along the St Lawrence. These mountains are not very tall, peaking out around 780 meters, but I was surprised that they were there at all. I had expected a flat river valley, and instead we were getting views and many 8-9% grades, with a few reach 12-15%.
We’d roll up the mountains and back down to river level, then up again. At the higher points we got clear views of the St Lawrence and already it was obvious how the river had widened into the St Lawrence Seaway. It was as wide as Lake Champlain in no time, so I began to understand why there are no bridges crossing the water north of Quebec City.
This choice to follow the north side of the river had other repercussions. Mainly, we’d have to find another way to cross the river again eventually to get to Gaspé. But also, it opened up the possibility of some side trips further into northern Quebec, which added to the temptation to make the trip very long. Those choices would come later; for now, we had open road along the river and all the scenery we could handle.
We had left the condo without breakfast, so after an hour or two of riding we stopped in Baie St Paul to find something. I should explain at this point that my brother’s views on food and my own don’t align very well. He is perfectly happy skipping breakfast, eating a egg-muffin-sausage things at McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s when he can, subsisting entirely on chicken wings for weeks at a time, etc. Having been ruined by Eleanor’s cooking and culinary tastes, I like variety and my mood is somewhat affected by what I eat. Plus, I’m allergic to certain food additives, so when eating out I tend to lean toward vegetarian cuisine, which can be hard to find in remote areas.
This is not the first time we’ve traveled together, so I knew what to expect and figured that the best way to get along would be to supplement my bag with a few snacks. I packed 14 Clif bars to fill in the gaps between meals, because I like them and they are incredibly durable even after being stuffed in a pack for days. I also brought a dozen or so flavored drink mix packets and a 1-liter Nalgene bottle, so I’d always have something to drink even if the local water tasted like moldy frogs. I hate getting out on the road without breakfast, so this bit of gear saved my day quite a few times, including this day, because we ended up at McDonald’s in Baie St Paul.
In the parking lot Steve adjusted the drive chain on his bike again, to remove some tightness. He had thought it was too loose that morning before we started, but it turned out he was fooled somewhat by the fact that the bike had no weight on it. He also was a little worried about the chain lube, which didn’t seem to be holding up. This would turn out to be an issue for most of the trip.
Turning northwest at the small town of St Simeon we picked up Rt 170 toward Saguenay. This side trip was the first of several that I didn’t expect much from, but again I was surprised at the beauty of the terrain. The Saguenay River sits not in a valley but rather in a mountainous area with lakes, lofty crags of rock and gorgeous forested hills.
It even has a fjord, “The Fjord of Saguenay” at Petit-Saguenay, which we motored to (a small 3 km detour off the main route). I was becoming more impressed by this area of Quebec by the hour.
I was also surprised by the fact that there was cell service everywhere, when I had expected to be completely out of touch. This was a bit disappointing, since it made the areas seem less “remote” than I would have liked to pretend, and also because my phone was filling up with emails that I didn’t want to see. So I ignored the emails and took advantage of the cell coverage to send Eleanor a few pictures from the area. You really can’t capture the Fjord of Saguenay in a single photo, even a panorama, so it’s one of those experiences best had in person, but I tried to convey it to Eleanor anyway.
At this point we were all starting to feel like we were on vacation, at last. No worries, no hurries, let’s just find a nice lunch spot in L’Anse-Saint-Jean by the harbor and try a lox sandwich with gigantic bowls of coffee. Then rode over to check out a covered bridge, and then down a dirt road to get a better view of some waterfalls (“chutes”) near the border of the Parc national du Saguenay.
Further down the road we tried the main entrance to the national park and discovered that camping wasn’t scheduled to open until next week! Things start late up here in northern Quebec, and the camping/tourist season kicks off in late June. We were definitely in the “off season,” a fact we were destined to re-discover numerous times. Fortunately, the very kind agent at the gate helped us by calling ahead and verifying we could go to a commercial campground (Parc Aventures Cap Jeseux), even after hours. This took a lengthy phone call in French, so we were grateful for her help. This was also a scene to be repeated several times: clueless Americans with pathetic command of French, saved by patient local bi-linguals.
At this point it was getting late in the day. We had to stop and throw on another layer as dinnertime approached. In Saguenay we finally reached the first bridge crossing the river, so we grabbed a little dinner to go, and headed southeast on Rt 172 toward St Fulgence to the campground our friendly gate agent had located for us.
This turned out to be the biggest adventure of the day. The entrance road was dirt, long and wavy like a Möbius strip. At the end of a long day, with dusk approaching it was a small challenge for me to navigate through the loose rocks and steep grades (easily 20% in some places), but it was also great fun. The gate at the campground was locked, which we expected since we’d been told the campground office would be closed when we arrived, but we just rode around it and headed to the rustic (“camping sauvage”) area to settle in.
Not so easy, as it turned out. First we couldn’t find the “sauvage” area in the maze of narrow roads and trails in this immense forested area. Then, we discovered that the black flies in this area were absolutely nightmarish. The campsites were just small clearings in the forest for tents, and to reach them we would have to run the gauntlet of black flies to get to them and set up our tents. The clouds of bugs were so bad that we had to keep our helmets on for protection, while stopped to have a conference about what to do.
We tried wandering around a little to find a less buggy area, and in the process of making a U-turn on a slight grade, I lost my footing and dropped the bike.
Let me explain “dropping the bike” for those of you who haven’t ridden motorcycles. First of all, you don’t want to do this, but it happens, especially to dirt riders. The Dakar is a little tall for me, so when stopped I can only touch the ground with the balls of my feet, and consequently I have to be careful about maneuvering from a stop. When the ground is uneven, or when turning around using my feet on a slope, it’s easy to lose grip and then 600 pounds of top-heavy motorcycle start to lean. When that happens, you’re done. It’s going down.
A minor drop on dirt like this doesn’t hurt the bike, but my Nikon and iPad were in the pannier on the bottom side. The iPad sustained a nice dent on the keyboard case but otherwise everything survived fine. The Nikon is tough as nails … as you’ll see in later blog entries. I also was uninjured because it’s easy and instinctive to get out of the way as the bike is headed down.
With the luggage on the rack, we can’t lift the bikes solo, so every time we had a drop, it took at least two people to get the bike back up. Being solo we’d have to unload all the luggage and then lift it using a special technique that you can see me demonstrating here.
This began a small tradition where Steve referred to all places as “XX feet from where Rich dropped the bike.” We eventually found the RV camping area (dirt sites with occasional water spigots and 15 amp power outlets) and it was much less buggy, so we picked a spot (all the sites were empty), slapped on a coating of DEET, and set up camp.
Dinner with the bugs was uneventful. The DEET worked pretty well, so our only real problem was an aggressive squirrel that I had to shoo away a few times. My dinner got smashed when the bike fell, but even smashed pasta tastes fine. Steve had his first poutine of the trip. (Poutine: French fries and cheese curds, covered with gravy, beloved by Quebecers) The usual nightly routine began (checking maps, charging devices, etc.) and we briefly discussed the possibility of a campfire, but instead we took a walk to find some strange alternate accommodations available in the campground, the “Dome” and the “Spheres” and the “Tree Houses.”
That evening I brought up the point that we’d already traveled 500 miles and we were only two days out. Turns out that Steve planned for two weeks but never really concerned himself with the total mileage. At this point I estimated we might exceed 2,000 miles on the trip, which was sort of off-putting because I’d just spent 40 hours driving 2,000 miles from Tucson to Jackson Center, OH, and another 600 or so miles after that to Vermont. And that’s a lot of miles to sit on the slightly uncomfortable seats of a BMW F650GS.
But hey, we were committed, so there wasn’t any point in griping about it. We were all ready to accept whatever was coming. It was the spirit of the trip.
That night the forest came alive with birds calling, so many and so loudly that it felt like we were sleeping in a bird aviary for the first few hours. I actually had to put in my earplugs to get past their chatter and screech … and then got a few hours of sleep before dawn hit the tent fabric at 4:00 a.m.