I grew up in southwestern Ontario, in a very conservative suburban city. You’d see the neighbours leave in the morning and pull in the same evening, but rarely beyond those chance encounters. When I outgrew Burlington, I soon grew tired of Toronto. A defining moment of my youth for me occurred at the intersection of a single-lane road in Yorkville, Toronto. Two well-dressed gentlemen, one in a Beamer and the other in a Jaguar, were both trying to get down the same single-lane stretch of road at the same time. Neither would give. Finally the guy “in the back” rolled down his window and screamed, “You wanna get out and die?!” He was extremely red-faced.
I realized then that Toronto wasn’t really my cup of tea.
Soon after, I had the opportunity to spend six weeks in Quebec for an immersion course. It was basically summer camp, but in French. I had my dog with me and stayed with a lovely host family a stones-throw from the Saint Laurent. La Pocatière is located on the south shore about an hour and half east of Quebec City. It borders the very touristy Kamouraska region, renowned for its summer resorts.
You can stop by the bakery each day for a pastry. You can bring your dog into a bar, unleashed. You can climb the staircase behind the school to the top of the mountain and then the observation platform and look out at sunset across the gulf of the Saint Laurent to Isle-aux-Coudres. You can rent a bike and cycle to the neighbouring region to skinny dip at la plage secret. I read Camus and wrote tentative, imagistic poems in French. I saw my host family laughing with friends over a bottle of wine in the back yard, or taking off to Quebec City for the weekend on a lark. Quebec just seemed a whole lot more interesting than Ontario to live in at that time.
So naturally, when I decided to do graduate work, I came to Quebec. With all I owned packed into a van, including the dog, I made my way into Verdun for my first night in Montreal. Only I missed the turn to Verdun because, naturally, there was construction on the bridge and the next thing I knew I was heading over the Saint Lawrence River to the south shore.
That was over 30 years ago. And I’m sorry to say, that the province I fell in love with at the age of 25 is now hard to see at 56 amid the corruption and construction pylons that plague my daily life. I always knew that many Quebecers had a hidden xenophobic tendency, but with the passing of Bill 21, which bans public employees from wearing religious symbols, that tendency is no longer hidden. Many of Quebec’s core values no longer match my own, and when I travel out west, I’m struck by the stark contrast in work ethic, infrastructure, health care, and personal prosperity in the western provinces. The truth is, by the time I was asked this past summer to join a club ride that would take me through Kamouraska, the charming region of Quebec I’d fallen in love with those many years ago, I had fallen out of love with Quebec.
The plan was to travel the south shore of the Saint Lawerence, stopping in Kamouraska the first night. Then we would cross the river at Rivière-du-Loup, landing in Saint-Siméon, where we would head along the north shore to Baie-Comeau. We had an AirBNB for three nights there for three days of riding in Manicouagan: one to Sept.-Îsles, one to the Manic 5 dam, and one back along the shore via Tadoussac.
The first day was hot and it was a long ride. After putting some miles behind us, we dropped down from the Trans Canada Highway to Rte. 132 at Rivière Ouelles. The 132 is one of my favourite roads in Quebec. My wife is usually a “Let’s Get There” type of traveller, but when I returned with her the following month as we headed out to Nova Scotia, I was able to convince her to take the scenic route this time. She thanked me for it. The road is lined in quaint little cottages, many with ornamental faciaboard and painted in pastel colours. The river at this point is briny and you can smell the salt in the air. Finally we pulled onto Rivière LeBlanc and stopped at our accommodations, right on the shoreline.
Naturally, after such a long, hot ride, I had to cool off in the river. Fellow rider Ray and I walked across the street and swam out. It was cold but refreshing.
The next day we had a short ride to the ferry in Rivière-du-Loup. While waiting in line at the ferry, I noticed a crack in one of my rear view mirrors. It is OEM and the plastic had weakened with age, and I’m notorious for posting my helmet on my mirrors, which I guess caught up to me. Thankfully, I had thrown in with my gear, literally at the last minute, a tube of JBWeld Plastic Bonder. It has a 15 minute set time and 30 minutes to cure, so after getting the bike on board and settled, I quickly mixed up some and made the repair. It would have been a pain, let alone illegal, to ride the rest of the tour with only one mirror. In the future, I’m going to trust my gut on those last-minute additions to the kit list; they have proved life-savers in the past as well.
Our accommodations in Baie-Comeau were incredible! The team leader had really scored on this for us. It had a huge kitchen and adjoining sitting room, with a large backyard leading down to the water. The booze started flowing and soon I remembered why I had moved to Quebec.
The riding out of Baie-Comeau is the most interesting as you head west toward Sept-Isles. The road is still hilly if not mountainous, and the curves lead to spectacular lookouts to the right over the water. But soon it levels out and then it’s just a few hundred kilometres of straight, boring freeway at speed. And when you get there, Sept Isles is nothing to write home or on a blog about. It’s kind of a dive, truth be told. We struggled even to find a caisse-croute. (By the end of the tour, by the way, we were all longing for something not fried.) That evening, one of the riders announced that he’d decided to make his way back because he didn’t feel comfortable riding at speed.
Now what do you do when faced with this dilemma? No matter how good the planning, there will always be unexpected incidents, and the sign of a healthy group is its ability to work through them. We decided to split into two groups. One, aptly named Legal, were to ride at the speed limit. The other—you can guess its name—would ride at their preferred speed, which was around 20 km/hr. over the speed limit—nothing to call attention to ourselves, but enough to have some fun on those otherwise boring stretches.
We stopped at this famous lighthouse, which is a nice break along that stretch between Sept-Îsles and Baie-Comeau.
The next day, we headed off in this configuration to the Daniel-Johnson Power Dam and Manic 5 Generating Station, the Legals leaving about a half an hour ahead of the Illegals. What we didn’t plan for was Googleness, when GoogleMaps and Garmin both take one group off the desired route to the dam, so they arrive 30 minutes after the tour has started. But we solved that one too.
The road up to the Daniel Johnson dam, the 389, is arguably the most challenging piece of road I’ve ever ridden. I’ve done The Cabot Trail and off-roading in Cape Breton too, but this road was more challenging due to its road surface, its length, and the mountainous terrain. It required every bit of concentration to stay safe.
After we managed to reconnoitre, we donned our hardhats and safety goggles and caught up with the tour. The best was yet to come. We were shown the generators and inner machinery, were bussed to under the highest arch, and deposited at the top for the requisite photo op.
By the way, anyone who says that hydroelectric power is clean needs to look out over the swamped region upstream to see some ecological devastation. It’s not so simple. Or read Don McKay’s long poem “Long Sault Parkway,” which eulogizes the Long Sault Rapids that were drowned by the dam in Cornwall. To this day, entire villages lay beneath the manmade lake and are a hot destination for exploratory scuba divers. There is no clean energy; it’s just a matter of which source causes the least ecological damage.
Soon we were happy to be back at Party Central, and Mike brought out his scotch; I, my port. Pierre’s playlist had me singing aloud to Oasis.
Some bad news from home that evening led me to cut my tour short a day to be with my wife. The next day, as they headed north, I’d continue west back to Montreal. But first I rode with the gang back through Tadoussac and across on the ferry, then further along the 138 that leads to the magnificent Rte. 381 from Malbaie to Baie-Saint-Paul. It was sunset and this section was about as perfect as any ride can be and the highlight of the tour-riding for me. I said my good-byes as they headed in for dinner, then I pointed west toward Quebec City. I’d stop for dinner in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, just outside of Quebec, naturally on the water.
I’ve written quite a bit about my preference for solo touring. I won’t dispute its many benefits, or that this was a bit of a departure for me. But I have to say that group riding does have its benefits too. For one, you don’t have to do much planning, and when you already have planning for two other trips to do, you might be happy to piggy-back on this one. Robin and Maria and others had done an excellent job of planning, right down to the details like meals en route. Accommodations—the tricky bit—were perfect!
The other, of course, is the camaraderie. The reason Quebec is so different is that Quebecers are different. We are an eclectic mix that somehow manages to get along, and my riding club is no exception. My riding these days is more often dirt than asphalt, more solo than group, but I continue to ride in this club because of its members. They are all good, safe-riders, are agreeable by nature or need, are super-coordinated, and have excellent taste in liquors and spirits. I’ll ride with them anytime, anywhere.
It felt like I had voyaged back in time to when I was 25. Not much had changed to the landscape and people there, and I was happy to see it. Now I know that when I get tired of the mess that is Montreal, the other Quebec is only a few hours ride away. Just follow the river.