Adventures of a hobo werewolf
Words and images by Trevor Browne
First there were ten, now there was one. That's how many people were left for the weekend adventure. We had all planned to meet up at a chalet for a week to celebrate a friend's birthday. Unfortunately, the weather forecast predicted major storms with high humidity and people weren't too keen on spending a couple of days inside a sauna-like cabin.
But there was no way I was letting the weather channel keep me from escaping the city and get out for a little adventure. My friend and I had planned to cycle out on the 240km round trip. He had done the trip before, so he emailed me the directions.
"Here you go. Have fun," he said sarcastically.
I had everything ready and packed the night before. My trusty Sherpa touring bike was ready to go. But something told me that a mountain bike might be a better choice. I went back down into our cave of a basement and switched skinny slicks for fat knobby treads and grabbed my bikepacking gear instead of panniers. I had done a fair bit of asphalt exploring this year but had yet to get on the trails much, so I was looking forward to it.
I started my morning off at a relaxing pace. Everyone in my family had slept in so I slowly packed my food and clothes while sipping a nice hot americano. So far the weather network was only partly wrong. It was 23ºC and mostly sunny instead of the rain they had called for but I was already feeling the humidity.
I was planning on going light and fast so I kept my mess kit to a minimum. No stove or big meals. A few quinoa bars, two cappuccino gels, two bananas, six flatbread peanut butter sandwiches, a bag of nuts to snack on while riding, and two big bidons full of icy cold water. When it’s this hot I tend not to eat a lot anyway, but the trick was keeping hydrated. Plus the route I was taking was never far from civilization so I could grab anything else I needed on the run.
Ten o’clock rolled by. After saying my goodbyes I let the back gate shut behind me and I was off. The first 40km was going to be the most mundane, riding through suburb after suburb but luckily there were a series of green bike paths, called the Route Verte, that connected downtown Montreal to my first stop of Saint Jérôme, at the foot of the Laurentians. The clouds started to roll in which made it feel a little cooler, but the humidity started to get even more intense. After a couple of hours of monotony and sweating, I reached Saint Jérôme and the head of the P'Tit Train du Nord, an old railway line that had been converted into a 200km graveled bike trail into the Laurentian Mountains. It was Saturday so I was expecting it to be a little busy with tourists, but I think most had been scared away by the weather forecast. Those who remained were friendly and courteous on the trail, giving a nod or "bon matin!" as they went by. The urban pavement soon gave away to gravel and forest and I finally felt more like the adventure had begun. I still felt a little overcompensating with my mountain bike as others passing by were mostly on road bikes, because of the well-maintained path, but I wasn't going to let that bother me. The wide path slowly wound its way through valleys following the Rivière du Nord, brushing by the outskirts of quaint little villages along the way. The path was relatively flat despite climbing further and further into the mountains, and I was enjoying the quietly relaxed pace. Dragonflies darted to and fro along the path. Robins twittered up in the treetops. After another hypnotic 20kms, I would be bidding the PTDN adieu and heading west into the town of Saint Sauveur. It was around lunch and an iced coffee would give me the boost I needed for the next leg of the trip. My directions said to turn at avenue de l'eglise, but since I didn’t have a map with me I wasn't sure where that exactly was. Not unlike all other Quebec towns a towering stone church built centuries before marked the street. The town was bustling with energy, but I was looking forward to the quiet that the forest would be offering. After whizzing down some great hills a wide shouldered road led me to the next village of Morin Heights, but not before some muddy construction slowed my pace. The clouds threatened to pour down on me but it never really amounted to more than a few drops.
It was finally time to turn off the asphalt again and back onto some dirt trails. It was my first time up in this neck of the woods so I wasn't sure what to expect. The Corridor Aérobique lay before me. A beautiful double-track trail dove into the woods. But what was more exciting were all the little signs pointing to various levels of mountain bike single-track. I hadn't planned for this, so I was a little giddy, riding my loaded bikepacking rig through the woods, over gnarly roots and boulders. I could have stayed all day in this unexpected slice of heaven, but I still had some ground to cover before I arrived at my private little chalet in the woods. I would bookmark this spot in my mind for later exploration.
Back on the route I followed the Corridor Aérobique, a 58km gravel and packed sand trail that was built over an old Canadian National Railway bed. The path's elevation never went over 5% so I was able to fly along at a pretty good pace. More overgrown and narrower trails forked off to the left and right, showing potential for winter adventures by fatbike, snowshoe and cross-country skiing. Little lakes and streams dotted the densely treed hills begging me to stop and rest my over-heated body in. I would strip my spandex off and jump into the water to escape the humidity multiple times on this route and take in the beautiful Laurentian landscape. Unfortunately, mosquitoes and deer flies also loved these spots so I was never in one spot for too long. I was still surprised at the limited amount of people I ran into along such a great trail, but who was I to complain.
After following along the shores of lac St. François-Xavier for awhile, another interesting trail map showed that there was a loop of single track trails called Les Orphelins which would take me away from the corridor for about 6km. It sounded perfect. Winding away from the lake valley I climbed higher into the hills, through stands of maple, birch, fir, spruce, and pine. The forest floor was littered with varieties of fern, aster and golden rod. The sweat factor increased and my eyes began to sting with all the perspiration. I loved the trail but with the humidity, it felt like 40ºC and the extra effort I was putting in was starting to get to me. Since I knew another lake waited for me at the bottom I poured a full bidon over my head to temporarily cool me down. The loop finally came to an end back at the corridor and I rested with a few peanut butter sandwiches. Back on the trail I felt invigorated with only about 25km to go. The hard packed path was fast again, and it made me feel like I was on a permanent decline further along the valley floor with flies bouncing off my glasses and helmet.
I soon reached the village of lac des Seize-Îles. With 110 km underway I decided to take a quick rest and have an ice cold drink bought from the local depanneur while sitting on the picturesque dock of the bay. Locals waved and asked how far I had come, impressed with me biking in such high heat. With only 10km more to go, I cruised along more backcountry lakes. The golden hour was soon upon the landscape, bathing everything in amazing light. Back on a gravel again the last 4km turned into a few major climbs, just enough to soak my jersey through and through before arriving at my little cabin for the night. It turned out to be a great little spot tucked into a hillside with an amazing view of a lake. The best part was a few cold beers had been left in the fridge from the previous visitors. Pure trail magic at work. After peeling off all of my spandex I took a quick dip in the lake before the mosquitoes ate me alive. I ran back into the cabin popped open another beer and lay in my bunk with a New Yorker magazine to keep me company. The sun finally set and I was out like a light.
The rain on the tin roof woke me up at about 5 am; so much for sleeping in. I looked outside at the foggy lake and decided I might as well get an early start while it was still cool. I checked my phone again and saw thunderstorms predicted all day. I chucked on my arm warmers, gilet and cap and climbed back on my soggy bike. Within 5 minutes I had stripped everything off, as my sweat was soaking me more than the falling rain. I picked up the pace again to try and outrun the storm, retracing my path from the day before. I kept my stop time to a minimum and snacked on energy bars as I rode. My goal was to make it back to Saint Jérôme before 12 pm to catch the train back to Montreal and skip the monotony of the suburbs. I was setting a great pace and I was back in Morin Heights before I knew it. I was hoping a cafe or market would be open to grab a quick coffee for the next leg of the journey. Luckily I found Mickey's Cafe, and a proper cappuccino and baked treat were in order. Standing up I looked at myself in the mirror on the wall. I had a giggle at my reflection. My face covered in mud from the morning's ride mixed with my disheveled beard and hair gave me the appearance of a hobo werewolf. That's what the bikepacking life is all about!
After 20 minutes back on the bike, the clouds parted and the sun came out with a vengeance. So much for the all-day rain they predicted. The further I got out of the Laurentian valley the hotter it was getting, along with major humidity that was quickly building up. The previous day's ride was a becoming a blur already. After an hour I was back in Saint Jérôme, an hour ahead of schedule. I washed up in a water fountain as I waited in the shade for the train at the old station. I was glad that I had left early to escape the brutal heat. The train was right on schedule, and after climbing aboard I closed my eyes and fell asleep with the swaying of the cars. I arrived back in Montreal groggy but ready to get back to civilization. Another 10km of riding in the sweltering heat and I was home, ready to relax with my family in the shady lane that I had left not 30 hours before.