Lean on me
Words by Trevor BRowne. IMages By Brian Sorkilmo.
Laughter could be heard echoing throughout the cold winter woods. We were literally shouting and hooting as we traversed through the snowy winter wonderland of Gatineau Park. It was amazing how two massive wheels and some fluffy white trails could change a person’s mood entirely.
Earlier that week, we weren’t all smiles. A few friends of mine and I were getting bogged down with the everyday slog of life. We had all grown up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and had spent much of our time exploring the landscape around us, either on bikes or on foot. Those experiences had helped us connect and had shaped us into the people we are today. Lately, however, due to any number of factors, from the stresses of raising a modern family, to having a busy career, we were all feeling big weights on our shoulders. We needed something to help us get back to our roots and have that weight lifted, if only for a few days at least.
We all live in different parts of Canada now, but as fate would have it, the stars aligned and we were all able to meet up in Ottawa for a weekend to experience some first-class fat biking in Gatineau Park. Gatineau is the National Capital Region’s conservation park and is about a 20-minute drive north of Ottawa proper. It’s a unique area, full of diverse ecosystems, and is host to over 270km of trails for both winter and summer use. Around 28km of these trails can be used by fat bikes and are generally shared with snowshoers. The terrain varies from flat, rolling, smooth, groomed paths, to extremely technical, black diamond, get-lost-in-the-woods kinds of trails. We were aiming for the latter.\
I had arrived a day late, so my friends had visited the Gatineau Park Visitor Centre in Chelsea, Quebec, to do a bit of scouting. Suggestions were given by the park attendant and plans were made. They later picked me up in Ottawa after a long, monotonous Greyhound ride. With warm smiles on our faces, we greeted each other with big hugs. I immediately felt comforted having them around. A skiff of snow was starting to settle on the hills around us as we left Ottawa and headed back to Wakefield to pick up our bike rentals. The gang at Expeditions Wakefield were friendly and quickly kitted me up with a Devinci Minus XT.
We headed back to our little cabin in the woods, got dressed in our wool and down bibs and bobs, and immediately hit the trails. Our frosty toes soon warmed up on the technical climbs. There was just enough snow and ice to make the riding challenging. Frozen roots and boulders were no match for the 26x4.8 wide tires. A few hike-a-bike sections came and went with grunts and moans. The views of the Ottawa valley were spectacular. The daylight was fading fast, but we didn’t want it to end. On the way back we were rewarded with finger-numbing downhills, our disk brakes echoing like moose in the distance.
Our next goal was to fill our bellies. We sauntered into Le Pub Chelsea covered in sweat and frost. The warmness from the fireplace immediately took the chill away. While in Quebec, there is an infamously superior option to warm you up and satiate your hunger: Poutine. After pulling up to the rough wooden bar, we immediately ordered three beautiful bowls of fries topped with pulled pork, cheese curds, more (deep fried and breaded) cheese curds, and smothered in gravy spiked with whiskey. We washed this all down with a Couleur café noire Porter (tasting notes of coffee and chocolate), and a heartwarming shot of Jameson for good measure. To say that we were feeling content was an understatement. It was hard keeping our eyes open after such a feast. But after stepping back outside again, a cold northern breeze soon fixed that. We quickly piled into the cabin and got the wood-burning stove ablaze. Real-estate around the stove was at a minimum and our wet clothes got front seats. After opening a nice bottle of red wine and staring at the roaring fire, we melted into the couch and felt some of that accumulated everyday-life weight begin subside. We were starting to feel peckish again, however, so a local raw milk cheese plate made an appearance.
A few hours passed and a late supper was in order, as we needed our energy for another big day of riding. We made our way to the kitchen and, seeing that flurries of snow were swirling out the window, our eyes lit up. With some blues playing in the background, we divided up the culinary tasks and got to work: assembling a salad, preparing some green beans, and pan-frying some juicy steaks. It felt good to be back with my old friends, where the silences were just as comfortable as the conversations themselves. After dinner and more fireside talk, we all headed to bed feeling satiated and more at peace.
The next morning, the sun peeked through the lace curtains and golden light reflected off the vintage mirror on the wall. I glanced outside. After last night’s storm, we were in for a riding treat. A foot of fluffy white snow had fallen and was going to make for an awesome day of cruising in the woods. After a breakfast of fried eggs, leftover steak, and some crusty bread, we geared up again and jumped into the car.
We were headed towards the north-eastern edge of the park towards Wakefield into the Meech Creek Valley. Arriving at P15 parking lot, we headed off onto trail 70. Criss-crossing over snow-laden fields and creeks we headed into an uphill trail that ducked into the woods. Today was a bit brisker than yesterday, but the ascent was keeping us in check. The extra white stuff was slowing our progress but added to our joy. The trail was actually quite pleasant until we hit the turn off.
Our nice, wide, groomed trail turned into a single track – barely. Small blue signs marking the trail were sometimes our only reminder that we were going in the right direction. The trail was alternating between hills and valleys, rarely on a flat surface and fun as all hell. Hike-a-bike was more the norm. It was denser and more deciduous than yesterday’s ride. Technical would be an understatement. At times frozen stream beds became the trail. We looped around Lac de Source, regularly falling off the bikes and giggling with powder-covered faces. To be honest, it was the most challenging track I had been on since riding in the Rockies.
Soon we reached the windswept shores of Lac Carman. Mallards skittered across the frozen ice. To our surprise, we came upon a designated fire pit stop, a little oasis in the woods. My friends split some wood with a provided axe while I gathered kindling. There was even a little newspaper left behind from previous trekkers. After a few deep breaths, a fire was lit and we were warming our wet gloves over the flames. We hastily choked down a few energy bars. It would have been nice to stay all afternoon, but I had a bus to catch. The single track led into a wider groomed road and we were picking up the pace. The forest opened up and we were back into an open field riding against a howling wind, soon back where we started. With frozen hands and faces, we strapped the bikes onto the car and headed back to town.
It was hard saying goodbye as I departed on the Greyhound. Looking out of the bus’s frosted windows I knew that the stresses of everyday life would still be there when I got home. But after enjoying a weekend of adventure with good friends I was ready for what lies ahead.