Trip Report – Vallée Bras-du-Nord
Ferns, moss, mushrooms, and mist flank the epic mountain bike trail ahead of us. We’re deep in the forest and surrounded by the supernatural beauty of British Columbia. And I might even believe I was actually in B.C. if Tommy and my other companions didn’t have heavy French accents… and If I wasn’t less than an hour from Quebec City.
Tommy, Mathieu, Gilles and I are mid way down the world class Neilson Trail, the crown jewel of Vallée Bras-du-Nord’s two trail networks. Located in the Secteur Shannahan, this trail represents the most remote singletrack in the secluded valley. Beyond the Neilson it’s nearly 60 miles to the next town.
Falling water is the soundtrack on the Neilson.
On our side of the cascading river a thread of coffee colored singletrack rolls under a cedar canopy. On the opposing side a vertical granite face rises hundreds of feet above us. My eyes revert back to the task at hand as we roll on. I make chase and before long the loamy soil gives way to raw granite slickrock beneath my tires.
“Listen to the sound of the river in the next stretch.” Tommy shouts back to me.
Falling water is the soundtrack on the Neilson and in the section we’re riding the raging rapids are deafening. As we descend around the next bend and the river goes mute. A mirror flat section of water lies ahead and I hear nothing but humming tires on trail. Tommy looks back. I nod. Tommy smiles.
We catch up to Mathieu and Gilles where they have stopped at one of the Neilson’s landmarks. It’s a massive wooden catwalk clinging to the rock wall high above the ravine. It dawns on me that, to a trail builder, this has to be one of the most difficult places to construct a bike trail! Piles of house size granite fragments flank the river. In some places the water has carved a gorge so deep that one must ride in its shadowy depth unable to see the top of the walls above.
“Here, building the trail between boulders was too difficult so the catwalk was erected.” Explains Gilles. “And when building on, over and around proved impossible we had to figure out how to get through”.
After numerous scouting missions, for a time, he did not believe the trail would be possible to build.
Gilles is the man ultimately responsible for the Neilson. Having conceived of placing the trail in such formidable terrain, Gilles had scoured both river banks for possible routes. And he explained that after numerous scouting missions, for a time, he did not believe the trail would be possible to build. But persistence prevailed.
Further yet down the trail, Gilles points out one particularly rocky section. This was one of the last pieces he puzzled together, the missing link, between the bottom half and upper trail. Upon its discovery a vertical rock dead-end stood between the ravine’s wall and river’s rapids. Impassible. That was until the trail crew came in, drilled holes in the rock, injected an acid bath into its heart, and busted tons of bedrock out of the way. Now we rode through the narrow key hole through the otherwise impenetrable wall.
I’m impressed! Built with Incan like craftsmanship the Neilson is a masterpiece. And best of all it leads into the rest of the Vallée Bras-du-Nord trail network.
On the day of our arrival in Saint-Raymond we rendezvoused at the VBN headquarters with Mathieu Dupuis Bourassa, Executive Director of Valée Bras-du-Nord. Mathieu was personable and eager to host. He had also been a huge help in arranging our visit to the region. As I thanked him for the hospitality he ushered us into the Roquemont, a hotel and brewpub that houses the VBN headquarters.
Over lunch Mathieu explained that the Hotel, restaurant, and trails’ HQ were newly transformed from the site’s prior iteration as a more rustic hotel. This was a common theme in the region and it was apparent that the town, once dominated by the timber and agricultural industry, was reinventing itself into a tourist based economy.
Founded in 2002 Vallée Bras-du-Nord is unique in that it is run as a cooperative between the administrators, landowners, local businesses, and the government. More than five million dollars have been invested in their efforts to build trails, infrastructure, acquire equipment, and develop events. Their mandate has been the revitalization of the area and largely due to their initial efforts the surrounding region has enjoyed a recreation and adventure sport boom.
In the process of building the infrastructure required to attract outdoor enthusiasts the Coop has managed to put community members back to work.
Today the Coop has extensive responsibilities. Of particular priority is the development, promotion and stewardship of the mountain bike trails. In addition they oversee numerous recreation based tours, river sports, hiking trails, a series of trailside cabins and yurts and occupy two welcome centers and a bike shop.
In the process of building the infrastructure required to attract outdoor enthusiasts the Coop has managed to put community members back to work. Every year since ‘02 they’ve hired a dozen “at risk” youth from the Portneuf region who have suffered various hardships (dropping out of school, substance abuse, etc.) and offered them a few months of work in what they refer to as “a different kind of school”, the great outdoors. While employed by the Coop they are tasked with building and maintaining the trail system. This unusual approach to rehabilitation forces participants to adapt to adverse conditions and tasks in the alternative working environment with the goal of teaching them patience, tolerance, discipline, teamwork, determination and perseverance. Remember, these are the same people that played a critical role in blasting away the “missing link” Gilles pointed out on the Neilson Trail!
We finish Neilson Trail descent and arrive back at the the Vallée Bras-du-Nord welcome center where we had started earlier that morning. Vermont trail builder Knight Ide stands out front and greets us with a holler. He’s just driven a cannonball run up from Vermont to ride with us for the second half of the day.
Hugs and high fives are dealt to the crew. Knight is no stranger here. He is an honorary local having built a signature flow trail for the Coop. But today he is here to sample another builder’s goods. Knight is here for the inaugural run down the Boréale, a jump trail built by Jerome Pelland, one of Canada’s premier trail builders, and his Sentiers Boréals crew.
We’ve been told that the Boréale is fit for a DH park, plummeting 600 feet down the Valley’s western wall back to the river!
…But not before a lunch of baguette, local cheese, pâté and Boreal Blond Ales. Man the French know how to mountain bike!
The Boréale doesn’t disappoint. Above us the trail disappears over a horizon created by the lip of a large step down jump. Tommy and I are parked trailside and straining to hear any sign of Knight’s rapid approach.
Knight suddenly appears airborne and whipped-out. Tommy hoots! The dirt is soft and Knight leaves dents where he touches down. Brown pow shreds in his wake and he rounds a berm that’s so new I can feel it shake like Jello fresh out of a mold under my feet.
High fives again. Boréal is indeed fit for a bike park!
Day two finds Knight and I waking up at an ungodly hour. In the afterglow of the previous days ride we had imbibed on numerous Quebec bières and, in a fit of irrational exuberance, decided we would get up before dawn to get a few more miles in before Knight’s departure.
By dawn we’re cruising down Saint-Raymond’s western style Main Street of conjoined victorian buildings. Still half asleep we head to the outskirts of town and park at a trailhead of the “Swiss Man’s” section of the Saint-Raymond network.
The Swiss man is just that, a Swiss expat and proprietor of a large dairy farm at the foot of a hill (referred to as the Swiss Man’s Mountain) beyond the barn and fence line. Apparently he was an ally to the local riders. His “mountain” now sported a trail network fit for a mini downhill park.
Up and down we go, climbing, summiting, yawning, hammering down hill, and sweating out yesterday’s improprieties.
Knight heads home to Vermont and I meet Mathieu, Tommy and Gilles for a solid breakfast and the Roquemont. Bacon and eggs ingested, I’m feeling better now. Today we’ll be heading out the back door of the hotel and directly onto the network that flanks town to the east.
With full bellies we climb up and out of the village. In contrast to yesterday‘s ride the intersections are more frequent and the trails appear well ridden. Occasionally we pop out in the backyards of various business and homes.
Within twenty minutes we top out at a quaint chapel overlooking the quintessential Quebec countryside. Ville de Saint-Raymond stretches out before us with church steeples rising above the grid houses. In the distance miles of farm fields are punctuated by steeples and farm silos flagging the horizon. After admiring the view I remember that what goes up must come down.
On our descent back to town we ride La Jolie Jaelle; Knight Ide’s signature trail is packed with berms, tables, whoops and step-downs upon which Tommy and I test our metal in tandem.
“Neighbors to the trail always tell us about the hoots and hollers they hear coming from the woods.” Mathieu tells me.
On my second run down I can’t help but add to the chorus of cheers. La Jolie Jaelle proves a perfect finale for our tour of the Vallée Bras-du-Nord.
No trip to VBN is complete without a stop in Quebec City. Steeped in history, Old Quebec city is the last remaining walled city in North America. Once fortified from invaders, the city now prides itself on hospitality.
Attractions abound and one can easily spend a couple days walking the fort walls and cobblestone corridors within. Interested in taking the wifey (or hubby) on a romantic bike-centric vacation? This is your ticket!
WHEN IN QUEBEC…
BEER: Be sure to check out the some local microbrews (Microbrasserie) from the Roquemont, Archibald, Le Trou Du Diable, and Dunham breweries. Dunham brews Leo’s Early Breakfast IPA; it was our favorite QC brew by far!
Food: For stellar cheap eats in Quebec City head over to Le Chic Shack, a trendy gourmet burger bar. Get any burger and the chocolate float with Archibald Brewery’s Stout in it. So good! For a more authentic taste of local cuisine hit up Aux Anciens Canadiens, an upscale and rather spendy restaurant located in the oldest remaining building in town. Their specialty is traditional QC cuisine. Caribou anyone? Yum! Get the maple pie for dessert!
When staying in QC I recommend any number of the smaller bed and breakfasts that are nested in the old part of town. If a Hotel is more your speed then the Hotel Clarendon is located in a central location and boasts a well preserved historic vibe and comfy little rooms with nice views of the city. If you are feeling rich and really want to knock your spouse’s socks off stay at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. This is where James Bond, Anthony Bordain and Richard Branson would stay! At the very least I recommend visiting the Frontenac and enjoying the most expensive cocktail you can afford in the front bar overlooking the Saint Lawrence River. 18 year Oban? Don’t mind if I do.
WHEN IN SAINT-RAYMOND…
Vallée Bras-du-Nord has numerous accommodations that they manage including camping, cabins, and yurts. If you are looking for something rustic yet upscale we recommend renting a cabin at Au Chalet en Bois Rond just outside of town. The large chalets include all the modern amenities one could ask for and can sleep multiple couples. Plus some have hot tubs! Bois Rond is Located in a peaceful wooded area on a manmade lake and serviced by a small general store at the entrance to the private grounds.
There are good options for food in Saint-Raymond. The Roquemont makes an awesome breakfast. Too early for a beer? Off main street there are a number of options. Our absolute favorite was Sushi M et Cie, though far from the ocean, they served up one of the best platters of mouth sized morsels we have ever had! Definitely try the poutine roll. Speaking of which, eat poutine any opportunity you have when in Quebec!
Other things to do and see:
Do stop by the local cheese factory Alexis de Portneuf. Buy one of everything! The softer and smellier the cheese the better it tastes on a baguette.
Do spend a day on foot in the Shannahan and hike out to Delaney Falls! Standing under the hundred foot cascade was a highlight of my trip.
Do say hello to everyone at Vallée Bras-du-Nord for me. Give them hugs. And high fives.