The Road Less Traveled: Into the Far North of Quebec… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

When you choose to depart from familiar well-known roads, whether you are on an external or internal journey, it helps to have some idea of what you might be facing, and be prepared. I loved this 'fill in the blank' sign I found in Northern Quebec.

When you choose to depart from familiar well-known roads, it helps to have some idea of what you might be facing, and be prepared. I loved this ‘fill in the blank’ sign I found in Northern Quebec.

Peggy and I stopped at the Information Center in Saguenay with a specific purpose in mind. We wanted to find out about the road conditions for our trip into Northern Quebec following Route 167. Was there still snow? Would the dirt sections of the highway be knee-deep in mud? What services existed along the road?

“The road is fine,” the young woman at the Information Center assured us, looking at me like I was a nervous-Nellie city slicker who rarely made it beyond the confines of his city and would freak out if he couldn’t find a ‘ within ten miles.

A sign not usually seen by your everyday city dweller in the US. It is the third watch out for moose sign I've shown. The first featured a moose, the second a moose and a car. This one in northern Quebec was a bit more graphic.

A sign not usually seen by your everyday city dweller in the US. It is the third ‘watch out for moose’ sign I’ve shown in this series. The first featured a moose, the second a moose and a car. This one on Route 167 in northern Quebec was a bit more graphic.

“My boyfriend lives in Chibougamau (the farthest north we would travel) and drives down to see me every week.” As if that was supposed to convince me. Love does strange things to us. Something in my look must have caught her attention. She changed her tack.

“Well the road may be much rougher than you are used to in the US,” she said solicitously in her best Information Center voice. She didn’t want a couple of grumpy tourists complaining that they had been misled. I laughed. It was a ploy I had used many times on the nine-day, 100-mile backpack treks I had led. Inexperienced backpackers invariably wanted to know how tough their day was going to be. It was always best to error on the side of difficulty. Otherwise, they blamed me if their day was harder than expected.

So maybe the road was paved, but how often do you see SOS signs along paved roads. 167 had several pointing to lone phone booths. I don't remember any when I bike the road.

So maybe the road was paved, but how often do you see SOS signs along paved roads. Peggy and I saw several on 167 pointing toward lone phone booths. I don’t remember any when I biked the road.

An SOS phone booth along Route 167 in Northern Quebec.

An S.O.S. phone booth along the road.

But Peggy and I understood rough roads. We had already been over some rough roads in Canada, and rougher ones in the States. Plus Peggy and I had driven Quivera the Van and her predecessor Xanadu for over 200,000 miles on back roads in North America, including two trips to Alaska. It was unlikely that we were going to find something more difficult that we had already experienced.

We eventually got the information we wanted. There would be no deep mud; the whole road was paved. No snowstorms were predicted. Services were limited the first 100 miles (160 k), but after that, more frequent. Our only precaution: We should start with a full tank of gas.

The bottom line: It was not the road I remembered from 1989. Improvements had been made.

I left Lac Saint Jean with more concern than I normally felt. I had been over lonely roads, some with extremely limited services. But they were roads I knew something about. Naturally I had asked locals about what to expect on Quebec Routes 167 and 113. People had told me the area was isolated with few services. I should carry extra food and be prepared to handle any bike problems on my own. Bad weather was expected. The road was not skinny-tire friendly; portions were unpaved. And, oh, by the way, there were lots of logging trucks, really big logging trucks!

This sign along Route 167 suggested that the logging trucks were big. It was small in comparison to what I would experience.

This sign along Route 167 suggested that the logging trucks were big. It was small in comparison to what I would experience.

I pictured myself riding through a horrendous rainstorm over a dirt road as logging trucks blasted by me at 100 kilometers per hour, burying me in mud.

None of the above happened on my first day. There was extreme isolation, yes. I rode miles without seeing a car, and the dark green forest of skinny trees went on and on. But the road was paved and there wasn’t any rain. The day was actually hot. Sweat kept trickling into my eyes. Thirst drove me to stop at slow streams twice to refill my water bottles. I was careful to use my water filter. Nasty things like giardia might be lurking in the dark water. The heat took its toll. After 90 miles, I called it a day and disappeared into the forest to set up camp. Why I didn’t select a creek or lake to camp next to, who knows. There were plenty about. But I chose a dry camp and that meant my water had to be rationed.

There were numerous lakes and streams along the road. Had I camped next to them, my bath would have been much more thorough.

There were numerous lakes and streams along the road I could have camped next to.

That wasn’t a problem; I had two liters, which were plenty to cook with and drink. My challenge was I also wanted a bath. I had skipped one the night before at Lac Saint Jean and then biked through 90 miles of heat. I really didn’t want to sleep with me. Careful calculations suggested I had two cups of water for bathing: one for washing and one for rinsing. So that’s what I did. It was sponge on and then sponge off, quickly, trying to cover all 3, 168 square inches of my body with 16 ounces. Blood sucking mosquitoes guaranteed speed. Whether I smelled better and was cleaner really didn’t matter, I went to bed happier.

I found the rain, dirt roads, and speeding logging trucks the next day. But first I had found a service station and had done a happy dance. After a hundred miles of nothing, four gas pumps and a squat building seemed like the Taj Mahal. I’m pretty sure it was Nirvana, but it didn’t last. Shortly after leaving the gas station, the rain and the dirt road arrived as a one-two punch— a sort of karma for celebrating too much. Bicycling through 2-3 inches of mud on skinny tires in a deluge isn’t much fun.

But it’s more fun that bicycling through mud and rain with speeding logging trucks. I heard something humongous coming up behind me, fast. My head whipped around like Linda Blair’s. It was an ‘Oh shit!’ moment. I didn’t see your normal everyday large logging truck; I saw a freight train, a monster pulling three trailers barreling down on me. And the driver didn’t slow down. He blasted by me with all 30 tires throwing up mud. I became an instant mud man. Totally blind, I applied wet brakes to wet tires and stumbled off my bike. Standing there, cursing, wiping off mud from my glasses and face, I had fond thoughts of my office in Sacramento.

Sometimes I am a slow learner, or make that stubborn. Not this time. When I heard a logging truck coming, I would jump off my bike and make a mad dash through the mud for the side of the road. Then I would happily wave at the logger as he went by. I doubt they ever noticed my slightly extended middle finger. I only waved it at the guys doing at least a 100 kph.

Of course the section of dirt road ended. It couldn’t have been more than 20 or 30 miles long. And the majority of truck drivers slowed down, probably because they were amazed to see a bike tourist on their road. Anyway, you can see why I wanted a clear view of what Peggy and I might expect on my second trip over the road. The following photos relate our experience.

The road through the wilderness went on and on, for some 300 miles.

The road through the wilderness went on and on, for some 300 miles. The first hundred miles was as empty as this photo suggests, but Peggy and I did find the SOS phone booths and an emergency medical station that hadn’t been there during my trip.

Numerous lakes, streams and rivers are found along the road. The first half seemed heavier on lakes, the second half on rivers.

Numerous lakes, streams and rivers are found along the road. The first half seemed to have more lakes, the second half more rivers.

I took full advantage to capture reflection shots. This one seemed dark and brooding.

I took full advantage to capture reflection shots. This one seemed dark and foreboding.

And this one more cheerful.

And this one more cheerful.

The small lake next to the emergency station provided this shot.

The small lake next to the emergency station provided this shot.

Quebec Route 167 ends its northern journey at Chibougamau, 8 miles from where Route 113 heads south. I skipped the extra 16 miles and cut south, but Peggy and I stayed at the town's hotel.

Quebec Route 167 ends its northern journey at Chibougamau, 8 miles from where Route 113 heads south. I skipped the extra 16 mile round trip and cut south, but Peggy and I stayed at the town’s hotel. Today, a motel is found at the cutoff. I can almost guarantee I would have been there taking a real shower instead of bathing in two cups of water had it been there in 1989!

may have been at the end of the road, but it had a McDs...

Chibougamau may have been at the end of the road, but it had a McDs. And, judging from the size of the truck, they drank a lot of Budweiser.

The logging trucks apparently weren't out and about yet. At least Peggy and I didn't see any. But this pile of logs suggests the amount of timber harvesting in the area. Large swaths had been clear cut, leaving ugly scars.

The logging trucks apparently weren’t out and about yet. At least Peggy and I didn’t see any. But this pile of logs suggests the amount of timber harvesting done in the area. Large swaths had been clear-cut, leaving ugly scars.

We watched a huge claw pick up dozens of the skinny logs at a time.

We watched a huge claw pick up dozens of the skinny logs at a time. The logs that come out of the forests near our house in Southern Oregon are easily 3-4 times bigger in diameter.

Rivers captured our admiration as we drove south on Route 113.

Rivers captured our admiration as we drove south on Route 113.

And they reminded us how much Quebec depends upon hydro-electric power. We crossed under high power lines several times coming down from the north several times.

And they reminded us how much Quebec depends upon hydro-electric power. We crossed under high power lines several times.

Another example.

Another example.

Rapids suggested this river might be fun to raft.

Rapids suggested this river might be fun to raft.

A close up of the same river.

A close up of the same river. Looking at how shallow the water appears to be. I had second thoughts about rafting.

A lone bike tourist made his way south on Route 113. He was the only one we saw on the route. Apparently biking into Northern Quebec has yet to take off and become popular!

A lone bike tourist made his way south on Route 113. He was the only one we saw on the route. Apparently biking into northern Quebec has yet to take off and become popular!

Rain reminded me of my bike trip.

A storm was waiting for him and reminded me of my own adventure. (Railroad tracks can be seen crossing the road mid-photo.)

NEXT BLOG: I return to civilization and bicycle across Ontario on my way to Minnesota.

37 comments on “The Road Less Traveled: Into the Far North of Quebec… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

    • Thanks Cindy. I can never resist a good reflection shot! 🙂 As for the northern woods, they reminded me of my life in Alaska. They definitely have their own unique beauty. –Curt

  1. Curt, you are one sturdy guy. Danger Due To and you navigated right through it.

    The bike trip stories are just the most remarkable thing. I mean it. It’s wonderful that you were able to get back to see the road and that Peggy could be with you to hear the stories and see the sights. Bully for you, sir.

    • Well thanks, Bruce. It was a very worthwhile trip for Peggy and I. Even had I not bicycled the route, the journey this spring and early summer would have been a delight, given the beauty, people, and great variety. –Curt

  2. Since I’m just back from a quick trip to Quebec, your post about this remote part of the province caught my attention. I’ve never wandered far into the northern part of Quebec. In a way the northern part of Maine to get to Montreal or Quebec City is quite remote too. But over our last trip to Montreal, my husband and I spoke of exploring the less civilized part of Quebec in the near future. And the lakes and rivers that you captured with your camera trigger a real desire to see them by myself. Also seeing no one for a while is quite nice since it is now very unusual on our planet.
    Of course as a French speaker I am fond of the French words that Quebecois use on traditional American marquees. They are much more attentive than the French when it comes to the language.
    I’m so glad for you that you did to do that trip again with Peggy.

    • It was a wonderful adventure, Evelyne. The northern part of Quebec, at least the part I made it to, was certainly more developed than in had been when I first visited. And this makes it easier for travelers. It is definitely worth a visit!
      Thanks for throwing in the term Quebecois. I had looked at my options: Quebecois, Quebecker, Quebecer, Quebecan? and gone with French Canadian. 🙂 –Curt

  3. Those trees look like skinny fence posts! I laughed at your bath in 2 cups of water. We have found ourselves in similar positions when backpacking in heat. I was trying to remember what we were doing in 1989. Dr. A was in process of retiring, and I was still teaching. Life sure changes in 27 years. Nice that you can make this journey again.

    • I thought of Jolly Green Giant toothpicks, Kayti. 🙂
      Both Peggy and I loved the revisit. One because it was so beautiful in itself, two, because I was able to re-experience my trip. And three, because I was able to share it with Peggy.
      Amazing how fast life passes, huh. Traveling always slows it down for me. –Curt

      • yes, you’re right, Sir… 🙂 during the 5 years spent in Houston, TX, we travelled quite a lot – in the US(Hawaii included) and Canada… guess what: all the Americans I would come across – who didn’t know me, as soon as I would say 2-3 words, they would ask me:”oh, you’re from Québec, right?…” 🙂

    • Me too, Andrew, had it been life and death. Or had I even been seriously thirsty. I once had a friend lost in the mountains. When I caught up with him, he was seriously dehydrated. There were streams all over. “Why didn’t you drink the water?” I had demanded. His response: “I was a fraud I would get Giardia.” He was willing to risk death by dehydration rather than risk pooping through the woods! –Curt

  4. That top sign made me laugh out loud. I have a clutch of signs in the back seat of my car that say either “Scenic View” or “Historic Site.” They’re for an interactive art project initiated by someone in Matfield Green, Kansas. People who stop by the art gallery/wifi coffee shop can pick up some signs, and use them wherever they choose — then, send back the results, which get recorded electronically for viewing. You could have posted hundreds of ‘scenic view’ signs on your trip, and a few ‘historic site’ ones, too!

    • Do you remember when they used to post signs with cameras on them for scenic views, even suggesting where you should stand, Linda? Or is my mind playing tricks on me? I’ll have to research that. We used to call it a Kodak moment. I thought the “Danger Due to” sign was precious. I love it when I find things like that. Is there a URL for where post the photos for the signs you pick up? Scenic sites were up there in the hundreds, or in the thousands if they are based on the number of photos I took. 🙂 –Curt

  5. OMG what a journey! The rain! The skinny tires! The mud! The Logging Trucks!!!!!!!!
    And a wash with two cups of water? Seriously! We had a bigger ration than that crossing the Sahara – at least we had a litre each for washing. And I can feel the loneliness of that road – hour after hour of nothing. What a journey. What a story.
    Alison

    • As you and Don well know, Alison, it’s the bumps along the way that make adventures what they are… and add color to our journeys. A liter? What luxury. 🙂 You must have been as fresh as a daisy. I can handle a lot of alone time, but there were periods on my journey where I craved more human companionship. Even logging trucks… Thanks. –Curt

  6. I love these road signs! And I know why they put them up — for idiots like me who would never even question what the roads ahead might be like. :-\
    The reflection shots of the lakes and trees were spectacular. Makes me want to explore Canada more. I have only been to the Ontario region and know there’s so much more I’ve yet to see. For now, I’m content visiting vicariously through you. Winter is coming…

    • What’s up the road is critical for bicyclists, Juliann. When they start putting up SOS stops, it becomes worrisome for drivers. 🙂 Coast to coast Canada has an incredible amount to see and do. And it is right next door! Glad to have you along vicariously. And thanks. (Winter usually sees me heading south. Grin.) –Curt

    • I had a lot of fun with it Hillary. I found myself looking forward to the different ways they might show human/moose encounters. And how much more clear could the SOS signs be! –Curt

    • I think people riding bikes are particularly vulnerable because they have so little protection and because bikes can go over so easily. I know I wouldn’t be here from one experience I had (not on my 10,000 mile trip), if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet. For years I took people out into remote wilderness areas on backpacking trips. During the same period I was also taking people on bike trips. I always worried a lot more about my bike trips. Having said that, bicycling is safe enough if you use caution and good sense. Is it more dangerous now? I don’t think so. A lot more people seem to be cycling and I think that drivers are more aware of cyclists.–Curt

    • It certainly reflected how perceived reality can effect a conversation, Timi. She was thinking of a paved highway that her love zoomed down once a week to see her, and I was thinking of logging trucks and mud. 🙂 –Curt

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