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Laurentides Wildlife Reserve Bikepacking Circuit

Exploring Lac aux Écorces Area

Photos and Text by Romain Rosant and François Carier Deziel

Nothing too complicated. Meet up in Stoneham on a Friday morning around 6 a.m. Head for the Rivières aux Écorces. Just plan to be self-sufficient for the weekend.

Dehydrated food (2 dinners, 2 breakfasts) and something to continuously fuel during the day (nuts, granola bars, jerky, gummies, and all the little guilty pleasures we hesitate to eat on a daily basis: on a bike, anything goes). Five fatbikes, four of which are "pimped out" in 27.5+ (3-inch tires) including their full frame bag kits. Five accomplices, two cars, and off we go.

On the agenda, 2 stages loop on the territory of the Laurentides wildlife reserve, way north of Jacques Cartier Park.

Day 1: Departure on trail 36, a bit north of the Rivières aux Écorces, which we will follow up to the refuge in sector 77 to camp near Lake Saint Henri;

Day 2: Departure from the refuge on trail 364 to head towards Lac aux Écorces and join the refuge in sector 71 on trail 36, about ten kilometers from the cars;
Day 3: About ten kilometers to get back to the cars and return home by late morning.


Alright, those were the initial plans. Now, as with any good bikepacking trip, there are unexpected events. This is the first thing the SEPAQ employees remind us of during our registration at the Gite du Berger. The heavy snow from last winter and the sustained rains that have been hitting Quebec since spring have made the trails impassable in some places. And guess what, it's possible that the trails on our route are affected.

Well, we're on bikes. A car, sure, it's quite limited. But a bike, that should work, right? The "hike a bike" version of the "walk of shame" is common in bikepacking, so to hell with the warnings! Plus, nothing is more flexible than a bike trip, so we can always afford to improvise as time and place allow (the true freedom of biking).

We give it a shot.

Rather than starting on trail 36 (impassable), which we had chosen for its scenic view, we have to start via 382 and join 36 east, further south and north of Lac aux Écorces, all to reach Lake Saint Henri for the evening as planned. Well then! The first day unfolds charmingly. Winding forest road, satisfying landscape, cool and rainy weather, our need for wide-open spaces is fulfilled. Without being too technical, the very hilly elevation still offers some challenges and requires constant changes of pace. Quite the workout.

Then there are the flies. Normal, you might say. Honestly, we've seen worse at this level, but it's pretty intense this year. Thanks to this particularly rainy summer. They're all there, all kinds like at a family party. They are a kind of relatively effective motivation to exertion. In short, we don't stop too long during the journey, except to accept the beer generously offered by a group of fishermen we meet at the end of the day, priorities being what they are.

The day goes by, and we are all very happy to have decided to camp near a very rustic shelter come evening, to have a living space free of insects and to spend a pleasant evening. The minimalism imposed by bikepacking would have made us very vulnerable to them and would have probably shortened this lovely evening.

Our second day is a bit more folkloric. As anticipated, the day's route quickly becomes impracticable halfway through. We take 364 via Lake Mescouac to join 36 north of Lac aux Écorces. We then decide to try to take 36 northward, the same section not recommended by the wildlife reserve staff. Until then, the paths taken remained passable, and the sections cluttered with fallen trees and dead branches due to the exceptionally snowy winter could be overcome. Getting off the bike, making a way through the branches, pushing the bike. Quite the workout. As we progress, the sections get longer, the exercise more intense. It would take a machete, soon perhaps a chainsaw. Honestly, Quebec sometimes has nothing to envy the Amazon jungle in terms of density, let alone when it comes to mosquitoes.

Progress becomes slower and slower. Even the marvelous carbon Chic-Chocs is increasingly difficult to push. The flies, however, are thrilled by our static vulnerability. We are now walking more than pedaling. They are literally eating us alive, even with a net over our heads. Around 1 pm, we hit a wall. It's too dense ahead of us.

We set off without the bikes to scout ahead, to see what awaits us and if the effort is worth it. Less than 500 meters further, in addition to a boreal jungle worthy of the name, now the path itself has disappeared. Floodwaters took it away, leaving behind a section too dangerous to cross. There was no alternative but to turn back. The rest of the trip is now compromised. There was no other way to hope to return to our starting point in time.

No more loop possible, then. Rather than retracing the same route as the day before, we decide (while consulting with our increasingly aggressive fly friends) to ride more and reach the cars tonight. No camping. A beer and a restaurant instead. An interesting challenge to overcome (not the beer!) to alleviate the frustration of not being able to continue. We're not admitting defeat. The call of the beer wrestles with the call of the wild. So, we ride in the opposite direction, covering today's and yesterday's route. A solid daily 75.5 kilometers well done. We'll finish late. We'll dine late. But it was still a lot of fun despite the difficulties. Even being seasoned, even in Quebec, even on full carbon, bikepacking remains at the listen and mercy of nature. It forces humility and encourages the unpredictable.

The moral of the story: the important thing in biking isn't arriving at the destination, but everything that happens after the departure. The important thing is to pedal. Adventure is adventure.

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