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Papineau-Labelle Wildlife Reserve Bikepacking Circuit

Bike + Packraft + Camping

Text by Loïc Olivier

Photos by Loïc Olivier, Brian Redmond, Joe Walters, Anthony Bertrand, Vincent Girard and Charles-Alexandre Steadfast-Desjardins / Video by Vincent Girard and Charles-Alexandre Steadfast-Desjardins

I’ve been riding with Grant and Joe since 2015.

They’ve been waxing about Papineau-Labelle Wildlife Reserve since the moment I met them.

Grant grew up not too far from there. He knows that Papineau-Labelle is a gold mine, full of trails, with lots of bikepacking potential. As for Joe, he has visited Papineau-Labelle a number of times on winter trips. When we chat, he’s categorical: We.Must.Go.

Fast Forward to the summer of 2017. Eric at Panorama Cycles asks me if I’d like to assemble a team to go and check out the trails at Papineau-Labelle.

YASSSS!

Open invitation goes up on Facebook. A few weeks later, 6 members of the Ottawa Valley Bikepacking Collective and 2 new friends from Montreal and Bromont meet up at Accueil Gagnon, north of Duhamel, for an S24O in two variants:

– Adrian, Grant, Joe, Anthony, Brian and Vincent will ride the Allroad variant; a 40 km loop on logging roads and doubletrack;
– Charles-Alexandre and I plan on doing the Packraft version, a 50km loop with a 1+km crossing of Lac Montjoie as proof of concept of multimodal bikepacking in the Reserve.

So we meet up one Sunday morning in September. It’s nice and warm outside. Joe and Brian have been in the Reserve since Friday. They’ve checked out a bunch of trails and their comments are very positive. Their favourite trails are those located just north of Lac Montjoie. Narrow Singletrack. Bush trails. Solid wilderness experience.

We have lunch, we chat and start packing up the bikes. We’re off.
The numbered trails are in tip-top shape. We ride quickly through them. Seems that everyone is eager to get under the lush forest canopy and to hit sweet doubletrack.

As I ride up a hill, I hear noise behind me. I slowly brake and look behind my shoulder. A huge porcupine comes out of the brush and waddles from side to side as it crosses the road.

We leave the main road and end up in the woods. Something’s up. Charles-Alexandre has a flat tire. As he replaces his tube, the other guys take advantage of the down time and start playing in the sandpit they’ve discovered a few metres away.

A few minutes after we hit the road again, Grant suddenly puts on the brakes. Another huge porcupine crosses the trail. Papineau-Labelle porcupines are pretty easy going.

The doubletrack is in good shape. Even the two guys on gravel bikes are having a good time… As long as they pick their lines carefully! That’s what happens with a skinny bike. I, on the other hand, have it easy. The Chic-Chocs’ fat tires absorb all the bumps, which means that I get to look at the countryside.

A little further down the road, the group splits up. The bigger group continues westward on narrowing doubletrack. The trail doesn’t seem to be well-used and there are lots of low branches. Gotta be careful or your whiskers get tangled in ‘em. Adrian gets wacked right in the mouth.

Charles-Alexandre and I go north towards Lac Montjoie. There’s a nice big hill right before we get there and we bomb down the trail at over 40 km/h. When we get to the lake, we undo our luggage, inflate the rafts and start packing the boats with bikes and bags. Charles-Alexandre gets in within minutes. I take forever to get ready….

We paddle slowly and follow the bay’s steep banks over a few hundred metres. When we reach the open water, the wind picks up. Our packrafts gently roll and sway on the waves. My bike’s rear tire is partially submerged; I yank on the frame to rebalance the weight around. I rest my backpack on the bike fork to counterweight the Chic-Chocs’ back end. A couple of paddle strokes to test it out. It stays put and the tires stays afloat. All’s good in the world.

Two loons are calling in the distance… Not a soul around. We’ve got the lake to ourselves. We paddle on for 90 minutes until we reach the SEPAQ’s cabins on the other side of the lake. We’re doing our best to get out of our rafts but it’s a pretty clumsy affair… The rafts are pulled on shore and the bikes are reassembled. It’s past 5pm. The sun has moved to the other side of the hill. I’m soaking wet, hungry and cold. We get changed as quickly as possible and stuff our faces with fast-acting carbs before busting a move. Charles-Alexandre is a BEAST, I can barely keep up with him. The fact that my life jacket keeps coming out of my handlebar harness is not helping me out…! I have to stop a few times to readjust everything.

The numbered trail we’re on is pretty sweet. We ride and chat. We cross only one car over the next ten kilometres. Charles-Alexandre notices moose tracks everywhere. Surely we’ll see one! Yeah…. Nope.

We make the decision to take the long way back and ride around Lake Ernest back to the Cheminots campsite where we’re all staying overnight. We can smell the bonfire over the lake. The other guys are obviously getting cosy over there. We arrive at the campsite as dusk sets in, to the hollers and high-fives of our friends. We take swigs of bourbon to celebrate a fantastic day on the trails.

As the night sets in, we put on our puffy jackets and warm up (so to speak) by passing flasks around. The sky is clear and Anthony is the first one to notice the Milky Way. All 8 of us are now staring at the sky, amazed at this incredible sight. Not a word is said. It’s pretty magical.

The last guys standing decide to throw in the towel. The night is cool but there is almost no wind. I slide into my hammock and close my eyes. I quickly fall asleep and dream of packrafts…

We all agree that Papineau-Labelle Wildlife Reserve has incredible bikepacking potential. There are a ton of trails out there, and so many ways to plan out routes. Riding in Papineau-Labelle is generally pretty chill but keep in mind that porcupines have a tendency to just appear out of nowhere. And unannounced.

It would be entirely possible to circumnavigate the Reserve and stay at different campsites along the way. But having said this, the Cheminots campsite really is awesome. The view of Lac Ernest is stunning and it’s within a stone’s throw of Accueil Gagnon, which means easy access to firewood for epic bonfires! From the Cheminots campsite, there are many possible 40-50 km routes that can be done during the day, before rolling back to the site to sleep and eat comfortably.

One thing is for sure: we’re coming back to Papineau-Labelle shortly!

2 routes:

  • “Allroad” version – 40km
  • Packraft version – 50km
  • Fatbike Panorama Chic-Choc
  • Packraft, life jacket, bailer, whistle,heaving line
  • Night/day clothes; spare clothes for after packrafting
  • Hammock, sleeping bag, underquilt
  • A beer and a flask of whisky
  • Food
  • Water filter
  • Gas stove and canister
  • Tools and tube
  • First aid kit

  • Distance Instructions
Label

Altitude VS Distance

  • Distance Instructions
Label

Altitude VS Distance

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