Tous à board: Cycling along Quebec’s P’tit Train du Nord

  • The former train station at Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec is one of many repurposed stations along the route of the P'tit Train du Nord "linear park," a rail trail open for biking in the warmer months and skiing in the winter. (Courtesy Ford von Reyn)

  • Bridges along the route offer views of the Riviere-Rouge. (Courtesy Ford von Reyn)

  • The rail trail is paved or packed gravel and offers smooth cycling. (Courtesy Ford von Reyn)

For the Valley News
Published: 11/13/2019 10:22:57 PM

Forty years ago, you could still take the ski train from Montreal to Mont Tremblant or ride the same route in the summer or fall past scenic rivers and lakes in the Laurentian Mountains.

The train is no longer, but you can still ride the same flat railbed terrain on your own two wheels, taking in all the open-air natural beauty of P’tit Train du Nord trail.

The former train stations remain along the way, turned into cafes, museums or bike shops. Sheltered rest stops are designed to resemble cabooses. Day’s end is greeted by a stay at one of the many friendly bed-and-breakfasts along the route. The Canadians are both friendly and generous, with both breakfast and dinner included at the B&Bs.

My wife and I cycled the 120-mile “linear park” in four days this summer and decided it wasn’t fair to keep this gem a secret from our fellow New Englanders. Planning is simple: Put on your bike rack, pack a maximum 33-pound bag, polish your bonjour and pardon, excusez moi and drive 45 minutes north of Montreal to quaint Saint-Jerome to start your adventure.

(We booked the Escapade option thru a consortium of three inns [relaisvelolaurentides.ca/en/packages.html]. You can bike the route in two, three or four days. There is a one-day option, but if that’s your preference, stop reading now and get back on your Peloton trainer.)

(It’s also worth noting that while we chose to bike the route, it’s also possible to ski it or to ride it on a fatbike or snowmobile.)

The trip north to Quebec is easy. I always have trouble keeping my eyes on the road driving over the St. Lawrence River on the new Samuel de Champlain Bridge. The traffic thins toward Saint-Jerome, the southern terminus of the rail trail.

You’ll need to spend the night there for the early-morning departure the next day. We arrived in time to stumble on 200 people line dancing to the instructions of a French-speaking woman on a raised stage in the old railroad square. The spirit was infectious so I tried, but it was a risky jumble of wrong moves and crossed legs. At least when she commanded gauche, I was able to safely turn the same direction as everyone else.

Transportation north from Saint-Jerome to the starting point is provided by an excellent autobus service (www.autobuslepetittraindunord.com/en). They can also assist with booking other inns along the route, if you prefer to plan your own itinerary.

On Day 1, the autobus and bike trailer deliver you and your bike (or a rented bike) and luggage 120 miles north for the start of the ride in Mont-Laurier. On the July day we started, there were 36 other riders of all ages and sizes transported on two shuttles.

Last year, 4,500 people used the transport during the late-May to mid-October season, an increase of 15% from the previous year, the driver on our bus told us. The autobus deposited us at the 200-kilometer sign at the start, and it moved your bags south each night to the next B&B on our itinerary.

Light rain was falling in Mont-Laurier as the van pulled away at noon, leaving us with our bikes, daypacks and 55 kilometers to pedal to our first destination. Before setting off, we ducked into the café at the first of the renovated train stations, this one opened by Canadian Pacific in 1908 at the northern end of the rail line built to encourage settlement of northern Quebec.

Every kilometer along the linear park is marked descending from the K200 start. The kilometers go by twice as fast as miles and give you the sense that Quebec has somehow made you a real speedster. In most sections, the trail is 5-6 feet wide, allowing you to cycle beside a partner and converse.

The 55K route to Nominingue on Day 1 took us alongside Lac des Escorces and through beautiful Canadian forests of spruce, white birch, poplar and maple. At the end of the day, we veered off the trail to pedal through town to Provincialart, a white, two-story house at the top of a hill beside a former convent. Proprietor Guy Bedard greeted us with iced lemon water on the porch.

The bedroom we were assigned, the former library, was spacious and comfortable, and featured a no-cost extra: a shuttered wooden lattice on the door through which the priest used to take confession from the nuns each week.

The gourmet meal Diane Bedard prepared that night was typical of our three B&B dinners: cold leek soup, tempura fritters, peppered chicken and hashkap berry shortcake with ice cream. Sleep came easily, and a hearty breakfast prepared us for the 70-kilometer ride on Day 2.

We started to notice the many larch trees along the trail. The graceful deciduous conifer with small needles and thimble-size pinecones is also known as the tamarack, from the Algonquin word meaning “wood used for snowshoes.” The July wildflowers included yellow hawkweed, daisies, Queen Ann’s Lace, chicory, fluffy meadow rue and patches of reindeer lichen.

The paved trail is almost flat throughout and is in generally good condition. The few potholes and root heaves are marked with red or yellow paint. Day 2 took us along the Riviere-Rouge with wooden bridges to view the clear water, inviting sand beaches and the occasional bather.

At the K107 mark in LaBelle, we stopped at another former train station which now houses an inviting white-tablecloth restaurant, a coffee bar, an upstairs B&B and a railroad museum. Black-and-white archival photos show the plow of the ski train shooting plumes of snow high in the air while happy skiers jostle inside the crowded cars with their wooden skis and bear-trap bindings. Rail trials are wonderful, but the photos reminded me of what we’ve lost from real railroad travel. We’re making more rail trails while Sweden is pushing train travel over flight to reduce carbon emissions.

In LaBelle the pavement turns to packed gravel, which was easy to navigate and free of potholes and heaves. But as Day 2 continued, we noticed that our backpacks with lunch and rain-gear were starting to pull uncomfortably at our shoulders. We noticed that the Canadians had a better idea: saddlebags. In Quebec, these practical pouches have the classier name of panniers. Next time, we won’t be the only ones massaging our shoulders at the dinner table.

At K90 we passed through the original village of Mont Tremblant, where you have an option to pedal 7 kilometers off the main route to the commercial center of the ski resort. Shortly after leaving Mont Tremblant, the linear trail begins to rise. This 8-kilometer stretch is the only real climb of significance on the trail, but is gradual and easily managed by even the occasional cyclist. At K70, we veered off the trail to ride to La Bonne Adresse, a colorful Victorian-style B&B. Our B&Bs were all BYOB, so we were advised to pick up libations before pedaling to our accommodation. Cold beer cans fit conveniently into the three back pockets of bike jerseys.

Rested and fortified with yet another gourmet breakfast, we set off on Day 3 for the 45-kilometer pedal to Sainte-Adele. The route took us through the artsy village of Val David, worth a stop for coffee and a visit to its several galleries. A l’Abordage shop in this village rents kayaks for cyclists and allows you to switch gears for a quiet 8-kilometer float and paddle down the quiet Riviere du Nord parallel to the bike trail. The company delivers your bikes to the takeout point, where you can resume cycling.

We arrived in Sainte-Adele at K25 for a night at Au Clos Rolland, where Swiss transplants Carolyne and Pierre-Andre provided an elegant repast for us and another couple in a lovely dining room.

Day 4 covered the final 25 kilometers and brought us under the arch at the old train station in Saint-Jerome at kilometer 0, where our bags were waiting.

There’s one more detail of note — the price. Our four-day and three-night excursion with transportation, meals and lodging totaled $500. A few dollars more in Canadian, but who’s counting?

For more information about the P’tit Train du Nord, go to www.laurentides.com/en/linearpark.

Ford von Reyn is a professor of medicine at Geisel School of Medicine. He lives in Thetford.




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