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