BEST LAID PLANS
A Blueberry Trail Derailed My Cycling Trip, But There Was a Silver Lining
Partway through one of my recent epic cycling trips, I ended up flat on my back. If your cycling vacation falls apart, you want to be in Saguenay, Quebec, when it does.
I was slack-jawed. On one side, was an endless blue ocean with the sun dancing on the peaks of its waves. On the other, a sea of mountains rippling into the horizon. I was 15 and left our campsite in California to climb a large hill. I made my own path to get there, a romantic idea that led me to climb through thick brush and (unfortunately) poison oak, landing me in the hospital.
“The best-laid plans” as they say.
I was reminded of that day recently after a cycling accident in Saguenay, Quebec. I was in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region to ride bike trails—a beautiful trip weaving through towns and forests that are situated around a stunning blue lake. Instead, I found myself waylaid—flat on my back in the grass and staring at the sky along the Véloroute des Bleuets (blueberry cycling trail).
I haven’t fallen from a bike in years, but this full-flip ended that streak. It also provided a different perspective of Saguenay—and I don’t mean just because I was staring at the sky. Sometimes the best trips are the ones that don’t go as planned.
I was embarrassed by my fall and for a good reason. I had just rounded a corner on the trail and my vision was blocked by shrubs. I thought I saw someone in a blind spot heading in my direction around the corner. I was wrong about that and it turned out that no one was there. Not wanting to be known as the American travel journalist who plowed over an elderly Canadian, however, I swerved quickly—way too quickly.
The cycling pack on my back broke my fall, but my leg—that important thing I use to ride bikes—rammed hard into the top bar. I tried shaking it off, got back on the saddle, and rode almost 20 miles in ever-increasing pain to my next rendezvous point. I ended up with a bone bruise the diameter of a baseball.
With both my leg (and ego) severely bruised, my cycling adventure was over. This wasn’t, however, the first thing to go wrong on this trip.
At the invitation of the tourism offices, I was originally there to get a taste of this bike-ride paradise. A two-hour drive north from Quebec City, Saguenay formed in 2002 after several towns merged. It is a largely French-speaking—and often only French-speaking—region. (A large number of tourists come from France and Belgium.) It sits along the Saguenay River, which runs east as part of the Saguenay Fjord and eventually empties into the St. Lawrence River. At the river’s delta in Tadoussac, you can whale-watch—belugas can be found there year round. To the west, the river is fed by Lac-Saint-Jean, a large, but relatively shallow lake.
On day one, I was to cycle the hilly Véloroute du Fjord, and the next two days were to be a journey through the Véloroute des Bleuets—two fantastic bike trails that I couldn’t wait to get on. Since much of my usual cycling is in the flatlands of Northwest Ohio, I took time to ride any hills I could find at home, rain or shine, to prepare my body for the ups and downs of the Véloroute du Fjord.
And yet, after all that training, the bike ride on day one never happened.
Air Canada cancelled the last connection and instead of staying in L’Auberge des Battures on the first night, a four-star hotel with a front and center view of the bay along the Saguenay River, I stayed in the misnomer, Quality Hotel, just outside of the airport in Montreal.
One big hurdle for the area’s tourism is the aging Saguenay-Bagotville Airport, the nearest airport, which is small—as in a-single-terminal, load-one-plane-at-a-time, small. There are plans for a $21 million expansion and renovation underway, but its current size limits flight options and can mean delays or cancelations.
With as much to offer in tourism as the area has, having this expansion sooner than later is a must.
Still, the Saguenay team overseeing my trip was nimble, allowing us to have lunch at La Grange Aux Hiboux, where French and Canadian cuisine is served within stunning views of the Saguenay Fjord. With some minor adjustments to the itinerary, the trip was back on track that afternoon and I was optimistic.
Even though there wasn’t enough time to cycle the Véloroute du Fjord to Saguenay-Fjord National Park, we drove the route and I was able to hit the next stage of my trip—a planned marine shuttle up the fjord from the park. It was a windy and cloudy day, but also a beautiful and refreshing boat ride between giant cliffs decorated in pine and maple trees, passing small picturesque towns nestled like a postcard along the river banks.
My translator pointed out the unique features of the area, including a large brilliantly white Notre Dame du Saguenay statue, which greets passersby from its perch high on the cliffs at Eternity Bay. As the story goes, the statue was commissioned by Charles Napoleon Robitaille in 1878, when he attributed his survival from a plunge through the ice of the river and subsequent sickness to the Virgin Mary.
The shore along the fjord is protected forest, keeping development limited and the surroundings wild—and it feels wild. To me, it also feels right.
At the National Park there are opportunities to hike trails, kayak, and paddle boat. There is also the park’s via ferrata (“iron path”), where harnessed climbers scale a circuit trail along the steep walls of the fjord using steel cables attached to rock wall, climbing ladders mounted to the cliffside, steel rebar steps, zip wires, and suspension bridges.
Once you start a via ferrata, you generally have to finish.
The climb is led by guides who work with small groups at their own pace and reservations are strongly suggested. There are three main trails of approximately three, four, and six hours—depending on how comfortable one is with climbing—and minimal ages ranging from 12 to 14 (costs vary by trail and age).
The via ferrata is now on my to-do list.
The marine shuttle dropped me off on a dock on the north shore of the fjord at Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux. From the water, you can see a white dome hidden in the trees. At Cap Jaseux there are several unique lodging options with fantastic water views, which include rustic treehouses, domes, and hanging spheres. Here too there are via ferrata, ziplines, and canopy walk challenges.
At the end of the day, my host left me at the Village of Val Jalbert with my bike. Val Jalbert was pitched as a ghost town. In one way, this historic town is exactly a ghost town. Like many towns in Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, Val Jalbert was formed as a company town. By the 1920s, it included a convent-school, a post-office, a church run by a stern priest and row-houses for workers. That history still haunts the area.
There are plenty of the touches you would expect from an historical village, including people walking around in period clothing and staying in character as nuns or priests or workers. But there were also surprises like, not just one, but two waterfalls. The highlight of the two was the stunning Ouiatchouan Falls. It is now the source of a new, hydroelectric dam.
Additionally, nicely appointed condos in historical homes, a fine dining restaurant, and a fully immersive presentation about the history—complete with projected figures, snow, and mist—continued to surprise me.
It was clear to me that the cancellation of day one’s cycling left the travel writer in me focused more on other aspects of my trip (as well as my ever-growing to-do list).
After a slightly late start the next day, I was finally on the bike saddle and off riding parts of the 256 km Véloroute des Bleuets. This was the day I ended up staring at the sky.
The bike trail is long, winding through towns, fields, beaches, and forest, connecting the area in a way that attracts the active tourist and serves the local population. It was an overcast day with rain threatening the entire time, but where the sun wouldn’t shine masses of yellow wildflowers along the trail lit up my view.
Much of the route is a dedicated, paved path, with jaunts of the trail running alongside the road. It is a mix of flat, straight path, winding hills, dams and quiet forests lined with pine.
When I arrived at my final stop for the day, I dropped my bike off with the support team at Equinox Adventures—an ecotourism group that planned my route—and made myself at home in another condo at Centre de Villégiature Dam-en-Terre, a four-season resort with dinner theater and access to trails and water routes for ecotourists.
Realizing that I had to call off the last day of cycling, I reluctantly phoned my next contact at the tourism offices. Fortunately, my hosts had already prepared plenty of Plan Bs that worked great for a guy who could only limp small distances.
The next day, my new road-tripping friend from tourism, Marianne, chauffeured me around the area to a tower with fantastic panoramic views of the region, lunch at Microbrasserie du Lac-Saint-Jean, a microbrewery that is part of various beer routes, which includes 15 microbreweries in the region—five are around Lac Saint-Jean and near the Véloroute des Bleuets.
If I was cycling, I wouldn’t have stopped at these microbreweries, or at Parc de la Caverne Trou de la Fée, where the Métabetchouane River—which includes yet another waterfall—runs through a canyon. Here you can hike or zipline across the canyon, or venture deep into a cavern and go spelunking. And at their main center, there is also another creative and immersive multimedia history of the area built into a sculpted cave.
And while I was not able to do most of those activities available there, the director, Gerry Desmeules, insisted on driving me to the falls, which meant hopping in his windshield-cracked, door-dinged truck and driving backwards down into the canyon on a thin single vehicle road along a narrow edge. (By itself, that ride was worth the visit.)
But not to leave the bike trails behind entirely, we ventured to Pointe-Taillon National Park, where I was supposed to be cycling that day. If I had only cycled through it, however, I may not have stopped to walk in the water at the beach or check out their unique stays like the Ready-to-Camp Star structures, which are sealed by canvas and offer a simple kitchen with double beds, or the new fully equipped chalets with private lake views.
Wide, flat, and heavily forested on one side of the trail with lake and beach on the other, this 45 km section of the Véloroute des Bleuets through Pointe-Taillon National Park is a must-ride. A stay in a chalet makes for a good home base for those who want to get in hiking, cycling, and swimming.
So again, I added it to my to-do list.
That final night, I downed a bottle of wine over dinner with a kindly trail ambassador for the Véloroute des Bleuets and hobbled back to the condo.
There are moments when a trip just doesn’t go right, but this one pushed me to slow down and—thanks to my new friend—notice all the things I would have missed if I was too focused on the bike path. Regardless of a cancelled flight, a busted-up leg, or missed itinerary, Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean became a fond memory—a reminder that sometimes the best trips are the ones that don’t always go without a hitch.
On my final morning, my road-tripping companion took me to L’Érudit Café in Chicoutimi, where a beautiful home is converted into a coffee shop and wine bar—the best of combinations. With espressos in hand, we darted off back to that petite airport. And on the flight home, I opened up Duolingo to start on French for when I come back.
Because I know I will—there are trails I have yet to cycle.