I woke up in my private dormitory room in the Auberge de la Basilique (4 beds all to myself) a bit before 6, feeling not half bad for having done 325 km the day before. I decided I wouldn’t leave until at least 7, since I only had 200 km or so (I thought it was less, but it was actually more) to do today and I foolishly thought I’d be able to do that in 10 hours and have plenty of time to explore Chicoutimi and hang out before it got dark. It wasn’t nearly as cold as I’d expected, maybe around 6 degrees rather than 3, and I was treated to a spectacular sunrise full of almost metallic looking red and orange clouds behind the Basilica as I headed out the door to go eat an eggy breakfast at the little “restaurant gourmet” (a.k.a. diner) next door. When I got back to the hostel a long line for the cafeteria had formed and I was glad not to have waited for it.
Around 7:30, I filled my water bottles, pulled out my remaining gummy candies (food of champions) and headed off to the hills, not bothering to stop at the grocery store as I also, foolishly, thought that Baie-Saint-Paul was less than 30 km away and I’d just stock up there before heading into the void that separates it from Saguenay. I also simply didn’t care to ride on the 138, where the stores are, since once it enters the greater Beaupré area it gains a sidewalk but loses its shoulder, and there’s also a weird freeway-like interchange at the entrance to the town. Instead, I took avenue Royale and then the “Industrial” road, finally popping out onto the 138 just before the first climb:
This road is not wonderful, to be honest. At 8 AM on a Saturday there’s a surprising amount of traffic, and again, it’s the (h.. de c.. de) pickup trucks that are the least respectful road users. A few large tractor-trailers passed me, always in the left lane, but the pickup trucks didn’t really want to yield at all. The view, however, is superb, and probably better than the 360 because you get the full sweep of the valley of the rivière Sainte-Anne-du-Nord with the “high peaks” of the Laurentians behind it. It took quite a long time until I finally reached the road for the Massif, at which point I was starting to feel quite hungry. I also quickly put on a jacket realizing that the descent from up here was going to be totally freezing otherwise.
Once you actually cross into Charlevoix the road improves dramatically, with smooth pavement and a nice wide shoulder. There were a couple of construction sites which I realized were actually building tunnels for moose to cross under the road. Not wanting to ride on the narrow detoured part of the road which was boxed in by Jersey barriers, I dismounted and walked through the construction. At last I made it to the descent into Baie-Saint-Paul, which was as thrilling as I’d hoped, hitting a good 74 km/h for a couple of kilometers of nice, smooth pavement with plenty of space to not crash into things.
I didn’t have time to take in the charming village atmosphere, so I just stayed on the 138 and headed straight for the supermarket, where I piled up a bunch of food knowing that I was about to face 100km or so with no services at all. Luckily, Baie-Saint-Paul is a pretty well-connected place and I got some decent bread, hummus, a big bag of cheese curds (though I should have gotten two bags), and some veggie burgers in a very strange package containing what appear to be translation errors despite being made in Québec…
After eating a bunch of food, I rolled down the road a bit to the Dollarama to pick up more gummy candy, this time finding two kinds of fruit gummies (again, I should have bought more) and a very strange shopping mall of sorts. Finally, around 11:30, I pulled out of Baie-Saint-Paul headed north along the 138 and then the mystical 381, which climbs to a dizzying height of 896 meters (considering that I was starting from sea level, this is actually something) through subarctic taiga and burnt-out forests. Just before St-Urbain, a sign alerted me that gasoline was available at 1 and 74 km. Luckily, I knew that water was available at the welcome centre for the Parc des Grands-Jardins. I was less enthused by the sign that informed me that it was 115 km to “Saguenay” (meaning, probably, La Baie and not Chicoutimi) when I had already gone much further than I’d expected to.
The thing about the 381 that makes it particularly tough is that it climbs in steps rather than being a constant grade like you’d find in the Rockies. Immediately after exiting St-Urbain you get whacked with a 15% climb, then another one, after which the road actually descends for a while, giving you a looming view of the Mont du Lac des Cygnes and the Mont du Lac à Moïse, the two sheer rock faces at the rim of the Charlevoix crater which the road climbs between. Since it’s a crater, the walls are really steep and there’s no choice but to go straight up. Which the road does, in two or three more steps of 15-18% grades. I found myself climbing standing up in a 34×34 gear on these, wishing I had forced myself to eat more food before going to bed after yesterday’s 325 km “transport stage”. The idea of getting to Chicoutimi in 10 hours looked more and more remote, but I was proud of the fact that I never actually had to get off and walk, at least!
Thankfully, once you get to the welcome centre, there’s only one or two more (I forget how many) really terrible climbs before it kind of levels out into rolling hills for a while. At the welcome centre, someone asked me if I had really come up by bike, in their words, a “méchante ride“. Some people were waiting to go do the Via Ferrata and getting chastised by the guide for not bringing gloves, since, apparently, it was really cold up top. After I made it up the rest of the hill, I can confirm that it was pretty cold up there, maybe 5 degrees at the most. Unfortunately the sunshine of the early morning didn’t last and it was now quite gray and threatening as I rolled along, wondering when I would finally get to the “Altitude 896m” sign and get to take an all-important selfie.
It was actually a lot further to the sign than I thought. It’s not actually in the park at all. Before I got there, I made a stop at the Chapelle de la Galette to eat some more bread and hummus – I was already almost out of fruit gummies having eaten them all on the climb. Finally, after some surprisingly fast descents, I passed the Lac Amik and climbed a hill that didn’t seem all that bad but was apparently a 12% grade, and lo and behold, sticking out of the sandy soil was the long-awaited high point.
It wasn’t even actually all downhill from this point. The road kind of descends a bit but mostly goes up and down until you get to a point where it suddenly falls off the edge of a cliff, dropping a couple hundred meters in less than a kilometer, as you enter the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. There’s a very nice lookout where you can take in the Lac des Ha! Ha! (which I can’t help saying in the voice of Nelson from the Simpsons) and another crazy descent, and from here on it is 40-some kilometers of descending false flat, good for making up time, but not good enough to get me to 10 hours. At 5:30 I was just entering the city limits of Saguenay, which, as I’d come to expect after the Bécancour experience, are not anywhere near an urban area at all.
I had originally thought I’d turn off the 381 here, at the oddly named Chemin Juste Aza Simard (no, actually, that was really some guy’s name, he built a covered bridge here, but it got destroyed in the great flood of 1996) and then descending the other side of the Rivière des Ha! Ha! …
…but it wasn’t clear from Google Maps that there was actually a road there, and I wasn’t in the mood to try out the local gravel roads after having seen how sandy the soil was around here. In any case, it turned out staying on the 381 was a fine idea, as even though it didn’t follow the river, it continued to be pretty flat, until I turned off onto Chemin Saint-Jean to descend into the Grande-Baie neighbourhood (also destroyed in the great flood of 1996) where my next all-important selfie destination awaited: the Pyramide des Ha! Ha!, which is actually a memorial for that same flood (this becomes a repeating theme as you travel through Saguenay).
Unfortunately, the rain that had been threatening all day finally showed up as I turned onto Chemin Saint-Jean, and I hurriedly enfiled my shoe covers hoping to stay at least a bit dry. It was only a light shower, though, and the temperature was much higher down here back at sea level.
La Baie is quite an odd town, dominated by an enormous port complex which exists for the sole purpose of unloading bauxite onto trains for transport to the aluminum smelters in Jonquière. It was getting late in the afternoon, and I wondered if I’d be able to make it to Chicoutimi before dark, until I saw a sign telling me it was only 19 km away – not bad at all! After a long but not particularly grueling climb, most of this distance passed very quickly on a sort of plateau full of wheat and hay fieds with a light tailwind. Once I entered Chicoutimi I decided to follow the somewhat convoluted Route Verte 8 into town, which dropped me down through some steep ravines that I actually found quite reminiscent of Pittsburgh, then onto a promenade along the riverfront. The actual downtown is a bit higher up than the river, and as I passed by it I started to wonder if I had gotten lost. I stopped under a bridge and looked at the map to realize that I had actually almost arrived at my destination, the Maison Price, and luckily so because it started to rain quite seriously at this point.
I checked in at the bar in the basement, dropped off my stuff, then came back with the intention of drinking several beers. I made it through two, including the aptly-named Gros Mollet, chatting with the bartender (who had recently moved from Montreal) and a newly arrived PVTiste on his way to an organic farm in Anse-Saint-Jean before I went off to shower and eat the rest of my food. As I was leaving the bar, a DJ was setting up for a birthday party for one of the staff. After eating my food I realized that the other people in the dorm room (all of them French tourists, to nobody’s surprise) had already gone to sleep, so I had to somehow set up my top bunk in the dark while not waking anyone up. Between this and the sounds of drunken Saguenéen(ne)s dancing to 80s hits in the basement, I didn’t sleep all that well, but with only 18 km to go the next morning plus a long train ride, I didn’t really mind that much.
In the end, it took me a bit under 12 hours to cover 205 km. I had kind of hoped to make it to the Fromagerie Boivin to eat their critically acclaimed cheese curds straight from the source, perhaps even in poutine form, but it was Saturday so they would have been closed at 5. Otherwise, a good time was had by all (meaning, me), and at this point, the real challenge was complete! All that remained was to make it to Jonquière by 11 AM to catch the train the next day…