By Cherie Thiessen
"Stop! Wild strawberries!” I dismount and begin picking the delectable berries while my oblivious partner, David Dossor, cycles off around the corner.
Ah well, he’ll come back, but these strawberries may never come again. I continue to cram the wee delights into my mouth on this ozone-filled, glorious mid-September day. Yellow wildflowers festoon the wild grasses, the sun is winking in the tiny lake alongside the trail and the maples are reluctantly turning russet and gold. It’s day one on our six-day cycling itinerary and if it’s all uphill from here it’ll have been worth it for the scenery and strawberries alone.
Called Le P’tit Train Du Nord in honour of the train that used to click along the tracks here until November 15, 1981, this 200-kilometre trail was opened to hikers, cyclists and cross-country skiers in 1996. Tracks were removed, the station houses were converted into cafés, museums, craft shops, art galleries and tourist information booths and Le P’tit Train has ever-since become one of La Belle Province’s hot love affairs.
Undulating northwest from Saint-Jérôme to Mont-Laurier in the Laurentians, it’s said to be the longest linear park in Canada. At its steepest, it only climbs 221 metres, with over two-thirds of it paved. At its southern section, where crushed stone and hard-packed dirt replace the asphalt, it’s still a roll in the park compared to the myriad old railway beds we’ve bumped over and skidded down. What’s not to love?
David has not returned. He’s enjoying this trail way too much to stop. Reluctantly, I lick my fingers, put on my gloves and pedal on. Like the majority of the cyclists on this route, we were bussed to the northern terminus of Mont-Laurier, and are now leisurely pedaling our way back, more leisurely than most, seeing as we have chosen the longer Le Baladeur itinerary. (Rough translation: “he who meanders.”) The transportation company, which has its offices in the bright red caboose at the renovated La Place de La Gare in Saint-Jérôme, works in tandem with Le Voyageur Inn to put together two, three, four or six-day itineraries. In business since 1997, it rents bicycles, transports cyclists and their rides to the Mont-Laurier terminus or anywhere in between, and also shuttles the luggage from place-to-place. We’re more than happy with our rented Opus hybrid bikes as well as the scenery we encounter almost as soon as we pedal out of Mont Laurier, after a hasty lunch grabbed at the nearest market.
Meandering is a good thing when you’ve plenty of time, such as finding rogue fruit trees and shy berries, ducking into tiny shops to see what wines they carry and stopping at every information sign and station house. Luckily, today it’s only 37 kilometres to Lac Saguay, a swim and a chance to shake some French out of our pockets in the village’s only café.
Dawdling becomes imperative the next day. How can we pass by maple syrup harvesting, cool outdoor exhibits on river portages or any one of the route’s 13 railway stations? They all offer different temptations. One in particular, at kilometre 145, was built in 1904. It’s a craft boutique sharing digs with a tourist information centre, with a sliver of a museum embedded in the middle that used to be the telegraph office.
And with Lac Nominingue to swim in, courtesy canoes to help us exercise our upper bodies for a change and culinary delights in Auberge Chez Ignace, why would we not want to arrive early and stay late?
Even adrenaline junkies will be tempted to skid up to the next station houses. The strawberry shortcakes at Labelle Station at kilometre 107 and its museum focusing on the trail’s founder, Herman Smith-Johannsen—popularly called “the Jackrabbit,” who was still cross-country skiing at age 107—will inspire the slowpokes. Or the upscale ski village of Mont-Tremblant, where the station house has become a classy gallery and where coffee houses send siren calls wafting through the air at every corner and a beach awaits to cool off hot and sweaty bodies. Or Piedmont Station at kilometre 21, where a farmers market erupts on Sundays and where I buy too much and spend half-an-hour trying to sneak items into David’s panniers.
Finding a cycling trail that offers so much is a gift from the gods: long empty forest-fringed loops where lakes, rivers, mountains, history, culture, cuisine and local libations all await savouring. If you’re into hard-core backcountry cycling then, OK, this may not be for you, unless you decide to do the route four times in two days. But, if you can get your wheels around experiencing French Canadian culture, eating breakfasts like creton (spicy pork pâté) and frittata with cheese and spinach and spending happy hours with beer dégustations or local wines, couldn’t you force yourself? If you can stand staying in historic old inns, meeting cyclists from Canada, America and occasionally Europe, and if you like to be a triathlete and combine other sports like kayaking, canoeing and swimming with your cycling, Le P’tit Train du Nord will get your heart rate up.
And if you enjoy immersing yourself in history, culture, cuisine and nature as you roll along, let the love affair begin.
Val Morin/Tourisme Laurentides
When to Go
Mid-August through September is good, when there are fewer insects and more good weather. In September, the fall colours are brilliant and the trail less busy. It’s open to cyclists after the May Long Weekend and closes after Thanksgiving in October.
Where to Stay
If travelling independently, download the official tourist guide app (laurentides.com/en/download-our-mobile-application), which lists all accommodation options, restaurants, drinking water and washrooms, station houses and attractions en route. Our accommodations were of a brilliant mix, from the casual but cozy lakefront accommodation of the first night (Motel Ours Bleu) to the elegance (and great beer selection) of the historic Auberge de la Gare on the last night.
Bicycle rentals and shuttle service from Montreal and from Saint-Jérôme:
Tourism Laurentians: laurentians.com/parclineaire
Tourism Québec: bonjourquebec.com
Night One: In Saint-Jérôme, only 40 kilometres northwest of Montreal, the Comfort Inn & Suites is the best place to overnight. From here, we shuttled to Mont-Laurier to begin our ride. comfortinnstjerome.com
Night Two: In Lac-Saguay, at Motel Ours Bleu. moteloursbleu.com
Night Three: In Nominingue, at Auberge Chez Ignace. ignace.qc.ca
Night Four: In La Conception, at Auberge à la Croisée des Chemins. alacroiseedeschemins.com
Night Five: In Mont-Tremblant, at Auberge Le Voyageur. bbvoyageur.com
Night Six: In Sainte-Adèle, at Auberge de la Gare. aubergedelagare.com
For pre-arranged cycling itineraries and accommodations: bbvoyageur.com/itineraires.html
Good to Know
• Because the trail is paved for three-quarters of the route, and the unpaved section is in good shape, even thin-tired bikes can do the trip. Mountain bikes are great but not necessary.
• Some French comes in handy, but cyclists will be fine without it. As more and more English-speaking Canadians and Americans are discovering the trail, English is becoming more widespread, especially the closer one gets to Montreal.
• Bring your bathing suit. The route passes many tempting swimming holes, lakes and beaches and nothing is more refreshing after a day’s cycling.
• Some campgrounds are available along the route. Find them via the tourist guide app.