(This article was published in the June 2012 issue of Rider Magazine.)
Story and photos by Scott A. Williams
Heading north from the U.S. into the Canadian province of Québec requires crossing an international border. It also involves crossing a cultural border. Experiencing some of that culture firsthand can enhance a tour on two wheels.
An inescapable element of Québec’s cultural distinction is language: the large majority of Québécois (natives of Québec) speak French. At the provincial level, French is the sole official language. Travel away from cosmopolitan Montréal and many residents speak little or no English. But don’t let a few words get in the way of a fun time. Learn some vocabulary, download a translation app or find a friend with language skills—and go ride La Belle Province (the Beautiful Province).
I joined three riding buddies for dinner in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, and in the morning, we were off for Notre-Dame-des-Pins, Québec. Our route through the White Mountains was one asphalt gem after another: New Hampshire 49, the Kancamagus Highway, Bear Notch Road, Hurricane Mountain Road and Maine 113. At Solon, Maine, we turned north onto US 201, the Old Canada Road, which was recently named to a list of America’s 10-best motorcycling roads. While some views of the Kennebec River are scenic, we agreed that the creator of the list needs to get out more.
At the border, a uniformed Canadian asked us a few questions and sent us along. As we left federal property, signs welcomed us not to Canada but to Québec. A look around confirmed that residents flying a flag generally choose the blue and white fleur-de-lis of Québec over the red and white maple leaf of Canada.
Alain, one of my new French Canadian moto buddies, explained the connection to French culture and symbols. Most of present-day Québec was once New France, first settled successfully by the French in the early 1600s. For a century and a half, fur traders, farmers, fishermen and Roman Catholic missionaries explored the land and waterways. In the process, they built communities that established French language and culture throughout the region. In 1759 British forces seized the French fortress in Québec City at the notably brief Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Within four years most of France’s possessions in eastern North America were ceded to Great Britain, but two and a half centuries later Québécois still possess unwavering dedication to their French heritage.
About 50 klicks beyond the border we made camp in Notre-Dame-des-Pins, just north of the small city of Saint-Georges. Here, French Canadians, Anglo Canadians (including transplants from England and New Zealand) and a handful of Americans from as far as California arrive on motorcycles to ride through the Beauce, the region of small towns, farms and wilderness between Québec City and Maine.
In the morning our group turned northeast at Saint-Georges to follow Road 204, which rolls gently past towns bordered by farms and separated by forests. In practically every town a Roman Catholic church sits atop the highest ground, the first sign of a settlement ahead and an enduring symbol of French tradition.
Near Saint-Just-de-Bretenières and Lac-Frontière, the border with Maine was a stone’s throw to our right. It truly is right there. In years past, locals on both sides crossed the border for church, gas or groceries with little more than a wave to someone in uniform. The U.S./Canadian border is the world’s longest international border and is undefended in a military sense, but properly credentialed crossings at official border stations are a must these days.
Beyond Sainte-Lucie-de-Beauregard, Road 285 cuts through a dense pine forest. Road signs warning of moose are as common as those posting speed limits. Moose are invisible in the woods and we probably rode past them at close range without realizing it. They can appear on the roadway without warning, however, and collisions between moose and motorcycles rarely favor the riders.
At L’Islet-Sur-Mer, on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River, we stopped for a look at Église Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, an imposing stone church (c. 1768) with twin spires. It’s an impressive sight against a background of river marsh.
A short ride to Saint-Jean-Port-Joli reveals the highlight of the day: L’Épopée de la Moto (The Epic of the Motorcycle). This museum, opened in 2003 by brothers François and Jean Gagnon, has a collection of more than 100 motorcycles from 40 manufacturers, with 70 bikes on display. Among my favorites: a 1970 Honda CYB350 race bike and a 1974 Norton 850 Commando Interstate.
Just up the road, a sign proclaiming Les Motos Sont Les Bienvenues (Motorcycles Welcome) entices us to stop for lunch. At this roadside restaurant I got my first taste of poutine—French fries served with gravy and fresh cheese curds. This curious combination of tastes and textures, which originated in Québec in the 1950s, has migrated across Canada to become a staple of diners, chip wagons, sports arenas and fast food chains. It’s good, but say “poo-TEEN” carefully as a slight mispronunciation had one rider’s friend ordering a prostitute!
Bellies full, we reversed course on Road 132. Easing along the shore road, I observed the symmetry of farmers’ fields. Patty, a Montréal native, explained that these patterns are rooted in nearly four centuries of history. The fields begin near and perpendicular to the river and continue out in narrow strips beyond where we could see. This pattern derives from the manner in which 17th century seigneurs (landlords) divided up the land, which was owned by the king of France, for use by habitants (tenant farmers). Hockey fans will recognize Les Habitants as the nickname of the Montréal Canadiens in another nod to French heritage.
In Lévis, our plan for a two-wheeled tour of the old town was botched by construction detours (recalculating…). Eventually we arrived at the ferry terminal and made the short float to Québec City—and more traffic congestion. A better plan is to park the bikes and tour the Old City on foot. If you’ve never been to a European city, Québec City will give you as good a feel for the experience as you’ll find outside the euro zone.
Ray, who knows my affection for river roads, suggested an alternate route to camp. I followed him on Highway 73 over the St. Lawrence. At Saint-Lambert-de-Lauzon we crossed Rivière Chaudière, the same river that bordered our campground 65 klicks upstream. Road 171 parallels a largely undeveloped stretch of the Chaudière down to the village of Scott, where Ray stayed right on a secondary road to continue riding the river’s west bank. The road changes names with each new village but it’s easy to stay on course as the river is rarely out of sight. Several villages farther south, a one-lane, wooden-deck, iron-frame bridge pointed us toward Road 173 and back to camp. After dinner, plans for an evening around the campfire were scuttled as thunderstorms drenched the Beauce region.
The rain let up by morning, and again our ride paralleled Rivière Chaudière, this time south along Road 204. The curves and elevation changes proved more entertaining than the map led me to believe, and the gray sky of early morning gradually gave way to summer sunshine. At the top of Lac-Mégantic we took in a vista, then rode the lakeshore loop south and back north to rejoin Road 161.
Riding through maple forests we saw row upon row of neatly stacked cordwood, presumably getting seasoned to fuel maple syrup evaporators next spring. Anyone who truly enjoys pancakes, waffles or French toast knows that what passes for syrup in many establishments is sacrilege. Real maple syrup, boiled down from the sap of sugar maples, is undeniably superior. Québec is by far the world’s leading producer and has been for generations.
My GPS unit’s Australian voice, which I selected because it correctly pronounces most place names in my native New England, had been butchering the pronunciation of French-language place names. Some were indiscernible, others simply amusing, as when Le Mont Blanc was announced as “Lee Montana Blank.” This was our lunch stop in Disraeli where I tried another Québec specialty, the smoked meat sandwich. As I waited in line to place my order, a man already having lunch noticed my Boston Bruins Stanley Cup Champions shirt (yes, hockey fans, I was wearing it in Québec on purpose!). The man walked up to me, pulled open my unzipped jacket and smiled. I wasn’t sure what to make of him until he pointed to the Boston Bruins medallion on his belt. He smiled and said, simply, “Stanley Cup.” I smiled back. We didn’t speak each other’s language, yet we communicated with perfect clarity. A chance meeting of Boston Bruins fans in the land of the archrival Montréal Canadiens must be a rare encounter.
After lunch we continued north and west on Road 161. This region is noted for high-quality hardwood products, including furniture, coffins and, until a few years ago, hockey sticks. Except for “vintage” models, hockey sticks today are made of composites. At home I still have a Victoriaville stick that’s genuine wood, a made-in-Québec relic. Just before that stick’s namesake town of Victoriaville, our route veered right toward Norbertville and Road 263 south.
It was early afternoon and many riders were enjoying a beautiful day on two wheels, sometimes three. Can-Am roadsters are manufactured in nearby Valcourt and abundant in these parts; I waved to their riders using three fingers and got thumbs-up replies.
Easing into Thetford Mines the landscape appears dominated by high stone cliffs. Soon I realized that these mountains are mine tailings. Their enormity conveys the scale of mining activity since asbestos deposits were discovered here in the 1860s.
We wound north and east along back roads, and just before the bridge to Sainte-Marie, we turned right along the same river road that was last on the previous day’s ride. Back at camp, firewood that wasn’t burned during the night’s downpour was stacked high. After dark the steel fire ring glowed softly red as Patty serenaded us with guitar and song. The next day we would begin riding to homes as near as Québec and as far away as Texas, Alberta and Newfoundland, but this evening the fellowship of long-distance riders outlasted the firewood.
Sidestands went up at first light amidst pea-soup fog, yet a turn off the river road delivered vivid sunshine. Bob appeared in my mirrors against a background of white fog slung low upon the river.
Our route turned southwest on Road 108. In these parts farmers grow Christmas trees; field after field, in uniform rows of varying heights. More Christmas trees than you could decorate in a thousand lifetimes. The sun at my left was still low in the sky, and a pattern of dark shadows and bright lights flowed between unbroken lines of perfectly spaced pines. The visual effect was hypnotic; better to enjoy it from the pillion seat. The wisdom of looking ahead was confirmed when a moose wobbled onto the road just ahead, then vanished into the woods on the other side.
In Stanstead we stopped for breakfast before crossing the border into Vermont at Derby Line. From there, Steve went southwest, Bob rode southeast and I split the difference. As I made time on the solo leg home, I reflected on the past few days. The riding and camaraderie were great, as was learning something of French Canadian culture.
Motorcycling in Québec? C’est magnifique!