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Québec Adventure: Striking Gold in Abitibi-Témiscamingue

Ken AikenMarch 22, 2016
The T.E. Draper operated from 1929-1979 and is the last surviving boat used for log drives.

The T.E. Draper operated from 1929-1979 and is the last surviving boat used for log drives.

Unpainted asphalt with the texture of a Parmesan cheese grater twists and undulates through the mist-shrouded spruce forest. This is prime moose country, and we’d seen only one sign of human habitation since turning off the Trans-Canada Highway in Mattawa, Ontario, Canada onto Route 533. Our destination is the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of Québec, a vast territory owned by the Hudson Bay Company until 1868 that is still off the beaten track—unless you’re headed to James Bay.

In my role as moto-foodie, I had a hunch that this oasis of civilization in the north woods might prove interesting. With the assistance of Abitibi-Témiscamingue Tourism and Guilaume Travert acting as the front man, I’d developed a five-day itinerary to explore the region. Joined by Eric Milano of Moto-VT, we packed two BMW R 1200 GS rental bikes and rode north from Burlington, Vermont through the Champlain Islands to Montréal, then followed the Ottawa River west.

A reconstruction of logging camp Ghantier Gédéon in Angliers.

A reconstruction of logging camp Ghantier Gédéon in Angliers.

Even after reaching the main highway—Ontario Route 61/Québec Route 101—human habitation, except for the small paper-mill town of Témiscamingue, is non-existent. Our first night’s destination is La Bannik, an outfitter resort near Fort Témiscamingue, the old fur-trading center that operated from 1720 until 1904.

In Algonquin, Abitibi means “where the waters part” and Témiscamingue means “deep lake.” The microclimate around Lake Témiscamingue—which never freezes over in the winter—is 10° F warmer than the rest of the region. Fields of golden wheat, yellow-blossomed canola and deep green soybeans stretch across rolling hills, and Ville-Marie, the first town established in this region (c. 1897), is considered to be one of the prettiest in Québec.

Eric examines a replica of a birch-bark canoe. Founded in 1720, Fort Témiscamingue operated as a fur-trading post until 1904. It is now a museum.

Eric examines a replica of a birch-bark canoe. Founded in 1720, Fort Témiscamingue operated as a fur-trading post until 1904. It is now a museum.

Today is spent visiting a farm, cheese producer, chocolate maker and even the world’s largest collection of wasp nests—which is actually pretty cool. This trip is about motorcycle-culinary touring, and between Elle & Louis Bistro and Ronnie Lysight’s cooking at Eugène Bistro, we go to bed stuffed.

Richard Marsan is our guide today. Heading north from Ville-Marie, we follow his Harley bagger off Route 101 onto a gravel road, through the Dénommée covered bridge and along narrow paved roads that eventually take us to the small hamlet of Angliers. After viewing what logging once was like in the region, we cross the Ottawa River over a dam at the head of a narrow gorge leading into Lake Quinze. As with most places, the interesting motorcycle roads are not necessarily the ones easily found on maps. Our destination is Notre-Dame-du-Nord and the annual Rodéo du Camion (truck rodeo).

 A stop for hot soup at Le Réveur near Macamic.

A stop for hot soup at Le Réveur near Macamic.

Hundreds of customized big rigs and specialized racing trucks come to this annual rally. With smokestacks belching black smoke from bio-diesel engines, trucks pair up to race the uphill quarter-mile while cheering crowds line both sides of the street. Live music and vendors selling oversized belt buckles and cowboy hats are only outnumbered by those selling beer. It appears there will be quite a party tonight.

Leaving the north end of Lake Témiscamingue, the ecosystem begins to revert to boreal forest as we make a 57-mile rush north on Routes 101 and 391 to Rouyn-Noranda, the administrative center for the region. Rouyn became a boomtown in the wilderness after the discovery of copper in 1917, and the gold rush of 1922 resulted in the creation of a planned mining village around the claim owned by Noranda Mines. Eventually the two towns grew to become one city.

There’s no shortage of bars in Val-d’Or, but the best microbrews are found at Le Prospecteur.

There’s no shortage of bars in Val-d’Or, but the best microbrews are found at Le Prospecteur.

After stashing our gear in Hotel Albert, we join our support crew from Abitibi-Témiscamingue Tourism on the sidewalk patio at Le Trèfle Noir Brasserie and watch the activity happening in this vibrant downtown. This town seems like the ideal base for anyone wishing to explore the region.

After breakfast and checking out the Dumulon General Store (c. 1924), we join local dual-sport riders Ann Tremblay, Celine Aube, Yves Bussiere and Gilles Bernier. Chemin d’Aiguebelle is a gorgeous country road that turns to rough gravel when we enter the Aiguebelle National Park. On the north side of the park it reverts to a gorgeous stretch of undulating pavement, yet we pause at a mountainous sand dune so Eric can gives us an impromptu demonstration of riding in deep sand.

Dénommée covered bridge—exploring the local roads is a treat.

Dénommée covered bridge—exploring the local roads is a treat.

The sky turns to gray and then light rain begins to fall as we continue through Macamic, the northernmost point on this trip. A mix of pavement and well-maintained gravel leads across a billiard-table flat landscape dotted with farms to Nepawa Island in Lake Abitibi. This would be a gorgeous ride in the sunshine, but drizzle becomes pouring rain and we seek refuge in the L’Ile covered bridge until it slacks a bit. As usual, we’re now behind schedule and only Ann and Celine continue riding south on Route 393 with us for supper at La Pourvoirie des Îles du Lac Duparquet—an outfitter on Lake Duparquet.

The sky is a dark leaden gray; the combination of mist with fog encloses the long, straight highway into a dismal monochrome tunnel as Eric and I ride east to Amos. We hoped to locate a gas station or restaurant en route, but, as if we were stuck in an episode of the The Twilight Zone, all we find is a retail lot of vintage automobile carcasses. After three hours of riding, it’s a bit of a relief when we reach our destination.

Our guide, Richard Marsan, riding north from Ville-Marie on Route 101.

Our guide, Richard Marsan, riding north from Ville-Marie on Route 101.

Amos is best known to adventure riders as the last civilized stop before heading north on Route 109 to James Bay. It’s also the source of the purest bottled spring water in the world, which is used to create internationally award-winning Mons beer.

Today we are visiting Nation Abitibiwinni, the ancestral territory of the Algonquin tribe, so Eric can be introduced to its culture. We’re shown a network of roads and overnight camping sites in tribal territory that promise true backcountry adventure at a later date. Refuge Pageau, where wolves, moose, deer and every other injured or orphaned native creature are cared for, is our next stop. It’s a chance to safely get close to animals we’d rather not encounter while cruising on the road.

A mad dash to Lake Abitibi ends when we seek refuge from the rain in the L’Ile covered bridge onto Nepawa Island.

A mad dash to Lake Abitibi ends when we seek refuge from the rain in the L’Ile covered bridge onto Nepawa Island.

Our rooms at Atmosphère Complexe Hôtelier are large and luxurious, and the beds are oh-so comfortable. Morning arrives too quickly and stepping out the door into dense fog and a chilly 47° F temperature, I discover that Eric left his laundry draped on the handlebars and windshield of his Beemer; it’s a good thing the hotel has a coin-operated clothes dryer.

This morning we are riding with Stephan Lavoie, mayor of the town of Preissac, and Réjean Couture, former president of the Abitibi HOG chapter. The fog lifts and the sun breaks through as we ride the best sport-touring road in the region: Route 395. It twists and undulates south through Preissac to Cadillac, but being on a rather tight schedule there’s only enough time to stop and climb the fire tower for a
bird’s eye view.

A traditional wood-fired oven at Lake Matissard.

A traditional wood-fired oven at Lake Matissard.

Rouyn-Noranda, Cadillac, Malartic and Val-d’Or are all located above the vast subterranean riches of the Cadillac Fault, and from the top of the fire tower I’m able to spot five headframes that mark the location of underground gold mines. Copper, zinc, lead and silver are mined here as well, but it is gold that made it famous.

We’re running behind schedule, and upon arrival at the Lamaque Mine in Val-d’Or are rushed through operations like rock stars headed onstage while being fitted with coveralls, hardhats and headlamps. We descend down a tunnel to the 300-foot level, the top of 27 levels that drop 4,000 feet below the surface. In the darkness of this underground world lit only by the lamps on our hardhats, it takes a while for us to discover that we’re still wearing our sunglasses!

Established in 1924, the Dumulon frontier general store has been maintained as a historic site.

Established in 1924, the Dumulon frontier general store has been maintained as a historic site.

After ascending to sunlight, we head back to Malartic and the largest gold mine in Canada. This is a working open-pit mine, and strict rules apply to visitors. Two hundred and forty-ton dump trucks, whose tires are taller than a school bus, race from pit to ore crusher. Each truck costs $4 million and they don’t even come with tires. Those are $40,000 each and only last 3-12 months. And I thought motorcycle tires were expensive! Forty-five percent of what is processed is gold and 55 percent is silver; the silver pays for the mine’s operating expenses. With a projected 10.7-million ounces of gold reserves in the ground, this multi-billion dollar initial investment is like having a license to mint money.

Back at our first-class accommodations at Hôtel Forestel, we fall into conversation with a rider who had traveled from Québec City on his electric Zero motorcycle, quite a logistical accomplishment on a bike with a 200-mile (extended) range. Yves Moreau is an award-winning chef who advocates local sourcing and supports artisanal food producers. We meet him at Hôtel Forestel and he graciously gives us a tour of his kitchens before we sit down for a sumptuous meal.

We park below the hydro-electric dam in order to visit the logging camp at Angliers.

We park below the hydro-electric dam in order to visit the logging camp at Angliers.

Today there’s the long ride back to Montréal on Route 117 through the vast wilderness reserve and past Mont Treblant in the Laurentian Mountains. It’s about 400 miles to Burlington and Eric wants to make it home in time for supper. Eric and I agree that the roads of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region are more suitable for cruisers than sport tourers and that we need to return to explore the amazing potential it offers for dual-sport riders. It has been a fascinating place to explore and we certainly would have missed some highlights if not for the assistance of Tourisme Abitibi-Témiscamingue and its rider network.

 

Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

A chilly, foggy morning in Amos where horses graze outside our rooms.

A chilly, foggy morning in Amos where horses graze outside our rooms.

A traditional cheese made at Le Fromage au Village in Lorrainville.

A traditional cheese made at Le Fromage au Village in Lorrainville.

 Tires for these ore trucks cost $40,000 each—quarter of a million per truck—and only last three to twelve months.

Tires for these ore trucks cost $40,000 each—quarter of a million per truck—and only last three to twelve months.

 “Ride to Eat; Eat to Ride” is my motto. Eric and I discuss our trip over dessert at Hôtel Forestel.

“Ride to Eat; Eat to Ride” is my motto. Eric and I discuss our trip over dessert at Hôtel Forestel.

 The open-pit mine in Malartic is the largest gold mine in Canada.

The open-pit mine in Malartic is the largest gold mine in Canada.

Chemin d’Aiguebelle, the road within the national park is gravel.

Chemin d’Aiguebelle, the road within the national park is gravel.

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