Chasing Winter - Touring on a Mukluk
The objective was simple, go explore the Gaspe Peninsula and Chic-Choc mountains by bike and in doing so, learn how to travel in sub freezing temperatures. My weapon of choice for the trip would be a Salsa Ti Mukluk configured for winter conditions, a bike that I knew was capable of dealing with the whole range of conditions I was likely to encounter. As a long distance traveler, I had already learned to embrace the philosophy of ultra light travel and this trip would be no different. The challenge would be learning how to use a bikepacking setup that was capable of carrying a complete winter setup, something I had never done before. A custom set of winter bags from Porcelain Rocket easily solved the problem.
The Gaspe is a peninsula that is located in the Canadian Provence of Quebec. Its northern border is formed by the St. Lawrence Seaway and its southern border by Baie des Chaleur. The Gaspe encompasses more than 11,571 square miles of land, which includes miles of sandy and rugged coast. The interior of the peninsula contains pristine alpine lakes, still covered in snow, as well as the Chic-Choc mountains. The Chic-Choc's are located in the northeast portion of the peninsula and are an actual extension of the Appalachian mountains. They are a world famous location for winter skiing, summer hiking and most importantly, snow mobile trails.
The entire Gaspe is ringed and crisscrossed with a network of groomed, marked and mapped snow mobile trails. Since the area is known for its late winter snow, I felt that this would be a fantastic place to explore and learn my winter skills. Using the Mukluk, I would be prepared for any and all conditions, but what I really wanted was snow.
I left my hotel in Fort Kent Maine in freezing temperatures, strong winds, and flurries. After crossing the border, I took a moment to ponder what exactly I was trying to do. To say that I was cold would be a complete and utter understatement – I was freezing cold and wondering if I had lost my head. Could I really endure three weeks of travel in conditions like this or worse? I had been in these types of temperatures earlier in the year when I was skiing and back-country camping in Norway, but I had never done anything like this by bike.
In an attempt to manage the issue of sweat and moisture, I started the trip with very little clothing; just a wool base layer and my soft-shell jacket on top, and tights and cycling knickers down below. The raw temperature along with the howling winds definitely conspired to shake my confidence, but instead of giving in, I simply put my head down and road harder. The result was much needed warmth as my body began the process of generating heat. Stopping to rest and eat snacks was a painful process and one that would repeat itself several times a day over the course of my 17-day trip.
My plan was to work my way slightly north and west, up through the alpine lakes and then drop down to the coastline of the St. Lawrence seaway. It was going to be about a day and a half ride by road and trail to reach the coastline and then another 2-day ride by road up to the Chic-Chocs. I had been following the conditions of the snow mobile trails prior to departing and thus knew that the snowmobile trails were deteriorating. The Gaspe' snowmobile clubs have a fantastic on-line trail map system that highlights which trails are open, which are deteriorating, and which are closed. This system made planning the trip very easy. Rechecking the system the night before I started showed that indeed spring was coming and winter was running, as the map highlighted mostly red trails indicating that the trail system was quickly deteriorating. I was still optimistic that rideable snow would exist, but only time would tell if that was indeed the case.
My first look at what the trip would be like came on day two when I got access to my initial set of snow mobile trails. These trails were part of the marked network that ran parallel to the highway I was traversing and would provide the perfect opportunity to finally get on snow with the new Mukluk and see how she would perform. Would I really be able to use this network of trails to explore the entire peninsula? In my world, I believe that the Universe often speaks to us loud and clear and this was to be no exception. As I rolled the bike across the swollen river of melting runoff and onto the packed trail, the bike quickly ground to the pace of a turtle, a far cry from my average road speed of 12-14 mph. The snow on this trail was not quite corn snow, so it was rideable, but it was definitely not going to be fast in any sense of the word. More importantly, it was likely to be very indicative of the conditions I was going to experience. Yes, I was chasing winter and it was clear that she was going to be the winner. As I shifted gears down into my granny ring and began working my way along the forested trail, I made what would be the first of many critical notes in my head, “Glenn, just because there are snowmobile trails, doesn't mean you are going to be able to ride them, let alone ride them at a fast pace.” This seems obvious I know, but boy was this ever a huge revelation for me.
By the time I reached the town of Sainte Ann des Monts, the location at which I would drop down into the Chic Chocs, I began to notice a very familiar scenario. As I would ride up to stores or restaurants, I could feel the strong presence of all the people in the establishment turning their heads and swiveling their bodies in an attempt to figure out not only who was this guy riding a bike in these conditions, but also what in the world was he riding. After four days of French speaking people approaching me with questions and wild gestures along with much fondling of the Mukluks fat tires, it became ever more clear that this was going to be the theme of my adventure.. Words like 'Grand' and 'Velo,' coupled with the broken English question of “Where is the motor?” would continue on and on. It was very clear that the people of this region had never seen anything like the Mukluk. Despite speaking a different language, they all had smiles on their faces as we did that dance of not understanding one another but clearly expressing the same joy and excitement for the Mukluk.
It was at this point, right around day 5 that I realized this trip was going to be different than what I had planned. While I was getting great experience in traveling and camping in sub-freezing temperatures, the early spring had left very little rideable snow. The trails themselves had now become closed to snowmobiles, and were largely unrideable except in the early morning. The days were bringing bright sunshine that would work its magic and begin the process of melting snow, while the still frigid nights would re-freeze the trails, making them somewhat rideable in the early morning hours. My trip was now becoming much more of a tour, riding mostly roads, yet still finding stretches of snow and lots of sand to explore.
I made the decision to leave the Chic-Chocs and return to the coastline so as to maximize my ability to see and explore. The Chic-Chocs were big and remote, and with conditions deteriorating, it made no sense to be exploring backcountry trails alone. I worked my way out of the mountains and opted to follow the outer ring of the peninsula in a clockwise fashion. While much of this was road, I still found amazing stretches of beach to ride, often still covered in snow and large chunks of accumulated sea ice. As I worked my way towards Gaspe, the coastline turned rugged and unrideable, but the rocky shore and inland mountains were simply stunning. The communities were largely still closed for business, so there was a sense of solitude and peacefulness even as I traveled by road.
Making the turn southward towards Gaspe, I entered the remote Forillon National Park, located on the eastern most side of the peninsula. Bounded by the beginning of the St. Lawrence seaway and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, this park juts out from the mountains to the edge of the sea. The park was empty of people and offered me miles and miles of road and trails to explore. The winds had kicked up again, making some stretches a bit of a slog, but the rewards were worth the effort. Unlike before, spring was in full force here with creeks filled with strong melted ice, south slopes devoid of snow and the sounds of birds filling the air. It was one of the most beautiful spots I encountered on the peninsula. The combination and proximity of such powerful forces – the mountains and the seas – culminated in something extremely magical about the location.
My trip was rapidly coming to an end as I worked my way south and then west, where I would eventually have to cross the final mountain range of New Brunswick and the large managed tree farms before dropping back down into Maine. This area became more populated and once again the emphasis was on the Mukluk. People driving their cars would steal second glances as they passed me by. I felt sure that at some point I was going to blog about the accident that occurred because a car driver was trying to figure out what I was riding. As I entered the area surrounding New Brunswick, the questions asked earlier in the trip repeated themselves with ever growing frequency. The trip was morphing from nature exploration to social exploration as the Mukluk continued its ambassador ways.
I have traveled more than 8,000 miles by bike and have always felt that not only was it the best way to see the world, but also that the bike created an opening or a connection between human beings. Bike travelers are more approachable and I think, more accepted than almost any other form of travel. However, what I realized on this trip was that the Mukluk took that to an even higher level. While regular bikes would create connections, the Mukluk brought pure joy and excitement to each person I came in contact with. You could see it on their faces and in their expressions. Kids were in awe of the tires and wheels, which quite often were bigger than their little bodies. Men would stare and smile, touch and ask questions, and in my mind, were surely flashing mental images of their younger days gone by.
I traveled more than 750 miles on this trip, carrying a winter expedition kit that weighed less than 20 pounds and camping for 16 nights in below freezing temperatures. My goal had been to ride mostly on snow and trails and learn how to deal with extreme conditions. Despite this goal, my route had to change with both conditions and my newly acquired knowledge, but that is simply life on the trail. I did what I love to do: explore, adventure, meet people, live simply and reconnect with nature. I found all of this and more as I traveled the roads and trails of this beautiful peninsula.
The Mukluk was (and still is) one of the most enjoyable bikes I have ever ridden. The ability to travel through a multitude of conditions is amazing. Having the option to jump on sand, follow snow-laden trails, or ride on the road, made the trip liberating as I could go wherever I wanted. But what made the trip, what truly excited me about this trip, was completely unexpected. It was the way that a bike, like the Mukluk, could so obviously bring joy and excitement to those that crossed our path. Imagine how excited they would be if they too could ride a Muk.
You can view the complete image gallery from the trip here.