Québec’s Tour des Blueberries

by Rick and Chris Millikan

Inspired by previous tours in Québec, we seek another adventure extraordinaire in Canada’s la belle province. Choosing Véloroute des Bleuets, we looped around beautiful Lac St. Jean. Some cyclists complete this 160-mile plus route as a one- or two-day challenge. Most riders plan six-day trips, like us, preferring a more in-depth experience in French Canada providing time to visit many of the route’s side attractions. Shuttling baggage ahead to pre-booked accommodations, we travel both leisurely and light on this European-style tour.

Our journey begins on a Saturday on Lac St. Jean’s southern shore in Alma. My rental bike is an aluminum DeVinci made locally in Chicoutimi. An intrepid cycling novice, Chris tries out an electric-assist bike to keep up the pace and happily achieve daily distances. While she learns about e-bike technology, I stuff jackets, extra water bottles, and snack packs into panniers. A GPS device is attached to the handlebars.

One of the route’s many red-shirted ambassadors greets us and introduces himself in English, which surprises us. Eddie tells us that he’s an Irish Anglophone raised in Québec. Noticing the e-bike, he beams, “So, you’ve got a pace-maker too, eh?” Chuckling, he guides us up a winding forested trail. Throttles firmly pressed, the e-bikers boost themselves over the several gnarly grades said to be the steepest on what’s a moderate to easy route.

Walking our bikes across the first of two dams, Eddie recounts a bit of local history: “Alcoa built these hydroelectric dams to power local aluminum refineries. They’re still processing Brazilian bauxite shipped to Chicoutimi through Saguenay Fjord.” Bypassing the third dam, a free bike ferry shuttles us over a small bay. The trail continues to the Véloroute des Bleuet’s official Visitor Centre, a converted church well set up for sermons of the mounted! Banners proclaim the 10th anniversary of this articulated route; exhibits include a photo of Eddie, an early supporter and continuing volunteer.

Bidding Eddie au revoir, we zigzag through suburbs and route signs guide us onto a major highway’s fat paved shoulder. Our pedal then becomes a long roller coaster ride featuring panoramas of Lac St. Jean and hillside patchworks of farmland. Passing through a small community, we survey French-signed shops, huge stone churches topped with silvery roofs and spires, as well as neatly kept homes distinguished by wrought iron railed balconies.

In a second village, Saint-Henri-de-Taillon, we enter a store for cold drinks. Making the purchase, I ask the clerk in less-than-perfect French about the oddly quilted flag often flying beside Québec’s official flag, blue with the white lily, le fleur-de-lis. She replies, “That’s our regional flag with symbols of our rich resources: that green patch stand for forests; yellow for agriculture, grey for industry, and red for the people!” Ending the conversation with "merci beaucoup," we rest in a shady spot across the street.

Sipping our juices and speculating on the future of the province’s separatist movement, we smile at the prospect that these feisty, independent-minded locals may be preparing to separate from both Canada and Québec!

Coasting down a rural road toward the shimmering lake, we see the route sign and swoop onto a bike trail into the forest. Crossing a wooden bridge, we sight loons diving for their lunch in the slough below. At a small booth, the Parc National de la Pointe Taillon attendant waves us through as en-route cyclists enjoying its popular 22-mile link to St. Monica. Minutes later we arrive at the park’s immense sandy beach. Slipping bikes into the well-used rack, cyclists like us transform into sunbathers and take refreshing dips in Lac St. Jean.

Rolling onward on compact gravel betwixt the extensive beach and evergreen woods, we meet beaucoup des cyclistes: couples pedaling tandems, groups dashing by in matching colorful shirts, and families riding assorted bikes. Some pull trailers filled with tots and camping gear, others are hooked to trailer-cycles with youngsters stoking.

Signboards describe two elusive park residents – the beaver and moose – and we spot some feathered friends: a golden eagle soars lazily above us, purple finch flit among fragrant pines, blue grouse strut arrogantly and mottled spruce grouse sashay alongside the trail. Apparently confident in their camouflage, these grouse seem fearless.

Outside the park, the trail morphs into a deserted roadway. Though good route signage has kept us right on track, we’re now wondering about our exact location. But just when it’s needed, our GPS device is out of range, thus useless! Feeling like we’re in the middle of nowhere, we look for some reassurance. A mile later, we stop at a lush private camping site and I ask for directions. La madam directeur points and says, “The route sign is there. This road snakes down to the shore. Then you’re on a trail incroyable!” Sure enough, before long we’re riding a spectacular elevated wooden bikeway sweeping above the shimmering lakeshore.

Finally passing through St. Monica and crossing a small bridge, we arrive at Auberge Ile du Repos and locate our rustic chalet. Our no-frills room contains two very welcome cots and opens onto a shared bathroom. Leaning the e-bike against the wall, we let its battery recharge. On the porch munching chicken wraps and sipping cold beers from this rustic resort’s beachside restaurant, we chat about the many cyclists camping along the shoreline and review today’s 38 scenic miles.

Breakfasting on the restaurant’s sunny terrace the next morning, we look out over the tranquil cove. At this early hour, the sandy volleyball and bocce ball courts lie empty, yet a serious croquet game is already taking place just below us.

A breeze helps us sail along the very quiet roadway to an intriguing stop, Musée Louis Hémon. Traveling to Lac St. Jean in 1912, Louis Hémon had lived at its restored farmhouse as a laborer and in his spare time developed his classic novel Maria Chapdelaine. Published in 80 editions and 20 languages, his appealing tale reveals the difficult lives of French Canadian pioneers in this region.

From there we follow a route trail paralleling the road into Péribonka, only a tiny lakeside village in Hémon’s day. Its ferry now offers cyclists an alternative link to Parc de la Pointe-Taillon. As in other communities, residents’ gardens use endearing old bicycles as planters as well as display painted statues of Jesus and Mary.

A country road leads us steadily upward and away from the lake for eight miles through vast hay fields, pastures, and alongside a pretty stream. At St. Jean d’Arc, a local cyclophile displays seven large bike mobiles around the yard. Nearby we find the best of 36 such trailside rest areas and picnic at a sheltered table overlooking the rushing cascades that once propelled its 1902 landmark watermill.

Just beyond St. Jean d’Arc, we turn off the main road onto another paved trail twisting through boggy pine forest carpeted with mosses and tiny wild blueberries. A few samples of these petite berries burst sweetly in our mouths. Farther on at the outskirts of Mistassini, a shop’s lawn parades a surprising and inspired array of blueberry-themed sculptures. Beside a gigantic blue pie, a life-sized Mr. Blueberry reminds us how locals fondly call themselves ‘blueberries,’ sharing those hardy, healthy, and sweet attributes!

During Maria Chapdelaine’s era, two converging rivers made Mistassini a thriving fur-trading center. Following the twisting Mistassini River past a campsite filled with cyclists, we soon arrive at our comfy Motel Chute de Pères, above a roaring waterfall. As the e-bike and camera batteries recharge, we frolic in the heated pool and relax our tired muscles in the hot tub. Already having spun off hundreds of calories, we later guiltlessly refuel, heartily digging into a four-course meal — including luscious blueberry cheesecake, of course.

The next day, the e-bike’s battery est mort! Yes, dead! Relying now entirely on leg power, we take on a shorter mileage day. Like guardian angels, two blueberry ambassadors, Paul and Claude, appear, and shepherd us over a newly dedicated bike bridge into the southern part of town to a bike shop. The owner suggests trying the town’s battery specialist. There Claude explains our situation to a technician, who is unable to remedy the problem.

Having strung out in our dash down the highway, Claude signals for us to regroup in front of the town cemetery. Viewing the white marble angels, crosses, shiny black slabs, and colorful flowers, we contemplate burying that dead battery! “Bonne idée! You know, I like this place!” Paul chuckles, and then points at a nearby house, wryly joking, “That man living across the street tell his wife before he die, ‘Everyday I see that cemetery; very soon, everyday I see our house!’”

Spirits rising, grave woes vanishing, bon vivant Paul leads us through groves of white-barked poplars and birch on a trail lined resplendently with wildflowers. Back on the road, we pass cultivated “wild” blueberry fields and tracts of golden wheat bordered by distant evergreens.

Stopping to enjoy the panorama ahead, we can see our next destination. Surrounded by rich farmlands, Albanel sits atop the distant hill. Claude explains the basis for the area’s evident productivity: “Glaciers created Lac St. Jean, which at one time was 10 times larger than it is now. After receding, it left this fertile plain.” And glaciers also left us Albanel’s picturesque perch, today’s only challenge.

After grinding up this hill, we easily find Albanel’s grassy municipal campground and our little chalet. Like cottages, these camp-chalets boast cozy rooms including well-equipped kitchens. Thus, pedaling off to the store for sandwich fixings and breakfast goodies, we’re able to self-cater. Phoning from the office, I arrange a bike-battery replacement delivered to tomorrow’s destination.

The next day, we coast gleefully down the long hill out of town, we skirt even more commercial blueberries and newly cut canola, which exotically spices up the cool air. In July, these canola fields are aglow with yellow blossoms. Another paved trail winds past Normandin’s famed gardens, shrouded in morning mist. Pausing in the town square, we admire and photograph the metal sculptures surrounding its fountain.

At a small grocery store, I begin with “Bon jour!” and proceed with my best “Frenglish” to ask for directions to a nearby sheep farm. The storekeeper responds in mixed English, “No problem, you see l’affiche on the road.” I reply, “You mean, smell la fish, eh?” She laughs, “No, at that farm, you smell the mutton!” A half hour later, GPS assures us that we’re there and then we spot the sign!

Owner Julie invites us into her barn to see lovable lambs, goats, and milking apparatus, telling us, “After three generations as cattle ranchers, our family now raises mainly sheep. Our ewes produce rich milk for my handmade soap products.” Several luscious bars of blueberry-scented soap are purchased, fitting nicely in the pannier.

Following the Ashuapmushuan River into Saint-Félicien, we cross two town bridges before reaching our hotel. Inside the receptionist dramatically presents a big, bodacious battery! Alas, our excitement is short lived! Once attached, we realize the e-bike’s control panel is firmly stuck on the generating mode! Another exasperated phone call results in a total exchange of the e-bike the next day.

After a brief reconnoiter and rest in our lovely room, we pedal along a trail above Ashuapmushuan River’s west shore to Saint-Félicien’s famed Wild Animal Park. Securing bicycles outside, our extraordinary encounter with North America’s remarkable animals begins. Traveling into their wilderness habitats aboard a wire-caged tram, we immediately witness majestic moose wading in ponds, curious black bears resting in the shade of birch trees, industrious beavers paddling about a pond, white tail deer standing in wooded glades, impressively antlered caribou and elk grazing in meadows, and a herd of musk ox in a prairie setting. Due to their predatory nature, the wolves are securely segregated. And all along the way, we retrace Québec’s past in a native village, early lumber camp, and reconstructed farm with traditional livestock. The trading post recalls how furs attracted the French to Québec, contributing to the economy from 1535-1842. A charred cabin recalls the 1870 fire that devastated area forests and possibly nourished the blueberry crops we’d been seeing!

Our little expedition climaxes with a miracle of birth. On the other side of an extensive prairie dog colony, bison cows and calves gather on a cliff and protectively surround a mother, who is gently licking clean her sticky newborn. As we watch breathlessly, a huge male lumbers over and gives the tiny red-haired babe his own licks of approval! The next day, we spin smoothly onward for an exuberant hour along rural roads from Saint-Félicien to Saint-Prime, we reach Musée du Fromage for a tasty slice of history in Québec’s oldest cheese factory. Here, five generations of Perrons processed cheddar. A guide shows us early devices used to measure, filter, warm, and curdle the rich milk fat. Molded into gigantic wheels, they transported 90 percent of their cured cheddar to England, the remainder to Montréal.

The founding Perrons lived upstairs where original furnishings reflect their orderly lifestyle. “The parents gave their 12 children individual responsibilities and chores,” our guide recounts. Showing us a small rosary continues, “This was found in the wall. Very devout, they likely believed it would prevent fires.”

Wheeling down another forested trail and past monumental summer teepees lining the shore, we enter Mashteuiatsh. Pushing on to the top of bluff, we enter this proud aboriginal community’s museum. Its gallery features magnificent painted caribou hides augmented with furs, fabric, and feathers depicting provincial history from the native perspective. “Our inspired self-taught artist comes from Labrador,” the docent notes and points to an illustrated map. “Here are Québec’s first nation territories. Only the Hurons and Mohawks actually settled; our band roamed north of the Saint Lawrence River. As a Montagnais, I fished and trapped for my living. As mother of four, I now live in Mashteuiatsh, where my children learn our seasonal and nomadic traditions.”

When we return to the sheep farm, another sleek DeVinci awaits us in the storage room. Making the exchange, we’re off again! Our pedal continues steadily above the sparkling lake and into picturesque Roberval, built along the shoreline. Adjacent to its large regional hospital, a park monument honors the Ursuline Order. Building a provincial convent here in 1882, these Catholic nuns both became dedicated nurses and educators.

Another pleasant trail takes us up into charming Val-Jalbert, which stretches alongside the gushing river that powered its turn-of-the-century paper mill. Abandoned when the mill closed abruptly in 1927, it became a beautiful historic park in 1960.

After securing our bicycles inside the information center, a vintage streetcar carries us into the village passing the old school where a nun sternly greets and educates visitors. Every summer, over a dozen such performers take on the roles of early villagers among the 70 original buildings.

On the store’s veranda, a guitar-slinging Mayor leads us all in a rousing chorus of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Then, briskly marching ourselves to the cable car, we’re whisked to the top of the rugged escarpment for spectacular views of roaring Ouiatchouan Falls and Lac St. Jean. Dining in a section of the huge stone paper mill below, this day ends ever so deliciously with generous wedges of blueberry pie.

We settle into a refurbished room on the general store’s third floor. Although offering modern comforts, the old black and white photographs, small artifacts, and vintage trunk further immerse us in the 1920’s era. As night quietly falls, streetlights wrap the village in a soft glow.

The next morning, another cycling couple exits one of the opposite revamped houses. We meet them as all head for an early breakfast at the old mill, and we walk together along the tree-lined pathway. Comparing notes on our experiences around the village, we laughingly agree that you can’t beat the tranquility a ghost town for a good sleep!

Fortified with sausages and eggs, we don our raincoats to shed the morning showers. Setting off along the lake and gradually veering upward across tree-lined farmlands, we splash on through Chambord, Desbiens, and Metabetchouan–Lac-à-La-Croix. As the trail flattens, we enjoyably spin through forests and past productive farmland. Spotting the hardy plants that produce the essence of soupe aux gourgane, we pause and pay homage to gourganes, the meaty broad beans that create this delicious regional specialty.

Arriving at Saint-Gédéon microbrewery, we take the opportunity to dry off. After checking out the hardy Québecois miners, loggers, mustachioed politicians, and Mademoiselles illustrated on their beer bottles, we order lunches accompanied by samples of beer. Among these Belgian-style brews, one can distinctly taste the local wild herbs. Wondering about the delightful potables’ potency, the owner reassures us, “Ahh! No problème. C’est bon fuel for cyclistes!

Tackling our last nine miles, we spin along roadways and sinuous forest trails. Following one last amble across a hydroelectric dam and one last climb, we swoop back into Dam-en-Terre. Returning bicycles, panniers, and helmets, we pick up the car to drive into Alma and buy boxes of chocolate-coated blueberries. Made for years by Trappist Monks, these seem obvious souvenirs to share with the folks at home. Our hotel posts the familiar welcome sign: “Bienvenue Cyclistes.” And our room overlooks this city’s terrific grid of bikeways. Toasting our memorable adventure in the fine dining room that evening, we savor poached salmon drizzled with blueberry sauce. And for the grand finale? Blueberry-chocolate cake!

Offering delectable cuisine, unique natural attractions, fascinating cultural experiences, and all things blueberry, the Véloroute des Bleuets must be the premiere route of Québec’s 3,107-mile bicycle network!

Nuts & Bolts: Véloroute des Bluets

Where to ride:

We begin in Alma at Dam-en-Terre where there’s secure parking close to Bagotville Airport. There, Equinox provides bicycle rentals, reserves accommodations, and arranges luggage shuttles. Check out veloroute-bleuets.qc.ca for route information and to get an English Véloroute des Bleuets guide book citing distances, elevations, rest stops, bike shops, attractions, and campsites.

Like Europe, Canada requires a passport and uses kilometers to calculate distances. (One mile equals 1.6 kilometers.) Money values are similar to the U.S. Make sure to bring a French dictionary, notepad with key phrases, and sense of humor!

When to Go:

Weather conditions support cycling from May to October. August is a dry, warm month and the height of blueberry season.

Where to Stay:

Magnifiqué campsites are conveniently located trailside. Our accommodations varied from St. Monica’s rustic I’le du Repos, Dolbeau-Mistassini’s Motel Chute des Perés, Albanel’s municipal chalets, St. Félicien’s classy Hôtel du Jardin, Val-Jalbert’s turn-of-the-century lodgings, and Alma’s newly refurbished Hotel Universal.

Stops Along the Way:

Musee Louis Hémon

Bergerie du Nord, family soap boutique & farm

Wild Animal Zoo

Musee du Fromage Cheddar 

Le Musée amérindien de Mashteuiatsh

Historic Village of Val-Jalbert

St. Gedeon’s popular microbrewery, Microbrasserie Du Lac Saint-Jean

Tourism Info:

saguenaylacsaintjean.ca