Thursday, August 25, 2022

Frontenac Secteur SUD National Park Adventure

It’s not common for a 30 mile gravel ride to rise to the level of needing a story about it, but this one does. This ride wasn’t a ride, it was a journey, an experience, a shit show. A shit show that I got to enjoy with my lovely wife and our two friends, Liz and Dan.

I’m typically tasked with finding and leading rides (or hikes) whenever we travel. I do have a reputation for taking my wife and our friends on rides that are a *bit* harder than I might advertise, or with a wee bit more climbing than mentioned. That’s part of what I do, but I HONESTLY don’t set out to do it. This just sort of happens, there’s “one more hill,” or we’ve only got “a few more miles to go.”

Anyone who has tried to find a ride hundreds of miles from home knows the challenges associated with choosing loops purely based on GPS tracks. Be it TrailForks or RideWithGPS, it’s caveat emptor when you download that GPS file and hit start.

So I really tried to double check some gravel rides I had chosen on RideWithGPS for a recent trip to VT and Canada. I looked at the loops and the the roads all seemed to make sense. 

The first ride we did from Island Pond in northern Vermont was exactly as advertised. The ride was 28 miles, had plenty of hills and didn’t have any surprises. It was a hard ride, but easy to follow and allowed us to have some well earned adult beverages.

With that successful ride in the bag, our next venture promised to be a wee bit longer, 31 miles as opposed to 28, but about half the climbing, at about 1400ft. It was through a national park, on *mixed surfaces,* and my mind went to Acadia National Park’s carriage roads. I thought we’d be in for a fun ride… maybe 2-3 hours. What I would a call a “two water bottle ride.”

I was wrong.

Looking back, it’s funny how my compatriots were initially a bit annoyed at riding through some water that was *just* deep enough to get your feet wet. 

It got worse.

The first seven or so miles were beautiful and what I was expecting: gravel roads, forests, fresh air, and gently rolling hills.

We then turned down some trail that was more double track than gravel road, but still totally fine. Okay, it was starting to get muddier—which coming from a part of the US that’s in an extreme drought—was novel. Anyway, a little more double track, a little more mud, but still all fun and fine—nothing compared to some of the double track class 4 roads I’ve ridden in Vermont.

My Garmin chirped and displayed “turn right on trail,” and there was no trail. Okay, there was a faint remnant of a trail. Much like sophisticated satellites can pick up background radiation that can be traced back to the big bang, there was sort of a trail. If you squinted. There was clearly a huge beaver damn, and according to the map the trail went between two lakes so it seemed like the industrious semi-aquatic rodents flooded what would be a trail. I thought that once we got past this section between the two lakes that the trail would open up. 

We just had to push, pull, carry our bikes through a knee deep bog where you really couldn’t see where you were stepping. is that a log? A snake? A body? Best not to question and to just keep moving. We finally made it across the bog to a more upland area and back on to a trail. Not a maintained trail mind you, but a trail that had once been a trail and was now just a path of dirt through the woods with trees down blocking the way about every 20 paces interspersed with little ravines. It was enough to make it not really rideable, but better than the bog, and at least easy to follow.

Until it wasn’t.

The dirt path just petered out. We were still on “the trail” according to our GPS devices, but there was no trail. No path. Nothing. We spent the next hour or so totally bushwacking. We’d be “off course” or “on course,” but neither made a difference. We were again pushing, pulling, and carrying our bikes through the forest understory, over rocks, under fallen trees, over fallen trees, through brambles and brush.

Between the bog, the trail that wasn’t really a trail, and then just forging through the woodlands and thickets, we spent about two hours *enjoying* our ride. It was humid, buggy, and started to get to the point of thinking: 

  • What’s the Canadian 911 equivalent? 
  • I wish I had brought a first aid kit.
  • I should have brought more water.
  • I should have packed snacks.
  • Who’s idea was this?
As we were plodding along in the enchanted forest, and I was hoping my three charges weren’t going to murder me and leave me in the woods, we just kept trying to stay on course directionally, even though there was no trail. Dan noticed that a road was sort of nearby and while it would put us farther away on the actual loop (to ultimately get back to the truck), it would get us out of the muggy, buggy, rough, and rocky terrain. 

And, then finally, we were on a road. A beautiful gravel road.

We had gone about 14 miles total. 

We had another 17 or so to go.

We were at the bottom of a loose, steep hill.

Every other option for roads led us farther away from the truck.

Oh, and Dan wasn’t wearing cycling shorts.

We still had lots of fun ahead.

Including, the loop taking us up to, and in theory, past, a large “Private Property” gate. Not wanting to end up in a Canadian prison (which are probably nice), we back tracked to get around this portion and it was a great opportunity to add a couple of miles to the ride. 

Which is what everyone was asking for.

From here, when they asked me how much was left, and it was still more than 10 miles, I made vague noncommittal sounds. Just under 4 miles later we hit pavement, and from there it was only about 7 miles (and one big climb) back to the truck.

That’s when it started pouring.

Sheets of near-blinding rain.

Because, of course. 

It was a refreshing end to a not so refreshing ride.

I have to give major credit to three winners of the “Good Sport” awards, Jean, Liz, and Dan, who did not try to kill me, but in fact found some humor in the whole event. I think. 

Read their Yelp reviews for my guide services:

Elizabeth "Dirty Vans" Sweetman
“This wild ride has everything! Follow the bearded biker on an agonizing ride (promising easy hills, maybe 10 miles) where you will regret ever being born. You will pray for a rainout day after this hot mess because you can’t walk-let alone ride, and will sing praises to the campground washer/dryer for removing the stink of swamp funk and tears-of-despair from of your cycling kit. Skill level: Insane. Added notes: Not for the faint of heart or those who suffer from mushroom aversion.” 

Jean "Should Have Known" Alden St. Pierre
Our ride through the Canadian wilderness was exactly the type of ride the bearded biker would organize. 

The ride was described to his gullible wife and friends as “a gravel ride, easier than yesterday”. I think we all knew this was not going to be easy, but we always, without fail, underestimate the fuckery ahead of us. Like three lemmings, we follow him off the cliff. 
This ride started out fine, as they always do. Although I had some reservations when the “gravel” ride started looking suspiciously like mountain biking. There were some complaints about riding through puddles (ah, had we known then what was ahead of us...) but all was passable, albeit quite stinky. It all went to hell when we turned onto a trail that turned into a bog.

We could have gone around the lake like normal people, but no, we thought we would tough it out. Liz’s brand-new white vans would ultimately pay the price for this decision. After struggling through ankle deep sludge created by the impressively industrious beavers, we naively assumed it would be temporary. It was not. The “trail” as it was often referred to, was a mirage. It was pure bushwhacking, over and through blackberry brambles, over berms, rotting logs and other forest detritus. Our leader often gave us false hope by calling out that we were “back on the trail”, which was a lie. There was no trail. 

The lemmings fought their way through the brush, with me in the back flailing about trying to distract the mosquitos who had descended on me like I was their last meal. Thankfully I never saw the spiders who built the webs I cleared with my face. After three miles of looking at nothing but rotting underbrush and bizarre mushrooms, we made it to a road. Alas, we still had 17 miles to go. 
The ride then flipped back to hills, hills, hills. Then, as a finale, the heavens opened, and we were in a complete downpour for the last mile. The day ended with us in the truck, sodden, filthy, and happy to not be sleeping in the beaver’s lodge overnight. 
Ride Rating: 100% on brand for the Bearded Biker.

Dan "No Chamois" Boschen
The ride with my wife Liz and our friends Jean and Dave (“The Bearded Biker”) started out like any other boring ride; wide expanses of hard gravel roads on reasonably flat terrain passing through beautiful green canopied forest with fresh summer air at the perfect temperature.

It was just too comfortable and “fun” and I was just about to complain when Dave and I ahead of our spouses came across a gated path that said “Ne passe pas cette putain de porte”, which we translated as “Best ride this way!” and proceeded to open the gate to let the lovely ladies through. 

This started off as a simple test of our ability to ride through ankle high Giardia water which we all did easily, not knowing how much better the ride would get.

It was starting to get boring again when The Bearded Biker spotted a narrow break in the pricker bushes. He simply muttered “Jean isn’t going to like this” and disappeared into the bush to further explore. With his approval, we proceeded into a wild adventure of beaver pond traversing, bike dragging, swamp-stepping wonderfulness. 
Upon making it to the other side, we found ourselves in the Woods of the Giant Mushroom Boner, which gives “wild mushrooms” a whole new meaning.  The trail dissipated mysteriously into a non-trail as our GPS kept announcing we were off a course that never existed. Upon scraping our way out of the Impossible Forest of the Misfit Mushrooms, we found ourselves at the bottom of the Mountain of Mayhem, which we had to climb in order to get to what we thought what would be a dry luxurious and downhill ride home.

Upon traversing the mountain, the sky suddenly darkened to its greatest dark, and a pouring of all pours rained down upon us for the rest of the ride home. 

We did make it through the beaver swamp, past the mushroom decoys and over that incredible mountain, and through that massive rainstorm of rainstorms without a complaint from anyone.  Upon finishing, we simply looked at each other knowingly with slight nods of approval; as we knew, at that point, that we were truly Racer-X

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