Motorcycle Touring in the Charlevoix: Part I Into the Heart of the Crater
It’s highly unlikely that you’ve ever ridden across a meteorite crater. In fact, I believe there is only one crater on this planet that has public roads crossing it. There definitely isn’t another one whose resident artists are international recognized or that is a gastronomical center par excellence. The Charlevoix is unique and it’s one of my favorite places to ride.
“Charlie Vox? Where’s that?” is something I hear far too often. Guess the region is still a secret despite my seminars at Americade and book, “Motorcycle Journeys Through Atlantic Canada.” Actually, it’s pronounced Shar-ley-vwa and it’s no secret to Canadian riders.
Long before dinosaurs existed and the continents took the form we now know, a meteorite slammed into these mountains. Over a mile in diameter and traveling at more than 37,000 miles a second the intense heat of the impact vaporized a hole 34 miles wide. A hundred million years later the continent of Africa bumped into these mountains and became part of the super-continent we call Pangea before the continents slowly tore apart and moved into the positions of our geologic era. Hundreds of millions of years of wind and rain erosion coupled with four periods when great glaciers moved across the northern hemisphere have altered the landscape, but not erased the past.
Heading east from Quebec City Route 138 follows the St. Lawrence River to the town of Sainte-Anne-du-Beaupre before climbing into the Laurentian Mountains for a roller-coaster ride to the Charlevoix. After riding over the summit of Le Massif, blue signs with a white question mark that indicate a Visitors Center and I suggest stopping for a quick orientation.
From the observation deck you look down on the village of Baie-Saint-Paul. To your right is the St. Lawrence River and Isle-aux-Coudres (Hazelnut Island). An arc of jagged mountains curve away to your left—you’re actually standing on part of that curve, the outside rim of the impact crater. The river is actually a very deep fault line and both the island and the very distant shore were once part of Africa. Directly ahead is Mount Éboulements, which is the “rebound” from the impact – like when you throw a rock into thick mud, except the molten rock froze in this position. Beyond the mountain is another village, La Malbaie that marks the opposite side of the crater. This entire region is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and only one of three populated meteorite craters on our planet.
In the summer time the village of Baie-St-Paul can give the illusion that it’s hosting a motorcycle rally. This is a major destination for Quebec and Ontario riders, some en-route to distant places like the Gaspé and the Côte Nord and others who are doing the Quebec City-Charlevoix-Saugenay triangle. Many have come simply come to enjoy the food this region is famous for. This village has more art galleries per capita than any place in North America and more places to eat than it has art galleries. Still the ambiance is such that there are no monuments for war heroes or industrialists, rather bronze busts on stone plinths commemorate famous artists and the village center has privately owned businesses.
Le Pub is the local microbrewery that creates a series of Belgian-style beers labeled Dominicus Vobiscum, which in Latin means “may the Lord be with you.” I suggest trying their sampler. Here, as well at other sites, you might notice a sign with the logo of a motorcycle. These restaurants, hotels, and businesses have signed contracts of standards for motorcyclists with the regional tourism board. You’ll find secure parking, basic tools if you need them, and of course are welcome wearing your riding gear.
Route 362 is known as the River Drive (Route du Fleuve), although this is a little bit misleading since only in one place between Baie-St-Paul and La Malbaie does it even approach the St. Lawrence River. Usually running at an elevation of 1,000 feet above the river it does present some exceptional views that make this one of the top 10 scenic highways in Canada. The first place to stop is at an observation pull-off as you climb the hill when leaving Baie-St-Paul. This provides a birds’ eye view of the bay and village with a view up the river past the headland.
The village of Les Eboulements is only 12 miles (19 km) from Baie-St-Paul. I’m fascinated by 18th and 19th century technology, but anyone who has wrenched on a motorcycle or baked a loaf of bread will want to stop at Siegnurial Mill. Built in 1790 it still grinds locally grown wheat into organic flour for artisan bakers. Much of the core drive system was replaced with steel components sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century but we’re talking about a mill that has been grinding flour for 222 years. Watch your head! The drive belts are moving at quite a clip when the mill is operating. You should have no trouble distinguishing belt tensioners like used on the cam/timing belts of modern motorcycles, nor the beveled gears for transferring the rotational direction motive force, the same as used on many rear differentials and vintage Ducatis. In the mill gearing is designed to increase the rpms from high torque, slow revolutions of the waterwheel, to the higher rpms required for rotating the heavy granite grindstone. The clutch lever for the waterwheel requires some searching, but millwrights were practical mechanics so it’s located right where logic dictates it should be. There’s another flourmill located only a few miles away and it happens to be located on a popular motorcycle destination: Isle-aux-Coudres.
Port Road begins at Route 362 on the adjacent to the Siegnurial property. Le Éboulements means “the landslides” and is so named for the massive one that was witnessed here in 1633. Actually, Port Road runs down the hill created by the landslide on a grade that reaches 18%. The view of Hazelnut Island and the river during the descent is exceptional. The village of Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive has its own attractions, including the Charlevoix Maritime Museum and the Saint-Gilles Paper Economuseum, but the ferry (free) is the most popular destination.
The island isn’t terribly large, about 15 miles in circumference, but the views are stunning and there are various places that are worth stopping to check out. There are two tiny roadside chapels, both consecrated in 1737 and both still have their tiny doors open for travelers. The Flour Milling Economuseum is special because on one side of the brook is a water-powered mill that was built in 1825 and on the other bank is a wind-powered mill constructed in 1836. The windmill was the last “tower” mill to be constructed in Quebec and it was built by the son of the millwright after a long drought rendered the gristmill inoperable. The restored watermill is quite modern and was used as a sawmill into the 1950s; the windmill is essentially original with only a few authentic repairs. Windmills are not as efficient as watermills, both in terms of consistency of rotation (the flow of water can be controlled, the wind cannot) and working space, yet this one represents a type of construction that stretches back to Medieval Period in Europe. A mechanic will be fascinated by the differences exhibited in the Charlevoix’s mills (there are four), but most people are simply captivated by their bucolic setting.
The road follows the shore and soon you find yourself back at the turn leading down to the ferry. The waiting line often stretches up the steep hill so I usually pull my bike perpendicular to the slope with my rear wheel next to the curb. Sorry, it’s first come; first on, no special privileges for motorcycles.
The road back up to Les Éboulements doesn’t feel so steep or as long as when you rode down it. Before setting out along the River Drive to La Malbaie I always stop at La Chocolaterie du Village for gelato (an Italian style ice cream) or handmade Belgian chocolates. Yves Huppé and his wife Line St-Pierre make chocolates—and they do this starting with 21 different types of cacao beans. Until you have had chocolates made by a master, you haven’t experienced what chocolate can be.
It’s getting late and I still have to check into my hotel before to another unique destination.
To be continued . . . Part II: The House of the Bootlegger.