Madawaska Bikepacking

Place: Madawaska, Ontario (45.5, -78)
Address: Madawaska, ON, Canada
Back out into the trails.
(Madawaska Overnighter, October 17-18)

Like any good bikepack planner, Robert Hutchison knows that a fun trip is balance of the known, versus the probable. If the best routes were published on well-known maps, they wouldn’t stay best for very long. So once again with a mishmash of information from various sources and a sketchy weather forecast, we loaded up the Ford-a-Saurus with fat bikes, puffy coats, hammock underquilt as, a dozen beers, 2 bottles of wine, some hootch, and a smattering of food. “Well stocked” as they say.

We had solid video intel of the first half of the scenic and popular Madawaska ATV route and we were pretty stoked to get going early Saturday. This proved to be a good idea later in the day. After a fun and uneventful drive to the trailhead, we sorted our gear and kitted our bikes like old pros do and garnered some heavy stares from the ATV people that were setting out at about the same time as us. “Probably never seen bike packers” we figured. Usually true.

Our plan was to follow the ATV route west until we could break north and head towards the southern portion of Algonquin Park. With a little luck and good riding we’d hit the unknown portion of our trip midday with plenty of time to uncover some hidden gem of a campsite with nary another human in shouting distance. Yeah that didn’t happen.

The ATV track was well travelled. Like REALLY well travelled. So it was basically a washboard exactly the width of our fat bike wheelbases for 20 km. Like a pump track with no transitions between any features and no way to maintain momentum, except slow.....steady...big gear pedaling. Thankfully I’d already hit the trainer for some early base building and felt mostly prepared. There was a fun “reroute” section of the old rail line that went up the side of a mini mountain. Rough, giant babyheads for a few km’s and the occasional sand repair with ATV berms mixed in to make it an interesting and challenging climb. After making it through the clear-cut at the almost top, we caught up to a group of ATV’s that had passed us earlier at the summit. We snacked and took some shots and chatted with them about “the north river route” we were planning on taking the next day. “Ain’t never heard o’ no north route” was the conclusion on that conversation. OK, noted. Hey what did a bunch of locals know about local trails? Right?

As we parted ways and started to descend the mountain backside I was suddenly made aware by my howling 203mm FRONT rotor that the backside of said mountain was pretty much straight down in half the up distance, but made far more interesting by the extensive water and ATV rut damage resulting in many consecutive 2 foot drops into,loose or wet soil, which are somewhat harder to manage on a loaded 75 pound fatbike with a precious cargo of IPA’s attached to the front roll. But, true to our skills honed on the infamous Traversee de Charlevoix trip, we emerged unscathed, rotors somewhat bluer in colour. Saint brakes for the win!

The rest of the day was spent riding more washboard, stopping to take in the beauty of the river and chatting with ATV people along the way. After a few hours, unknown people were excited to see us. I guess word had been spread about 2 guys on bikes carrying 24 beers each and hammocks for sleeping and everyone was keen to see just what exactly we looked like. It became obvious too that they spread the word for our safety, as every group of ATV’s we passed by or were passed by were slow and friendly. That’s pretty cool. AND, for the first time EVER, we saw 2 other people on fat bikes! About 3/4 of the way we passed a pair of riders going the opposite way. They were not equipped for camping and just seemed to be out for a ride. We were so stunned we forgot to stop and connect but we saw their tracks the next day and they seemed to have used the ATV track out and back. Another interesting fact is that they were riding Costco fat bikes; those inexpensive $499.00 bikes that garner much debate about their quality. And yeah, they were riding just fine and having a great time. (Just get out and ride!)

By the time we got to the OPP spot check halfway (yes, a true ATV spot check) the cops we waiting and excited and were even disappointed that they had no reason to ask us for our licenses since we were not motorized. We explained we’d be taking the north route back tomorrow. They seemed non-plusssd about our intended journey and said they were happier now that they knew what we were wearing in case they got called out to search for us. Thanks, I think.

We slogged to the end of the ATV trail, pretty tired overall and starting to feel like we needed a campsite soon. Those beers were not gonna drink themselves, right? Off the ATV track we followed some dirt roads northish that changed into double track as the route headed towards several lakes. We figured one of these lakes held the sacred and secret magic campsite we were looking for. Well, they sorta did.

There is a very marked difference between a hallowed canoe campsite, and an ATV boat launch. One has been birthed into harmony over many decades by human-powered nature lovers, and the other has been carved mechanically by overzealous, beer fueled shotgun toting sportsmen and typically is 2 mud tracks that run to a low flat spot on a lake where you can tow your boat down, muck around in boots as needed and then go fish.

We of the Elite Hutchison Bikepack Team are spoiled in that we, through the genius and art of said team leader, usually camp at the former quality canoe sites. What we had discovered so far on this trek was a relatively isolated series of fish lakes where few people camped. Since the lakes were not connected by passable streams, there were few, if any canoers or canoe sites. We checked out a few launches, then made a last effort to find a gem on a promising, well maintained double track, but finding nothing but one ancient, decrepit launch, we decided in the interest of daylight to backtrack and make Lobster Lake our temporary home.

Overall, the site was not bad at all with generous granite on the lake edge, an OK area with trees, an existing fire pit with some wood scraps, and lots of standing dead wood, suitable for our purposes. Setting up the hammocks required some tree and brush modification but we made it work. That evening we saw a lone Mallard on the lake and as the sky darkened, Mars rose directly in front of us, bright red and shining. We cooked dinner in the darkness and soon discovered we had a massive field mouse on-site who kept trying to steal out food. The weather and temps help overnight and at dawn we heard what we assume was a moose cow mooing in the early morning. The Mallard came by in the darkness too, presumably eat up leftover rice from cleaning dishes and he sounded like a massive swap monster coming out of the lake, until he finally quacked and broke the tension. Kind of spooky being far out there like it always is, but we never see any wildlife on our trips. Ever.

The next day we went in search of the North Passage. As we went further towards Algonquin Park it felt more and more remote and then.....gate. The road ended at a private hunt camp with a massive gate. For some reason unknown to us, we did not trespass. IF we had gone around the gate, we probably would have found the connecting road and made the loop we wanted. Instead, we backtracked to the offshoot we had explored the day before which we had convinced ourselves would likely be a shortcut should we need it.

The funny thing about hunting for unknown trails is that no one map or site shows everything you need. So you end up switching back and forth between references to see what each map shows that MIGHT be a trail and convincing yourself that things connect. This particular convincing trail just ended in a roundabout. Full stop. It just ended with a place to turnaround. Which, if either of us had looked on Apple Maps or Google Maps is EXACTLY what it shows. The road stops about 2 km’s from where is COULD have connected to our desired shortcut. Hutch was convinced we could bushwhack the 2km across the forest, but he is always convinced that we can bushwhack across the forest. It’s good that we balance each other out. On this occasion, I managed to make a reasonable case to double back on the ATV track since we had burned our safety margin of 3 hours going nowhere, and we were essentially going back to Lobster Lake where we started that morning. Rob sadly capitulated and we began the backtrack towards the trusty Ford. At least we knew what to expect. Washboard + mega mountain.

The ATV trail was eerily empty on Sunday. Apparently all the ATV people were expecting rain and got their fun in on Saturday. We kept a casual pace on the route home but we were burning energy fast and were were slowing down. I noticed Rob was standing a lot on his bike. A lot. Hey, I like a good climb-out-a-dat-saddle workout as much as anyone, but Hutch was setting a record. Turns out he had cleaned his seatpost clamp before the trip to stop it from squeaking, and assembled the clamp backwards so the nose of his saddle was...high. He was increasingly.....uncomfortable. I suggested a technical repair, but he figured he could tough it out. After another 10 km, it was looking bleak. Progress was slowing. We hadn’t hit the reverse mountain climb yet and energy was running low. Fortunately we came across a right turn that we figured would take us out to the highway so we gave it a look on Apple Maps and, YES, It did lead out to the highway. So we headed out to alleviate the team suffering and found pavement for the last 10km.

What Apple Maps negelected to indicate was the 6km highway climb from the spot where we emerged. Nice if you’re on a road bike, less so on the loaded fatty with 28t chainring. After a prolonged session of long slow grinding, 3 hills to be specific, we passed one of those beautiful truck warning signs that says “Dangerous Grade”. Hallelujah! We were going DH for last 4km. I topped out at 72km/hr. Hutch had to ride his brakes to stay behind me. The gusting winds added a nice reminder to pay attention.

Back at the truck, we stripped the bikes, had a quick refreshment and then went in-search-of HAMBURGERS. On the way in we had earmarked a little roadside stand, Charlie D’s where we eagerly ordered homemade goodness, then loaded back into the vehicle for the drone home, arriving on time Sunday as predicted. Another adventure logged.

Thanks pal.

9:ZERO:7 Bikes Revelate Designs Tannus Armour Club Ride Apparel Phat Moose Cycles Bike Shop Charlie D's
Oct 29, 2020 10:01:04pm

Related posts