Magnificent Territory

Nothing satisfies a summer ride like a cool dip in the lake. A peaceful morning mist rises as the day begins to heat up. Fujifilm, 1/100 sec, f/4, ISO 160

Magnificent Territory A Sensory Extravaganza and Vallée Bras-du-Nord

The first time I ever rode at Vallée Bras-du-Nord (VBN) was in the summer of 2010, shortly after moving back to my hometown of Quebec City from British Columbia’s renowned Seato-Sky Corridor.

Though I rationalized returning home as a normal thing to do while building a family, leaving behind a dream job and easy access to world-class riding was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

During the move, I almost sold my trusty Specialized Demo 7 downhill bike but decided to keep it for another season or two to ride Mont-Sainte-Anne’s burly DH tracks. In typical mountain-biker fashion, I used this as justification for buying a smaller travel bike to explore the trails near Quebec City.

That was the bike I took on my first trip to VBN and, by the end of my first day of riding, I was at peace with my decision to move home, as well as to buy that bike. There was something about the place that felt just right. Nine years after my maiden VBN voyage, the Coopérative de Solidarité Vallée Bras-du-Nord is an established destination for mountain bikers in Quebec, Ontario and the northeastern United States. It’s also the sister network of Vermont’s Kingdom Trails, one of the most popular cross-country networks in the eastern United States.

There's always time to stop and smell the flowers—or, in this case, take in the beautiful views of Vallée Brasdu- Nord. Gabriel Gakwaya, Alexe Lacroix, Hugo Beaumier and Jean-Nicolas Dauwe enjoying a few slow moments between the high-speed ones. FUJIFILM, 1/1000 sec, f/1.2, ISO 160
The streams, rivers, waterfalls, lakes and puddles of Vallée Bras-du-Nord give the area a distinct (and wet) feel. No matter the time of year, there’s always a chance of ending a ride with soaked socks, as Hugo Beaumier will undoubtedly do after riding through Chute à Gilles. FUJIFILM, 1/1000 sec, f/1.4, ISO 160
In the woods and on the way to the next falls, Hugo Beaumier (front) and Gabriel Gakwaya (back) cruise the boardwalk through Vallée Bras-du-Nord’s lush forests. With 60-plus miles of singletrack at VBN and multiple waterfalls to visit, riding a little longer than expected is inevitable. FUJIFILM, 1/170 sec, f/4, ISO 1600

The land the cooperative has converted to recreational tourism use was part of the Nionwentsïo, the traditional domain of the indigenous Huron-Wendat Nation, which for centuries used the area for fishing, hunting and overall subsistence. In the Huron-Wendat language, Nionwentsïo means “our magnificent territory,” and this sliver of their ancestral territory certainly lives up to that description.

The appeal is undeniable: Glacial valleys hemmed in by imposing granite walls and bisected by raging rivers running through old-growth forests. Experiencing such beauty makes it easy to understand why the Huron-Wendat long maintained
an autumn hunting and fishing camp near the site of the network’s present-day Shannahan welcome center, which itself lies only a few hundred feet from a modern campground.

As spectacular as VBN is naturally, it owes much of its increasing popularity to the leadership of a core group of passionate individuals that comprise the Coopérative de Solidarité Vallée Bras-du-Nord. These people have worked hard to highlight the area by building quality mountain bike trails and promoting a host of other outdoor activities, such as hiking, canoeing and canyoneering.

Jean-Nicolas Dauwe, Alexe Lacroix and Hugo Beaumier in tight formation as they cruise Légende’s fresh soil. Although it’s less than a year old, the trail is already being touted as a classic. FUJIFILM, 1/480 sec, f/4.5, ISO 800
New in 2019, Légende is the answer to the technical spicy riding so many mountain bikers are seeking these days. From riverside rock slabs to drops, Légende has the goods, with epic views to boot. Alexe Lacroix focuses on the next move of the puzzle. FUJIFILM, 1/480 sec, f/4.5, ISO 800
Wheelie drop for the win as Hugo Beaumier navigates one of Légende’s rock moves, with Gabriel Gakwaya right on his tail. Even the small moves can be intimidating, but lacing a line is a euphoric feeling. Fujifilm, 1/320 sec, f/1.2, ISO 1600

Their goal is to be recognized as one of the premier mountain bike destinations in the eastern half of North America, and with more than 125 miles of trail winding through the valley, there is plenty to offer riders of all backgrounds and skill levels. Thanks to the sandrich soil, trails built on small alluvial terraces are flowy and fun, running through maple forests and alongside plummeting waterfalls. The Beurre d’érable and Grande Évasion trails are prime examples, linking two of the area’s most stunning waterfalls, Chute Delaney and the Chute à Gilles.

In the valley’s upper reaches, trails such as Boréale, Légende and Neilson Est are slightly more technical, featuring steeper grades, as well as rock- and root-filled sections. These trails boast vertical drops of close to 650 feet, which makes for ample descending while keeping the climbs manageable. The newest of these trails, the Légende, has high-speed segments and numerous technical moves, including an incredibly long rock roll next to a rushing waterfall.

The Neilson trails are comprised of three distinct sections: Nord (North), Est (East) and Sud (South). Neilson Nord is a large, six-mile loop, while Neilson Est is a 5.5-mile roundabout connector from the road, and Neilson Sud is a two-mile out-and-back that links to the Nord section. Put together, as done by Gabriel Gakwaya (front) and Hugo Beaumier (back), they provide the opportunity for a big, beautiful ride. FUJIFILM, 1/1000 sec, f/4, ISO 640
Gabriel Gakwaya and Hugo Beaumier keep the day lighthearted with a few more miles to go. FUJIFILM, 1/800 sec, f/1.2, ISO 400
Snacks on snacks—the key to any successful all-day mission, along with adequate ride breaks and good friends. FUJIFILM, 1/600 sec, f/1.2, ISO 400

As is the case in much of Quebec, water is abundant at VBN. Lakes, ponds, swamps, creeks and rivers abound, and the Neilson Nord and Neilson Sud trails are named after the Neilson River, a popular destination for whitewater kayaking. Both of these trails skirt the river, providing impressive views of the towering Cap des Sept Côtes and the Ruisseau à Théo.

Despite its proximity to Quebec City, VBN feels remote and relatively rugged, and the ubiquitous sound of flowing water seems to engage all of one’s senses. Riding these trails is a sensory extravaganza—and it leaves no question as to why the Huron-Wendat named this area their “magnificent territory.”