Story by Sarah Deveau
ST-RAYMOND, QUEBEC — “Ooh, is zee most afraid of heights?” asked Oliver Roy, our 24-year-old native Quebecker (and possibly part mountain goat) guide as he stood confidently at the beginning of the rocky climbing path. Roy was about to lead us onto the Via Ferrata, an 800-metre (half-mile) trail that switchbacks up the side of a mini mountain at Vallée Bras-du-Nord.
Invented by the Italian army during Word War I, Via Ferrata is Italian for “iron way” and was used as a means to move troops and equipment through mountains and attack enemy forces from above. The abandoned routes were discovered in Europe by hikers in the 1960s. Since then, hundreds of new recreational routes have since been installed across Europe and have recently made it to Canada. One of the newest Via Ferrata experiences in the country is at Vallée Bras-du-Nord, a solidarity cooperative 45 minutes by car northwest of Quebec City.
When I enlisted, I admitted I was afraid of heights, and offered to take up the rear of our seven-person group, hoping not to slow everyone down should I become paralyzed by fear.
Roy explained that I was to follow directly behind him, so he could more easily point out the foot and handholds on the route, and if it came to it, haul me up the hard parts. With the literature advertising the Via Ferrata as perfect for beginners, I wondered, how hard could it be?
Plenty, it turned out, though in truth, the hardest part was mental. The route is created by bolting in long lengths of steel cable into the mountain face. Every few feet another bolt secures the cabling. At these intersections, climbers remove one of their two safety carabineers and attach it past the bolt before removing the second carabineers and attaching it to the next section. Natural climbing holds in the rock face are supplemented by steel, manmade and wooden holds, and perches. Grasping the cable itself is allowed, but discouraged.
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Climbers require a measure of basic fitness to tackle pulling themselves across and up in some spots, but the safety system prevents falling more than a foot or two should a climber lose his or her grip. The traverse takes about two hours, and offers a stunning view of the scenery below. A steep, bone-jarring but short hike later we were back at the lodge and ready for the next adventure.
Hiking and Paddling in Portneuf
The canoe-kayak run downstream of the Bras-du-Nord River is a calm paddle along fine sand beaches and meandering stretches of mirror-still water in Quebec’s Portneuf region. We paddled part of the 17.5-kilometre (11 miles) stretch, keeping a sharp eye out for birds and wildlife, but mostly spotting just hikers along the path that sidles the river. The slow speed offered plenty of opportunity to chat with our guide, and each other, and I learned that one of my fellow travellers, Andrew Fleming, was a part-time white-water rafting guide.
“There’s something quintessentially Canadian about paddling a canoe down a river in the fall while the leaves are turning,” said Fleming, a fellow travel writer visiting from Vancouver. “Although some easy rapids would spice things up a little.”
Living in Alberta, with the Rockies in my backyard, I was skeptical about how much I would enjoy the hiking portion of our excursion. Vallée Bras-du-Nord features more than 80 kilometres (50 miles) of beginner, intermediate and expert level trails, but the elevation gain isn’t significant on even the longest trail, the 28.6-kilometre (17.7 miles) Sentier du Philosore (200-metre/655-feet gain). Eight shelters are spread out on the whole territory, some offering shelter for day hikers while others can be booked for overnight accommodation.
“Vallée Bras-du-Nord’s territory is one of the most vast networks of hiking trails in Québec,” says Mathieu Dupuis Bourassa, the property’s director of operations. “From short to longer trails, its pathways are filled with quiet, breathtaking viewpoints.”
We departed from Accueil Shannahan following the Sentier Bras-du-Nord Trail. This seven-kilometre (4.3 miles) round trip through the valley borders the river and takes hikers to the base of the beautiful Delaney Fall waterfall. While not technically challenging, a few in our group struggled with the path, which sometimes required gazelle-like leaping to avoid boggy sections from recent rainfall. The route was beautiful, with lush and varied undergrowth and towering trees just starting to turn their fall colours.
After a full day of hiking, paddling, bouldering and climbing, a few members of our group ended up nearly nodding off in their wine glasses during dinner. We had each tried our hand at different activities at Vallée Bras-du-Nord, but we all agreed on one thing — a winter visit to try snowshoeing, snowmobiling, fatbiking and cross-country skiing was definitely on our bucket lists.
MORE ABOUT VALLEE BRAS-DU-NORD
Location: 105, Grande Ligne, Saint-Raymond, Québec
Telephone: 1-418-337-2900; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Entry Fee: To enter the property, there is a charge of $6.10 for adults; $4.35 for children 13 years and younger.
Via Ferrata Cost: $39.95 for adults; $32.95 for students/teenagers; $29.95 for children. Costs include entry to Vallée Bras-du-Nord. Click here to reserve your spot.
Rental Services Available: Canoes, kayaks, mountain bikes, snowshoes, turn-key camping.
About Vallée Bras-du-Nord: Its partners include employees, tourism services and landowners who allow visitors to use the area for a range of outdoor activities, including snowshoeing, hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, fatbiking and Via Ferrata.