This story appeared in 2016 in the Ottawa Outdoors magazine. Additional details have been added.
- Trail is 92 kilometres in length
- Flat rail trail
- Smooth surface, easy to ride and remote
- Crossbike/Gravel/Hybrid recommended
There is a first time for everything. And this adventure is best known for the lessons we learnt. Oodles of lessons.
Standing in a gravel parking lot in Bristol, Quebec, my friend said to me as she tried to pedal her hybrid bicycle with two fully loaded panniers: “maybe I should have tried riding this bike with everything packed on it before this morning”.
Laughing at ourselves, we knew this was going to be an adventure.
We decided to ride from Bristol, Quebec up to Chapeau, Quebec, close to the Ontario border at Pembroke, following the old railway line that was converted to a cycling and hiking trail officially in 2005. The trail was built on the old Pontiac Pacific Junction (PPJ) rail line and is 92 kilometres in one direction.
Neither of us had ever tried to combine camping and cycling, but both of us are cyclists and I have quite a bit of canoe camping experience. After spending some time researching how to pack a bike for camping online, I paid a visit to my local bike store – Tall Trees Cycles on Wellington Street in Ottawa. Options were numerous, ranging from racks and panniers to small packs designed to attach to various parts of your bike. I rented three packs, one that fit behind my bike seat, one that hung from the top tube of my bike and the third that attached to the handlebars. I wondered how I was going to fit a tent, sleeping bag and other necessities into these three packs. My friend had borrowed a rack for her bike, panniers and had purchased a pack that attached to her handlebars as well.
On a warm and sunny Saturday morning in early June we were excited and anxious to give this new adventure a try.
The rail trail is flat, generally hard packed gravel and in good condition. The first few kilometres of the trail cut through lush green forested areas dotted with marshes and beaver lodges. The trail then continued through rolling farmland and past several old greying wood farmhouses. We discovered we could refuel with snacks and cold drinks in several towns along the trail including Shawville, Campbell’s Bay, Fort Coulonge and Waltham. Numerous rest areas with picnic tables and outhouses were also scattered along the rail trail.
Our pace was steady and we started to see the blue waters of the Ottawa River through the trees as we rode north towards Campbell’s Bay. At the 63rd kilometre, we arrived at the campground right on the PPJ rail trail – Base Macrocarpa – which has sites for both RV’s and tents. It was still early enough in the sunny warm day, so we decided to continue riding to the end of the PPJ trail and return to our campsite later.
Riding along the Ottawa River, we arrived at the scenic town of Waltham and discovered that the trail portion built on the rail bed ends. The PPJ trail continues along rolling farmer’s fields and cottages at the south end of Isle des Allumettes. We rode on the trail and sometimes when it was a little rough, we switched to the dirt road.
At the 92 kilometre mark, the trail ends at a parking lot in Chapeau, Quebec, which is on the main road that leads to Pembroke, Ontario. There are several gas stations and restaurants nearby. Hot, tired and hungry, we stopped for a well-deserved break of soda and chips to fuel our return to the campground.
Once we rode back to the campground, we selected a small sandy site on the beach and pitched our tent. I enjoyed a swim in the Ottawa River and we relaxed soaking up the late afternoon sunshine. Rehydrating spicy tomato pasta sauce for dinner and a dessert of chocolate filled our hungry bellies. Building a campfire, we watched the sunset and the changing colours of the evening sky while we laughed about some of our packing and how we could do things differently next time. The IPad, additional layers of clothing and small pillows would definitely be left behind. So would the shampoo, conditioner and other non-necessities.
Sunday started off grey and gloomy. So we rose early, ate our lukewarm oatmeal and started to ride. We cycled about 2 hours when the skies opened up and the wind blew the pelting rain around. Despite rain gear, it was a windy and wet ride back.
Our legs were tired from yesterday’s effort as well. My friend’s bike, a heavy hybrid loaded down with the two panniers, sank into the trail with every pedal stroke. It was a long few hours of slow wet riding before we arrived back at the parking lot. We both turned the heaters on in our cars and were grateful to be out of the rain. We had made it.
What did we learn for our next bikepacking adventure? Pack lighter. A lot lighter. We discovered that extra space in a pack after the bare essentials are in translates into filling the space with things we didn’t really need to bring. Cyclecross bikes are lighter and more comfortable for this type of ride.
Things to Consider:
- Great website: www.cycloparcppj.org
- Cycling the last 12 kilometres or so is on a gravel road partly overgrown beside the roadway
- Not many services along the route, but lots of rest stops/outhouses and picnic tables