View topic - Upper Coulonge: Where Do Roads Go When they Die?

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PostPosted: January 5th, 2002, 1:00 am 

Joined: August 13th, 2001, 7:00 pm
Posts: 64
Location: Ottawa, Ontario Canada
My project for the first half of this summer was re-finishing an old cedar stripper canoe (described elsewhere in this forum as "The Tale of 42"). Finding myself, once again, with a good canoe at my disposals and no further need to rely on outfitters, I resolved to spend the second half of my summer scouting for good long-weekend canoe trips in and around the Ottawa area. It's not that I don't thoroughly enjoy canoeing on the east side of Algonquin; however, I have conducting armchair fantasy canoe trips over a set of trip notes for the Noire, Coulonge and La Lievre rivers put out by the Federation de Canot-Camping du Quebec for several years now.

If you look at a road map of Quebec, and look carefully at the areas north west of Ottawa on the Quebec side, you will see a fine network of roads that are traced in faint gray lines that are so thin that they don't even rate an explanation on the map legend. Interestingly, there are no towns at all. I have always suspected that there must be good canoing in the area, so I made myself a four-day weekend last August, and decided to go find out what was there. This is the story of that trip.

As a target, I decided to aim for a point on the upper Coulonge river. The FCCQ trip maps indicated a number of roads and bridges on the Coulonge about 130km north of Fort Coulonge. It wasn't clear whether there were put-ins on the river, but, after examining the fine gray lines on the Quebec roadmap, I decided that if I couldn't find a put-in spot, I could always keep going, until I reached Laverendrye, and spend a weekend there instead. With this plan in mind, I stocked up on top maps for the area, loaded my canone on top of my car and headed north with high hopes.

I arrived at Fort Coulonge on Thursday evening. I'd hoped to at least take a peek at some of fine-gray-line roads on Thursday just to establish whether I was out of my mind or not, but it was dark by the time I got there, so, instead, I spent the night obtaining fishing permits. Interesting system. There are two convenience stores in Fort Coulonge. One sells provincial fishing licenses (which are required); and the other sells permits to fish in the ZEC St. Patrice. I guess government beaurocrats, in their infinite wisdom, decided that it would not be fair to allow one store to sell both types of permits (or both to sell both permits, for that matter).

I'm still not sure exactly what a ZEC is. The lady at the convenience store explained that it's sort of like a government run "pourboire", but I don't know what a pourboire is either. However, what was certain was that if I intended to fish in the ZEC, I also needed a ZEC permit as well. Fine. No problem. Well. A small problem. ZEC permits are expensive! $80 for three days! (Compare that to the $20 I had already spent on my provincial permit). I have to tell you, I do enjoy fishing, but I am by no means a fisherman. Optimistically, by my recogning, based on my usual results, that would probably work out to something like $200/lb. When I explained that I was going to somewhere near the 135km mark on the Coulonge river, the woman was unable to tell me whether that was inside or outside the ZEC. We pored over top maps for a half hour or so, and everyone who came in offered various opinions as to whether the 135km mark was inside or outside the ZEC; but in the end, I decided (silently) that if it was in the ZEC there was no way I was paying $80 for the permit, and since nobody was able to decide if it was or was not inside the ZEC, I could probably beg for mercy in the impossible case where somebody actually showed up to check my permit.

I slept poorly in a motel that was cheap enough that alarm clocks weren't provided; but, miraculously, I managed to wake up shortly before dawn, and was packed and behind the wheel with hot coffee in hand before the sun rose.

One other minor problem. I'd cheaped out when I bought the top maps. The road in question snaked off the left side of the trip-note maps; and I'd only bought the top three maps in the top-map series for the Coulonge river, which didn't quite get me all the way down to Fort Coulonge. From the FCCFQ trip notes, it was clear that there were two roads in the area. (Three, if you counted a dead-end lower down the river). But I didn't quite have enough map to decide which road was which at the Fort Coulonge end. The lady at the ZEC permit store had mentioned the Lac a Jim Road the previous eveing, and Lac a Jim was the first lake on the first top map, which sounded fine to me. What wasn't entirely clear was which of two possible roads the Lac a Jim road would be. But I felt certain that once I reached Lac a Jim at about the 55km mark, I would be able to figure out which road I was on.

After one minor wrong turn, I soon found myself on the Lac a Jim road. It was much better than I had hoped for -- a good wide dirt road that I certainly would have given at least a thick gray line to if I was a mapmaker. It's about 7:00 in the morning. (ok. It was *big* wrong turn). In the first 45 minutes on the road, I pass two logging trucks, but nothing else -- no cars, no cottages, no signs. There a few stretches where the road gets a little scary, but I'm feeling confident. Whatever this road is, it's going a long way, which must be good.

By 7:30, I'm hoping to synch up with the first top map. There's a small black square on the map just past the point where the road enters the map. Sure enough, at 7:30 I pull around a bend, and there it is: the ZEC station. There are huge 15 foot signs with big red arrows and lots of French, which, as far as my limited French can tell, seem to say something like this:


followed by a long list of what appear to be unpleasant things that will be done to people without ZEC permits. I am cursing. Still. There's hope. There's a cabin (which is what all the big red arrows are pointing to). I am gradually resigning myself to the fact that I'm probably going to have to sit here for two or three hours until the ZEC Ranger (if that's what he is) shows up, when a miracle occurs. A man comes out of the cabin in his undershirt at waves me into the office.

It doesn't take long to establish (once we've figured out that the french word for permit isn't at all what I think it is) that I don't need one at 135km on the Coulonge river. In fact I don't need a permit past this point at all. So off I go.

I'm still not entirely sure which road I'm on. The top map seems to indicate that I should pass by a large lake on the right of the road, but it never appears. And I'm a little disconcerted when I see a sign for Domain Lac a Bruce (a hunting lodge that I know is here) pointing off to the right which seems to suggest that I'm on the westernmost of the two roads, although, if the ZEC cabin is the black square on the map, that would mean that I'm on the eastern road.

No matter. After examining the top maps, I soon discover that both roads end up at the same place anyway: an airport. I have to check the legend on the top maps to confirm this, but no doubt about it: both roads meet at an airport at about the 110km mark, by my rough reckoning. Shouldn't be hard to miss.

The road is getting progressively rougher, and progressively narrower. There are now alternating stretches of fine wide sandy dirt road (about 4 lanes wide), and two-lane wide gravel roads that are liberally sprinkled with what seem to be head-sided boulders. More frequently, I'm seeing signs on small dirt roads leading of to the side that say things like

8 Chasseurs, 2001

which I believe to mean something like: "8 hunters are allowed to hunt here for the 2001 season". Interesting. I've done the dumoine several times, and have always wondered what was over the next hill from the river. Now I know: hunting camps. Hundreds of hunting camps. Which is what all these roads must be for, I suppose. As I'm driving, I run through back-of-the-envelope calculations to arrive at the following very approximate estimate: come hunting season there are probably close to 3500 people with guns somewhere along this road.

By the time I get to the 100km mark, I'm routinely encountering really scary stretches of road. And the following thought starts to go through my mind: what happens if one of those head sized boulders does something really nasty to my car. It's a long way back. It's just an idle thought at first, but as the implications begin to sink in, it becomes a nasty nagging feeling that won't go away. What do you do?

At about the 105km mark, a road leads away to the west with a sign saying something about the Noire river. Good sign. If I can't get onto the Coulonge, I can always try the Noire. The only thing that's a little worrying is that there is no such road on the top maps (although the Noire is, indeed, very close to the coulonge at this point).

I'm now very close to the airport. I'm actually really looking forward to finding out what an airport is doing *this* far from anywhere. And I'm entertaining pleasant thoughts of the possibility of a hot breakfast and a cup of coffee at the airport restaurant. This will be the test. If I am anywhere near where I think I am, the airport will confirm it. But when I get there it's not quite what I expected.

The airport turns out to be nothing more than a 700 meter long strip of forest that somebody has casually run a buldozer over a few times. Which makes a bit of sense when I think about it. It must be a fly-in point for all those "8 chassuers". And in fact, there are little buldozed patches of forest all around the airstrip with "8 chasseurs" signs.

Having now firmly established where I am on the top maps, everything should have straightforward. But I when I get to the north end of the airstrip, there is not one road (as there should be according to the top map), but two roads. One of the two roads has a sign saying "50km to Somewhere or another". When I check the Quebec Roadmap, the closest town with the name of the town on the sign is in the Saguenay 1100 kilometers to the east. Given that the road is heading off to the northwest, I safely assume that the sign isn't very helpful. The other road isn't much more than a cart track, although it heads off in what I think is the right direction. It, too, has a sign. The sign says "bridge washed out at 135km". Similarly, although there should be two roads approaching the airport from the south, there is only one (which appears to be the eastern road, by the way, in case you're wondering).

I go down the smaller road for a kilometer or so, but it gets so scary that I decide that this couldn't possibly be the thick red line on the top map, so I turn back, deciding to try the other road.

Looking at the top maps, it seems pretty likely that the other road will either be the right road or it will take me to the Noire river, which is only a few kilometers to the west at this point. However, 35km later, there is no sign of the Noire, or the Coulonge, so turn back, and resign myself to smaller of the two roads.

I drive around the "airport" a couple of times looking for another possibility.

It's at this point that I check the date on the top map. My blood runs cold. 1975 series. But still. Having come this far out into the bush who on earth would abandon a perfectly good road? It's not like you're going to build another one if there's one there already. Given that there are roads here at all, it just wouldn't makes sense for them to pass away.

But other possibilities begin to run through my mind as well. The road that I had evidently come in on from the south was a thin red line on the top map. And the road heading north (and the non-existent other road from the south) were thick red lines on the top map. But whatever those roads once were, the set of choices I am presented with bears no resemblance to the ones on the map. The question that has to be asked is: was the map ever remotely accurate in the first place.

At this point, I decide to check the date on the top map. My blood runs cold. 1975 series. But still....

I used to have a girlfriend who as a cartographer a long time ago, so I know a little bit about whereof I speak. Consider. This is the Pontiac. It's not exactly a prime mapping spot (like downtown Toronto, for example). Maybe the person who drew this map was some sorry excuse for a co-op student on a summer job who made such a mess of this map that he was shown the door and told never to come back, but nobody could be bothered to redo the botched map since this is, after all, the middle of the wilderness -- not like anybody would actually go there. That would explain the non-existent thick-red-line road on the top map. Or maybe.. well 1975 was probably the peak of drug use among cartographers. Maybe my cartographer had hallucinated this baeutiful thick-red-line road that wasn't.

Given no other choice, I decide to take my chances with the cart track from hell.

I've been watching my gas pretty carefully. Runing out of gas at this point would be a very bad thing. Earlier I at least had the small comfort of knowing that I could try hiking to the airport if my car broke down; but what little comfort that had provided had evaporated in the clear certain knowledge that there wouldn't be another plane at that airport for at least another two months.

I had decided beforehand that I would turn back when my gas tank hit 2/3 full, and I was now sitting at 3/4 full. Dirt roads seem to eat up gas much faster than highways do. However, if the bridge really was washed out at the 135km mark on the small road, I figured I could probably just about get there and back on 1/12 of a tank.

Off I went. The going was very slow. But after about 7km, the road widened again, to my amazement. And that's what it continued to do for the remainder of the drive: alternating between 4-lane-wide sandy dirt roads and 1-lane wide cart tracks heavily overgrown by dogwood.

I should mention at this point, that the potential put-in point I had picked was at the 135km mark on the river, according to the trip notes. At this point there was supposed to be a split in the road, with the eastern fork of the road crossing the coulonge over a bridge. "Bridge out at 135km" therefore posed a significant problem. It's hard to say whether dirt roads wind more than rivers. My guess was that rivers probably wind more than roads, although it was a fairly close proposition. The key question now was this: which bridge had washed out? And on what side of the Coulonge bridge was it? Clearly all hopes of driving through to Laverendrye were out of the question. Whether I could actually make the coulonge at all hinged on which bridge had washed out, and where.

Somwhere around the 125km mark things began to look promising. I had fully expected to pass by at least a few lakes or rivers as I drove up; but surprisingly I had not passed close to even one river or lake on the entire drive. In the distance through the trees, I could see what looked distinctly like a river valley. And the road started to descend, quite distinctly.

At this point I was so far down the road that even the "8 chassuers" signs had petered out. I hadn't seen one for quite a while. So when I found another one, it was actually a real surprise. I was now so close to what had to be the river that I could practically smell it. There were gently rolling hills stretching both north and south from here that had to -- just had to -- be a river.

I decided I would take a quick detour through the hunting camp just to see whether I could put in here if all else failed. The hunting camp, in fact, turned out to be what must obviously have been an active lumber depot camp in the '70s judging from the concrete foundations of several very large buildings. There was a huge open area in the center -- probably 500 or 600 meters across. But at the far side I could see water! I leapt out of the car, only to find myself at the top of a steep 100ft embankment, but at the bottom was a river! A nice river too. Clearly the coulonge. I was elated. Although, it quickly became obvious that there was no way I could safely get a canoe down that embankment, and absolutely no way that I could ever get a canoe back up it. Still. I'd found the river. That was progress. I got back in the car. Further on in the clearing, I found a road that appeared to lead down to the water. Excellent.

It wasn't until I was about halfway down that road that the following thought occurred to me: this is a really sandy road, and quite steep, and if I can't drive back up it, I am in really really serious trouble. But at that point, it was too late. I was halfway down the road, already, and there was water at the end, and I was going to the river.

At the end of the road there was a small clearing, and at the other side of the clearing was the river. Right there. No embankment. Just toss the canoe in and go. To be honest, I wasn't really happy about putting in at a campsite that clearly was a hunting camp that probably belonged to somebody else (and not just anyone: specifically, 8 men with guns). So, after taking a quick swim, I decided I would drive the last 10km of road to see if I could find a more public put-in spot.

And then it happened.

The car, of course, wouldn't make it up the hill. I got about 20 meters up the road, before the tires started spinning and digging into the soft sand. So I backed up, took a running start and got about 22 meters up the road before the tires sunk in again. After a couple of tries, I took stock, and decided that maybe it would help if I laid down some brush. No luck. Didn't work. To make a long story short, I did 12 kilometers worth of tire spinning trying to get up that hill and nothing worked.

Think about it. 125 km into the bush at the bottom of a long sandy hill that no tow-truck driver in his right mind is going to go down (assuming he's going to drive 125km into the bush). I was in realy deep trouble. Visions of trying to explain to the insurance company where $20,000 worth of car was and why it wasn't coming back, followed shortly by the realization that automobile insurance doesn't cover off-road use anyway.

So I sat there for a while contemplating my predicament, whether I had enough food to canoe out the 6 odd days worth of river between me and Fort Coulonge, who would figure I was missing and when, and so forth. A vague hope that several canoes worth of people would come around the bend, eager to help me push the car up the hill. But no canoes came.
Vague thoughts about whether one could float a car out on a white-water river for less than $20,000. And so forth.

And then I noticed it: a set of tire tracks leading through a dense rasberry bush.

Perhaps. Just perhaps, there was another camp site further up the river whith another road up. So I ripped through the rasberries, and found a very old road on the other side, mostly covered by grass, probably not used for three or four years judging by the undergrowth, but, nonetheless navigable. It wound through the trees for a few hundred meters, not going noticeable up or down, but when I got to the end of it, I found myself, to my absolute astonishment at the top of the hill!

15 minutes later, after a little bushwhacking through the rasberry bushes, both the car and I were safely back on the road counting our blessings.

Well. I found the washed out bridge a little further down the road. There was actually a ford across a brook (a foot or so of water, maybe navigable in a 4x4) at the bottom, but after my experience at the hunting camp there was no way I was going to try to cross it.

The road ran along the top of a 100meter embankment above the river for the entire remaining 5km or so. But, as it turned out there were two cottage roads leading down the embankment with cottages by the river with better put ins than the hunting camp. So I drove down, unloaded the canoe, and parked the car back up on the road in the bushes, hoping nobody would show up for the weekend (this would have been about 1:00 on Friday afternoon).

This would be the major reason that I can't really recommend this trip. I'm not terribly proud of putting in at somebody's cottage. But I justify my actions with the belief that the owners *probably* wouldn't have minded.

The trip itself was glorious. The river at the 135km mark is actually at the bottom of a long stretch of almost continuous swifts and CIs (CIIs in high water). I spent two days lining up the river, which actually wasn't that difficult. It was easy enough to walk up the banks of the river with the canoe in tow. By the end, I was getting very expert at lining. And I made fairly good speed too. Walking speed compares reasonably well to paddling speed. I could have actually covered a lot more distance, but I was more worried about coming down in my beuatiful new Cedar stripper -- not really a sensible white-water boat -- than I was about going up the river. Rapids look worse when you're going up the river, and when you haven't down rapids in a while, it's hard to rate them until you have a couple under your belt.

Campsites were a little hard to come by, the major challenge not being finding beautiful sites, but finding sites with a tiny little bit of level ground. If I were less picky there were a number of middle-of-river sandbars that would have been fine. I ended up doing only a short second day in order to allow myself time to line down the river if neccessary on the way down, so I ended up at Cascade des Batardeaux -- a truly lovely spot with exactly enough space for a one-man tent but no more, But with a view to die for.

Fishing was truly spectacular -- the best I've ever encountered in my entire life. In the space of half an hour, I managed to catch three beautiful 22" walleye that made a superb dinner that evening on the rocks overlooking the rapids. Also three big northerns that were also in the 22" range, but, never actually having caught a northern that was a keeper before (I told you I wasn't a fisherman) I wasn't actually sure how large a northern pike had to be to keep it so I let them go. (yeah yeah).

The third day on the river -- the return day also turned out to be a dream come true: continous swifts, CIs and well.. a CI-1/2 ... all the way home, and 42 (the name of my canoe) made it home without so much as grazing a rock.

In a more suitable canoe, with a companion, and more efficient road travel, I suspect you could do two days up (probably twice the distance I covered), one day down and get a really good set of whitewater in on the 3rd day.

Just one last tale to tell before I go. After all the heartbreak getting there in the first place, I still hadn't managed firmly place myself on the top maps until I hit the water, at which point I quickly figured out where I was. It's much easier reading a top map on a river than on a road. You can see farther for starters.

When I put in, I made a conscious note of a piece of large log-and-earth construction just in front of the cottage as a visual marker to find my take out spot on the way back. (If I'd missed my takeout spot, I would have been in serious trouble). But I didn't manage to put the peices together until the way back. What was left of the bridge I had been heading for was right in front of the cottage where I had put in! It had obviously washed out years many years ago, but the earthwork foundations were still standing. When I took a peek on the other side of the river, the remains of the old road were right there.

So. I can now answer the question: where do old roads go when they die? The answer is: they don't go anywhere, but their bridges do.

Would I recommend the trip? Yes. With some reservations. The put in spot is a bit awkward, but the trip itself is spectacular. It's a great river, very wild, a first class whitewater river, and lining up really isn't that difficult. Fishing is outstanding. If you are really interested in 4 days of whitewater you would certainly be better off just paying taxi fares for a ferry up the petawawa. But this trip does have the benefit of being a real adventure, for those who have a taste for a weekend of exploration.


 Post subject:
PostPosted: January 5th, 2002, 9:41 am 
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Joined: June 20th, 2001, 7:00 pm
Posts: 7513
Location: Scarbados, Ontario Canada
That trip was quite a nail-biter - not the canoeing part, but the drive! A place like this, with out-dated maps, confusing roads and few landmarks, is where a GPS and digital maps earn their keeps.
Unfortunately, the technology is affordable and catching on. And in a few years, you'll see pick-ups and vans scour the area for the good fishing spots. Your paradise will become just a memory....

 Post subject:
PostPosted: January 5th, 2002, 10:03 am 
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Joined: June 22nd, 2001, 7:00 pm
Posts: 1268
Thx for the report. The Rasberry Road "Eureka" moment was great. I've had a few of those myself. Scary panic, but worth it.

BTW, I thought you might check the topo date a third and fourth time...just in case. :smile:

 Post subject:
PostPosted: January 5th, 2002, 10:31 am 
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Joined: June 20th, 2001, 7:00 pm
Posts: 1776
Location: London, Ontario CANADA
Very Nice!

I like it when the Adventure begins with the drive!

( I was getting a little motion sickness though.....)


Thank heavens it ended with some canoeing!


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