Needless to say, we're starting out with a combined skill level, of - at best - 4 out of 10. I'm very unsteady and can't figure out the damn gears. I laugh so much I'm in tears, though. We follow the map's indications towards an easy trail, but somehow wind up heading in the opposite direction to a more advanced run: a narrower, steeper path with sharp edges. Chaos ensues, as do some legendary spills, but they only make us want to push ourselves further. After the first hour, we get the hang of it, and there's no more hesitation, no more fear.
Text: Gabby Mather
Photos: Alexandra Côté-Durrer
On a grey winter Sunday morning in Montreal, Quebec, I'm nervously waiting for Alex to pick me up. We've known each other for a while, but haven't had the opportunity to collaborate on a project together until now. For the next three days, we'll step out of our comfort zone and share new and unique experiences in Vallée Bras-Du-Nord, one of this province's biggest networks of hiking trails.
We arrive at noon, receive all of the necessary information for the entire stay, grab a quick bite, and jump on our rented off-road bicycles, commonly called fat bikes because of their oversized tires. The last time I rode a bicycle, 10 years ago, a car hit me. It shook me enough that I've avoided riding again since then. As for Alex, she confesses having never really ridden a bike before but says she started practicing the week before our getaway.
Almost four hours later, exhausted but fulfilled, we call it a day. We return our fate bikes to the rental shop, grab our snowshoes for tomorrow's hike, and reach our first shelter, a yurt. Sick! The staff was kind enough to get our fire started, so by the time we arrive, the space is nice and toasty. We settle in, chill by the fire, cook dinner, and crash. Early the next morning, as we pack up for our second activity, I realize that I'm already out of water. I somehow remembered to bring enough snacks to feed four people but forgot the most important thing! Fortunately, Alex has water purification tablets, so we melt snow and fill up my bottle. We strap on our snowshoes, and we're off again. The site brochure describes the Sentier des Falaises as a difficult hike with steep hills and breathtaking viewpoints. After yesterday, we feel up for any challenge. But it's a strugle. This ascent ends up being one of the most physically and psychologically challenging experiences. I've never done a winter hike, or carried a 30 pound bag for so many hours. What an adventure! We burn most of our energy before we're halfway up. Alex looks distressed so I dial up my cheerleader mode trying to motivate us both to keep going. After four and a half hours on the trail, I see a cabin... Our next shelter! We finally make it to the top, and the spectacular view is suddenly worth all the pain endured getting here.
As we cozy up by the fire in the cabin, taking in the amazing sunset, a young couple walks in, announcing they will also be staying the night. This is a surprise, but a welcome one. Instead of passing out by 8pm like last night, we spend the evening exchanging travel stories and playing cards. Plus, they have wine! Before heading off to bed, I step outside to look at a lit-up sky. It's impossible to stargaze in the city. Feeling thankful, I sleep like a baby.
Before sunrise, we say goodbye to our new friends and make our way down the mountain. It takes us less than half the time it took to ascend, since to be honest, we spend most of it on our butts sliding down some dramatically steep areas with our snowshoes. On flatter grounds, we take time to breathe in the crisp air and appreciate the morning light of the pristine forest.
On the drive home, I think about the mix of emotions I felt in just a few hours: excitement, stress, pain, doubt, pride, relief... As crazy and challenging as a freelancer's life can get, this lifestyle makes me feel blessed, since it allows me the choice of where my work week begins and ends, giving me the space to experience new challenges. This getaway gave me some opportunity for introspection. It made me think about all the obstacles we face and how often we're tested It was a good reminder that even when things feel like an uphill battle, many difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations.