May 25, 2024
Camping and Biking Anticosti Island – A Guide

Camping and Biking Anticosti Island – A Guide

Camping and Biking Anticosti Island – A Guide

Author: Stephen Downes
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Camping and Biking Anticosti Island – A Guide

Anticosti Island is a large but mostly uninhabited island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Covered with subarctic pine and spruce forest, inhabited by hundreds of thousands of deer, and surrounded by rugged and scenic coastlines, it is an attractive destination for adventurers.

In August, 2022, I bikepacked more than 250 km of roads and trails across the island. Starting at Prot Mennier, the only town (population 250) I rode a couple 50 km loops nearby and also a 180 km run along the Transanticostienne to Baie de la Tour on the island’s northeast coast.

The trip was not without its challenges, but the island is far more accessible and amenable than it’s made out to be. And I found the largest challenge was the dearth of accurate information available for people like me. This article is intended to address that.

Overview

Anticosti Island is 225 km long and at its greatest width is 56 km wide. It’s basically a big slanted slab of limestone and shale, rising to 191 metres in hills along the north coast, with deep river valleys cut through the soft rock, and a significant amount of wetland to the south and east. It is forested with spruce, fir, and pine, though you’ll also find large open patches as a result of logging.

It has an unusual ecology. There are no bears, wolves or other large predators; you’ll only see the occasional red or black fox. There are no squirrels, chipmunks or raccoons, though there are rabbits and some smaller animals. There are mosquitos and black flies, especially along river rapids, but there aren’t the swarms normally associated with the Canadian north. Ticks are not an issue.

The climate can be a challenge. My trip in August was scheduled to coincide with the warmest and driest part of the year; in twelve days on the island I had three days of rain, and I found the 18-23 degree temperatures quite hot on the concrete-like roads. But wind and rain can make it feel a lot colder quickly, and Anticosti has plenty of both, especially earlier in the year. Even summer visitors should be prepared for three-season camping.

The island is divided into four major sections. The area around the far west point, including the town, port and airport, are run by the community of Port Menier. To the east of that is a large tract of land run by a private outfitter, Pourvoirie Geneviève. The middle part of the island, along with the part eastern tip, is run by the Quebec provincial parks agency called SEPAQ. This area also includes a Quebec provincial park (dark brown). To the east there is a region operated by another outfitter called Safari Anticosti. You can freely travel through the area but need to pay a fee to visit the provincial park.

The island’s major industries are forestry (and you’ll encounter a lot of logging trucks on the western part of the island) and tourism. Most of the tourism is based around hunting and fishing; the hunting season starts at the beginning of September at it’s probably a time best avoided by bikepackers.

Transportation

There are flights offered by Air Liason but for all practical purposes visitors should plan on taking the one boat that provides regular service, the Bella Desgagnés, operated by Relais Nordik. The trip is 22 hours from Rimouski, or about 8 hours from Sept-Iles. Rimouski is about a six hour drive from Montreal on a four-lane highway; there is secure parking right at the ferry terminal where you can leave your car behind. The ship runs once a week, departing from Rimouski Monday evening, stopping at Port Menier Monday evening, and continuing up the Quebec north coast for three days; it then returns, picking up passengers at Port Menier Sunday evening and dropping them off in Rimouski Monday afternoon.

The Bella is primarily a cargo vessel, but it has a limited number of cabins. These are booked months, even years, in advance. But there are many more spots available for non-cabin passengers. As a non-cabin passenger I paid about $270 each way for myself and my fully loaded bicycle (which is backed in a shipping container but available if you want it when the ship stops at Sept-Iles). The cabin passengers are basically on a cruise and eat in the dining room; the rest of us eat at the cafeteria, where the food was just fine. Note though that there’s no meal service the Monday evening of departure, so bring some ham and baguettes. There are showers and lockers available for all passengers as well as vending machines.

The ship docks at the end of a long jetty at Port Menier; it’s a full kilometer into the town and another two kilometers to the campground after that, so be prepared for a hike or bike ride at disk as soon as you arrive. Most roads in Port Menier itself are paved, but beyond that there’s nothing but gravel. The main road is called the Transanticostienne and runs from Port Menier to the far side of the island about 270 km away. From this main road there are numerous side roads leading to destinations on the north coast or in the south.

Just about everything you will read about Anticosti Island warns about how bad the roads are and how important it is to be prepared for flats. This was a huge source of uncertainty for me. My own experience was very different. The roads were no worse than any of the gravel roads I’ve cycled elsewhere in Canada, and much better than some of the rail trails I cycled the previous year. A good gravel or mountain bike will have no trouble on the roads; I saw a number of fatbikes, but I had no difficulty on 700-40 knobby tires (specifically Maxxis Ravagers) which after 300 km of Anticost roads were still like new. I’m including a number of photos of the roads in different locations so people can judge for themselves (I found almost no road pictures when I was planning my ride) and there are many more examples in my videos.

That’s not to say your experience will be the same. Gravel roads are generally a lot better in drier conditions and later in the year, which is why I traveled in August. On Anticosti there isn’t much of a soil layer, so when you get rain there can be a lot of surface water; this degraded some of the smaller roads on steeper hills. As well, you might encounter fresh gravel that has not yet been packed down by traffic, especially earlier in the year. But in talking to people I learned that there wasn’t a lot of variation in road conditions, at least in the summer.

You can rent a truck through SEPAQ (they have an office in Port Menier). The rates are roughly $200 per day, and gas of course is extra. Also, you have to provide your own insurance; SEPAQ will require that you have a certificate that proves you are covered (specifically, QEF no. 27, covering a vehicle valued at $45,000). The trucks are equipped with radios and extra gas tanks; gas is available at Port Menier and Auberge Macdonald.

Accommodation

There are two hotels (more accurately, auberges) on the island (one in Port Menier, and one at the 106 km point on the Transanticostienne on the north coast). The outfitters also have their own lodges. The big challenge for campers and bikepackers on Anticosti is that services are geared almost exclusively to package tourism (for example, a five-day flight and chalet stay for about $5k). You can’t book cabin (or chalet) stays for less than five days at a time, and these are booked far in advance (2023 is pretty much booked already, for example). For the rest of us, camping is the only option.

There are five campgrounds on the island. One is owned and run by the Port Menier community, and is two km from the townsite. It’s called Camping du Château (book here), but don’t make the mistake of assuming (as I did) that it is anywhere near the hotel; it is near the ruins of an old hotel. A second is run by Pourvoirie Geneviève and is on the north coast at Baie Martin. The remaining three are run by SEPAQ: two are on the north coast (Camping Wilcox, about 11 km from Auberge Macdonald, and Baie de la Tour) and one on the south coast (Chicotte, apparently 7 km from another Auberge).

The problem for bikepackers is that these campsites are very far from each other. From Port Menier to Camping Wilcox is 116 km, for example. Baie de la Tour is another 72 km after that. It’s even further to get to Chicotte (159 km). Baie Martin can be used as an stopover on the way from Port Menier to Camping Wilcox (which is what I did) but it’s a slow road down to the coast (10-15 km each way) and still 85 km remains between Baie Martin and Wilcox. These sites are designed for people who drive, not backpackers or cyclists. Also, they cost $30-$35 per night.

Plus, there’s a municipal ordinance that prohibits camping anywhere else. So, um….

Now, in practice, this is very lightly enforced (if at all). There are no people! Most every bikepacker I spoke to or read about ended up doing some stealth camping. The roads are just tough enough, and the distances are just far enough, that it’s pretty necessary. But also just about every bikepacker also hitches a ride with either SEPAQ staff or tourists. There’s a steady stream of SEPAQ trucks and they will for the most part give you a lift (only one rich tourist gave me the evil eye for daring to expect some sort of charity).

The campsites are a good deal though (except for Baie Martin, which had no services). They have showers and washrooms. The Chateau campsite also has laundry and a power outlet. They have picnic tables and fire pits and firewood is (in theory) available. They are all near a supply of water, which while not potable, is clean and can be filtered. I would book well ahead of time for Camping du Château, since there’s only five spaces, and for Baie Martin, since there’s only one, but I would have a hard time imagining the others are full, except during fall.

Services

Not surprisingly most services are centered around Port Menier, though Auberge Macdonald was also pretty important.

Food – there’s a very well-stocked grocery store in Port Menier with pretty much everything you’ll need, including fresh produce. There are two restaurants, one in the Auberge and another called Chez Mario on a road outside of town. Reservations are needed for supper at the Auberge, and it’s expensive all round. Chez Mario (open for breakfast and supper) was much more reasonable, and (because it serves the truckers and workers) offers good food in large portions. There’s also a restaurant at the Auberge Macdonald, which I guess in theory is available for breakfast and support (reserve ahead, and remember you’re camping 11 km away) and has sandwich snacks and soft drinks available at lunch.

Water – water is good to drink in the restaurants, and you can buy bottled water (including 4L jugs) at the grocery store. Otherwise, water on the island is not considered potable. That said, there are numerous rivers and streams on the island with sparkling clear water; just run it through a water filter (I used the Platypus). Note that it might be quite a number of kilometers between rivers when you’re inland (and especially between the airport and Riviere de Huile at around km 50, though I’ve told there’s a nice spring around km 40).

Supplies – there’s a well-stocked Home Hardware in Port Menier with just about everything you’ll need (especially if you’re a hunter). Note that while it had both propane and butane fuels, it did not have isobutane. There’s also a crafts shop right nearby that has souvenirs. There’s also a bank and a post office in the same building as the hardware store.

Power and wifi – there’s a power outlet at the Camping du Château laundry and washroom. I was also able to recharge my electronics at the restaurants (they were pretty good about that). There is wifi at the tourist information booth in Port Menier as well as at both of Auberges. There was no cell service when I was there but a brand new tower had been installed and there should be service around Port Menier as I write. Otherwise, there’s no power or internet available anywhere. 

Attractions

The island is visually stunning just about everywhere, though on the Transanticostienne between Port Menier and the SEPAQ lands it’s mostly just a lot of forest and you’ll see a lot of logging trucks. (You’ll read a lot about how dangerous these are and how bad the dust is, but they are good about slowing down for cyclists and the dust is just dust).

– Pointe-Ouest – there’s a house there (apparently now an Auberge, but really it’s a house) and a lighthouse. There’s also a cool shipwreck about 100m up the coast. It’s an easy 20 km cycle from the campsite at Port Menier. Also along the same route are some pioneer cemetaries and the ruins of the old settlement at Four à chaux de Baie-Sainte-Claire.

– L’Exclos – there’s a series of fenced areas where the deer are (nominally) excluded. The vegetation is quite different as a result (because elsewhere, the deer eat everything). Along this same route north of Port Menier is a nice seashore and waterfall.

– Caves – not surprising in a limestone area. There are various caves (known as grottes) such as Huile River and Baie de la Tour, but the big one is at Grotte à la Patate. It’s a bit of a squeeze to get in but apparently worth while (I have been). You can rent helmets with lights at Auberge Macdonald, about 25 km away.

– Chute Kalimazoo – I missed this but heard very good things about it from people who went there. Follow the trail up from the parking area. There’s a nice pool you can swim in below the falls.

– Avion de la rivière à l’huile – I thought it was a mistranslation, but no, there’s an airplane crash-landed in the forest about 300m off the main road about a kilometer or two up from the river (about km 52).

– Observation River Canyon – there’s a steep canyon cut through the limestone by the Observation river, with a trail through it.

– Pointe-Carleton – Old lighthouse, definitely worth a look. Can bee seen from the road.

– Chute Vauréal – these are some very tall falls 90 meters in height, and accompanying canyon. The area has two separate attractions with separate access points from the road – a 7 km trail through the canyon located at km 151, and a steel viewing platform overlooking the falls about 100m in from the access point at km 153 on the Transanticostienne.

– Baie de la Tour – the is the location of the campground, but also is an area of stunning beauty with gigantic cliffs and sheltered lakes and waterfalls. It feels too like it has its own microclimate.

Some Thoughts

Though there were only 250 people on the island (plus maybe the same number of visitors) I felt like I met them all when I was there. Port Menier was busy and the roads were busy. And it was pretty easy to meet the other bikepackers and adventurers that were there, because they won’t be anywhere else.

But when you’re away from the main places, you’re really alone. The Transanticostienne is busy (ie., you’ll see a couple trucks per hour), but the back roads far less so. You can really feel it on Anticosti.

I think it’s an outstanding bikepacking destination, one that is a lot less difficult and dangerous than advertised (especially if you have the right gear and precautions) but that takes yhou to places you never knew existed.

It could be an even better destination if SEPAQ and the outfitters make a few minor investments, and in particular, create spaces every 20-40 km where bikepackers can stop overnight, especially toward the eastern part of the island where there is nothing. It would also be a good idea to allow them to forward supplies to themselves to be picked up at Auberge MacDonald.

The Road Pictures

Port Menier


Point l’Ouest

 Near Port Menier

Back road near Baie Martin – this is the worst bit of any road I saw


 

The roads to Baie Martin (Not on a lot of maps)


Near Auberge Macdonald

Near Vaureal Falls
Road to Baie de la Tour

Back road in an Exclos

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