Name any riding group, from vertical ascenders to flatland trail shredders, at one time or another there’s been a bench race as to who in the group, simply put, is the “all around best Snowmobiler”. And with snowmobilers being competitive by nature, there’s a tendency to need to backup those claims. So, next time you and your crew are having this war of words on who’s the most well rounded sledder, put away your words, put your sleds on the trailer, and tell Siri to point you on the fastest route to Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
When we said “name any riding group”, this includes our test riders. It all started as the fleet of test units began to arrive at the shop, back in the fall. One common theme we noticed among our sleds was that everything seemed to have 141 inches or more of rubber rotating around the jack shaft. One thing led to another and we decided to put ourselves and our units through the ultimate crossover experience. We loaded the buggies and four bodies into the truck and trailer, and pointed straight north from the shop to Val-d’Or. Considering we had a 7-hour drive ahead of us, we decided to allocate our first and last day to strictly travel. That said, the trip to Val-d’Or was worth every minute and it would serve as the ideal launch point for our crossover expedition. The closer we got to the L’Escale Suites, the taller the snow banks got. By the time we arrived at ground zero, we were positive that we’d found snowmobile heaven.
Trans Quebec Trails – The Gold Standard
“We could count on one hand, the number of bumps we hit during our first day on the trails”
“There’s no such thing as cold weather, only cold clothing” – Anne-Marie, Abitibi Tesmiscamingue Tourism
As the sun rose on day 1, we were greeted by France from Abitibi-Témiscamingue Tourism and Nelson from the FCMQ. We told them what we were looking for, that we had four, 141+ inch sleds in the trailer, and we wanted to test our abilities on these crossover buggies, both ON and OFF the trail, and boy did they offer up the ride of a lifetime! To kick things off, France suggested we load up the Mon Guide app on our phones. France actually played a pivotal role in the development of this app, and it is actually the Abitibi-Témiscamingue Region’s proprietary trail navigation app, and it makes locating yourself on the map a bulletproof process that’s literally as simple as clicking a button. Next, we were instructed to enter the Balbuzard Sauvage as our hotel destination for the night, and Le Mateo in Senneterre as our lunch stop. Before we could even get the cream in our coffee, the Mon Guide app had calculated the fastest route to our selected destinations. Turn by turn, this application will calculate the exact distances between meals, gas stops, and ultimately, your final destination anywhere in the region. It’s a no brainer if you’re headed to Abitibi-Temiscamingue, this app is a must have on your smartphone.
After a quick bite to eat, we offloaded the buggies and set out to top up our fuel before leaving town. After navigating the carbide friendly, snow covered roads in Val-d’Or, we came across the well-signed trail and began to make our way towards the outskirts of town. Now make no mistake, over the years we’ve seen a ton of unique adaptations to help snowmobile traffic make its way through town. This was hands down the first time the crew had ever come across a traffic light specifically designated for the snowmobile trail! We’ve all experienced the drudge of trying to safely cross a busy street. Waiting for the ideal spacing between 60 kmh+ moving vehicles to sneak through can take quite a while, especially as the size of your riding group increases. That would certainly not be the case today. Once the group assembled at the intersection, our lead pressed the button, the vehicles stopped, the light went green and away we went.
Two turns from our new favourite intersection in snowmobiling, and we found out why the 83 trail we would be riding all day was classified as a top trail. The “Trans Quebec” trail was at least 6 snowmobiles wide on average, and lets you stretch the lugs on your buggy. The wider trails in Abitibi-Temiscamingue lend themselves very well to our longer crossover sleds. With wider trails come more frequent, wide sweeping corners. The extra track out back creates understeer when compared to each model’s shorter track sibling, but this is a welcomed trait on trails of that nature. A longer footprint generally equates to greater stability, and reduces the feeling of the rear coming around, allowing you to sit back and comfortably enjoy spirited trail riding, no matter the length of your track.
As we continued down the 83 trail, we were continuously greeted with impeccable signage, pristine grooming, and a surprising lack of traffic. This is what really surprised our group as we worked our way towards our destination. We would travel 20-30 minutes at a time without seeing oncoming traffic. This certainly isn’t our first time in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, and we continue to ponder how this region remains to be a hidden gem. Not only is the groomer out weeks earlier than other areas, the last groomer pass is also weeks after most regions begin to see grass poking through the base of their trails. The only conclusion we could draw when looking at the map was that even though the hotels and restaurants are packed with sledders, the trail network this region has amassed can easily handle the traffic load. What all this means for visitors is that they can expect a consistent, incredible snowmobiling experience with the low traffic, well signed network provided.
With a quick fuel and food stop in Senneterre, we continued on our journey down the 83 trail towards our final destination for the day, the Balbuzard Sauvage. The trails continued to impress us, which was nothing new at this point, but one thing we didn’t anticipate is what locals referred to as “The Burning Area”. As it turns out, an intense forest fire ravaged the forest that once surrounded the Balbuzard some years ago. The resulting experience is finding yourself surrounded by hundred foot trees one second, and two turns later, entering a snow covered, rolling hill paradise. The sharp transition from one landscape to the next is something that words or photos don’t do justice to, as you truly do need to experience the contrast for yourself.
The sights of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue certainly made it difficult for us to arrive at our destination on time. Around every few turns, the scenes warranted another stop and another photo shoot. At the end of the day, this left us riding into the Balbuzard in the dark of night, and it wasn’t until the following morning sunrise that we truly were able to appreciate the iconic destination we had the pleasure of calling home for the next two days.
Crossing Over – The Backcountry Loop of a Lifetime
As the sun rose, we decided to get an early start to the day. Waking up in the morning, we stoked the wood stoves that heated our two-room log chalet. Stepping into the main lodge, we were greeted to bottomless cup, fresh coffee and seemingly endless fresh breakfast options.
The Balbuzard staff stay on-site for the entire snowmobile season, aside from the necessary trip to town. As a guest, this equates to superb meals from an exceptional resident chef for all three of your daily feeds.
Indulging in our morning meal, we looked out on the terrain we planned on tackling for the day. A perfect mix of fire roads, barren trees, and lakes, all of which were freshly minted with 8 or so inches of white gold from the night before.
Stepping outside and warming up our buggies for the day ahead, we were greeted by our local “guides” for the day. We had met Daniel and company the previous evening when they offered to share some of their favourite off-trail riding spots. We came to the Abitibi region with the goal of enjoying the on trail AND off trail abilities of our steeds, so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
First things first; we removed our luggage and touring gear, and left anything easily removable at the Balbuzard. With our “weight savings” complete, we fired up the machines and rolled over the on-site fuel pump. Yes, as you can imagine, the price of on-site fuel in the middle of the Abitibi wilderness comes at a premium. That being said, it’s truly the only way that exploring this landscape by sled becomes possible.
With our tanks full to the very last burp, we headed down the trail in the direction we arrived the night before. The appreciation for the vast depth of the burning area became incredibly prevalent in the morning light. A few turns later, we were quickly off the trail and navigating the first of what would be a seemingly endless array of snowed over access roads. The depth of snowfall in this region forces you to quickly learn the basics of riding off trail; most importantly, the throttle is your friend.
Thankfully for some of us, we found our way to a safe lake to reacquaint ourselves with the nuances off powder riding. While the boon dockers reading this are laughing at us, for those of you without much off trail experience, aside from the unexpected overshot runway or blown corner, we would highly recommend practicing without any trees around.
Once we were comfortable, or at as least as comfortable as we were going to be, we proceeded down the network of fire roads, frozen lakes, tight forested trails. With the help of our guides, we managed to create a loop coming back into the Balbuzard without touching the same trail or track twice. At the end of day, we barely scratched the surface of what this landscape has to offer. It goes without saying that we easily could have spent 5+ days calling the Balbuzard basecamp, and never touched the same section of backcountry twice. The thought of what this untapped piece of riding gold has to offer, gets us excited every time we think about it.
Power turning and weight transferring all day long definitely leaves you short on energy, and provides an appreciation for how labour intensive riding in deep snow can be. But when you wrap up your day, crack a cold soda, and the chef walks over to your table to walk you through your options for a freshly prepared, five course meal, you’ll be happy you burned those extra calories. Every stay at the Balbuzard is a fixed cost per night, (less adult beverages) and includes all of your meals. Its no secret, planning a dream trip to a destination like this can get expensive, and that’s where we, as snowmobilers see true value in this pricing model. Clearly communicating to riders what the exact cost of food and accommodations helps make the trip planning process a smoother and more accurate process.
“There’s nowhere else you can find a lodge like this for snowmobiles, with this quality level of food and service in this region” – Maxime Jacob, General Manager, Pourvoire du Balbuzard Sauvage
Exploring Val-d’Or – More Than Just a Launch Point
After enjoying a few extra Z’s, thanks to the long day of off trail riding the day before, we followed the same trail back to Val-d’Or, enjoying yet again, another day of groomed highways with no traffic. You know that feeling of getting on the toll highway and leaving the non-toll payers stuck in traffic? Yes, it’s like that feeling on every trail here!
The benefit of travelling back on the same route you rode in on, is the lack of wrong turns. We managed to zip back to Val-d’Or with the sun still up. When we’re stopping for photos and video constantly, arriving at our destination in sunlight isn’t something we get to experience often.
Getting back to L’Escale – we started checking in when one of our entourage mentioned the dreadful thought of loading up the trailer after three days in the saddle. It was then the hospitality that this region shows to snowmobilers really shined. The concierge mentioned they actually have a fully heated parking garage, reserved specifically for sledders in the winter months. Couple that with the snow covered streets, parking lots, and road crossings, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a more welcoming region.
The Mon Guide App – Plan Your Trip In Minutes
The unsung hero of this region is without a doubt the Mon Guide App. The hours and effort poured into making a sledder friendly guide to this region really breaks down the barriers and fear of visiting the unknown. The app is riddled with destinations, information, and even photos of what you’re looking for on the trail to find your way. Opening up a destination, you’ll find contact information, opening hours, and the amenities offered for each establishment.
Travelers Note: For access to any of the trails mentioned in this piece, you will need an FCMQ permit. FCMQ permits are available in 1 day, 3 day, 7 day, or Season long permits from a long list of retailers in the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region. The closest retail to our starting destination was Gauthier Marine, across the street from L’Escalse Hotel & Suits in Val-d’Or. Riding without a permit is trespassing.
Travel Reference Guide: If you don’t have access to a smartphone, or prefer a paper map, all trails for this trip can be found on the Abitibi-Temiscamingue regional trail map, and will be available wherever you decide to purchase your permit.
L’Escale Hotel & Suites
1100 Rue de l’Escale, Val-d’Or, QC J9P 4G8
Pourvoire Balbuzard Sauvage
6 Chemin du Lac Clair, Senneterre, QC J0Y 2M0
Note: Only accessible by snowmobile in winter months
282 4e Rue O, Senneterre, QC J0Y 2M0
Microbrasserie Le Prospecteur
585 3e Avenue Quest, Val-d’Or, QC J9P 1S6