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The Canadian Shield 400: Adventure, Bugs & Community

Join Meaghan on a bikepacking adventure through the wilderness of The Canadian Shield 400 route, created by Chris Panasky. As she navigates the challenging terrain of Western Quebec, Meg uncovers the raw beauty of the region's natural wonders—and the bugs.

The Canadian Shield 400: Adventure, Bugs & Community

We set out from Chelsea just after six am. Chris Panasky’s Blue Heeler, Indigo, gazed longingly from the picture window as our loaded bikepacking rigs trundled down the drive; family still asleep while our knobby tires tracked north under moody skies, and an eerily warm breeze that threatened rain. Before long, Chris and I were crunching along the hard-packed gravel of the Chelsea Community Trail toward Wakefield—gaining speed as our legs limbered up on the fast flats that marked the first twenty kilometres of the Canadian Shield 400. Beyond the leafy deciduous thicket, we snuck glimpses of the mighty Gatineau River to our right, its glassy expanse mirroring the concrete contours of clouds above. Closer inspection revealed cottages in upbeat colours, each accompanied by the obligatory dock—and in one instance, three shiny floatplanes moored to the dock’s rickety finger.

Already, I was mentally reaching for that first cup of coffee: my mind’s eye fixated on the bakery in Wakefield, imagining hot steam wafting from ceramic mugs. But alas, that’s where the route demonstrated its true character and shot into Gatineau Park on a lumpy footpath. Under a canopy of maples, Chris and I lurched over rock slabs and rubble, twisting through the park on little-used paths that harkened back to fairy tales (but jostled my limbs uncomfortably). When we finally arrived at Wakefield Bakery, I felt far more bent out of shape than I should have. Especially considering I still had 380 kilometres to go.

The Canadian Shield 400

The Canadian Shield 400—one of three routes that belong to the Bikepack Adventures Grand Depart Routes (developed by Chris Panasky)—is a 400-kilometre backcountry route that starts and ends in Chelsea, Quebec, accumulating over 6,300 metres of elevation on the way. Along with the Canadian Shield Bikepacking Route (910 km) and Canadian Shield XL (1200 km) the three form a series of expanding loops, exploring some of the most beautiful and rugged parts of the Canadian Shield in Western Quebec on backcountry roads, rail trail, doubletrack, and singletrack. While the Canadian Shield 400 remains in the Outaouais region (north of Canada’s capital and the Ottawa River), the longer routes venture farther afield into Mont Tremblant Provincial Park, La Montagne du Diable Regional Park, and Papineau Labelle Nature Reserve.

Chris’s routes are unique in that, even more so than most route builders, he rejects the quickest or most straightforward path from A to B. Shaped around a love of dirt and a penchant for discovery, the Canadian Shield routes link up unmaintained winter roads and rough quad trails, and twist pretzels through mountain bike parks in ski resorts. If there are three options to choose from, Chris will inevitably take the most obscure, leading those brave enough to try on a wild goose chase, all while showcasing the spectacular lakes, viewpoints, and historic sites that define the region.

Riders can elect for the Grand Depart in September, or tackle the routes at their own convenience. I opted for the latter. Man-of-many-hats Chris Panasky—Bikepack Adventures route developer and podcaster, father, husband, and educator—had invited me to present the keynote at the inaugural Canadian Shield Bikepacking Summit in Chelsea earlier in June. I stuck around afterwards to explore the extensive gravel in the region, claiming the hide-a-bed in Chris’s basement and turning his podcast studio into my remote workplace.

Note: the 2024 Grand Depart location has moved from Chelsea to nearby Wakefield.

We swapped the shop-lined main street of Wakefield for fast gravel roads, travelling north on the east side of the Gatineau River now. I’d been crashing at Chris’s for nearly a month, but our paths rarely crossed for more than a few minutes during the chaos of breakfast, or later when I joined his family around the dinner table. With little traffic, we pedalled side by side, swapping stories of past bike tours. I mentioned my father, who inspired my cycling journey with tales of his epic Pacific Coast tour, and accompanied me on early overnighters to the Gulf Islands.

Our legs and lungs were put to the test on the first notable climb as we veered east on Chemin Paugan, after the mandatory six-kilometre out and back to Paugan Dam. Yet the bump hardly ranked as a warm up compared to the challenges ahead in Mont Ste Marie ski hill. Technical riding is not my forte, but Chris maneuvered expertly. When I dismounted to push my bike up the tightly switchback turns on Taylor’s Tower of Power (the most significant climb on the route), Chris hopped off as well, offering fatherly compassion as he assured me it was okay to walk—“Give the legs a break.”

We snapped a few photos from the viewpoint before racing down, then made up time on rolling gravel farm roads into Gracefield. Thankfully for this squeamish, technically challenged cyclist, there’s a tremendous variety of terrain on the Canadian Shield to explore.

Gravel Grinding in Quebec

Coming from BC, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the region. Compared to the substantial climbs of the Okanagan that I’d cut my teeth on—unless you stick to the valley, everything is up—the gravel is very different, though certainly no less challenging. What struck me most was a) ease of access, and b) variety. From my home base in bilingual Chelsea (bonjour and merci are about the extent of my français), I ventured into Gatineau Park and the surrounding farm roads, where I encountered punchy climbs, black bears and turtles, and crystalline lakes that I could dip into after working up a sweat. The sheer number of unpaved roads near major centres—plus ample rail trail and multi-use pathway—makes Quebec a gravel cycling paradise (if you can stand the bugs, and don’t mind swapping to a fat bike for the winter).

During the Canadian Shield Bikepacking Summit, we heard from Montreal-based cyclist Marie-Pierre Savard, who shared her experiences in the remote hinterlands on the Quebec Bikepacking Traverse, as well as with Les Fines Garnottes, a gravel cycling club that embraced women, trans, and non-binary riders. Independent Quebec bike builder Panorama Cycles was also at the Summit, showing off a range of gorgeous carbon-neutral adventure machines catering to backcountry cyclists who prefer gravel, snow, and off-road trails. Besides the Bikepacking Adventures routes, the Log Driver’s Waltz and several shorter spin offs also zigzag through the region, making tracks on both sides of the Ottawa River.

In summary, during my brief stay in la belle province, I barely scratched the surface of the vibrant gravel scene.

With a population of just over 2,000, Gracefield is one of the largest towns on the Canadian Shield 400 route. In addition to grocery stores, gas stations, and a campground, there’s a tasty casse-croûte right on the main street called La Pataterie. Chris and I dug into our poutine and Cokes with the famished gusto of a pair rescued from a week in the wilderness, cut off from supplies—though I suppose the imperial century of mileage that we’d accumulated was no small feat of endurance either.

I envisioned being eaten alive by insects if I had to stop to repair a flat or mechanical. I laid into the pedals—not today, Satan.

After a quick resupply at the grocery store, we parted ways. Tomorrow was Father’s Day, and as a new father, Chris realized the importance of spending the occasion with his family. Alone, I pedalled west from Gracefield on the Veloroute des Draveurs, from which the route peeled off onto a series of increasingly obscure unmaintained winter roads heading toward Lac Cayamant. Immersed in deep woods, the mosquitoes grew thick. I slapped the back of my neck and calves haphazardly as I pumped up the climbs. Yet I lacked sufficient speed to outpace the scourge. Panic crept in while navigating the rutted out quad trail in diminishing light, and I envisioned being eaten alive by insects if I had to stop to repair a flat or mechanical. I laid into the pedals—not today, Satan.

While my fear of falling victim to tiny bloodsucking vampires spurred a faster pace, it also sent me into a swamp after I missed a turn in my distracted state. To avoid fouling my socks and shoes, I removed my footwear to wade barefoot in muck past my knee caps in search of the turn. Lambasting myself for not following through on my New Year’s resolution to do more pushups as my shoulders tired under the weight of my rig. Pretty stupid—especially considering that I could have stepped on a stick and punctured my foot. Even dumber, once you piled on the fact that I’d simply missed the turn, and my super side trip through the mosquito-ridden swamp had been an utterly pointless endeavour.

Swamp incident behind me, I was now halfway through the track. Darkness had scrubbed the emerald ferns and underbrush into dull grayscale. Using the beam from my headlamp, I armoured myself in rain gear and insect repellant. I wasn’t out of the woods just yet. There were a few more spicy bits en route to my night time destination in Otter Lake. And while the Gore-Tex and DEET helped me avoid death by a million mozzie bites, I was sweating up a storm as I hauled my bike over downed branches and washouts in the dark. My consolation prize: earning a Strava QOM for “Cayamant Hike-a-Bike”—the segment title offering proof that I wasn’t the first cyclist reduced to walking.


I met Chris through his podcast. The thing about meeting someone IRL after spending hours listening to them is that you feel you already know them—and, if you’re me, you become emboldened enough to invite yourself for an extended stay.

But connecting with a person in their family home is incomparable to one-way audio: you get the complete picture, not just a singular paper cut-out. Over the month, I got to know Chris’s family, including his wife and her sister, and their mother-in-law, who lived with them. I spent time with their 18-month-old daughter, Jasmine, who loved being danced around the living room to the song “Calm Down” by Selina Gomez, and whose rise-and-shine cheer (okay, sometimes tears) became my unfailing 6:45 am alarm clock. I learned everyone’s daytime schedules and nap time, where to put the plastic baby dishes when unloading the dishwasher, and accustomed to the many moods of Indigo, who vacuumed up Jasmine’s discarded dinner scraps from the floor.

Through Chris, I also connected with the local bikepacking community. First at the Canadian Shield Bikepacking Summit, and then through follow-up engagements. Some of these folks camped in Chris’s backyard during the event, or parked vehicles in his driveway while they set out on their own bikepacking adventures in the days that followed. But whether at the Summit or later, at every turn, I felt the simple appreciation of being among similar-minded people, all passionate about riding bikes and helping others do the same; all of whom shared similar tales of misnavigation and vexing insects. From Marie Pierre-Savard and her involvement in Montreal’s femme, trans, and non-binary adventure cycling community, to Jen Adams and Eric Betteridge’s Log Driver’s Waltz Spring Rallies and #BikepackingForAll. Perhaps it’s telling that the original start and endpoint of Canadian Shield 400 was Nomades du Parc, a hub for rentals, group rides, guided tours, and après-ride drinks (also telling that Nomades is just one of several bike and ski stores in a small place like Chelsea).

I bivvied for the night near the reedy shores of Otter Lake. With a mesh bug net and Snickers bars for company, I was kept up late by pop music and the clandestine activities of teenagers in the park. The following morning, I awoke to tangerine sunlight burning mist off the lake and hit the dirt without resupply from the store, hoping to satiate my hunger with a proper meal farther down the road in Saint-François-de-Masham.

The pavement gave way to gravel, and then to rock-strewn earth as the route snaked southeast. I unwrapped the last of my Snickers rations as I looped around another cottage-lined lake. Everything popped under the morning’s clear sky: the dinner-plate leaves of overhead maples impossibly green in radiant sunlight. And even as the clouds seeped in, I remained optimistic about arriving back in time for dinner.

Until I bonked and lost steam. It always catches me off guard: one minute, I’m flying full-steam ahead in the aerobars and the next, I’m wondering why this gentle 2% rise feels like a sheer vertical wall. Instead of pushing through to my much-anticipated meal on turtle mode, I stopped twenty kilometres short at the sole convenience store in Lac-des-Loups for a box of cellophane-wrapped butter tarts to restore my glycogen.

As I settled onto the steps of a boarded-off building to devour my trashy butter tarts, I began formulating the ride report I’d later share with Chris, starting with my grievances—bugs, hike-a-bikes, noisy teenagers, and far too much technical singletrack. I also flashed back to Chris heading home for Father’s Day from Gracefield the night before, and figured I’d better pick up the phone to call my own father.

We talked for an hour, covering everything from his local road rides with the other fit Kelowna geriatrics to my recent two-wheeled escapades on the Canadian Shield.

“It’s not as easy as I thought it would be,” I confessed.

“What are you talking about? Meg, you’re living the dream!” he replied.

I laughed despite myself, remembering earlier bike trips together and my dad’s unwavering take-it-as-it-comes attitude: his ability to flip the script on my grumpiest, most sullen moods with a goofy story, or a cafe stop. By the time we hung up, I felt more self-assured in my chosen path. Ready for whatever awaits. I didn’t have to wade through a swampy breeding ground for mosquitoes or clamber over downed trees in the dark; I got to. And of course, I knew that already—but sometimes I forgot.

Final Miles

It took three hours to cover the final forty kilometres of double and singletrack through Gatineau Park. Living a stone’s throw from the park boundary, Chris curated this section with his top trails in mind, taking riders through a highlight reel of Gatineau Park wilderness: from grassy meadows to wooden boardwalks, alongside streams and lakes, and up to Champlain and Huron lookouts. While I ripped along the doubletrack and flowing descents, on the whole I struggled. 6,000-plus metres of accumulated elevation had turned my legs into jelly. But I rolled on, relishing the delicate purple flowers that caught the sun like gemstone and icy relief of creek water against my shins. That phone call with my dad had reminded me I was living the dream. Stealth camping in a muggy bivvy and swatting away bugs wasn’t necessarily glamorous or easy, but it was freedom—a path of my own choosing.

I arrived back in Chelsea before sunset, stopping to snap a finisher’s selfie in front of Nomades du Parc before pedalling back on the blessed pavement. En route, I serendipitously bumped into Chris taking Indigo for an after-dinner run on his still-loaded bike.

“I’m glad I did that,” I told him as we pedalled the minutes together. Already looking forward to sharing my memorable journey over Monday morning’s breakfast rush at the Panasky household.

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