“Have you ever thought about building bike trails here?” This pivotal question was posed fifteen years ago, in a yurt perched high atop Delaney falls - the landmark of the Vallée Bras-du-Nord, in Saint-Raymond, Quebec - and it sparked the conversation that would lead to a world-renowned mountain bike mecca and an award-winning youth program.
At the time the Co-op Vallée Bras-du-Nord, an innovative model of cooperative management, was only celebrating their second anniversary. In that short time, they had already developed reception facilities, several refuges, and 60 km of hiking trails.
Frédéric Asselin, Director of the Co-op, was sharing the yurt with Géo Plein-Air magazine journalist Gilles Morneau; professional mountain biker Mathieu Toulouse; and national team mountain bike head coach Michel LeBlanc. The trio was in the area on a hiking and canoeing trip. Frédéric, always on the lookout for new activities to stimulate growth, listened attentively as the men discussed the potential for mountain bike trails in the valley. It quickly became clear that the glacial valley with its cliffs, rivers, and waterfalls, was the perfect natural setting for two-wheeled exploration.
That evening, a seed was sown. And just over a year later, after Frédéric had visited other bike parks and fell in love with mountain biking himself, the idea of building bike trails was presented to and approved by the board of directors of the Vallée Bras-du-Nord. And in 2007 the youth project, En Marche began work on the trails.
The En Marche project is designed to give kids who are struggling; have dropped out of school, are dealing with family violence, drug addiction, and delinquency, the opportunity to be out in nature using forestry work as an educational tool. Dozens of young men and women are selected each year to work building and maintaining trails within the valley.
The youth spend six months swinging pulaskis and mcleods, while a trained social worker accompanies them each day. At the end of the summer, the whole team takes part in a wilderness adventure trip, where, confronted with a hostile environment, they learn about tolerance, discipline, teamwork, and perseverance.
By 2008, the En Marche team had already built roughly fifteen kilometres of mountain bike specific singletracks and twice that length in double-track. The cyclists came, loved it, and began spreading the word. The (now) famous Chute à Gilles, which passes at the foot of a nice waterfall, set the tone for what the valley had to offer and became its signature trail. The excitement among riders grew every year thereafter, especially with the opening of the Saint-Raymond sector, Grande Ourse trail, and Maple butter trail; a very flowy roller coaster built on a kame (a hill of glacial origin composed of sand and gravel).
Recently, the "En Marche" team spearheaded the construction of the most iconic track of the Valley, the Neilson Trail. Three summers were needed to create what is often called a ‘masterpiece’ in a breathtaking natural setting. The young craftsmen carved a sweet rideable ribbon along the Neilson riverbank; building the bridges, carving the rock in places to reach seemingly inaccessible sections, and incorporating as much as possible of the beautiful granite slabs that have been polished by the flow of water for centuries.
On the strength of these repeated successes, the Valley has seen the number of its two-wheeled visitors multiply each year, and has now acquired the status of an unmissable destination. The quality of its facilities and how the Co-op works with the community, businesses, loggers, and landowners are what have helped the valley to flourish and become a model of sustainable tourism. But the Vallée Bras-du Nord’s greatest pride remains the more than 200 young men and women who have built the trail network. These trail builders can be proud, not only of the work they have done in the forest but also on themselves. Three-quarters of the youth who have participated in this program re-entered the job market or returned to school - and some still work for Vallée Brass-du-Nord. Last year, the En Marche project received the highest mark of distinction for a youth intervention program when the director, Étienne Beaumont was presented with the Youth Recognition Award at the National Assembly from Quebec’s premier Philippe Couillard.