Ride Report from Peter Grant:
“Monsieur” a short pause, then louder “Monsieur” and then much louder “MONSIEUR” a flag man is trying to address David McCaw who has stopped his bike just in front of me at a line of 5 men who stand in the twilight at the south end of the town of Lac Mégantic Quebec. I say something in English and one of the flag men steps forward and asserts with very precise English, “You cannot go there”. Two tired randonneurs meet 5 very tired firemen at the south side of Lac Mégantic Quebec on the evening of July 6, 2013. Our route is to the left into downtown on Rue Laval. Our ride has brought us 325 km from Montreal. The GPS shows only 2.4 km to the control in Tim Hortons, food and rest. All we see to the left is dark and shadows. The evening sky is black with smoke. The street is blocked by a huge stainless steel tank truck. A fire hose snakes up the street. A Surette du Quebec police car tweeted its siren to attract the attention of the flag men as it crawled out of the darkness. At the sound, the men’s heads snap to look over their shoulders. They stared up the street into the dark as 2 randonneurs coasted in front of them and stopped. We stared also. David later said that he was thinking “There is so much smoke this whole town must be on fire”.
“What is happening?” I asked. The young man has a most precise answer. “Since 1 o’clock this morning, a train of 73 tank cars carrying fuel has derailed in Lac Mégantic and is burning. All of the houses in downtown Lac Mégantic are destroyed.” “What kind of fuel?” I ask as if it mattered. “I do not know. Maybe kerosene” and he wrinkled his nose.
“You cannot go this way” he asserted again. “We want to go to Lennoxville” I say. He stared at me. That is clearly beyond the scope that we can discuss. Lennoxville is 92 km to the west. I asked, “Is there a way to go north on Route 161?” “Yes. You must go this way” pointing to the east under a railroad trestle. “There will be a way to go north that way. Someone will help you.”
We turned right and made our way under the railway where there was a street light and continued on into darkness. Cars milled about on the few small streets. All moving slowly as their drivers navigated unfamiliar and little used streets. They were moving in a particular direction and we followed. It was now complete darkness and we stopped after maybe 1 km to look at the GPS screens. A car passing on the other side of the road stopped and a young man got out to offer us assistance. When he heard that we were randonneurs on an official brevet, he was not only impressed but had heard of randonneuring. I only remember him as a young man wearing a red tee shirt. From him we learned that the Tim Hortons had survived and was open. We also learned that the route around the fire was on a new bypass road. If we followed on to the east we would find the bypass. Then going north there would be a roundabout and an Ultramar station where we could return to highway 161.
We continued to the east over a rough street and a climb and arrived at a T junction with a 4 lane road. We turned left onto the wide road through slow moving traffic. I was happy that on the far side of the road my Edelux showed a wide paved shoulder. We rode north on the bypass through dark forest. My GPS showed that we were moving parallel with the brevet route. When we passed an intersection with some cars coming out of town I realized that we were past the fire zone. I called to David to stop for another GPS conference. As we studied our screens on the shoulder, a largish truck of some kind fixed us in its headlights and slowly rolled to stop. A man appeared from around the blinding lights asking “Je vu prendre la route a St George. Est-ce que c’est la?”, pointing up the road. “Parel anglais?” I ask. “Non”. After a few seconds, I say “Je ne sais pas” my most accurate statement of the night. He gave a sad smile, shrugged in resignation and returned to his truck and slowly continued his drive.
We returned to Lac Mégantic along with the local traffic using little travelled side streets. As everywhere that night, it seemed that the climbing was hard on steep hills on minor streets. There was a continual haze of car headlights as people milled about constantly.
The guess was good. We returned just on the north side of the evacuation zone. As we reached downtown, the area to the south was black with shadowy figures of firemen, police and paramedics moving about in the disaster zone. On the other side, the street was a blaze of light. The Tim Hortons was only a few hundred meters away. Across from the Tim’s a McDonalds golden arch blazed. We cautiously made our left turn into Tim Hortons and found a free table on the patio. Although randonneurs are focused on the ride and I have to be to keep on going, some of what I felt that night seeped in and is still slowly percolating up in my consciousness on Monday. The Tim Hortons was very busy. It seemed to be full of families with babies in carriages, children, and a few older people. Several families stood in clusters surrounding other families seated at tables, all talking quietly. Policemen, police women, paramedics were coming and going. The drive through speaker was nearby and there were frequent orders like “Un cafe grand avec une creme et deux sucres” sounding. Staff who were too tired to respond to our English waved us over to a server who spoke English. I was too tired to struggle with French. The server warned “We are running out of some things, it has been hectic”, but we got our stuff.
The brevet had started at 5:00AM at St. Lambert on the south shore in Montréal with 8 riders. The route name is just “The 600” from Club Vélo Randonneurs de Montréal but since Lac Mégantic is the turnaround point I like it better. The four fast guys were out of sight before we got off the streets of Montréal, but 4 of us Marc, Yves, David and me stayed together to St Césaire, the first control at 55 km. Marc had a flat as we left and David and I rode on. Marc and Yves were riding their first 600 and had a plan of stopping every 50 km for water and supplies. David and I carried Camelbacks and planned on 90 km stops. The 2 pairs rode at about the same average speed but gradually separated, seeing each other at controls. David and I were just leaving Cookshire 233 km as Marc and Yves arrived. They successfully found their way around the evacuation zone and were south bound to the Tim Horton’s control when we passed in the night. David and I were north bound going uphill to Nantes and just saw the lights of the 2 randonneurs passing on the opposite side of Route 161.
The focus on “keep going forward” is strong. Maybe too strong sometimes to forewarn of what we were riding into. As we had approached the town from the south, a strange cloud had been visible. The sun was low over the hills across the lake. A steady west wind blew and from 15 km away strange black clouds could be seen scudding low across the horizon. Fog off the lake I thought at first, but there was no cloud over the lake. The black clouds seemed to originate where the town should be and I filed in my brain the possibility that there was a fire in or around the town of Lac Mégantic. We were recovering from an afternoon of searing heat and tough climbing on “La route des Sommets” crossing Appalachia Quebec as signs indicated. In the evening, the temperature was dropping, the road was flat and we rolled.
At the first “Route barré” point about 10 km south of town, cars seemed to be entering the closed section of the road as well as taking the turn. I asked the first Transport Quebec employee “Peu passer?” and he said “Passe” and waved me on towards town. The second Route barré was the same. A Transport Quebec employee with a flag waved us on. In the calm light provided by Google maps on Monday the cause of the ambiguity becomes evident. The town of Lac Mégantic is naturally divided by the Chaudière River. Many people live south of the river along the beautiful lakeshore. There are no stores or services south of the river. Those are downtown north of the Chaudière and another collection of stores along a highway strip that leads in from the north. A bridge on the Chaudière connects the main street with south. We were stopped at the south end of the bridge. When the explosion and fire destroyed downtown it cut the town in half and reduced the services to those available from the strip of stores along the northern part of Route 161. The next bridge is about 4 km away on the new bypass which cuts through the forest east of town and was not in my GPS map. Emergency responders had to deal with people from the south getting to services only available north of the evacuation zone. Evacuees from either direction were going around the zone to get to relatives in whatever direction needed. Emergency personnel were securing the evacuation zone perimeter, but could not provide travel plans for the thousands of people involved locally, let alone the few randonneurs trying to transit through the town. We only did maybe 6~8 bonus km to get around the zone but used at least 1 hour.
Traffic leaving Lac Mégantic was not heavy, but produced some memories. An inbound train of Surette du Quebec cars tunneled out of the dark, sirens howling lights blazing. Maybe 10 cars rocketing toward town. Although noisy and bright they were traveling so fast that even the sound vanished in seconds. In contrast, the north bound traffic seemed to lumber. A high wall of a big ambulance slowly crawled past my shoulder. Then a much higher wall with loud diesel noises crawled by. Incendies – secours showing on its back from the light of my headlamp. The out bound machines crawled, no flashing lights. At the intersection with Route 214 we turned left and entered a different place. Stars filled the sky. The west wind cooled our bodies and brought fresh smelling, lower humidity air for our lungs. The pavement was smooth and almost empty of traffic. Our route through a silent forest had more descent than climbing. It should have been an ideal night ride but the scenes of exhaustion and chaos that we had witnessed lingered. Not to mention my own exhaustion after a day of climbing in hot weather followed by confusion and delay. We reached Lennoxville at 3:28 and were asleep at the hotel before 4:00