Trails to the Back River

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[Hudson Rd - 1974]
[St. Urbain - 1977-83]
[Snowdon/NDG - 1983-2002]
[NDG Shortcut - 1999-2002]

 [This document has been simplified for this lite version]


From almost as soon as I began my adult biking in 1974, my destinations have included crossing the city to the "Back River" (or Rivière des Prairies). Over the years, as my starting point has changed, so to has the route taken. Essentially there have been four basic routes, which are covered in detail below.

Railroad lines criss-cross Montreal, dividing the neighbourhoods almost as if into "islands". On any route taken, the railroad (shown in red and blue on the map to the right) and the expressway (shown in green) crossings, form major landmarks and barriers. Any route to the Back River has to cross at least two key rail lines, those of the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. Depending on the directness of the route, and how far west it is, there may be more to cross. The effect of these barriers is to often constrain the cyclist to taking major thoroughfares, as the smaller, quieter streets simply do not go through.

CP's line from the north comes into Montreal at Bordeaux and desends to just south of Jean-Talon, where it branches. One branch curves east of the Mountain and runs south to the St. Lawrence roughly paralleling St. Denis Street. The other branch turns west and parallels Jean-Talon to past Decarie, where it curves west of Cote St. Luc to meet the CP main line coming in from Toronto.

CN has a major commuter line going from Downtown underneath Mount Royal in a tunnel and exiting at the Town of Mount Royal. It runs north to Cartierville, where it curves west along the northern shore of the Back River. There is a key link, cutting across western Montreal in a straight line and connecting CN's Toronto line to the commuter line. This line then continues across the north end of Montreal somewhat north of the Metropolitain Boulevard, effectively dividing industrial parks from the residential streets of the northern wards.

From Hudson Road: 1974

Only a couple of months after I obtained my bike in 1974, I moved to my apartment on Hudson Road, on the north face of the Mountain, just west of Cote des Neiges and south of Cote Ste. Catherine. My destination to the north, during that busy biking Summer when the bicycle opened up for me the freedom of easy transportation, was the town of Rosemere, where many of my friends lived. Any trip to Rosemere had to start with a ride to the Back River, at Cartierville.

I only knew one route at the time, which was the one that had been frequented by my parents, as well as by most of the "rides" I had gotten during my hitchhiking days. This route followed Decarie Boulevard to the Decarie Circle at the Metropolitain, and then north along Laurentian Boulevard (now Marcel Laurin) through Ville St. Laurent and Cartierville.

When I started cycling, I naturally followed the same route. (There was one instance, during my ride to Rawdon in 1974, when I probably went up St. Lawrence Boulevard to Pont Viau, to cross Laval in the direction of Bois des Filion instead of Rosemere.)

I would begin by descending (or upon my return, ascending) the hill along the wide boulevard of Cote Ste. Catherine Road. It was always a nice, long coast down, and a long, slow slog upward. In those days, of course, there was no Metro station at Victoria. On occasion, I may have dropped down in a diagonal fashion through my neighbourhood, towards Cote des Neiges and Jean-Talon, following the latter west to Decarie.

At Decarie, I would follow the service road. Despite the traffic, it was the only through route of which I knew, for the CP line cut off all southbound streets.

The Decarie Circle posed a major problem. The traffic, which along the service road was already pretty fast, accelerated to near highway speeds as it circled through the Decarie/Metropolitain interchange, even those cars that were not going onto the expressway. At the time, I knew of no easier crossings of the Metropolitain Expressway, such as that at Lucerne, just a bit further east.

There were, at that time, special "bus" routes through the spaghetti of the interchange, complete with bus stops and shelters underneath the elevated highway. Signs clearly indicated that I was not supposed to be there, but I took these route anyway, for at least I was safe from the cars. A few times I had a bus driver honk at me, as I was holding him up. The special roadways for buses were quite narrow.

Coming out on the north side, I followed Laurentian Boulevard as it took an underpass beneath the CN line. This section, too, was like being on the expressway itself. Only once everyone reached the first traffic light in Ville St. Laurent did they realize they were still in the city.

Laurentian Boulevard was a wide avenue through the business section of Ville St. Laurent, three lanes in each direction, with a concrete divider. There were traffic lights at every intersection. Although there were always a lot of cars, I held my ground.

It was upon reaching the Canadair Plant that things got a bit rough again. In those days, the vast buildings of Canadair extended along both sides of the road. Behind the Canadiar Plant, to the west, was still to be found the Cartierville field. All the traffic was channeled into this straight and unbroken section of nearly mile. There were no cross streets or meaningful entrances or exits. There may have been a traffic light along the way. All the cars felt the freedom of the open road, and were usually most disgusted at having to wait until they could pass a plodding cyclist. During the time that I used this route, they began roadwork on that section, narrowing it to two lanes each way. The ire of the motorists got even worse then, and I could feel their pressure behind me.

It was only when I reached the underpass beneath the CN Commuter line that things calmed down again. Beyond the rail line, I was in Cartierville, and back into Montreal. Traffic lights slowed the traffic.

Just beyond the underpass, there was a Y-intersection. Northbound traffic was diverted over to LaChapelle, while southbound traffic used Laurentian. This also served to cut down on volume and flow. Cresting the hill as I crossed De Salaberry, I had a long, pleasant ride down to Gouin Boulevard and the Lachapelle Bridge. Just to my right, as I neared the Bridge, was the entrance to the Belmont Park amusement park.

Coming back, there was a slow climb up the same hill along Laurentian Boulevard. Just past Gouin the Val-Royal Lumber Company stretched along a good part of the way, with the Val-Royal (Cartierville) train station and commuter spur just behind. Close to the intersection with Lachapelle, there was a small shopping centre on the east side of the steeet, where sometimes I would stop and get some refreshment. I always steeled myself for the underpass, and the open road past Canadair which lay beyond.

From St. Urbain Street: 1977-1983

After Hudson Road and the Summer of 1974, I did not seek out the Back River again until I had moved to St. Urbain Street. By then I had a car to take me to northerly places like Rosemere and only used the bike, apart from going to work, for infrequent recreational rides. I think I only rode to the north a handful of times, my main recreational directions being the Mountain and the Lachine Canal.

My home on St. Urbain was just south of where the CP tracks ease from their diagonal SE direction, to head south towards the St. Lawrence. Thus, my neighbourhood was bound by railroad tracks both to the north and to the east.

Just a couple of blocks over, it was a straight run up St. Lawrence Boulevard all the way to the Back River. On the return jaunt, at Jean-Talon, southbound traffic was shunted over to Clark & then St. Urbain Street itself.

St. Lawrence was just two block east of my location at St. Urbain and St. Viateur. Traffic on St. Lawrence was one way to the north, and had thinned out by that point that riding was not uncomfortable, even though the cars drove by pretty quickly. The two blocks south of the CP underpass were pretty industrial.

Immediately north of the underpass, however, I was into a residential area made up mostly of two-story buildings with storefronts, mostly furniture stores, and apartments above. The district was known as "Little Italy". The street was made a bit narrower, as cars would be parked on both sides, except at rush hour. Along the way, I would pass a square, with a large church on the right and a vast park, extending all the way over to Clark Street, on the left. Then the street closed in again, until I reached Jean-Talon.

Returning south, special lanes would curve to the right from St. Lawrence, just beyond Jarry Park, bringing all the traffic one block west, to Clark Street. Clark Street southbound was about the same as St. Lawrence, one way and busy and lined with two-story residences. There were no storefronts. At the CP underpass, traffic was shunted over to St. Urbain. One went down on Clark Street, and came up on St. Urbain on the other side.

Jean-Talon Boulevard was a major crossing, and was always busy. Just two blocks to the east was the Jean-Talon Market. North of Jean-Talon, the southbound traffic also came along St. Lawrence, but the street was wide and open, with lots of room. To the west was the expanse of Jarry Park, while on the east side were business and light industry. North of Jarry Street, both sides became built up, with low rise office buildings, as I approached the Metropolitain.

St. Lawrence's intersection with the Metropolitain Boulevard Expressway was another major crossing. The street divided into a high speed traffic circle and it was often difficult to navigate the bike amongst the speeding cars angling to go west or east.

North of the Metropolitain, it was several blocks before passing through the earthen wall representing the elevated CN tracks. All throught is section were large industrial buildings, and the street was not very interesting.

North of the CN line, past Sauvé Street, the timbre changed abruptly from industrial to residential, as I rode through the ward of Ahunstic. The intersection with Henri Bourassa as another busy one. Henri Bourrassa, at this point, is a major east/west boulevard with four lanes each way, and a concrete divider. St. Lawrence crosses it only a few blocks west of the Metro Station and the approach to the Viau Bridge.

For the few blocks north of Henri Bourassa, St. Lawrence becomes a quiet, residential street, which finally ends at Gouin Boulevard and the riverfront.

From Snowdon/NDG: 1983-2002

I have lived in the Snowdon/NDG area for nearly the last twenty years, and so most of my northerly biking adventures have been from this area.

In the beginning, I must have taken the same Decarie/Laurentian Boulevard route as before. At some early point, though, I discovered a new way underneath the Metropolitain, along an unmarked pedestrian rail crossing near the Kraft Foods Plant. I cannot recall when or how I discovered this route, but it altered and much improved my rides to the north.

Associated with the new crossing, was the discovery of new streets, and much quieter and safer than the Decarie service road and Laurentian Boulevard.

The ride from my house to the Back River typically takes about an hour each way.

The new route begins at the foot of Clanranald Street, at Decarie Square, where it is cut off by the CP tracks. Before disovering this crossing, I used to ride through the Decarie underpass, along the western sidewalk. In the early days, there was a level crossing here, and the road continued through the abandoned Blue Bonnets parking lots and fields on the other side. Then the crossing was closed off, but not seriously. Of late, the closure has become much more secure, on both sides, and it may be time to revert to passing through the Decarie underpass.

When I lived on Mclynn Street, this was a straight shot down any nearby northbound street. Once I moved to Grand, and then Rosedale, and finally Beaconsfield, it took a little longer to get to this point. I take various routes, as the Spirit moves me, often through Hampstead along quiet streets, always angling to the NW towards my destination.

Click to enlarge
(Taken on 2001 Ride to Laval)
There once was a crossing here!

Click to enlarge
(Taken on 2001 Ride to Laval)
Looking West & East Along CP Line at Blue Bonnets

Click to enlarge
(Taken on 2001 Ride to Laval)
This was once a vacant field!
On the north side of the CP tracks, just west of Decarie, sits the Blue Bonnets Race Track (now called the more politically correct Hippodrome de Montréal). Separating the race track from the highway was, until quite recently, a wide expanse of empty lots. At one time they may have been gravelled parking lots, but they were for the most part totally overgrown. The continuation of Jean-Talon to the west became a tiny, two-laned road which angled around the race track towards the gate. A quiet, country-like spur from this road approached the old rail crossing at Clanranald, while providing access to the stables.

This has all changed. Besides the old crossing being well sealed, the approach to the race track gate has become a wide boulevard. The old spur road has been absorbed by the vast parking lot of Wal-Mart, which has covered the old vacant lot. More stores and parking lots have been built to the north.

The road still curves around behind the race track however. Along the north face of the property is an old railroad spur, running along behind factory buildings built along Paré Street. At the level of Devonshire, there is a crossing and cars can pass from the Blue Bonnets property over to Paré, to continue along Devonshire.

Devonshire is a wide, but usually pretty empty street, which crosses the several long blocks of the industrial park in TMR. On a weekday or Saturday, the street is busy, but returning on a Saturday evening, or on a Sunday, the street is often totally deserted.

Click to enlarge
(Taken on 2001 Ride to Laval)
Through TMR Industrial Park

As Devonshire approaches the eleveated Metropolitain Boulevard, the entire last block to the west is taken up by the Kraft Foods plant. At the Metropolitain, traffic on Devonshire must turn east, onto the service roads underneath the expressway. These roads make a U-Turn at this point, for all through traffic is cut off by the CN rail line which also passes under the Metropolitain at that point.

Click to enlarge
(Taken on 2001 Ride to Laval)
Hidden Crossing
Just on the other side of the tracks and highway, a similar service road comes to a similar U-Turn. Hidden from view, and known to only those who frequent the area, is a pedestrian rail crossing, passing underneath the elevated highway.

This shortcut allows me to cut directly from TMR into Ville St. Laurent.

Click to enlarge
(Taken on 2001 Ride to Laval)
Looking West & East Along CN Line at Metropolitain

On the Ville St. Laurent side, the one short block of light industry gives way almost immediately to quiet, residential streets lined with single family homes. I follow Authier north to Bourdon, which I take east a couple of blocks, to either St. Aubin or Marlatt (on is northbound, the other southbound.

These quiet streets I follow for numerous blocks, crossing the major streets of St. Louis, de L'Eglise, and du Collège, before coming out at Cote Vertu. None of the minor streets go through beyond Cote Vertu.

At this point, I cut east the one block to Marcel Laurin (the old Laurentian Boulevard). At the NW corner is a shopping centre with a donut shop I used to frequent when I did donuts. There is also a depanneur, so this is often the occasion of a short stop. I used to ride north the two blocks to Thimens along the western sidewalk and through the parkin lots on the west side of Marcel Laurin. Of late, I simply bite the bullet and cross with the light at the Cote Vertu/Marcel Laurin interchange and ride up Marcel Laurin. The way is unbroken on the eastern side, and is taken up by a vast pharmaceutical establishment.

At Thimens Boulevard, I can catch the last block of a paved bike trail coming along Thimens from the west. Thimens, and the trail, both end at Grenet, which I take norht.

Grenet parallels Marcel Lauren along the section by the Bombardier (once Canadair) plant, but one block to the east. The space between Marcel Laurin and Grenet is now taken up with shopping centres full of big box stores. The eastern side of Grenet is residential. The street is two-way, and fairly busy, but nothing compared with Marcel Laurin.

At the top end of this stretch, Grenet crosses Henri Bourassa and then follows an underpass beneath the CN Commuter line at the Bois Franc station. (At the time when I first began using this route, they were working on re-building the station.)

Click to enlarge
(Taken on 2001 Ride to Laval)
Approaching CN Underpass on Grenet

Beyond the underpass, I am in Cartierville. As I climb the hill, both sides of the street are lined with fairly scuzzi-looking apartment buildings. The view improves as I cross De Sallabery, and begin the long coast downhill towards Gouin Boulevard.

At Gouin, I can turn west and follow the road right up to the LaChapelle Bridge. At the LaChapelle Bridge, the bike path along the river takes a series of zigs and zags through the residential area that once was Belmont Park. If I am less of a purist, I can turn east on Gouin and take the first street north to catch the path.

Shortcut: NDG to Points East: 1999-2002

When heading to points north and east, my typical route to the Back River takes me well out of my way. The geography of Montreal and of the Rivière des Prairies shoreline is such that Cartierville is not only west, but also quite a bit north of more easterly points such as the Viau Bridge or the park at Ile de la Visitation. When I would begin my trips by going to Cartierville, I would find myself returning south again as I headed east along the river.

I made the discovery of this "shortcut" almost by fluke. First, when Sheryl and I participated in the Tour de l'Ile of 1997, along with our friends Claudia and Gilbert, I became familiar with the geography around their house, most notably that their street, Tolhurst, came down as far as Sauvé. They lived just a block or so south of Henri Bourassa. I also realized that a parallel street was Jeanne Mance, the same Jeanne Mance which met the bike trail just past Bordeaux. From earlier drives, I had become familiar with the Sauvé and l'Acadie intersection, just north of Rockland Shopping Centre.

It was an evening in the early Spring of 1999, when Sheryl had a meditation group meeting at a house on the western side of Town of Mount Royal. I strapped the bike on the car and drove over with her. I had, then, from about 17:00 to about 21:00 to explore. Not really knowing where to head, I went east to the town centre, and then northeast to Rockland. I crossed the shopping centre and found myself at l'Acadie. Pieces started to fall into place. I rode around the traffic circle and across the Metropolitain Boulevard and followed l'Acadie north. Just past the elevated CN train embankment, I came to Sauvé, which I took east. Very quickly, I came to the CP tracks and followed Sauvé under them. Quickly on the other side, I came to Tolhurst, which I took north. Crossing Henri-Bourassa, I soon found myself intersecting the Back River bike trail, and headed east to the dam at Ile de la Visitation. The whole transit seemed much faster than my usual route. I had ample time to explore and still be back to my starting point ahead of schedule.

Having done the route a couple of times now, I can say it only takes me on the average about 45 minutes to reach the Back River, and at a point at least 10-15 minutes along the Back River bike trail from Cartierville, saving me as much as half an hour.

I can say the route begins at Jean-Talon and Decarie. I take various paths through NDG and Snowdon, to get to the Decarie Square shopping centre, and then ride under the CP tracks on the western sidewalk of the Decarie service road. I cross at the Decarie complex at Jean-Talon, with the traffic light.

I can then follow Jean-Talon all the way east to the Cote des Neiges interchange, where, on the opposite side, TMR's Laird Boulevard begins its diagonal approach to the town centre. Alternatively, I can follow Jean-Talon only as far as Victoria, and then head north on Victoria to De la Savane, and then turn right onto Kindersely. This latter route is preferred, as Kindersely is a quiet, residential street and much more bicycle friendly and visually appealing than busy Jean-Talon.

Either route brings me to the centre of Town of Mount Royal. It is at this point that the 'X' formed by the diagonal boulevards Laird and Graham come together. Here is the crossing over the CN Commuter line, the trafic circle, and what small collection of businesses TMR has. If I have taken Kindersely, then I will intersect Boulevard Graham, come finish my route to the centre along this street.

Click to enlarge
(Taken on 1999 Ride to Sault au Recollets)
Over the CN Trench in TMR

I head out from the town centre along Laird Boulevard, towards the northeast. This brings me, eventually, to Brittany Street, alongside the Metropolitain expressway and only a block west of Rockland Shopping Centre.

It is easiest to ride through the parking lot of Rockland Centre, as the traffic along the service road, having just exited the expressway, if not bicycle friendly. At the far side of the shopping centre is l'Acadie. While it is possible to rejoin the throng of traffic and ride around the traffic circle, I find it much more pleasant, safer and shorter, to dismount and walk the bike as a pedestrian, taking advantage of the traffic lights.

The ride north along l'Acadie is not the most pleasant. It is a wide and busy boulevard. To the east has been opened a whole new series of big box store, while to the west is an industrial park. After a few minutes comes the opening through the earthen wall of the raised CN line, and then the intersection with Sauvé.

Turning right on Sauvé, one finds more of the same, although Sauvé is not quite as busy as l'Acadie. The underpass under the CP line is a long one, and the sidewalk is probably a better place for cyclists. Coming up on the far side, one finds the scenery changed. While to the south are large, light-industry factory buildings, the north side has become residential.

Soon one comes to Tolhurst, which is the route north. Coming south, I take the paralle Jeanne Mance. Tolhurst is a residential street, with single family homes on both sides, and is quite pleasant.

Getting across Henri Bourassa can be a bit of a chore, as there is no light at the intersections of Tolhurst or Jeanne Mance. Once across, though, it is once again quiet and pleasant, until one reaches Gouin Boulevard. At this point, the Back River bike path is running along Gouin. Upon returning, it is important to be on the lookout for Jeanne Mance, in order to turn left.

Click to enlarge
(Taken on 1999 Back River/Bout de l'Ile Ride)
Gouin Boulevard bike path near Jeanne Mance & Tolhurst

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Roger Kenner May, 2002; Lite Version: January, 2004