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The Chronicles of an Adventure Photographer: Roaming Canada’s East Coast on MTB

This project was done in partnership with our friends at Vans.

To those on the fringes, the life of an action-sports photographer appears deeply enviable. While it is inarguably exhilarating and rewarding — a coveted and rare way to explore some of the planet’s most breathtaking and demanding environments with the toughest, most dedicated and most accomplished athletes in the adventure space — it also can be at times exhausting, constrictive and stressful. Travel with others naturally complicates things a bit and requires compromise; overlay that with the demands of a professional objective and a weather window and that once-in-a-lifetime chance to summit a remote peak takes on a different character.

Reuben Krabbe can easily speak to that. The Calgary-born ski and mountain bike photographer — who now bases out of Whistler, British Columbia, encircled by the stunning Coast Mountains — keeps quite busy this way, traveling with the sports’ elite to locations we not only dream of, but experience through his unique lens on the pages of magazines like POWDER, BIKE and National Geographic Adventure. His image of a skier silhouetted by a solar eclipse in Svalbard, Norway, in 2015 — which captured him POWDER’s Photo of the Year — is evidence of the lengths to which he’ll go to make something beautiful under immense pressure.

While Krabbe thrives on the very fringes of adventure travel, he holds a special place for exploring alone. “I do enjoy solo travel quite a bit,” he says. “I’ll go camping and those kind of things close to home, or sometimes I’ll be on assignment and I’ll fly into a different country and then some of the athletes might just be wanting to get home, [so] I’ll book my ticket to come home a little bit later and just get to go explore a town or some area. … It’s fun when you don’t have to compare or sort of compromise with another traveler; it’s just nice to cruise through it and get to do your own thing.”

Earlier this summer, we tapped Krabbe between trips for a solo mission unlike any he’d ever done: three days and four nights of turn-by-turn adventure, getting a taste of Quebec with nothing but a heads-up that mountain biking would be part of the fun. A box arrived the night before his scheduled departure containing plane tickets, a reservation for a rental car, some cash, a fresh journal and an unusual form of “itinerary”: a set of GPS coordinates. Truly a mystery trip, each day’s discoveries would be completely out of Krabbe’s hands; he knew only which point on the map to plug in next, and what time to be there.

“Sharing experiences is obviously always nice and valuable, but I think solo travel is a bit underrated,” Krabbe says. “When we travel, we’re often so much in control of what we do that you don’t end up in all of the really interesting places that you could end up in. You sort of travel by smartphone, by Google, and you go in between predictable experiences.

“This really changed that.”

Read on for his own account of giving up control and giving in to mystery on Canada’s East Coast.

When surprise is on the horizon, it pays to pack the simple standbys. Photo: Reuben Krabbe

Whistler: “I’d been told that we were going to be mounting biking, but then that was pretty much it. So as soon as I found out we were going to Quebec, I had to check to see what the weather was going to be like; I had no idea if they were going to have, like, a monsoon season, or if it was going to be way too hot. I didn't check all of the coordinates of where I was going to go, because I didn’t want to start spoiling it all; I wanted to keep traveling completely blind as I was going through it.

“[I always pack] a warm puffy jacket, because you never know when it’s actually going to get cold, [plus] a multi-tool and a Leatherman; it sucks to get stranded without those kinds of things.”

Overlooking the St. Lawrence River — the waterway that helped make Quebec so critical to trade in its early days. Photo: Reuben Krabbe

Quebec: “I think it’s cool … to travel in a way that isn’t exactly your own preference. Where travel is frequently and for good reason quite personalized, and it caters to you, it’s sort of interesting to be moving around in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise. Most of the sightseeing points seemed to be vantage points that helped me view the city. They were also all rooted in Canadian history.

“I’d normally be digging really, really far into the historical stuff of Quebec, and I would find that super fascinating, but because I just had to go through it in this whirlwind way … that experience itself was part of what was so cool — the way that you’re seeing it, not just what you saw. My favorite part of the tour was actually when it went wrong. I walked directly away from the place I was supposed to and ended up on a small, beautiful residential street. I thought I went wrong, so I was looking at my phone wondering what happened when I finally tuned into my surroundings and realized I was below someone’s open window where they were practicing violin. It was beautiful!”

Nestled inside the trail network itself, Krabbe’s cabin at Les Sentiers du Moulin might be just 20 minutes from the city center, but it feels a world away. Photo: Reuben Krabbe

Les Sentiers du Moulin: “This cabin is something that you can rent out at any point. But it’s literally within a stone’s throw of one of the bike trails. So when I was standing there shooting … there were still some people riding out of the trails even though it was almost dark. [It’s] super cool to be literally within the trail network. I’ve never heard of [something like this] existing before, so it’s entirely different. Most of the time if I’m on a trip, we’ll just be camping somewhere, so it was a little bit luxurious, having an actual space. I was sort of laughing, being like, ‘Ah, man, I wish I could have 15 people with me here.’ [Laughs.]

“They had some pretty cool freeride-style bike trails built there, so they had some technical features as well as just singletrack. It was cool because [trip guide and local rider] Gilles [Morneau] and the other guys we were riding with are some of the guys who are working on those trails all the time, so [the trails] really mean a lot to those guys; when you’re seeing it through their eyes, it just brings something new to that area.”

Krabbe and crew take a break from riding Vallée Bras-du-Nord’s extensive trail system — part of which was designed by his trip guide, Gilles Morneau — to cool off, take a dip and explore the nearby river. Photo: Reuben Krabbe

Vallée Bras-du-Nord

: “There are all these really cool rock forms [in the area], and you can play around in them and ride down them like waterslides. We jumped in the river and got a break from the heat, which was really needed at that point. It was probably only about 25 degrees Celsius [about 77 degrees Fahrenheit], but I’m not always so used to being in high humidity. We’d been riding all day, and it was so nice to jump into some fresh-flowing water. It wasn’t icy cold like the glacier river that I’ll always be jumping in at home.”

The Vallée Bras-du-Nord, in a gorgeous glacial valley, offers two sectors for cross-country mountain bikers: the Secteur Shannahan and the Secteur Saint-Raymond. Photo: Reuben Krabbe

Vallée Bras-du-Nord: “We just sat there and had lunch on these rocks and sort of enjoyed the views, and then we spent most of our time chatting about the way [Gilles] developed the area and approached the land managers when it used to just be a hiking area. He told them, ‘Hey, I think that you guys should bring mountain bikes in here; more people will come,’ and they were like, ‘Oh, that sounds sort of interesting; we’ll talk to our board.’ And the next week they’d come back and said, ‘Hey, well, the board says we’re interested in that; do you know anyone who could build a trail?’ and Gilles was like, “I could build you that trail!’ So he pretty much went in there and told them his vision and got to create it, which is a pretty unusual and perfect thing.

“Gilles was instrumental in opening [the resort area] up to mountain biking and putting in the first mountain bike trail, which is sort of this classic that runs down the length of the river. Since then, from what I understand, he’s still integrated in the way that everything’s being developed and influential in the riding culture there.”

Yourte Auréole at Vallée Bras-du-Nord, Krabbe’s accommodations for the last night of his trip, allowed a few quiet, fire-lit moments for reflection. Photo: Reuben Krabbe

Vallée Bras-du-Nord: “This one, again, is in the center of the trail network, so we passed the yurt on the way out of the trails when we were riding there for the day. It's a pretty simple thing — it’s just the yurts, no power, nothing else — and you’re just in this beautiful valley that has a whole bunch of hiking and biking trails developed around there. At this point, I was done riding for the day, and for the trip as well, so it was nice to just sort of be able to relax for a last little second and know that I was done with all of the chaos of the whole trip. I could finally kick back for a little bit before I just collapsed into bed, because I was also just crazy tired at the end of this; it was a full-on trip.”