It Takes A Valley

The celebrated outdoor destination Bras-du-Nord Valley is home to a unique solidarity movement that promotes eco-responsible recreation and social reintegration. Discover how this innovative co-operative is protecting the environment and strengthening its local community.

Text—Léa Beauchesne
Photos—Drowster

In partnership with

Behind the bell tower of the church in Saint-Raymond, the Laurentian highlands spread out as far as the eye can see. Here in this vast landscape carved by ancient glaciers lies the beautiful Bras-du-Nord Valley. With its abundance of untamed nature and infinite possibilities for adventure, the region is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. But these forests and waterways are also the birthplace of something utterly unique and special: a solidarity co-operative capable of transforming a community.

Frédéric Asselin
Étienne Beaumont

Frédéric Asselin launched Vallée Bras-du-Nord in 2002 alongside Danielle Larose, the visionary behind the project, and a small team of idealists. Their first task was convincing the inhabitants of Saint-Raymond that the area had the potential to become a major outdoor destination. Then they had to do all the necessary development and promotion to draw visitors. As if that wasn’t enough, the group also set out to create a model for an innovative and economically viable co-operative organization.

The journey has not been easy—far from it. “It was a series of challenges,” says Étienne Beaumont, who now co-directs the co-op with Frédéric. “The wind was against us, the community didn’t believe in it.”

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Originally from Saint-Raymond, Étienne felt uninspired by the professional opportunities available to him locally, mostly in industrial settings, and planned to leave his hometown for good. But then the co-op reached out to him for a six-month contract: he would be building trails with youth struggling to find their place in society. Nearly 20 years later, he’s still here, and the model is going strong.

The co-op now includes working members, supporting members, and producing members. From the farmer who allows cyclists to ride through his land to the employee who volunteers her time each day, everyone contributes to the success of the co-op, which has become the pride of the residents of Saint-Raymond.

Beyond its role protecting an exceptional natural environment, the Vallée has become a reason for many in Saint-Raymond to stay, to return, or even to move there.

Étienne Beaumont is proud of this revitalization: “People who work here are passionate. They leave more lucrative jobs to come work for a co-op. They feel valued—like they belong to a greater whole.”

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Young families in search of a community

This sense of shared purpose is important for Alexandra, who tucks her baby into a carrier while keeping an eye on her two-year-old, Grégoire, as they spend the morning together at the welcome centre. Nearby, her colleagues are practising a similar choreography: Gabrielle rocks her second child, and Jasmine, eight months pregnant, plays with her three-year-old. The presence of these young families is a promising sign for the health of the broader Bras-du-Nord community.

The search for people who shared their values, and for a haven of nature, are what motivated Alexandra and her partner, Alexandre, to move to Saint-Raymond in the midst of pandemic chaos. The couple, both in their thirties, were also moving to be closer to Alexandre’s parents, who live here.

Neither of them knew what awaited them when they left Sept-Îles. And then, just as her parental leave was coming to an end, Alexandra joined the cooperative as its marketing and communications coordinator. They even found a daycare for Grégoire. “It’s truly a community,” she says. “Raising children here is reassuring, in the midst of all that’s hanging over us with climate change and the polarization of opinions.” Since then, Alexandra’s parents and brother have also chosen to move to the area, to the great joy of this young family.

For his part, Alexandre is reclaiming a very different Saint-Raymond after 20 years away. “I left in 2001. Two lumber companies were closing, my uncles were all unemployed. It was hard to imagine a happy future here.”

He takes a seat on a large stone outside the welcome centre and points to the nearby Delaney Falls: “All the waterfalls here are high-altitude lakes spilling over,” he observes. “This landscape was created by glacial erosion.” A geologist by training, Alexandre is in his element. Two decades after leaving, he’s clearly happy to be home.

Cultivating relationships and the land

Visitors to Bras-du-Nord Valley get to discover a wide range of magnificent landscapes: crystal clear lakes, 80 km of hiking trails, and a vast network of mountainbiking trails. But because these run through both public land and private lots, access can be delicate. Frédéric Asselin recalls the years he spent going door-to-door to obtain rights-of-way from owners: “We convinced them one by one,” he recalls. “I would go talk to them and say, ‘Try it for a year, and after that, see what you think.’ Since then, the wheels have kept on turning.”

A few minutes from the centre of Saint-Raymond, a small peak lovingly known as the “Swiss mountain” encompasses one of the areas reserved for mountain biking. Just across from it, Fanny Roy and Pierre Eggen’s milk cows watch the coming and going of cyclists.

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Pierre is originally from Switzerland, and the Swiss mountain is named in his honour. He tells me how he became involved with the co-op. “I said to myself that if there were bike paths, it would mean I could avoid having dirt bikers come bust up my land.” This approach has paid off: cyclists protect the trails fiercely from intruders who would dare cause damage.

As the sun slowly sinks in the sky, young people from the biking club head out in single file into the forest. From their land, Fanny and Pierre look on with friendly faces. It’s not always as bucolic as this Monday evening in summer—on busy days, hundreds of bicycles can pass right beside the house—but the pair believe in the positive impact of the project on the community. As long as the advantages outweigh the annoyances, the trail will be here.

A boy from the club rides toward Pierre. “One of your cows is out walking near the trail; I don’t know if you knew.” With a hint of a smile, Pierre heads out to find the wayward beast. He’ll need to check his fences.

An authentic approach to sustainable tourism

GHG calculation, good jobs, 1% for the Planet, conservation of the environment, the pursuit of gender equality: the Vallée is doing everything to exemplify the core values of the sustainable tourism movement. And yet, Frédéric and Étienne are humble about their achievements. If the marriage between their business model and sustainable development is possible, it’s because they’ve always prioritized its economic viability, they argue. Whether by developing modern lodgings or making a mountain-bike trail that draws enthusiasts from across Québec, Vallée Bras-du-Nord knows how to play the game. For Étienne, “If you have no economic strength, you depend on everyone else. Your vision is weak.”

It’s precisely this financial independence that allows them to ensure the integrity of the territory. Each trail is consciously designed so as to limit cuts and anticipate future erosion, even if it takes longer to construct. The ground has its limits, and the forest too: the Vallée Bras-du-Nord team is well aware of this fragile equilibrium.

According to Étienne, protection of an area and human presence can go hand in hand. “I hope that once I’m gone, these trails will continue to provide a service for society. And that this economic model will continue to be embedded in a strong social fabric.”

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From year to year, the number of projects emerging from the community has increased around the co-op. A mountain-biking club, a high school outdoor program, major sporting events: Saint-Raymond vibrates to the rhythm of the Vallée’s offerings. Inhabitants participate in volunteer cleanup on the trails and join patrol teams. “They’re our best spokespeople!” says Étienne. “Yes, there are still two solitudes, in a sense, that don’t understand each other, but slowly we’re coming together.”

The rumble of snowmobiles and four-wheelers will always be heard through Saint-Raymond. But the territory is large; there’s room for all kinds of recreation, as long as there is mutual respect.

To each their trail with Projet en marche

“You’re gonna need two people to move this one, guys.” The stone Étienne Beaumont points out seems impossible to budge. All around him, the 2023 participants in the co-operative’s Projet en Marche program get to work, shovels and pickaxes in hand—a team of forest workers like any other.

But these 10 young adults are also tackling a more intangible challenge: rebuilding themselves. At school, at home, or at work, they have all experienced abandonment and rejection. Some of them live with major social anxiety, and others have problems with substance abuse.

“These are young people who don’t really know where to go in life, and now … they’re building a trail through the woods!” says Étienne. “They’re included in decision making: How are you going to do it? Do you have the right tools? Do you have enough support to make it happen? If you don’t work very much, not much will happen. But look what can come about when you work hard!”

Projet en Marche improves their chances of entering the job market. For six months, they work 35 hours a week in the valley, without access to drugs or alcohol, without a phone, and without music. In addition to building trails, they learn about the outdoors and participate in workshops with a social worker, a psychoeducator, and various local organizations.

Social worker Annie Plante has been a coordinator of the project for 11 years. She’s just returned from a week-long expedition with the group and is now meeting with each of them individually under the shelter of a large yellow tarp.

The positive morale of the participants demonstrates yet again that nature-based interventions are effective. “The group sees that, come what may, we’re the same. Three-quarters of them will truly improve their situation once the project is over.”

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As we talk, a youth named William walks toward Annie with a confident expression. “When I started working here, I couldn’t even look people in the eye,” he tells me. “Just going to the grocery store, seeing lots of people, was stressful for me.” Now William walks with his head held high and even smiles at strangers.

The Projet en Marche has been at the heart of the Vallée’s mission from the beginning. To this day, Étienne is inspired by the courage of the participants. “Working with these young people has been a revelation for me. I had the inner mission to share this way of life, the outdoors … they’re my heroes, truly.”

For a glimpse of the colossal work the team has accomplished, just look at l’escalier des Pas de géants, a creation 100 per cent by Projet en Marche.

Léa Beauchesne prefers wide open spaces to walls and pavement. She uses images and words to create moments out of time, in which human beings and nature come into contact. She doesn’t like worrying, except about her environment. You’ll find her climbing, sliding, or riding, always a bit in the clouds.

Drowster is a documentary photographer based in Montréal. His mission is to eradicate prejudice, using the power of beauty. He’s particularly fascinated by subjects related to the labour market and to isolated communities. His work has been published in Vogue, the Guardian, and Vice.


The Vallée Bras-du-Nord solidarity co-op has set itself the mission of ensuring sustainable recreational tourism development in harmony with the land, inhabited by fifty-some landowners who generously grant rights-of-way.

This incredible outdoor destination—in summer or winter—includes 110 km of mountain-bike trails and 80 km of hiking trails. River canoeing and kayaking, canoe-camping, backwoods skiing, and via ferrata are also options (among others) for discovering this place.

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