Le Corbeau Refuge to Le Riusseau-Creux Refuge
Dream Porch Camp to How Does One Build A Refuge Camp
ECT miles: 17.7
Total miles: 2539.4
Elevation change: 4715ft gain, 5052ft loss
There was no getting out of it today. The trail was hard, a true butt-kicker, and there were no opportunities to bail back to the comfort of New Brunswickian roads. Instead, Quebec lay the toughest, low-key trail at our feet. There were no grand mountains like the Mahoosucs or Presidentials of the Whites to explain what was happening, or even to suggest that SpiceRack and I were in for a wild ride. However, that didn’t stop the steeps from being steeeeeeep, and even the few miles of flat on the elevation profile harbored a myriad of jiggles that resulted in some of the slowest hiking of the day. For fourteen hours we fought for our modest mileage total, and it was easy to feel defeated when we staggered into camp well after sunset. Despite this, I had a great day. There was rugged beauty from start to finish, and a quiet feeling of solitude pervaded the intimate landscape. It was just Spice and me all day, in the wild far from civilization, giving it everything. Sure it was hard, but it was also rewarding.
I shook Spice awake. The hills across the valley were glowing gold under a sky of low clouds, and as the queen of sunrises, I didn’t want her to miss it. Besides, it must have been time to get moving. Nope, it wasn’t yet 5am. I snoozed for another hour, then lay in excited anticipation until our alarm sounded at 7am. I was feeling better than I had in days, finally hydrated, finally rested. We packed up after a breakfast of coffee and date bars, and were hiking by 8am.
The trail immediately dropped us to Ruisseau Clark on a steeply meandering track through the trees, and my knees ached by the time we reached the bottom. It wasn’t a nice way to warm them up, but at least the next two miles along the river were easy and flat, right? Wrong. The narrow gorge was incredibly peaceful, a gem hidden in the folded hills of a vast forest, existing outside the knowledge and ambitions of all, but a few who ended up here almost by accident, like us. That said, it did not give up its treasures easily. The trail rollercoastered along the steep banks, rising and descending sharply to navigate around short bands of cliffs. Six bridges made the water crossings inconsequential, but our feet still got wet with the high water flooding the lower portions of trail. It took us over two hours to navigate the gorge, our pace slowed only in small part due to frequent stops to poke squishy moss or ogle at a wall of ferns.
The next part of the day was easy in comparison. We left the ruisseau behind to climb up and over a flatfish lump through a forest that was filled with green at all levels. I relished the shade and relative smoothness of the trail as we pushed to recover some time. A short stretch of overgrown ATV track was a welcome ally in this quest, but in hindsight, it just gave us false hope that the hardest was behind us. It carried us down to another, much larger ruisseau, the Assemetquagan River, where we happened on an unexpected camping area. It was empty, of course, but we made good use of the tent platform to drop our packs while I made good use of the privy. Perfect timing.
Once again we were confronted with a deceptively challenging, flat two miles of trail along a river. Really, it was our expectation of speed that let us down because the area was again a treasure. The river flowed wide and shallow, and filled the air with its fresh energy. You could smell it, you could feel it. While the trail was actually pretty level this time, it was densely overgrown and washed out in places. It almost felt like we were walking blind with each step, and it was only with great care that we pushed forward. A moose, then a small bear, put us to shame when they crashed through the brush like it wasn’t even there.
We finally made it to Le Quartz Refuge at 3:30pm, hungry and pretty beat. It had taken us quite a bit longer to get there than we’d expected, so we were well past our lunch time and feeling it. We filtered water and ate in the shade of the old cabin, trying to strike the right balance of relaxation and revival. I could tell that Spice was crunching the numbers in her head and not liking the results. After pushing hard for seven hours, we were just over halfway through our mileage goal, and looking ahead at the steepest climbs of the day. It was easy to feel the weight of our perceived lack of performance, but what we had been through so far was tougher than we could have reasonably expected. I was fortunate to have had similar experiences with ludicrously rugged trail while hiking on the AT to draw from, but Spice was still new to the East Coast’s (how should I say it?) less-refined definition of the word ‘trail’. It could wallop you when you least expected it. We had been walloped, and were doing the best we could to prepare ourselves to do it all over again. That meant coffee, a strong pot of coffee.
Though we were tempted just to walk up the river instead of going up and over to the next crossing, we hiked out to attempt the steepest climb of the day. After a reasonably steep section, the trail became ridiculously steep. It was unreasonable, really. I choked up on my poles, grabbing them at half-height so that I could still use them on the seemingly vertical dirt in front of me. I followed Spice who was making great progress, occasionally craning my neck to glance up through dripping sweat to see her just a dozen steps ahead, but two full body heights above me. It was crazy, and also impossible to photograph.
When we finally got to the top, Spice was dragging her poles. I felt for her. This was the kind of day that crushes one’s spirit and makes you question everything. That climb was unfair, purely outrageous, and even though I believed that Quebec would get easier, I couldn’t be sure. That was a sobering thought because as hard as today was proving to be, it was still a relatively short one at just 17 miles. We had multiple 26 to 30-mile days coming up. What then? The doubt was palpable as we caught our breath. I followed behind her, watching closely, on the same unspoken page, and trying to resist despair. Then all the tension exploded in a flurry of feathers and flapping wings. A momma grouse didn’t like my look and came rushing for my face. I let out a totally controlled and extremely manly yell as I covered my eyes and turned away. The bluff charge wizzed by, and after I had retreated up the trail and regained my senses, I noticed Spice standing there with a hand covering a wide grin. As the unscathed survivor of several bird attacks on the ECT so far, I was proud of my successful defense. Was it funny? Yes, but it was also effective.
All too soon, we lost all the elevation that we’d just gained as the trail tumbled us back down to the Assemetquagan. This time we crossed the river instead of stumbling along it. A cable between trees on opposite banks with dangling ropes offered some sense of security as we inched across the thigh-high flow, but our trekking poles were the true heroes. Mine vibrated in my hands with the relentless energy of this sleepless force. It was exciting and fun, but only because there were clearly no hazards downstream. I imagined the scene after heavy rain, with water pushing at my hips or abdomen. Maybe exciting, but not fun.
Safely on the far shore, we squeezed the water from our socks, ate a bar, then continued. Of course, the trail climbed from there, and while it was steep, it was much less so. The forest was more beautiful as well, aided greatly by the evening glow. It warmed the cool green of the tall ferns that brushed our elbows after filtering through the whispering leaves above. Birch and pine and ferns, I loved this forest. It was giving Spice some new life as well, and I heard her talking to herself up ahead, turning this into some kind of video game with power-ups and whatnot. We sailed along on a sunset cruise. Then I explained the plot of The Sandlot as we descended to Ruisseau Creux, which reminded me that it is probably my favorite movie of all time.
At 9pm we dunked again up to our knees. We still had 1.6 miles until home, and the good vibes faded with the daylight. The short distance would have been nothing in New Brunswick, but if today had taught us anything, it was that there is no ‘nothing’ trail in Quebec. A short and steep uphill proved us right, and then a long, arduous traverse upstream ground that truth deep into our tired minds. The skinny trail was overgrown and difficult to follow by headlamp, but we made it to Le Riusseau-Creux Refuge before 10pm, after two more river crossings. One wet, and one on a bridge, if you can believe it.
I think it goes without saying that we were beat. Even unpacking seemed like too large a task, but at least we had the refuge all to ourselves. We set up our sleep stuff on the porch again, and sat in exhausted silence as our tomato couscous cooked. Flickering candlelight revealed a troubled expression on Spice’s face, and I think that I understood why. If 17 miles were this tough, how would 20, 25, or 30 feel? The rigid Quebec itinerary, where each night is booked and paid for in advance, had already caused us all kinds of grief, pushing us to hike harder than prudent through New Brunswick to hit our start date. Now we were caught in the machine as it again threatened to crush us in the gears of unrealistic expectations. We blue-blazed through day one, and just barely survived day two. We were already sinking. Could we hold our breath long enough to learn how to swim, or would the trail throw us a lifeline? Time would tell.
Invisible noseeums nibbled our faces as we tried to sleep. Then, one last sharp bite prompted us to move inside. It was past midnight by the time we were fully settled. Tomorrow was here already. How would it go?