Le Riusseau-Creux Refuge to Riviere Matapédia
How Does One Build A Refuge Camp to Skinny-dip Canada Day Camp
ECT miles: 20
Total miles: 2559.4
Elevation change: 1988ft gain, 1995ft loss
A night of rest did little to dispel the fears that SpiceRack and I had about our ability to churn out the miles and stay on track. All too aware of how long it had taken us to hike 17 miles yesterday, the 29 miles that we had on the schedule today may have well been 100. Either the trail was going to get easier, way easier, or we weren’t going to make it. At this point, I think that it is worth mentioning that SpiceRack did a wonderful job of putting together our itinerary for Quebec, but it was nearly an impossible task due to some recent changes to the permit system. New for 2022, the GR A1’s governing body requires hikers to form a specific nightly itinerary, and book those campsites in advance. For thru-hikers attempting the entire 400 miles, this is a ludicrous requirement. Weather, injury, a bad day, or even just going with the flow, make garbage out of the best laid plans. Previously, all one needed was a backcountry ‘passport’, acquired through a one-time payment that allowed for an infinitely flexible hike. No need to book a specific site or refuge ahead of time. This unexpected change killed us, and Spice shouldered the burden of planning our hike while I was dancing with butterflies on my way north on the AT. It wasn’t an easy job, estimating daily mileage on an unknown trail, but she scrutinized the heck out of the elevation profile and did the best she could with her limited resources. That the trail had so far been as challenging as it was, took us both by surprise in a big way. We’d been warned about the Matane Wildlife Preserve and Gaspesie National Park (and planned shorter days accordingly), but these first miles caught us completely off guard. Now here we were, screwed by a heavy load of bureaucratic bullcrap. However, we were beat up, but not quite broken. Using our big brains and capable legs, we’d think and hike our way out of this predicament. We’re American, gosh darnit (lol). We would figure it out. We had to.
The 6am alarm, pulled me back to our impossible reality all too soon, but we had a long way to go and needed to maximize our day. We lit some candles and filtered water while our coffee cooked over the lightly humming jet of blue flame. Over granola we shared some sober conversation about our situation. We were on the same page: the next 29 miles would either need to be really easy, or shortcut-able. Looking at the map left the former a mystery, but the latter was confirmed. If we absolutely had to, we could walk the road and cut mondo miles. It wasn’t ideal, but it would keep the masters of this hamster wheel of a permit system happy. Figuring that out was a relief. Now it was time to hike and see what happened.
We watched a visiting moose circle the refuge through the many windows, then got going ourselves. The sky was overcast, occasionally spitting on us, but the morning was warm and not particularly threatening. Our first steps from the refuge we were on a light ATV track. This was a great sign and welcome change from the tough single-track of the previous day. Even though it started up at a steep angle, I could feel my optimism grow with each step. By the time it had gradually leveled out, one might say that I was hopeful.
The conversation carried over from yesterday, and we bantered about our favorite movies and commercials as we stepped over a chain across the road and entered a wind farm. That meant we’d get two of my favorite things, gigantic wind turbines and wide gravel road. Despite the light rain that sputtered to life, our spirits were high as we hiked our first truly fast miles in literally forever. The gravel crunched, the wind whispered, and the turbines whooshed. A smooth hour later we cruised into the hamlet of Sainte-Marguerite-Marie, pleased with our progress and on the hunt for snacks.
The tiny store eluded our initial search, and when we did find it, there wasn’t much for our discerning dietary choices. However, they sold hot coffee, which was really all that we wanted in this chilly gloom. We huddled at the bottom of the covered stairs, taking turns holding the warm paper cup, sharing bites of licorice and granola. So far so good to start the day.
From there, we had many easy miles of hiking across rolling countryside. It was everything that we had longed for yesterday, and again we made great time on a mixture of quiet paved and dirt roads. The surrounding land was a patchwork of fields and forest with little human activity, but it must have been used for something because the intricate network of roads was well-maintained and expansive. A junction here, an endlessly stretch of orange dirt there, someone was using these verdant fields of poofy dandelion for something. We just couldn’t guess what. Searching for mindless entertainment, we aimed our trekking poles at the roadside balls of white, teed up perfectly on sturdy stems. It was a tough task, and each explosion of miniature white parasails was celebrated with a mental fist pump.
The clouds blew out and the sun baked the soggy earth and us thirsty hikers. In no time at all, we were hot. A break to cool off in the shade turned into a chip break, then a full-blown lunch break, but what our bodies really needed was water. As we hiked on, I started to feel a little loopy, and I think that Spice was feeling it too. We got giggly as we made lyric changes to some Taylor Swift hits, which should probably be listed on WebMD as a symptom of dehydration. No sober person could have that much innocent fun.
Listening for water, we heard it gurgling next to the road in a deep gutter. Extraction was difficult, but possible, so we gratefully filtered and guzzled our fill. And that was just the beginning of our recuperation. In just a mile and a half we were wandering up the main road into Causapcal, a small, but well-appointed town along the Riviére Matapédia. Stopping at the first opportunity for town food, we sat at a shaded table outside Cantine Sportive. The french fries were as delicious as we’d come to expect from such establishments, and the iced tea hit the spot after the hot dry stretch.
It was here, near the beginning of our potential alternate route, that we discussed our options going forward. While it was feasible that Spice and I could make our goal of 29 miles today, we decided that it was worth extending our vision to the week ahead. There were limitless unknowns, even potentially unknown unknowns, and we were keen to protect ourselves from another day like yesterday. It is fair to say that the miles north of Matapédia spooked us. Because of this, we made the tough choice to replace 30 miles of the official route with 10 miles on the highway. By saving 20 miles, we would have a buffer to protect us from any impossible days that might be lurking in the mountains of Matane. While this was an obviously smart tactical move, one that immediately released massive pressure to grind out the miles, I was a little bit bummed. The part of the trail that we were skipping looked easy and kind of scenic, but the opportunity was unprecedented. Twenty miles could very well mean the difference between finishing this hike on schedule, or needing to sacrifice even more in a week’s time. It made sense, and now it was time to move forward and not look back. If anything, I was upset with the aforementioned permitting system for putting us in this situation to begin with. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice miles in order to safeguard our longterm health.
It took my body a few miles to ditch the built up stress and relax into the new plan. My mind, however, was fortunately distracted by the unexplained festivities taking place as we finished the walk through town and out the other side. Our first clue that something was afoot was the closed grocery store. A sign in the window said something in french about being shut for the holiday. Oh, Canada Day, I guessed. That’s sometime around now. That explains all the people. And there were a ton of people, filling the parks, filling the river, drunkenly asking us questions. Getting into the festivities ourselves, we stopped at the next Esso convenience store and treated ourselves to a root beer and spicy dill chips. Living it up.
The campground up the road was both too full and too expensive for our liking, so we kept on walking along the highway shoulder, optimistic that a suitable camping spot would appear. We were good people with plenty of good karma to spare, after all. We eyed some tucked away spots in between the widely-spaced homes, but then we found exactly what we were looking for. A grassy road to a public boat ramp dropped out of view of the highway before flattening out along the river. It was unmarked, and thus seemed unpopular, so we pitched our tent, stripped our sweaty clothes, and went for a swim. Even though it was still relatively early in the evening, we thought that we wouldn’t find better. Besides, it was Canada Day, and we’d made a bold move that had given us some breathing room. We were supposed to be having fun out here, so why not enjoy ourselves.
A chance to relax in the sun was a moment to relish, and we did. A big pot of couscous followed, which knocked us out before we could even think about watching a movie. Happy and content, we fell asleep easily, more tired than we knew, more relieved than I expected. We were making this hike our own. We were back in it, and that felt good.