Lac Matane to Lac Beaulieu Shelter
A Moment Is All We Are Camp to Platform Camp
ECT miles: 12.8
Total miles: 2638.4
Elevation change: 5545ft gain, 5318ft loss
Deep in the Chic Choc mountains of the Gaspé Peninsula, as SpiceRack and I ascended to a pointed summit on a stunning morning, something finally clicked for me. Gazing north from the summit of Mont Pointu, we could see that the mountains smoothed to a low forest that almost extended to the horizon. But the two never touched. In that gap was the barest hint of something that I had never seen on any thru-hike before, save one. There was water, or salt water, rather. The thin blue sliver of the St. Lawrence River bounded the land, separating it from the sky. And even though we still had plenty of solid ground between us and the ECT terminus at Cap Gaspé by virtue of our long arc eastward, the vast stretch of liquid formed an imposing barrier, one that this journey on foot would not breach even after skirting along it for another ten days. Unlike the other termini or borders I’d seen on the PCT, CDT, and AT, this one had been carved by natural forces that transcended the fickle influence of humans. We were walking to the ocean, to where we could walk no more, and that same ocean would be there in thousands of years and longer still, beyond the lifespan of everyone I know, Quebec, Canada, or maybe even homo sapiens. This permanent and objective limit was what got me thinking about the ECT in the first place. Hiking ocean to ocean makes a lot of sense to me, and when I saw the St. Lawrence today, I understood why. My perspective shifted in that moment. The map view meshed with reality. I was both on the earth and high above it, like a bird or satellite. That blue stripe was no longer just an artful representation of water drawn on a page, it was real, it was there, filled with life and the promise of a cold splash when we finally got close enough to touch. Then I was a dot on a map, and I could trace all my previous dots south along the Appalachians to Maine, to Georgia. From there I could envision the path of our future dots even further south to the tip of Florida, where again we would run out of land to support our steps. Splash. Seeing the finality of that water from the point of Pointu was both humbling and comforting. This hike north would end. We were not just wandering around in a boundless world of endless purpose. No, we were walking to the sea, and there it was. This thru-hike had walls, reference points, a finish line, and those things grounded me, making this journey feel more tangible, less esoteric and futile. From this lofty summit I could see far and feel much. That was the gift of the day.
The alarm buzzed optimistically at 5am. Obviously, we snoozed. It had been a comfy night, so why not extend the comfy morning? Miles to hike? Yeah, but not many. A rising symphony of coyote howls was next to rouse us, and we couldn’t ignore or snooze this alarm. Nor did we want to. Eventually at 6:30am, we were hiking after a few handfuls of granola and a fresh pot of Timmy’s best instant coffee, improved by the edible detritus of meals past that had been dislodged from the pot’s interior during this round of boiling. After a short discussion and consideration of the satellite photo of our location, we decided to stay on our dirt road rather than backtrack to the trail. This would save us some time and give us easy stepping while our gams warmed up.
In two quick miles, we were back on the trail, following it through an uncut section of forest to Lac du Gros Ruisseau. The ferns glowed, as ferns do when blasted by bright sunshine, and I thanked the day for starting so fresh. It was cool, the humidity was low, and the possibilities were endless. I stopped to poop when we crossed that same dirt road, and so chased Spice up and over a ferny ridge. The tremendous green of the northeastern forests had slowly started to lose its novelty over the past weeks, but something about ferns in the bright sun still shocked me. This hillside was full of them, so vibrant, impossibly lush.
I caught Spice while she was filtering water for us at yet another dirt road, then we shared gossip from home as the trail pointed us up, over, and along some more ferny lumps. This was serious fern country, and I loved it. Widely spaced fir and pine let fields of fiddles flow around their feet, giving breathing room to the forest where my gaze and thoughts could roam free. And roam we did, following the overgrown single-track up to the increasingly rocky summit of Mont Pointu. It was a big climb, but oh so worth it. I couldn’t be mad at whoever had routed the IAT up this mountain instead of around it. This was no PUD (stands for: Pointless Up and Down). In fact, this was the most rewarding climb since Katahdin. Spice and I shared a summit-kiss, and I twirled on the summit, soaking in the full panorama of hills on hills. The wide bulk of Mont Blanc, the high point of Matane, loomed ahead, and the slender strip of the St. Lawrence River slithered across the northern horizon, churning up all kinds of thoughts and feelings in my chest. I could have stayed up there all day, soaking it in, thinking the thoughts, and feeling the feels, but after a shady rest on some moss, Spice and I headed on down the other side, hot, thirsty, and logy from an overdose of sunshine and bliss.
An amazingly steep rollercoaster connected Pointu with Mont Craggy, then continued even more steeply to another string of smaller jig-jags. Even though we were still hiking through my beloved ferns, the grade and rising thirst made this section a grind. None of it looked hard, but we weren’t at our best and our quest was self-defeating. We needed a rest to fuel and hydrate, but couldn’t until we made it to the next stream on the other side of this junk. The final two miles surprised us, even though we had taught ourselves not to be surprised, or so we had thought. Finally, frustrated with the tricky side-hilling on the lower slopes of Mont Blanc, we reached a tiny stream. If only there had been a flat spot in the shade… We filtered and chugged, then continued a little bit further to the next, larger stream. Again, we were disappointed and disheartened to discover that the lack of suitable lunch spots was chronic. But we absolutely had to recuperate out of the hot sun, so we forced our way to an almost flat spot, deep in the ferns.
It wasn’t luxurious, but we got the job done. Fat flies buzzed around us, but they seemed more interested in my stinky socks than anything else. Sticky slugs imperceptibly advanced on our position, but they were more interested in Spice than myself. Meanwhile, we toughed it out and made a full lunch out of it. Oatmeal, coffee, and so many other things. When we were finished, I hefted my food bag, noticing its lightness. Darn, shouldn’t have finished my chips. Tomorrow might be a little hungry.
After a short snooze and digest, at 4pm we pushed aside the ferns and got back on trail to go for the big climb of the day up Mont Blanc. This was going to be a fast burn, a tough, but quick straight shot to the top. 1,200 feet in 0.8 miles. Nice. I let Spice open up a short gap ahead of me so that we could both move at our own pace. Purposefully measuring my pace, I stepped deliberately, pulling hard on my poles, occasionally glancing up to see Spice close, yet high overhead. Initially, the sun was scorching on the lower slopes, but as we climbed higher, the breeze picked up to cool my sweaty shirt while I caught my breath and enjoyed the increasing views.
By the time we reached the flat summit plateau, a herd of cumulous clouds had formed and darkened along the crest of the mountains. Would they rain? Would they thunder? Time would tell, and rather than rush down the other side of the mountain, we let ourselves feel the satisfaction of the accomplishment. We cruised to the summit hut and dropped our packs. The grassy bald afforded us stupendous views west, back the way we had come. Craggy, Pointu, William-Price, and a dozen other hills reared liked dark waves in a stormy sea. The steely clouds cast wide beams of shadow beneath them, silhouetting the Chic-Chocs in a menacing lack of detail. I felt high, exposed, on the edge.
Despite the intimidating cloud cover, we lingered on Mont Blanc for an hour. The summit was too comfortable, and camp not too far away. However, by the time we finally got moving, I was constantly looking up at the darkness hanging closely overhead, straining my hearing for a distant rumble. A few drops spit at us as we finished our traverse of the vast summit, but that was the worst of it. Soon, we were gliding down the gradual eastern slope, ogling at the dynamic dance of light and shadow sweeping across the grassy hillside. I’ve never seen The Sound of Music, but I am astute enough to have picked up that this looked just like wherever that movie takes place. And the day’s magnificence just continued. A brighter rumple of mountainous waves, heretofore unknown to us, disappeared into the distance. These were more intriguing than menacing, and I made futile attempts to pick out our route through them.
A swampy saddle sucked at our shoes and slowed us down before a benign climb around an anonymous hump. Even though it was the end of the day, the cooler temperature and our commendable level of hydration made the final few miles to camp a breeze. Spice and I chatted with vigor, discovering some juicy pockets of our histories that had inexplicably dodged mention over the years. It was fun to relive some of my past, and learn about hers.
It rained a little, but then we made it to Lac Beaulieu, our camp for the evening. The shelter was occupied, so we pitched our tent on a wooden tent platform, which provided an objectively insignificant, yet subjectively titanic, amount of flat, clean space to spread out. This little square of luxury took this camp to the next level in a way that might just be impossible to understand or explain. After setting up, Spice and I sat shoulder to shoulder in an open door, gazing at the lake, sharing mayo couscous. Finally, there were no bugs to bother us and keep us confined within our mesh domicile. Nope, tonight, that was the job of the rain. Fortunately, it waited for us to finish up before gently prodding us inside. To bed, little humans, it seemed to say. Sleep now and rest. That sounded good to me.