Le Kalmia Campsite to Lac Cascapédia Campground
Soggy Platform Camp to Hot Waterfall Camp
ECT miles: 16.4
Total miles: 2686.9
Elevation change: 4642ft gain, 4675ft loss
The glory of Gaspésie was there all day, but it was hard for me to appreciate it this morning. The world was draped in gloom, as was my brain. Yesterday’s wet finish dovetailed so perfectly into today’s wet start that my depressed resignation carried over easily as well. As we marched through a soaked forest under threatening clouds, SpiceRack and I both hit an energetic low-point. It wasn’t anger or a physical reckoning, it was just a lull in enthusiasm, not uncommon for me after more than a day of absent sunshine. The level to which my mood is linked to the weather is uncomfortable, yet fortunately, the highs are higher than the lows are low. While I sometimes descend into resigned indifference after a day of rain, I absolutely soar with the sun when it reappears. My experience today followed this pattern with hilarious predictability, and I got psychological whiplash when the afternoon weather finally did undergo its glorious metamorphosis. In the span of just a few minutes, I went from literally begging the clouds to clear, to maximum stoke, for lack of a more eloquent description. Suddenly, the day was the greatest that had ever been, and all the rain had been worth it for the appreciation that it nurtured within while the sun bided its time. In hindsight, I am usually grateful for the lows, and that was no different today. The Gaspésie landscape deserves the drama, for it helps me appreciate the beauty all the more.
I felt some hope when I poked my head out of bed at 6am. It certainly wasn’t sunny, but the tent was almost dry, and I might have spied a blink of blue through the trees. Or maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me. Spice and I slipped into the morning routine, eating and packing without haste or distraction. I noticed a slight headache and cursed internally. Then I pulled on my wet socks and shoes, which is always the ultimate act of commitment to starting the day. There’s no going back now. I pooped while Spice filtered water from Lac Cōté, then we switched places. The clouds hung low, hiding the tops of the hills across the water. They had reunified, squelching the blue resistance into nothing, along with my hopeful optimism. I turned back to the soggy forest, preparing myself to outlast these fleeting moments of discomfort, one step at a time.
I was not blind to the lovely sea of ferns that lapped at my waist, but I’d reached the point where damp green things didn’t enthrall me anymore. I was ready for a beauty that was less subtle or atmospheric. I longed for scenery of scale to make me feel small and insignificant. I wanted to see far and wonder how long it would take us to walk there. In the forest, I could wonder about what was around the next bend, but the answer didn’t excite me. Ferns and trees, then more green things. Maybe some mud and moose poop too.
I dragged behind Spice as we clambered up something big. Although the trail was steep, it was apparent that the national park dollars were being put to good use as we encountered staircase after quality staircase. These not only eased our travel, but also gave us something to talk and wonder about. When that game got old, my thirsty brain struggled to solve the mind puzzles that Spice lobbed at me. I hiked on, trying hard to think, but getting nowhere, leaving only silence where my creativity used to live. However, I did have one stroke of genius up my sleeve. One born of laziness. I couldn’t be bothered to drop my pack and pull on my rain jacket when it began to rain, so instead I reached behind my head and unclipped my sleeping pad before draping it over my head. The makeshift A-frame protected my torso from the elements with satisfying effectiveness, but the best part was feeling silly and ridiculous with Spice once I got her on board. Unfortunately, there were no other hikers to see how clever and happy we were.
The pads were back on our backs when we topped out on the alpine summit of Mont John-A.-Allen. I was happy to be out of the ferns with some air above my head, but the swirling cloud neutralized the viewpoint. Willing the them to part, I sat on the edge of what I imagined was a vast abyss, but there was nothing for it. I swallowed the last of my Luna Bar, wiped the mud from my shorts, and kept hiking.
Down and out of the cloud, then right back into it. I sat like a crumpled piece of trash on the shore of a small lake while Spice filtered water for us both and used her deep knowledge of my moods and energetic swings to insist that I drink a bucket-load of water. Of course, the boost in hydration perked me up, which fortified my mind so that the following section across the long ridge of Mont du Blizzard was less of a downer for all the unrealized views and opportunities to feel small. A distant rumble of thunder piqued my interest, and we listened intently. Fortunately, it sounded benign and distant, but it was something to keep track of.
With the weather bounding between various forms of wet, Spice and I made the obvious choice to take a short side trail to La Mésange Refuge for lunch. It was a strange building, needlessly complicated and oddly geometric, perched on stilts for some reason. The look reminded me of a research station at the South Pole, both modern and old at the same time. It was empty and warm, and I breathed in deeply the cloying aroma of freshly lacquered window sills. It was equal parts unpleasant and nostalgic. After eating our fill, Spice took a nap and I sat at the table, looking out the window as a more intense round of rain and thunder blew over us. That made the refuge feel all the warmer, and I took it a step further, imagining the heightened coziness of this place in winter when fresh snow covered the staircase and weighed down the needled boughs.
The weather was beginning to clear when we stepped back into the outside world, although I wasn’t quite ready to raise the flag of optimism just yet. I’d been fooled by a patch of blue sky before. Once we returned to the trail, it slipped and slid us down to a collection of lakes where we reached our physical and mental low point. Despite the improving weather, neither of us was excited to be here. Low energy and uninspiring trail given the conditions were bringing us down. It was a challenge just to stay on our feet, and the self-given, internal rewards had ceased to be enough in the absence of external payoff. We discussed this while filtering water and dangling our legs from a small footbridge, acknowledging one another and validating our own struggles. In a way, this dialogue was exactly what we needed. Now we were in it together, unified within a world where nothing would come easily. As we climbed away from the lakes, I started to feel brighter, and we even tossed around a few jokes.
The trees fell away as we approached the edge of a mighty escarpment. Finally, with the clouds lifted, we were able to see the geology of where we’d spent all day walking, and it was awesome. This northern boundary of the Chic-Choc’s cut an abrupt edge like the cliffy face of Mont Nicol-Albert, and the great barrier snaked side to side while undulating up and down into the West. The wall was entirely steep, but only where it was vertical did the tenacious greenery lose grip of the gray stone. Again, the only comparison that I could draw from my life was to the mixture of tropical lushness and volcanic brutality of Hawaii. The bouncy green softened the harsh geology, but it didn’t fool me. While it was pretty to look at, hiking across was something that I wanted zero part of.
I traced my vision down the cliffs, following the rock waterfall’s frozen splash into a turbulent pool of hills that waved and churned until crashing over another edge into the distant sea. The view was epic, and so pretty. I felt small in the best way. But then I got angry. The damn rain refused to let me have my moment and I unfairly labeled the weather as malevolent, taking this latest downpour personally. I refused to put on my rain jacket out of stubborn spite, letting the drifting drops give me cool pricks through the sleeves of my shirt.
When I had calmed down, I saw the rain for the gift that it was. It swept over the hills in hazy sheets, obscuring and scrubbing, sometimes twinkling brightly as it blew into my face across the great gulf of air at my feet. It was wild, and helped me take one step closer to the edge of my controlled world. Still, I didn’t want to feel my wild self in this moment, so I beseeched the rain to go away, humbly asking with outstretched arms from the edge of a cliff for the clouds to move on, to leave us alone. After saying my peace, I turned to follow Spice up and along this edge, satisfied that I had done my best and could do no more.
We were overtaken by one more burst of droplets as we pushed the final few steps to Pic du Brulé, then saw it pass us by, leaving us behind on its blow east. Sunshine brightened the crowns of the western peaks, and a line of clouds drew back to reveal a spotless blue sky. This was the best moment. I couldn’t recall ever witnessing such an expansively abrupt transition in the weather. In minutes, the rain was gone leaving only the damp ground behind as evidence that it had existed.
My mood soared, and even the super mud following the next short descent couldn’t cling to my wings. I poked my head over the wooden fence at every viewpoint along the outrageous overhanging cliffs on the ascent to Mont Ernest Ménard, like a little kid. The rocks were amazing, the views were amazing, these mountains were amazing, this trail was amazing. Everything was amazing. Spice let me have my moment, and made sure I knew that the bench she was lying on was also amazing.
Over the summit, the trail magically transformed into the best tread imaginable. It was like we had clicked our heels and been transported to the PCT. Wide, smooth, and gradual, the gravely track sped us down to Lac Cascapédia, our home for the evening. A dense verge of white wildflowers glowed in the evening light, guiding our way like dim lanterns as we snaked through the trees, shocked by our good fortune. We even began to dream of a night in an empty refuge. Would there be other hikers at our campsite? If there were, then at least they might have a campfire going by the time we got there. We can’t lose!
As we dropped into the wide valley, I could see a distant haze of smoke struggling to take flight above the treetops. Well, I guess we won’t have the refuge to ourselves, but at least we get that fire. The sun was just setting on the hills across the humongous lake when we reached the sandy shore, still unaware of how wrong we had been. It finally dawned on us as we walked into a massive campground. The smoke was from not just one humble fire set ablaze by a pair of backpackers. No, it was the accumulation from a hundred fires, being enjoyed by hundreds of campers. Haha, nope, no quiet evening in a refuge tonight. Instead, we got lost amongst the sprawling campsites, confused as to where exactly our reservation had claimed as our home for the evening. Down by the lake? Over behind the chalets? After wandering around for 30 minutes, we still couldn’t find anything specific about backpacker camping. The office was closed so we pitched our tent in the only empty campsite that we could find, conveniently located on trail, near the bathrooms. We had a pretty good feeling that this was where we were supposed to be.
Free hot showers called us like moths to the moon, and we brought with us our socks and shoes. They were saturated with mud after many dunks in bottomless gloops, and we did our best to see the water run clear. It was an impossible task, but we were delighted with our improvements. As we strolled upstream through the small crowd of campers returning from the evening lakeside ranger program, even after our showers, we felt out of place among the cozy sweaters and thermoses of hot chocolate. We wore the weathered puffies of hundreds of trail nights, and carried a small pile of soggy socks. We also viewed the campground amenities as luxuries rather than the picture of deprivation. We were all here to recharge, but in different ways and for different reasons. Just like the rain helped me appreciate the sun, the grime helped me appreciate the shower. Couscous and sleep, however, I need nothing to boost my appreciation for these things. They came next, and were the last.