Lac Cascapédia Campground to Camping de la Riviére
Hot Waterfall Camp to No Need For Legs Camp
ECT miles: 17.8
Total miles: 2704.7
Elevation change: 3914ft gain, 4918ft loss
Some days it feels like everything goes right. There’s no need to question the why, because it is so obvious. Sometimes the beauty is so blatant that all I can feel is belligerent joy without digging deep to understand where it is coming from. Today, for all intents and purposes, was one of those days. I love the mountains, especially when I can see other mountains from a mountain, and today was all about getting to the top of something and seeing far. I came to the East Coast to see new things and learn about the eastern environment, and I have, at least a little bit. However, with all do respect, I just don’t vibe with the Appalachian Mountains. There have been treasured highlights for sure (Katahdin, Baldpate, the Bigelow’s, the Roan Highlands, McCafee Knob…), but when compared with my time backpacking out West, I have spent very little time this year doing what I love most, and that is standing on one mountain, looking at another and another and another and another… For this reason, Mont Albert in Gaspésie and the surrounding alpine zone instantly became the highlight of not just Quebec, not just the IAT, but of the entire hike north of Springer Mountain in Georgia, a PCT’s distance ago. With Katahdin being the exception that proves the rule, I’ve missed spending significant time above treeline, so much so that when trees turned to shrubs and snow covered the trail on Mont Albert, I was smitten. My entire outlook on the IAT and the larger ECT changed. In addition to the esoteric draw of hiking from ocean to ocean through a mysterious land of strange mountains and cultures, there was now a more overt reason making all the flat miles of New Brunswick worth it. The Chic-Choc’s are dope! Why hike the IAT/ECT instead of just the AT? Because Gaspésie is worth it. That was true today, and it might be true tomorrow too. And don’t forget that Spice and I haven’t even reached the sea yet. It’s all making sense, it’s all coming together.
A chilly load of morning dew clung heavily to all things when Spice and I were finally done snoozing and rose to start the day. My shoes were still damp from their washing, but I decided to treat myself, and pulled on my last dry pair of socks. The sky was clear, the rains had passed, it would be a dry day. After breakfast, we packed up and moved our packs 50 meters to the campground office where we could hop onto the wifi for a quick check-in with the rest of the world. All was good. The smell of bacon and pancakes wafted on the breeze as the campers did what campers do best in making us backpackers jealous. The first golden rays of sunlight peeped from over the ridge and tipped the tops of the trees. Phones away, time to hike.
Disappointingly, the trail leaving Lac Cascapédia was not maintained to the same level of pristine manicure that we had enjoyed yesterday evening. However, that was a minor thought relative to the gratitude I felt for the tremendous weather. The warm, humid rain had dragged a cool dryness in its wake, which was perfect for hiking, perfect for seeing far, and perfect for deepening my sock tan line. Within the first mile, we had each dunked our clean shoes in the mud, and my dry socks were soaked, but there was still much to be excited about.
I followed Spice up a gradual 1,000ft climb to the adjacent ridge top where the views began to open up. After a sit-down bar-break next to an unnamed lake, we pushed the final hundred feet to the top of Mont Ells. Lac Cascapédia already appeared satisfyingly distant to the west, and I took my time to trace our route all the way to Mont Logan marking the distant horizon with its distinct pointed summit. This was my first look at some of the intervening miles that had been obscured in cloud when we hiked through. Although I didn’t learn much, it was comforting to at least fill in the blanks at a distance, and I felt the trail connect here to there, imagining a Tron-like electric bolt zipping through the trees along our footpath.
As good as that view had been, there was even more intrigue from the top of Mont du Milieu. From the highpoint of the long ridge we could see pretty much everything. The massive alpine plateau of Mont Albert stole my attention in my state of heightened anticipation, but there was no end to the peaks. A pipe welded to a post served as a poor telescope, pointing to Mont Logan in one direction and Mont Jacques-Cartier in the other. The latter didn’t mean anything to me yet, but it would, sooner rather than later. Together the two peaks were the major geographic features bounding Gaspésie National Park, and it was cool to witness the entire fabulous span from this single point. What an amazing pocket of this wide world.
A smooth trail guided us down to a refuge, but we didn’t stop for a visit due to the large number of rowdy jabronis hooting and hollering while loading up their large trucks and reversing down the trail. It was confusing at first, then just annoying when Spice and I had to dip to the side and into a gully to get around one such beast that was parked so that it blocked our tiny footbridge. Oh well, it was a minor annoyance, and these folk were probably mostly alright, maybe. Now in need of a new lunch spot, we ignored our grumbling stomachs as we pressed through a ferny forest that was dense with mosquitos and thus unfit for an extended break.
Lac Manni provided what we were seeking in the form of a windy shoreline. We chose a narrow strip of shade, unfurled our pads and distributed our wet socks on the sunniest rocks, then dug into our bags of delectables. I was a little concerned with our dwindling supply of lunch rations, but besides noticing, there was little to do about it. I finished off my bag of chips (I couldn’t help myself), then shot a large spoonful of chia seeds. They were my ultimate backup, a seemingly infinite supply of nutrition and calories. I was still hungry now, but after they gelled and expanded in my stomach I might just be full. While napping to wait and see, Spice’s socks gusted into the lake. It was worth a laugh, for me at least.
The two of us hiked separately for the initial after-lunch push. Spice could feel my mountain mania building, and wanted sufficient distance to appreciate the forest on her own terms without my bursting excitement. Meanwhile, I tried to keep calm, which resulted in a repetitive questioning of why there were no birds singing. The forest was eerily quiet. Just me, the trees, and Spice coming up behind. I waited for her at the bottom of a vicious little descent, where a clear stream marked the edge of Mont Albert’s massive shoulder. She showed up smiling, having become enthralled with the quiet forest for its spaciousness, both physically and energetically. In good spirits, we started up the steep climb into the alpine.
Trees to shrubs, dirt to rock, grass to lichen. We crossed a soggy flat on wooden planks, then we were above the trees, in a land where rocks dominated the skyline. Was it granite? I thought so, but had never seen a type this orange before. It was a lovely color, rusty and warm, contrasting brilliantly with the muted greens of the hearty plants that called this harsh environment home. We followed a string of wooden posts along a rocky track that skirted below one snowfield then across another. My shoes kicked easily into the top layer of snow, now soft and malleable after warming in the bright sun. Finally, after dodging a short band of cliffs, we slowly crested the horizon, revealing a vastness so large that it was hard to grasp, especially because there were no trees or people to provide reference of scale.
Spice passed me during one of my frequent stops to take the newest best picture, so I followed her at a distance, amused by how small she looked in a landscape so large. I was also struck by the remarkable similarities between Mont Albert and my beloved High Sierra despite the 7,000+ft of elevation difference. The science behind it made sense in an academic way, but my intuition couldn’t grapple with the fact that we were only 3,000ft above sea level. It was awesome, but didn’t feel real.
After traversing the wide plateau, we sat protected from the wind by a large boulder. We didn’t need a snack break, but the post card worthy view demanded it. Ahead of us, the trail dropped into a wide canyon that fell steeply from the rim of the plateau. Light and shadow danced across the shoulders of orange rock, mottled with green where tenacious roots held the loose slopes firm. One comparison that popped to mind was the Grand Canyon, which was unfair, but undeniable. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, couldn’t believe our luck. What a place, what a day!
An intimidating steep of snow covered the first part of our descent into the canyon. However, besides making us look and feel epic, the scary slope was of little consequence. It actually gifted us some of the easiest travel of the day. Spice glissaded down the first patch on her behind, then I skied down the steep part on my feet. Suncupping was minimal, and the snow surface was perfect to lay down some fresh tracks. I somehow managed to stay on my feet, but I can’t claim that I looked good the whole way. Again, I was amazed by this wild swing of the IAT. From ATV roads to this. I hadn’t considered snow conditions or true alpine exposure, but here we were, somehow hiking the same trail that carried us on pavement through Houlton, ME. Spice took the trail, and I followed the snow until the snout melted into a clear pond of ice water.
I reconvened with Spice on the trail, and we rock-hopped down to treeline along Ruisseau du Diable. Even though we were on trail, the large boulders slowed our pace and pounded our feet. Still, it was easy to forgive a trail that was so beautiful. For the first mile, at least. After that, the challenging terrain was increasingly maddening as we attempted to hike with haste to get off the rocks before the rain rendered them slick and treacherous. Finally, we reunited with trees and joined the swelling Diable on its mad plunge through the mountains while charcoal clouds thickened overhead.
The drops began to fall when we reached Lac du Diable, but we had done good work in the upper canyon and the worst of the rocks were behind us. However, the steep trail was still slick, though we pushed ourselves hard, ignoring our fatigue and weary feet in an effort to reach our campground by 8pm. Apparently, there was a store there, and 8pm seemed like a reasonable time for it to close. 7pm was already long gone, so we had to push hard and see.
The final two miles along Riviere Siante-Anne were truly mesmerizing. Not only was the trail wide, smooth, and flat, but the cedar forest through which it wound was enchanting. The unique swoops of limbs, trunks, and roots exuded such elegant personality, and I found it impossible not to smile each time Spice stopped to gasp and take a picture. As much as these trees moved me, it was nothing compared to what she was feeling.
My moment of rapture arrived minutes later when I spied the most vibrant rainbow in history through the trees. It was one of the all-time greats, a double rainbow burning, really burning, before a backdrop of hideously dark cloud. It arched above a fancy hotel lodge thing, popping and sizzling for several minutes, pulling tourists away from their dinners in the restaurant and into the road to hang out with us. It was one for the ages (and hotel marketing department), the final exclamation mark on a day of glory and serendipitous timing.
But wait, there’s more. We made it to the camp headquarters at 7:45pm, 15 minutes before closing. We’d been right, we’d been fast enough. Our big push paid off, the reward being two bags of chips, a fresh fuel canister, ramen, orange juice, chocolate milk, peanuts, and coffee. We were saved. No danger of going hungry now. Then, in a final flurry of good fortune, confusion with our camping reservation (again) prompted the friendly ranger to put us in the best campsite to ever exist. We were bathroom adjacent on a patch of gravel with water and electrical outlets, not to mention within the limited range of the wifi signal. Once the tent was up, there was nothing else we needed. Even the ramen seemed fancier than usual, and I lay back deeply grateful for everything. What an awesome day.