Camping Mont Jacques-Cartier to Mont Saint-Pierre
Caribou School Camp to Endless Sunset Camp
ECT miles: 22.6
Total miles: 2744.9
Elevation change: 2461ft gain, 4190ft loss
Today, SpiceRack and I hiked out of the mountains and to the sea. Technically, I think that the water belonged to the River portion of the St. Lawrence watershed, but it was salty. That means sea to me. Irregardlessly (lol), the day’s journey from top to bottom, from rock to (salt)water, felt like an important transition in this thru-hike. It was a deep breath, a reset, a chance to reflect, before the final phase along the Gaspé coastline. For all the majesty of the Chic-Choc mountains in Gaspésie and my longing to remain among the lofty summits, smelling the salt on the breeze and hearing the crunch of our footsteps on the beach felt like coming home. As someone who grew up in California and has spent most of my life near the Pacific Ocean, I’ve come to realize during longer forays into the land-locked ranges of this continent that there is a presence to the ocean that soothes me. I wouldn’t call myself an ocean person, but something about it feels like home. I don’t miss the water while I’m away, but upon returning I wonder why not. Reaching the waves today felt comforting and significant, so much so that if the GR A1 ended right there, on the beach of Mont Saint-Pierre amongst the driftwood and bottle caps, I would not have felt cheated. To the contrary, the spectacular bay and charming village felt like the perfect place to end a thru-hike. If only that lighthouse at Cap Gaspé didn’t look so cool. However, with just 150 miles left to go, and a lot of exciting stuff along the way, I felt fortunate that we weren’t finished yet. This hike was going to end eventually, and when it did, I was going to be grateful for so many things that I couldn’t even yet imagine.
Spice and I were feeling fine after a full night of rest in the quiet campground and a round of granola and coffee. The day was bright, and all we had to do was walk twenty miles downhill to the water. That seemed like an easy task for a big payoff, so we didn’t rush out of camp, but we didn’t lollygag either. A little after 8am, we tucked between two campsites on the inconspicuous path disappearing into the woods.
The trail was narrow and overgrown, clearly used infrequently, but it was good enough for us. There was some mud to carefully avoid, and my shoelaces were untied a few times by the grabby greenery, but mostly we appreciated the gentle grade and glowing leaves of the dense canopy overhead. After one more wet river crossing, we stopped at a post marking the boundary of Gaspésie National Park to eat a bar and say our thanks. It had been a sweet few days, ones to remember, ones to treasure.
From there, we hiked on old logging roads, which were smooth, gradual, and shaded. I walked ahead of Spice during a long uphill, letting my mind wander, relishing the easy movement and stress-free day. Not that this next week was going to be a cake walk, but with the remote mountains behind us, I was finally beginning to believe that there wasn’t much to keep us from finishing Quebec. Towns would be abundant and full of food, and the weather was unlikely to shut us down. We still had some major elevation and long days to contend with on the itinerary, but I felt a confidence that we would manage somehow, some way. I could thank all of our previous hardship for that much, at least. We stopped for water at a creek, crossing on a string of haphazardly placed pallets, then continued on through the endless twinkles of white flowers, under the eternally quaking birch leaves.
The green tunnel cracked open as we crossed through a horrendous logging scar. The saplings were staging a spirited comeback, though I was glad for the wide sky overhead. With the opening of the trail to the sky, my mind was uncapped and breathed deeply, feeling the openness above and the energetic weight of the canopy evaporate in the relentless sunshine. For the first time today, I could sea far to the hills across the valley, understanding where we were between here and there. That knowledge was reassuring, and when we rounded a bend, a sliver of sea already looked a lot closer.
The trail launched us off the edge of the flat logging road onto a sharp little descent that connected us with another road. A minute later, Les Cabourons Refuge emerged from the woods, an oversized cabin of striped wood with a pointed roof of green corrugation. It basked in the sun of a clearing, beckoning us to enter and rest in its shade. We did just that, leaving our shoes and socks to dry outside on the picnic bench, while getting down on the crumbs and squished things that remained in our food bags. I tipped back my bag of chips, then dusted the wayward orange particles from my beard. Next, I vacuumed up the dregs of my trail mix, followed by the final few squeezes of nut butter. For dessert, the last of my dates and dried mango. Good stuff. Salubrious.
After a nap on a lower bunk, we reconstructed our footwear and resumed the pleasant roadwalk. The route was convoluted, but never confusing for all the trail signs that guided us at each of the many junctions. Our one mistake was trusting a pair of sobo hikers when they said that it was all downhill for us for the rest of the day. It must have been the Kiwi accent, but they seemed trustworthy. And trustworthy they may have been, but right about the exclusivity of the downhill they were not. In the heat of the mid-afternoon sun, Spice and I sweated uphill for miles, wondering how they could have been so forgetful.
Over the next hour we figured out why. Our uphill struggle had been nothing compared with what those other hikers had endured, and our sense of betrayal slowly morphed into benevolent pity as we pounded down on a steep gravel road. Through an opening in the trees, we were treated to a spectacular view of the big valley into which we were descending. The wide, snaking U looked be be of glacial origin, but that was just my uneducated guess, and didn’t really matter anyway. It was majorly pretty, and the only thing separating us and the sea. No more lumps and twists of the land between here and there. Nope, that was the beach, distant, but within view. Cool.
The widest of gravel roads sped us along the valley floor, near the meandering Riviére de Mont Saint-Pierre and through majestic maple plantations. Eventually, we followed the trail into the woods, but soon abandoned it in favor of the road. The ratio of bugs to views was all backwards under the trees, and the looming ridge to our left cast all the shade that we would need for the rest of the day. Spice and I hiked near, but apart, bathing in the silence of the valley. I ogled in wonder at the barren cliff faces of twisted rock that reflected the warm evening rays of the sun. I imagined what it would be like to live in each of the charming little homes along the road. There was so much beauty here. Would I appreciate it if I called this place home?
Over a final miniature rise, Spice stopped and told me to sniff the air. She was right, it smelled like the ocean. There was salt on the breeze. It conjured both fresh and old, cleansing and cloying. We breathed deep. It smelled like home. A half-mile later, we walked through the last line of buildings, across a road, over a pile of driftwood, and onto the sand. But Spice didn’t stop there. She kept on walking until she was ankle deep in the gentle breakers of frothing foam. I laughed and grumbled. Of course she did. Now I have to too. Her smile was infectious. I splashed in after her, the initial shock of the chill water tingling between my toes turning into a satisfied warmth spreading throughout my body. I hugged Spice in a joyful embrace, then turned in place, soaking it all in. The sun and shade, the rock and water, the sky and sea, the sand and trees. This wasn’t the end, but it felt like the end of something, as definitive as any other terminus that I’ve had the privilege of touching. What did it mean? Time might reveal that answer, but for now, it felt gooooood.
We turned east and walked along the beach toward the menacing prominence of Mont Saint-Pierre, for which everything in sight had been named. It was the rockiest and cliffiest of the rocky and cliffy things, so I understood. When it was time, we squelched into the small, yet well-appointed market and loaded up on fresh foods. As we were waiting to checkout, Serge, an enthusiastic local, gave us the down-low on winter conditions, including piles of snow and drifting sea ice. Brrrrrr.
To imagine that kind of cold here was almost impossible as we walked back into the warm, 8pm sunshine where our motel room waited for us. It was old timey and charming, just like everything else in this town, and the wide window looked out on the water. We showered and ate from our bounty of chips, cereal, bread, hummus, cucumber, bell pepper, carrots, and pesto while the sun hung above the horizon for an impossibly long time. It seemed to pause above the water, but that was the nature of its arc at this latitude. It slid sideways as much as it dove downward. Not that anyone was complaining. The extended golden hour filled our room with decadent warmth, and switched off at the perfect time to call it a night.