Exploring the Grand Landscape of Québec’s Parc nationale de la Gaspésie

A “grand traverse” hut-to-hut adventure along the International Appalachian Trail.

Pic de l’Aube is a rocky 3,000-foot knob just a half-mile off the main track of the Sentier de la Grande Traversée. There’s minimal elevation gain to reach the crag and its prized vista, but the weather is fast deteriorating, and we are weary from the exertion of the day’s journey from Lac Thibault over Mont Arthur-Allen and Mont du Blizzard.

As with so many detour choices over the years of this outdoor life, my wife, Fran, and I know full well that we may never be back this way again and decide to forge ahead. We snug the pack straps, grab our trekking poles and scamper along the ridgeline through the narrow corridor of conifers beneath a darkening sky of thick clouds. A distant rumble gives us no pause.

A small brown sign and knee-high cairn mark the airy summit of Pic de l’Aube. A few feet beyond our boot tips, the mountainside falls away in a dramatic sweep of several thousand feet to the deep gorge of the Rivière Sainte-Anne. A dozen miles north, the wild flow empties into the broad expanse of the Fleuve Saint-Laurent at the fishing town of Sainte-Anne-des-Monts.

The view of Québec’s signature river is obscured by haze, but no matter, as we revel in the rugged terrain all around us—the precipitous cliffs, glacial bowls, silvery-blue tarns and dense green forests. The slight breeze is warm, and taking advantage of a surprising hint of sun, we sprawl on the rocks and munch from our snack bags. But our scenic respite is short-lived.

Boom! Crack! Bang!

Mother Nature’s authoritative shout-out is loud and clear, and we jump quickly into action. Just as we fasten pack covers and zip the rain wear, the skies open up, and we race along the trail to the junction, bearing left into the drainage below. After a mile of slipping and sloshing in the torrent, Refuge La Mésange appears in a small clearing.

Our home for the night is a simple but comfortable affair. Natural light streams through the large windows into the common room, where there is a wood stove, large table and chairs, and stainless-steel-topped cooking shelf. Two rooms feature four bunks each with mattresses. Outside is a stocked woodshed and a privy; a spring is a quick walk down a side path.

We get a blaze going, and the place is soon festooned with smelly, wet clothing. There are pack explosions on the bunks, and the communal table is strewn with the contents of many colorful stuff bags. In less than an hour, Fran, and I—the only occupants on this stormy evening—have officially completed the “hiker trashing” of the place.

Tea follows, then soup, and then a filling dinner of freeze-dried fare. Finally, some down time—to relax, read and scribble a few notes about this, the third day of a long-anticipated hut-to-hut backpacking adventure across the high peaks of Parc national de la Gaspésie, a “grand traverse” of 65 glorious miles from one end to the other.

By nightfall, the heavy rain is reduced to a sprinkle, and we venture out to collect water, visit the outhouse, grab an armload of wood and, before latching the cabin door, breathe deeply of the fragrant air. The lone candle is extinguished, and by the glow of the dying fire, we toast the Canadian mountain gods with a nip of bourbon. Santé!

A National Park in the Heart of the Gaspésie

Quebec’s Gaspésie, or Gaspé Peninsula, is an enormous arm of heavily forested, sparsely populated land extending from the valley of the Rivière Matapedia to the Golfe du Saint Laurent. The peninsula’s northern boundary is the Fleuve Saint Laurent, while to the south, the Gaspésie is separated from New Brunswick by the Rivière Restigouche and the Baie des Chaleurs. The name Gaspé is taken from the Mi’kmaq word gespe’g, which means “land’s end.”

The natural heart of the Gaspésie is captured by the national park, a veritable sea of mountains that are a continuation of the Appalachians. Established in 1937, the nearly 200,000-acre park features high and wild summits, striking escarpments, deep valleys and rugged gorges, fragile alpine terrain, old growth forests and pristine lakes and rivers. The amazing diversity of the park’s ecological wonders includes a remnant herd of woodland caribou, moose, bear, deer and more than 150 species of birds.

Parc national de la Gaspésie is bisected by the Rivière Sainte-Anne. West of the river, the 600-million-year-old Monts Chic-Choc sprawl along an east-west axis from Mont Logan to Mont Albert. To the river’s east, a geologically younger massif called the Monts McGerrigle—about 380 million years old—ranges from north to south, roughly from Mont Auclair to Mont McWhirter. The McGerrigles top out on Mont Jacques-Cartier at 4,167 feet, the highest peak in southern Québec and the second highest in the entire province. More than twenty-five summits in the park exceed 3,000 feet in elevation. West of the park, the high ground of the Chic-Chocs spills over into the neighboring wildlife reserve, Réserve faunique de Matane, while portions of the McGerrigles around the east side of the park are encompassed by the Réserve faunique des Chic-Chocs.

The locus of frontcountry activity and a favorite starting point for many outdoor adventures in the park is the Discovery and Visitors Center on Route 299, where a series of exhibits highlight the fascinating natural and human history of the Gaspé region. A small store sells maps and guidebooks, camping supplies, a few groceries and souvenirs. At the information desk, helpful staff assist with park passes and camping and shuttle reservations. Hungry hikers will appreciate the bistro, which serves up delicious burger platters and beers in frosty mugs.

Two drive-in campgrounds in the vicinity of the Visitors Center offer the typical camping amenities plus hot showers and laundry facilities; either makes for a convenient overnight stop (we stayed at Camping du Mont-Albert, for example, before and part-way along on our backpacking trip). For a little more luxury, the nearby Gîte du Mont-Albert offers well-appointed hotel rooms and cabins, fine dining and a thru-hiker worthy breakfast buffet that’s well worth the price.

The Sentier international des Appalaches/International Appalachian Trail (IAT) crosses the length of Parc national de la Gaspésie as part of its long route over the ancient range of the Appalachians from Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument just east of Maine’s mile-high Katahdin to the northern tip of Newfoundland. Eschewing the weight of a tent and sleeping mat, our leisurely eight-day, seven-night itinerary called for staying in refuges spaced a comfortable day’s walk along the IAT.

By park rules, hikers must make the traverse along the IAT from west to east, from Mont Logan to Mont Albert and Route 299. To complete the journey, hikers then reverse direction and travel east to west to cross over Mont Jacques-Cartier and the Monts McGerrigle. To facilitate this, the park provides excellent shuttle services.

To reach the start of the hike near Mont Logan, it’s a morning’s excursion by four-wheel-drive van over increasingly rough roads. En route, the van makes stops at the Huard and Pluvier refuges, where backpackers can drop off a critter-proof resupply box. We took advantage of this option and were able to carry only about two days of food at a time. This also allowed us to enjoy some welcome treats in the middle of nowhere, like a few cans of beer and small cartons of wine. The final leg of the trek begins with a 45-minute bus ride to the eastern base of Mont Jacques-Cartier, where trampers are met by a park naturalist and guided to the summit of the mountain.

The Weeklong Journey on the IAT Begins at Mont Logan

Refuge La Chouette, perched on a hillside just below timberline at 3,000 feet, has a desolate, end-of-the-line feel to it. That sense was no doubt magnified by the sight of our shuttle driver bumping away over the dusty, rutted road. And when he turned the corner and disappeared from view, we knew in no uncertain terms that we were on our own.

Turning my gaze to Mont Logan, I could trace the route of the IAT to the tower complex on its 3,773-foot summit some 2 miles distant. We stashed our backpacks inside, stuffed a few snacks into our pockets, grabbed windbreakers and water bottles and set off. I could hardly believe I was actually—finally—here.

I had wanted to visit the Chic-Chocs ever since reading a story about the place in Wilderness Camping magazine back in the early 1970s. I was captivated by the name, for sure, but equally intrigued by the remote character of this mountainous country north of the border. For 40 years, those images of the Chic-Chocs remained firmly in the geography of my mind.

Adding to the allure was the prospect of hiking a good chunk of the IAT, another long-held dream. I’ll never forget the excited phone call I received in late October 1998 from Dick Anderson, the founder of the trail, asking if I’d like to come by his Portland office to meet “Nimblewill Nomad,” who had just finished hiking from Key West, Florida, to Cap Gaspé at the eastern edge of the Gaspé peninsula—including the entirety of the fledgling IAT—a new super hiking route that would become known as the Eastern Continental Trail. That evening, over ice cold Canadian and American beers (courtesy of Dick, ever the statesman), we listened with rapt attention as Nimblewill recounted his incredible 4,000-mile journey. But for some odd reason, as he spoke, all I could picture was him trekking across the Chic-Chocs. Go figure. The memory stuck with me, however, and now here I was.

There were plenty of caribou tracks and scat along the gravel track, but no sightings of the large cervid on the wide open upper slopes of Mont Logan. It was a perfect late August afternoon, and with plenty of time and nowhere to be, we continued out to the edge of the great grassy bluffs and along their margin in the direction of Mont Fortin.

What a surprise to turn a corner in the path and meet two day trippers, Louis Fradet and Marc Lemieux, who had hiked in from a trailhead a few miles west. We learned that the pair were members of the Québec Chapter of the IAT, a dedicated contingent of volunteers that had worked long and hard over the years to forge the IAT across the province. Bidding adieu after a delightful conversation, we rightly tipped our hiking caps in thanks for their determined efforts.

When the IAT was first proposed in the spring of 1994, the plan was to connect the high points of Maine, New Brunswick and southern Québec —Katahdin, Mount Carleton and Mont Jacques-Cartier respectively. But soon after the announcement, the Québec folks decided that the IAT should continue beyond the Parc nationale de Gaspésie to the spectacular Cap Gaspé. Even that extension was just temporary, of course, and today the IAT includes portions of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia and reaches across the Atlantic to northern Europe, a model of international cooperation and friendship.

Reveling in Empty Trails by Day and Quiet Refuges by Night

Across the crest of the Chic-Chocs, with the small blue and white markers of the IAT as our guide, the hours melded pleasantly together as we trundled happily over empty trails by day and slept alone in refuges each night. The ridge walking was fabulous, the vistas delightful and the many lakes and ponds just perfect for refreshing dips. The weather turned abysmal on the crossing of Mont Albert’s sprawling alpine tablelands and chaotic boulder fields of orange-brown serpentine. But while the thick gray mist offered no views and still no caribou, we were able to focus instead on the tiny wildflowers and patches of juicy blueberries at our feet.

Mont Jacques-Cartier was perhaps our last best chance to see the woodland caribou. At last, 4 miles along the path at Lac à René, several of the great beasts appeared on the far slope set against the austere backdrop of Mont de la Passe. We watched spellbound for a half-hour before moving on, and for the next mile to the peak over an extraordinary expanse of alpine tundra, we enjoyed a veritable festival of caribou.

Sheltered from the cold winds screaming unabated off the Fleuve Saint Laurent, we spent an awestruck hour huddled inside the summit tower observing the reindeer, using our own cameras and binoculars and taking coveted turns at the park’s telescope. All the while, our naturalist guide recounted the ecology of Rangifer tarandus caribou and the conservation measures aimed at protecting and preserving this dwindling species. (At the time of my visit in 2012, the Gaspé caribou herd numbered around 200; today only about 50 remain.)

A relic of a once great population of woodland caribou that ranged over much of northeastern North America, the Gaspé caribou is the only herd still living south of the Fleuve Saint-Laurent. Caribou hunting in the Gaspé region ceased in the mid-20th century, but over the years, logging, agriculture, prospecting and mining have all greatly eroded the caribou’s territory.

Predation by black bears has long been an issue, but coyotes have become a growing menace owing to habitat fragmentation, primarily from clearcutting and logging roads, which has allowed them easier access into the caribou’s terrain. Caribou calves in particular are highly susceptible to predators during the first six months of their lives.

The Gaspé caribou spend their summers in the alpine zone grazing on lichens, grasses and moss; in winter, the herd moves down into the subalpine forests of old growth balsam fir, but as these ancient forests are destroyed, so too is the caribou’s primary winter food source. It’s no wonder that the caribou are now limited to the mountains in and around the park, and in isolated sub-herds on Monts Logan and Albert and the McGerrigles.

Not even the protection of park boundaries appears to be enough to ensure the caribou’s long-term survival, however. Government officials are now looking at increased predator control, enhanced public education and sustainable management of forestland around the park to help stem the tide of extinction, but the fact is that time may simply be running out on the Gaspé caribou.

The Last Steps of the Walk. And Perhaps the Last Caribou Sighting

Refuge Le Tétras, tucked into a tangle of krummholz next to Lac Samuel-Coté, was home on the final evening. While snow and sleet fell amid howling winds that shook the cabin walls, our international group of six huddled around a small lantern playing cards, drinking tea and thanking our lucky stars for the good fortune to have been able to experience this wild and beautiful country for at least a little while.

The following morning, high on the boulder-strewn slopes of Mont Xalibu, I gazed for long moments at the sparkling diamond of Lac aux Américains far below. With the end of the trek at the foot of Mont Albert a few miles beyond in full view, I was overcome with both great joy and profound sadness, thinking about having seen my first—and perhaps last—of the fabled Gaspé woodland caribou.

Photo: David Anderson