EXPLORATION GASPE – 2006
By Kim Groenendyk
Destination: the Mass Pike. Time: 6am. Weather: rain. Something resembling breakfast and we begin the 1417km (2280mile) journey to the Gaspé Peninsula.
The adventure started the night before, as it is wont to be with Land Rovers... Jim had a few last minute preparations required on the D110 – oil change and a good wash down to remove the poison ivy we encountered on the trail during the Ottawa Valley Land Rovers picnic back in June. Between Mike and Jim’s on-board refrigerator/freezers we pack food for what Pat has promised is a menu of true culinary delights. Packed up, ready to go… it’s early enough in the evening to settle down for a beer and a chat… that should have been the first sign something was very VERY wrong.
Around 10pm, Mike takes the 101 for a late night fill up. Jim’s phone rings and a simple fill up turns into a four to five hour rescue mission. The 101 had failed to restart. Jim’s best efforts to coach Mike through how-to-bypass-a-starter by phone won’t cut it. Kindly leaving me to sleep, Jim packs up a few tools and heads out for what turns out to be a night of rewiring in the parking lot of the gas station. I don’t have all the details, but around 3am, I sleepily recall something about brake lights wired to the wipers…
As the lone Canadian, I had left my home in Peterborough, Ontario early Thursday to fly to Hartford, CT and meet up with the rest of the crew: Jim Leach and I travelled in his Defender 110, Mike Ladden and Jason Kasprzak rode in Mike’s forward control 101, Pat Macomber and John Penwell led the way in Pat’s red-hot D90 and Mike’s wife Karen and her son Nick joined us in an economical and manoeuvrable VW Jetta.
It was a long day of driving: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and right to the border at Houlton, ME. Exhausted, we set camp. Some good food (pork chops); bad weather (torrential downpour); no campfire. The next morning we had early departure for our destination, the Parc de la Gaspésie.
The Parc de la Gaspésie is an inland provincial park located nearly in the middle of the peninsula, covering 802 sq km (310 sq miles). The mountainous area has a unique geography including tundra conditions at the higher altitudes, as well as the more familiar boreal forest. It is home to the only population of woodland caribou south of the St. Lawrence River, as well as moose, white-tailed deer and black bears. Unfortunately, we don’t have any wildlife sightings to report, although there were some threatening moose on the road-side signs.
Due to the mountains and the time of year, we had rain for dinner, again. Expedition by LR is a very civilized way to travel - in addition to the luxury of on-board refrigeration and roof-top tent, there is enough space for to pack sufficient gear. Mike’s “easy-up” picnic shelter provided respite from rain and bugs over the evening meal.
After two days of travel, it was a relief to set camp and have time to explore. The next morning we drove north to Ste. Anne des Monts and west through to Cap Chat to visit a large wind farm development perched on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence.
The rolling highway along north coast is one picturesque view after another. Leaving the wind farm mid afternoon Jim decides to take the 110 onto the beach for some photos. I think we realized the moment we hit the sand that it maybe wasn't the most well thought out plan. The D110 with a gross vehicle weight of 3000kg (6600lbs) plus roof-top tent was not exactly designed for a soft sand beach. While Jim had no trouble getting down to the shoreline and manoeuvring for some photos, we had some difficulty breeching the dune to return to the beach-side trail. With no place to anchor, recovery options were limited. And we had completely forgotten about the tides.
With no cell service, the crew in the VW crew heads back to camp, about 30km (20miles) away, to get the 101.
Jim, Nick and I see what we can do to extract the LR; while the guys get start with airing down and digging out, my limited French is pressed into service as I’m essentially relegated to tour director when a few curious locals come strolling by. I can’t be 100% sure what most of them were saying and perhaps I’m even less sure what I was saying in return. Eventually we have a driver show up, Michel, and he offers to help winch us out with his KIA. Now we’ve got something to anchor to! Good man. Well warned of the possible damage (the KIA has recovery points, but they are surrounded by cheap plastic bumpers), we harness it up and away we go. And a good thing too, given the tide was coming in. I am sure the 110 wouldn’t have floated away but it would have been submerged to the windshield.
In the meantime, Karen has returned to camp, Mike has saddled up the 101. We spot each other as we pass along the highway (a bright orange forward control ain’t easy to miss!); regroup and head back to camp for the night.
The next day was reserved for more pedestrian terrestrial pursuits – a mountain hike. I’m not sure we knew we were going to be hiking up the mountain, but it turned out that way. The guide book (in French) rates the mountains – easy, intermediate, difficult, and very difficult. Choosing an “intermediate climb” to Les Chutes du Diable on Mont Albert sounded best as “no special preparation is required.” Or maybe I read that wrong…
The initial trail winds through a deciduous canopy and through some dense wetlands. We get to the first look out point – a river cross-over which is the outlet of Les Chutes du Diable (Devil’s Falls).
This trail has been short and easy, and while there’s been a little rain, it’s nothing to stop us from continuing to the lookout for the Falls. The trail becomes much steeper and less groomed.
A well deserved break awaits us at the wooden platform lookout for Les Chutes du Diable – and a spectacular view of the 120m (400 ft) falls that tumble down the boulder strewn river to the sprawling Lac du Diable.
But we’re not at the top of Mont Albert, and since we’re so close, we really should complete the ascent. What were we thinking? From camp to summit, the 6 km (4 mile) trail ascends about 1100m (3500ft) – Mont Albert is the eighth highest point in the province of Quebec – and it’s a steep climb over boulders and exposed tree roots.
Closer to the top, we emerge from the forest into the tundra landscape. This is the portion of the trail labelled “difficult” and “some preparation required”. Does having a sweater, a camera and three bottles of water count? On reaching the summit the struggle is essentially forgotten as we stood in the wind and looked out over the neighbouring point of Mont Ernest La-Force and the valley and quiet lakes below wrapped in mist.
Having dragged our weary bodies back down the mountain-side, we settle in at the Gîte du Mont-Albert to dry out and warm up over a beer.
The Gaspé Peninsula is where the ancient Appalacian mountain range finally falls into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence; the Mi’kmaq called it “Gespeg” meaning “the place where the land ends.” Another day of travel takes us to the St. Lawrence and along the winding coastal “highway”, to the east side of the peninsula to the towns of Gaspé and Percé. It was a beautiful day to drive, gorgeous weather, and around every sharp bend there was a view of the craggy coastline or the lush mountains.
We stop at the Cap des Rosiers Lighthouse along the way.
The north side of the peninsula is not for the faint of heart. The landscape is rugged and the weather cruel; the faded paint on the homes speaks to the driving winter winds that whip down the St. Lawrence and warning signs advise against travelling when the high waves crash over the road. “Caution, you may be swept off the road by high waves.”
We pull into our campsites in Fort Prevel (about halfway between Gaspé and Percé) in late afternoon and set up camp. The weather was quite cool, as there was almost always a constant breeze over the water. We’re at the top of a cliff with wide-open views of the Gulf and the southshore of Quebec in the distance make for a beautiful morning sunrise view from our roof-top tent perch.
Having learned our lesson about the tides, we arrive in time to pick our way carefully across the rocky, sea-weed strewn spit walk out to the famous Percé Rock (rocher Percé or “pierced rock”), so called for the archway on the seaward side. The rock provides a home to some of the few remaining Harlequin ducks, a threatened species.
The remainder of the afternoon was perfect for golf and perfect for a stroll on the beach. The tide was out and so there was plenty of beach to walk on – alternating sand and rock but very passable in bare feet for the distance of about a mile before a sharp turn in the cliff-face would have required swimming around.
The scheduled “golf day” was windy, rainy and a bit cool, so while some opted to brave the elements on the course, a couple of us took a trip into the town of Gaspé. The town doesn’t have the tourism of Percé, but neither does it really have any special charm of its own, which is a little surprising, since it is the namesake of the peninsula. Order for the day: shopping and a leisurely lunch on a patio overlooking the water. Arriving back at camp mid afternoon we found Pat and John sitting around the campfire, having a beer in the midst of what had been our orderly camp. The “easy up” had been tossed against the 110 and was lying in a mangled heap and the picnic tables, coolers, chairs, cooking gear, everything was strewn about. A sudden wind had blown through and left the camp in ruins. Fortunately, no damage to the truck.
With a co-operative forecast, we hit the golf course. The Auberge Fort Prével where we were staying is a golf and conference resort with accommodations ranging from camping to motel rooms and hotel luxury. The golf course is built for the landscape with spectacular views out over the water and holes skilfully designed to take advantage of the crevasses of the mountain terrain. (Golf carts don’t handle like LRs, but that didn’t really stop us (Jim!) from tackling the terrain as if it did!) The site was part of a gun battery built by the Canadian Department of Defense during World War II to protect the St. Lawrence from infiltration by the German U-boats, and the remains of the site are built into the course.
Saturday morning was the start of the end as we began our trip home.
We had a lot of fun along the way. Pat’s repeated need to stop at every Walmart between Hartford and Canada (it appears that he didn’t pack anything at all, but just bought it along the way); scrounging for change (in the right currency) to feed the showers at the campsites; bad coffee and good tea; the adventure of climbing steep, long hills in a big, slow, diesel Defender; and the spectacle of seeing just how high the flames will leap when lighting the campfire. Good times, great friends and the gorgeous Gaspé.
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