We stopped at Lac a Rene, about 3,000 feet (almost 1,000 meters), stocked with trout years ago. Now the lake has so many fish all you have to do is wiggle your fingers in the water to draw schools of them right to you. By the shore, we squirm into wind shells before making the final push up to the top. The last few hundred meters takes us past giant cairns stacked taller than a person, a precaution that demonstrates how difficult it is to navigate up here in bad weather.
As we came up over the last rise, we could see that the wild, rocky summit of Jacques-Cartier has more the feel of arctic tundra than the typical wooded mountainsides of eastern North America. We're above 4,000 feet here, serious elevation anywhere in the Appalachian range. From the top, marked by a big watchtower, the expansive view takes in not only the entire Chic-Choc mountain range spread out around us, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the distance, but, just across the plateau, a herd of caribou grazing for lichen among the boulders. All of that makes it a little hard to believe you're actually on the Appalachian Trail. But the fact is, you are--even if it is the international version of the venerable route.
Most hikers know the northern terminus of the AT is found at Mount Katahdin. Indeed, the official US Appalachian Trail completes it's 2,167 mile journey from Georgia there in central Maine. But just as the Appalachian Mountains continue north into Canada, the International Appalachian Trail follows those mountains north, right into Quebec. The impressive length of Quebec's section of trail reaches it's climax as it runs north onto the Gaspesie Peninsula, the great finger of land that juts into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. For the local First Nation people, this was "the place where the land ends."The Sentiers International des Appalaches
Here the storied "AT" becomes the "SIA." Quebec is of course the heart of French Canada, so the International Appalachian Trail is known in the province by its French moniker: the Sentiers International des Appalaches. It's run along the crest of the spectacular Chic-Choc Mountains makes for a dramatic finish to one of the world's great hiking routes. In truth, it doesn't matter what you call the trail, this is some of the best hiking terrain in the East.
My journey here began with a flight to Quebec City, right on the St. Lawrence River. This is a place that exudes an even more intense flair for French culture than Montreal, but does so in a relaxed way without the crowds or expense of a big city. Quebec has perhaps the most well developed network of parks of any Canadian province. I started out by staying at a place called Duchesnay, one of Quebec's favorites "tourist stations," where hiking and canoeing are within easy reach of the city, but where civilized food and lodging is part of the appeal.
From Quebec City, an hour and a half flight to the small airstrip at Mont-Joli, about halfway out on the Gaspe Peninsula, put me within driving distance of Gaspesie National Park. I picked up the rental car at the airport and drove the scenic seaside highway that runs along the shore of the St. Lawrence River toward the tip of the peninsula. I was surprised by what I saw. Surrounded by water and mountains, this beautiful coastline is surprisingly empty, perhaps one of the wildest, least developed coastlines of any in the East.
For centuries, the residents of the Gaspe Peninsula made their living off the rich cod fishery, and each of the many villages that dot the seashore is marked by the high steeples of the big Catholic churches that are central to life here in Northern Quebec. With the fishery now in trouble, however, many locals work in a fledgling but growing tourist industry, supported by visitors who come from all over the world for the pristine landscapes and incredible wildlife. Just driving from the coast up into the mountains, you can see everything from blue whales breaching in the St. Lawrence to the highest densities of moose outside of Alaska--even the last herd of caribou outside the Arctic.
At the town of St. Anne des Monts, I turned off the coast road and drove up into the mountains toward Gaspesie National Park, in many ways the jewel of Quebec's national parks. Gaspesie protects a 100-mile stretch of the highest peaks of the Canadian Appalachians and 50,000 square kilometers of untouched forest--saved from logging because the rugged surroundings made it too difficult to reach. In fact, Chic-Choc mountains translates as "the wall," or "barrier," and reflected the notion that indigenous people saw no reason to fight their way up here when everything they needed could be found by the water. My intention was to connect two of the highest peaks in this wild park by starting at Mont Jacques-Cartier, and from there hiking all the way to Mont Albert along the International Appalachian Trail.
Private cars are not allowed on some of the park roads, so I boarded the bus along with a group of day hikers for the hour-long drive to the trailhead. Park naturalist Jean-Philippe and his friend Agnes (pronounced An-yes) joined me for the three day trip, so I was fortunate to be in the company of local Quebecers. I knew that the province prizes it's French heritage, but I was frankly surprised at just how French this remote part of Quebec is. My schoolboy French was enough to get me through, but without Jean-Philippe and Agnes, I would have missed out on a lot of conversation and interaction with hikers from all around the province, as well as France itself..
From the frigid, open summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier, we crossed a no-man's land of wind-swept boulders, then dropped down an endless scree slope toward a gentle ridgeline where once again the stunted alpine timber reappeared. We had the wild landscape to ourselves, as most of the others hikers were making the day trip to the summit of Jacques-Cartier, and return via the same route. We, however, forged eastward on the SIA, toward the distant Mont Albert. The solitude we encountered here, combined with the ever-changing terrain, makes this perhaps the most interesting section of the entire hike.
The view of lakes and forest-covered mountains was framed by a blue sky and the deep blue water of the distant St. Lawrence. By now we were a thousand feet below the summit, and the temperature was rising in the sunshine. We removed our parkas and hiked on in perfect conditions, even though the trail remains rough, skirting the summit of Mont Comte on the south flank before dropping back down into the deep forest. By early afternoon we had reach the shelter known as Le Tetras, which means grouse, where it was fitting to be actually greeted there by a mother hen with her brood of chicks trailing behind.
The comfortable hut is ideally situated on the shore of Lac Samuel-Cote, and faced the rocky mountaintop of Mont Comte. It's a lovely place to stop for the night, and we share it with a couple from Montreal. For those who prefer camping, a designated tent site is only a hundred yards away. To protect its pristine environment, and the rich wildlife that calls the place home, Gaspesie National Park has stringent rules that permit camping in designated areas only. Those who want to camp where they like can do so in these mountains, but they have to venture beyond the borders of the park. Inside the park, overnight options are limited to either the established camps or the huts.
The next day began with a steep climb back into the windy alpine zone as we traversed Mont Xalibu before making the long descent into the deep forest. We followed the trail through bigger lowland timber down to Lac aux Americains. This impressive glacier-carved cirque, holding it's namesake lake, reveals the Ice Age geologic forces that carved this impressive landscape. After a lunch stop here, it was a short afternoon through the forest to the next hut, known at Le Roselin. One of the joys of hiking in Gaspesie is the variety of terrain. This is one of the few places in the East where the ecozones change by the hour, where you can go from a maritime climate into the boreal forest right on up to arctic tundra in the space of a few hours.
The third day was the tough one, as we decided to forego stopping overnight near the park headquarters and hike directly up to the summit of Mont Albert, at 1,070 meters almost as high as that of Jacques-Cartier. We chose to make a counter clockwise loop of the mountain, ascending to the summit via the long, gradual forest trail on its north side before once again entering the frigid arctic zone near the top. With a quick stop to don all the clothes we carried in our packs, we marched across the expansive--almost 10 square miles--and windy mountaintop, keeping a sharp eye out for caribou. Jean-Philippe, with his binoculars, spotted them on the opposite edge of the plateau, feeding on the sparse vegetation. The herd here has diminished alarmingly--from 700 in 1950 to fewer than 200 at present--and many of the park regulations are designed to reduce the impact of humans on these endangered animals.
From the summit, we quickly dropped down the backside of the mountain (remember, this is Quebec, so Mont Albert sounds like "Mon Al-Bear") into the unique valley cut steeply into the serpentine rock of the mountain's flank, down past the impressive 400-foot waterfall on a tough boulder-strewn trail to sprawling Lac du Diable. One five-kilometer section of the route was non-stop boulder hopping, a fatiguing way to go when you're carrying a full pack. From there the trail dropped back down through the trees all the way to the Saint Anne River, and from there only a couple of hours beside the rushing water to the end of 43 kilometer journey at the impressive Gite du Mont Albert.
"Gite" means lodge, perhaps something of a misnomer for the impressive structure that is the primary accommodation in the park. This is the perfect conclusion to a long backcountry trip: a classic national park lodge with comfortable rooms and a famous dining room. I chose to stay in one of the newly built cabins on the periphery of the lodge property, which would have comfortably held a family of six, but dined well that evening on the great seafood of the region in the big, formal dining room of the lodge.
There is more interesting hiking to be done in Gaspesie National Park. For me, it's tough to decide whether the next trip will be a return to explore the seldom visited western end of the park near Mont Logan, or for the full 100-kilometer length of the SIA, from one end of the park to the other, or maybe even return in winter for a ski trip. Snow sports are a rapidly growing part of the park's visitors as the word gets out about Gaspesie. For backcountry lovers, it's a no-lose proposition. Any outing through this surprisingly wild landscape at the "forgotten" end of the Appalachian Trail is going to be a good one.
Flights to the Mon Joli airport are available from both Montreal and Quebec City, making Gaspesie Park very easy to get to. Accommodations in the park make the most sense, as that keeps you near the trails and out of the car, but staying in nearby St. Anne des Monts, less than an hour away, is less expensive and can be more easily done on shorter notice. For more information on hiking the International Appalachian Trail, visit the Gaspesie National Park information at Parcs Quebec (www.sepaq.com), or see Quebec Maritime (www.quebecmaritime.ca) for more information on exploring the Gaspesie Peninsula.