The Long Road to Natashquan

Natashquan, Quebec.

Stop in Innu and French in Pointe-Parent. We did, and headed for home.

Natashquan is a village in Quebec, on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence; in Quebec, but 800 miles northeast of Montreal. If you want to travel farther east along the shore, you can take a dirt road for another 28 miles, then you would need a boat to take you on to Labrador. Last month, my daughter and I spent two weeks driving to Natashquan and back from Connecticut. We stopped a lot along the way. I suppose, if you pushed it, you could do the trip in a week, but what would be the point of that?

Our journey actually ended a few miles beyond Natashquan, at the edge of the Innu community of Pointe-Parent. We parked the car on a bluff overlooking the Gulf of St Lawrence, and started to picnic out of the trunk. Two Innu men appeared, seemingly from nowhere, stereotypically carrying a case of beer. Hey, it was Friday! The younger of the two examined us suspiciously; the older, the one holding an open Bud, sat on my fender and started a conversation (in French, which the Innu here speak alongside their own Innu or Montagnais language). Were we from Quebec? The United States! We were, he said, bienvenue, and repeated his welcome in Innu – kwe kwe. Then they strode off through the dunes, the older man calling to his friends who were starting to fish for salmon.

Limestone monument, Ile Niapiskau, Mingan Archipelago.

Limestone monument, Ile Niapiskau, Mingan Archipelago.

We had crossed from the south shore of the St Lawrence to the north on a two-hour ferry trip from Matane to Godbout, 340 miles “upstream” from Natashquan. After that, the navigation was very easy – keep following Route 138. It wasn’t all remote and beautiful, at least not until the last 100 miles. Particularly as far as Sept-Îles, Quebec’s hydroelectric and mining industries were much in evidence. Sept-Îles is an ugly town on a beautiful bay. But the farther east we went, the more the taiga and muskeg took over from dams and transmission lines. We spent a day exploring the Mingan Archipelago by boat and on foot, enjoying shorelines that reminded me of the very best of the Great Lakes.

Then, on that sunny Friday, we drove the last stretch. Natashquan dines out on being the end of the road (a status it’s losing) and the birthplace of Gilles Vigneault, an iconic Quebec singer-songwriter (“My country is not a country, it is winter”). But it is also quirkily beautiful, at least in the July sun. I have posted pictures of the village, and the journey to it, here.

“Quebec – Off The Beaten Track”

Saint-Ulric, near MataneSave the date!

On Tuesday April 8th I will dip a toe into being an Appalachian Mountain Club dinner speaker. Here are the details from the Fairfield County events listing:

Think of Quebec, and we usually think of Montreal, Quebec City and, perhaps, Mont Tremblant. The rest of this enormous province is little visited by outsiders. Hiker, traveler and writer Rob McWilliams will introduce the opportunities and practicalities for exploration off the beaten track, focusing in particular on the remote Gaspé Peninsula and, across the Saint Lawrence, the beautiful region of Charlevoix.

Appetizers 6:30pm; presentation 7:30pm. $6 members, $8 non-members. No reservations, pay at door. St Thomas Church, 95 Greenwood Ave. Details, directions at 

The photograph is the Saint Lawrence river at, if I remember correctly, the village of Saint-Ulric, near Matane in the Gaspésie.

Smooth and Rough in the Gunks

Loop Road, Sam's Point PreserveSeptember’s “Taking a Hike” for The Hour was about the Shawangunk Ridge in Ulster County, New York. The hike began with a black bear and ended at beautiful Verkeerder Kill Falls (there were still two miles to go to get back to the car, but sometimes hikes “end” before the walking is done). You can read the article here.

As usual, I have “upgraded” an older article to make it available in full via the “Taking a Hike” tab. In this case it is June’s bit about the Herrick Trail (great Housatonic River views) and the southern end of the Connecticut AT.Near Indian Rock, Sam's Point Preserve, Gunks

If you read August’s article about hiking in Quebec, I have now added most of the good photographs to Facebook – one last hike to add.

The photos here are from the Gunks – the Loop Road by Lake Maratanza, and stunted pine and red berries at Indian Rock.

The Acropolis of the Log Drivers

Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie National Park As promised, August’s article for The Hour was about hikes my youngest daughter and I took in Quebec this summer, and in particular the slog up L’Acropole des Draveurs to “the best views east of the Rockies”. As usual, I have linked to the new article on the Taking a Hike page, and made another older piece (in this case May’s “Blazing the NRVT”) available in full via the drop-down menu. The views in the Charlevoix region of Quebec really were magnifique and I will post more photos on Facebook this week (“McWilliams Takes a Hike”). In the meantime,  to the left is another view of L’Acropole’s splendid cliffs.

The Sleeping Giant and The Sleepless Consultant

I have posted my July article for The Hour on the Taking a Hike page, and made April’s piece (“Paradise Lane”) available in full via the drop-down menu.

White trail, Sleeping Giant State Park, CTThe new article is about the Sleeping Giant – a gem of a state park near New Haven that I had managed to ignore for 15 years. The photo to the right (NOT the one below!) shows a typically rough section of trail. April’s article described a climb up Bear Mountain on the Paradise Lane Trail, going from spring to winter and back again in a few hours.

Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Riviere Malbaie

It has been over a month since my last post. Mostly I have seen Summer 2013 from the windows of a Metro-North train and Midtown office. I have been working late, so late that one night I had to check into a hotel near the office if I was to get any sleep at all. But my youngest daughter and I did get away to Quebec for a week. I plan to make the hikes we did in the Charlevoix region the subject of August’s article for The Hour, and no doubt of a post or two once this consulting gig is over and I am caught up on sleep. But, just as a taster, above is a photo from the first summit of “L’Acropole des Draveurs” in the Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie – the river was 2,300 feet beneath us.

Blueberries, Meat Pies and Trails

Two months back I was dithering whether to turn east or west when my youngest daughter and I drive off the ferry onto the north shore of the St Lawrence River in July. We will be at the village of Godbout. Now I’ve decided on a bit of both. About an hour northeast of Godbout is Pointe-aux-Anglais, and near this village is a long public beach where you can camp and watch whales. It sounds good for a night. Pointe-aux-Anglais means Englishmen’s Point. Wikipedia explains why.

Quebec TourtiereThe next day we will drive 300 miles upstream (southwest) to Parc national des Grands-Jardins. I admit to choosing this park for its location rather than any knowledge of what is in it. It appears to be conveniently located for all kinds of excursions, and so I booked us for five nights. Lac Saint-Jean is two and a half hours away. I don’t know much about the region around this large lake either, except that it is the blueberry and tourtière capital of Quebec. A tourtière is a meat pie, and that is enough to make us want to go. (Picture courtesy of Victoria Edwards, Creative Commons.) Grands-Jardins is also convenient for Saguenay fjord and Quebec City.

The park itself is in the region called Charlevoix, and lies within a World Biosphere Reserve. This sounds impressive, but what does it mean? There are 621 such UNESCO-recognized reserves worldwide. The closest to home is the New Jersey Pinelands. I am not sure what kind of advertisement that is. UNESCO’s definition of a World Biosphere Reserve makes them sound a bit like guinea-pig areas for sustainable development. It reminds me too of national parks in Scotland – areas where conservation of nature coexists with managed, sustainable development.

Parc national des Grands-Jardins, QuebecAnyway, I am beginning to get excited about the park. At 120 square miles Grands-Jardins is more than half as big again as Acadia NP in Maine. It does look more oriented to canoeing and fishing than hiking, but there are still 20 miles of trail. And it looks as if the trails go to beautiful places. The picture (Spectroboy / Creative Commons) is the view from Le Mont-du-lac-des-Cygnes a few miles from our campsite. There is wildlife too – “black bears, moose, woodland caribous, grey wolves, red foxes, porcupines, Common Loons, lynx and Spruce Grouse”, according to the park website. Indeed, a “herd of woodland caribou and spruce lichen, unusual at our latitude, is the reason Parc national des Grands-Jardins exists”.

As if all this were not enough, there are parks north and south of Grands-Jardins. I particularly like the sound of the one to the north. It is a bit of a mouthful – Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie – but promises the highest cliffs east of the Rockies. It may be hard to pull ourselves away from all this to look for blueberries and tourtières, but probably not.

Across the St Lawrence, but where then?

I mentioned before that I am enjoying the planning of a summer road trip to Quebec for my youngest daughter and I. Back then the planning had got us only as far as the Saint Lawrence River, five days from home (four of them in the Parc national de la Gaspésie). Finally – three weeks on – I’ve taken the next step.

I called the company that operates the ferry across the river from the town of Matane on the south shore to the village of Godbout on the north. I had to psyche myself up to make the call, expecting to muddle through in bad French. And it didn’t get off to a promising start – a bad line, a long recorded message in French, and a snatch of English I didn’t catch. I hung up and called again. After a series of recordings – partly in English, mostly in French – a woman picked up. I launched into my prepared “Je ne parle pas Français très bien, mais je voudrais ___

“Would you like to speak in English?” she asked.

Lonely Planet QuebecYou bet! Anyway, the upshot is that we are now booked on the two hours and 15 minutes crossing to Godbout. But where should we go when we get there?

Godbout is in the vast, empty Côte Nord, a region as big as Michigan but with only 96,000 people. We could drive east towards Labrador, but the road would run out long before we got there. I like the description of this option in Lonely Planet:

“The farther east you go, the greater the distance between villages, the fewer people, the deeper the isolation and the wilder the nature.”

My kind of place. But one of the raisons d’être of this trip is to help my daughter with her school French (with words like raisons d’être in fact), and I can’t help thinking that people and villages will help with this. So, right now, I am leaning towards heading west, into the relatively more populated region of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean. It’s time to hit Lonely Planet again.

Planning and Imagining Hikes

Remembering hikes past is fun, and so is planning – or imagining – new ones. In fact, these activities are almost as much fun as actually walking, sometimes more so. After all, there is no panic in the memory of being lost, or fear in recalling a lightning storm on a ridge. Imagined hikes involve no blisters or bugs.

I have been planning and imagining new hikes recently.

Gregory-bald-summit-east1Let’s start with the imagining – the hike furthest from actually happening. I brought up the possibility last week (on a hike, of course) of going on a longish backpack with my eldest daughter. You know the kind of thing, bonding through adversity. To my great pleasure, she liked the idea. We even pored over a map of the Great Smoky Mountains for a while. The picture to the left is Gregory Bald in the Smokies, which I climbed to in 2003. I didn’t own a digital camera then, to the scene is thanks to Brian Stansberry / Creative Commons.

The planning is for a trip to Quebec in July with my youngest (she will be 13). We are going away for two weeks, but so far have plans only for the first few days. They are to drive to the Parc national de la Gaspésie and stay for four nights. It’s a long drive – over 800 miles – so we will stop in northernmost Maine on the way. We have been to the Gaspésie before. Daughter was just six then, but had her big sisters for company. We have booked the exact same camping spot, on the shore of Lac Cascapédia.

Mont XalibuAnd that is as far as we’ve got. Over the coming weeks I will have a lot of fun planning Gaspésie hikes we might – or might not – take. Perhaps back to the top of Mont Xalibu for the view to the right (my picture this time). Or maybe up Mont Jacques Cartier, the highest peak in the park (4,160 feet) and home to the only woodland caribou south of the Saint Lawrence River. The park has 310 square miles – about the size of Shenandoah NP – so there are plenty of other hikes to consider, including a 70-mile section of the International Appalachian Trail. So much to choose from, and we haven’t even crossed the Saint Lawrence yet for the next stage of the trip.