Published in The Hour – August 2013.
It was one of those hikes that work you hard and keep you in suspense, a bit like some jobs I could mention. Ever since the national park shuttle – a spotless yellow school bus – dropped us off at the trailhead for L’Acropole des Draveurs we had done nothing but zigzag up a wooded mountainside. If we hadn’t caught glimpses of the spectacular landscape hereabouts on our drive into the park, we might have thought ourselves in the Litchfield hills (OK, and if our fellow hikers were not speaking in French). The climb was relentless, steep here, a staircase of boulders there. And we were hemmed in by trees, hidden from the scenery and the perfect, northern summer’s day. After what seemed an interminable trudge – half the climb to the summits if there were any justice in the world – we came to a trailside marker. We had come, it said, one full kilometer. My hiking companion was my youngest daughter – an eighth-grader – and I saw a darkness descend upon her face. Two days earlier we met a party of women by a mountain pond on another hike, and they told us this one would be “exigeante” – demanding. We took their warning lightly. Now, still four kilometers from the summits, we saw – we felt – what they meant.
But we pushed on, sustained by occasional look-outs that promised ample reward farther on. The distance posts came around oh so slowly – 2km on a rare stretch of level, 3km where we had a subdued lunch. Then shortly after 4km the world about us changed utterly. Like pearl divers breaking the surface with bursting lungs, we broke out to light and a vast sky — and to the best views east of the Rockies. I can’t prove that, of course, but L’Acropole des Draveurs has fair claim to the title. Here – and we were on the lowest of its three summits – the River Malbaie, calm behind a small dam, lay 2,300 feet below — right below. And to the north the river disappeared into a forested gorge, flanked by the highest precipices in eastern Canada. The cliffs and wooded slopes ended on flat-topped mountains, where small lakes and a hanging valley nestled.
It was all “magnifique”, and it was obvious that the little throng who shared the ledge with us thought so too. This was “Sommet 1” on the map. You would think that locals who were imaginative enough to call a mountain the “Acropolis of the Log Drivers” would have come up with something more poetic for its individual peaks. But evidently they had not, and now we pushed on to Summit 2, and there lay back against its rocks in near solitude. It was a short hop then to rugged, alpine Summit 3, 2,700 feet above the river. And there the views were like those from Summit One, except wider, wilder, more perpendicular.
All this splendor was in the Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie national park. It is a Quebec national park, not a Canadian one. (You might argue that it is really just a provincial park, but I am Scots-born and like the idea that nations can exist inside bigger nations.) The park sits in Quebec’s Charlevoix region, 250 miles northeast of Montreal and 600 miles from Norwalk Green. It is a very picturesque region indeed, dominated by the mighty Saint Lawrence and the mountains and forests that fringe it. So it is surprising – on the evidence of license plates – that it is little visited by outsiders. Maybe for New Englanders it is just that there is beauty aplenty at home, and at home you don’t have to struggle with a foreign tongue. That is true, but it is the very difference of Quebec from the rest of North America that makes it rewarding. For starters, there is nowhere else where you can satisfy your hunger after a tough hike with a plate of “Poutine” – a pile of gravy-drenched fries covered in cheese curds that is the national fast food.
And since Quebec offered other calorie-laden temptations too, we had to keep up the hiking. The drovers’ Acropolis was the undoubted highlight, but there was also an evening dash through the conifers and ground lichen to falls where the young River Malbaie slid foaming through a narrow channel. On the last day, hoping to add to our solitary major wildlife sighting (a black bear prowling the edges of camp one nightfall) we wandered through the taiga in search of moose or wolf. We turned up nothing but a handful of Spruce Grouse, but at least that hike stayed on level ground.