Five Days, 700 Miles:
Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula by Snowmobile
By Bill Scheller
Photos by the Author
I backed off the gas, letting my snowmobile fall well behind my guide on a dead-straight length of trail that ran along a power line right-of-way. When I had a clear quarter-mile ahead of me, I closed my right thumb against the triggerlike throttle and held on tight as the machine screamed up to speed. The engine’s pitch changed almost instantly from a low throaty roar to an insectile whine, the February air rushed past my helmet and licked beneath the edges of my visor, the rubber track beneath me chattered frantically against the hard-packed snow. I flexed my arms to correct a hundred twitches to the left and right as the skis found and lost older, frozen tracks. The pine trees were a frosted blur.
I was well into a seven-hundred-mile trip along a phantom highway, a highway that appears only in winter. I had gone over to the Dark Side, as my cross-country skier friends might have said, and was driving a snowmobile on a circuit of Quebec’s Gaspé peninsula, a 140-mile-long lobe of rugged, sea-girt timberland. I was enjoying it immensely, enjoying the wicked sensation of wilderness expanses as a fast-motion IMAX film instead of a series of Ansel Adams stills.
The Gaspé — Gaspésie , the natives call it — is a country made for snowmobiles, a mountain and forest realm so vast that you can contemplate it at forty miles an hour the way you can take in daintier landscapes at walking speed. The Gaspésians have snowmobiling in their bones. They run a system of more than 1,200 miles of groomed trails, an ephemeral highway infrastructure that lasts as long as the snows. Every so many miles it intersects with the permanent world of cars and asphalt so that riders can get gas and food and lodging — although there are cozy rustic bistros you can only reach by snowmobile.
When winter comes to the Gaspé people drive their machines right up from Maine via the forests of New Brunswick, or follow the well-packed Route 5, the Trans-Quebec Snowmobile Trail, all the way from Montreal and points west. Or they head up to a Gaspé town like Matane, as I did, and sign on for a guided expedition on a rented motoneige. And there is only one logical destination — the peninsula’s far eastern point, where the great Rock of Percé stands against the Gulf of St. Lawrence like the defiant prow of all North America.
At Matane’s Riotel, a hotel on the banks of the St. Lawrence, I was oufitted for my expedition with helmet, boots, gauntlet-like mittens, terrorist-style Spandex head stocking, and insulated overalls, topped off with a double-breasted parka with snaps arranged in the V-pattern of an old-time police uniform. I was a vision in black, looking as bad as … well, badder than I am. But the suit worked. Even when the temperature fell well below zero, the only part of me that ever got cold was the patch around my eyes that the Spandex didn’t cover. (My feet had the best protection of all: snowmobiles are designed so that your boots nestle up near the engine.)
The Riotel staff next introduced me to Georges, my guide, a tall, trim native Gaspésian in his early forties, with that air of quiet competence you like to see in someone who is going to accompany you for four days in the woods. Georges was just back from hunting caribou, far beyond the north shore of the St. Lawrence.
Our machines were waiting outside — George’s own snazzy Yamaha, and my sedate green Ski-Doo. The first step in the day’s 93-mile run was to cross a busy street, but since my last outing, I had forgotten a primary rule of the sport: you can’t steer a snowmobile on bare pavement. What turns the machine are the keel-like protrusions that run along the bottom of each ski; they bite into the snow, and the vehicle follows in their tracks. On cleared blacktop, the skis just skid.
I hit the telephone pole with enough force to dump the machine on its side. Georges came over to right it and size up the damage. Nothing serious — just a bent ski, which Georges addressed with a sledgehammer from a nearby gas station. My pride was beyond such easy repair. No one likes to play the dimwit sahib, right off the bat.
But Georges, who has been snowmobiling since 1969, told me that he’d done the same thing a couple of years ago. That made me feel better. I climbed back on, gave it the throttle, and off we went. Matane disappeared in a minute, and in the distance I could see the apricot-pink sheen of alpenglow on the Chic-Choc Mountains of the central Gaspé. Those bright peaks would be ours in just four days, by a dauntingly circuitous route.
Once outside of town we followed the trailside signs for Route 5, which were red and blue and looked like miniature American Interstate signs, except they had little snowflakes and a silhouette of a snowmobile. The signs led us into deepening woods, where we passed no structures other than an occasional hunting camp, and odd little phone-booth-sized buildings on platforms ten feet off the ground. “Moose blinds,” Georges explained.
I began to get acquainted with the Ski-Doo. At first glance, you’d think a snowmobile would ride like a motorcycle — just grasp the handlebars (mercifully heated) and steer. But it’s actually more like riding a dirt bike on broken terrain. The snow is never perfectly smooth, and every bump and indentation incites lateral movement in the beast. Warmer weather, such as the unseasonable thirtyish temperatures we experienced early in the trip, softens the snow surface and makes handling more wallowy and imprecise. Snowmobiles can fishtail if you head into a turn too fast, and for some strange reason I always had to pull harder going into a right turn than a left.
People had kidded me about getting a sore behind, spending five days on a snowmobile, but the seating was actually more La-Z-Boy than Easy Rider. It’s your shoulders and upper arms that get the workout. You also have to change speeds and wiggle your right arm fairly often, because the constant tension of the throttle against your thumb can send numbness right up to your elbow.
We pulled into Sainte-Anne-des-Monts just after dark. My shoulders felt as if I had been wrestling Rottweilers. At the motel dining room I had fettucini with crevettes, the tiny shrimp of the St. Lawrence estuary, and each crevette weighed heavily at the end of my fork. Fortunately, snowmobiling is like hiking: you feel better on each successive day.
Tuesday morning broke with a light fog burning off the land and rolling north across the St. Lawrence. It was still quite warm for midwinter, barely below freezing. Stoked with thick oatmeal laced with local maple sugar, we gassed up our machines and headed back into the woods.
The snowmobiles gobbled altitude effortlessly as we followed the sharply-elbowing trail, and as river vistas opened to the north. I finally tuned out the noise, and lost the feeling that I was holding the reins of an enormous bee. I started paying attention to the scenery. Just ahead lay a long straightaway that poured us down from the fir-tree heavens toward the icy, mist-bound expanse of the St. Lawrence estuary, which filled the horizon so completely that it seemed we were descending toward a frozen cloud. Then, turning sharply, the trail began to hug the shoulders of mountains dropping precipitously to the sea, barely leaving room for the auto road and the straggly villages that cluster at the mouths of streams. At one point, just before we stopped for lunch at a naugahyde-and-aqua 50s motel in Mont-Saint-Pierre, I looked downriver and saw three steep headlands overlapping in the mist, a Japanese watercolor transported to the far cold reaches of French Canada.
Back into the forest we drove, the fishing villages giving way to the Quebec of lumberjacks and moose. A hundred miles into the day, with thirty to go, we saw the first signs pointing to our evening’s destination, the Pourvoirie (Outfitter) Beausejour.
The Beausejour rose up out of the woods, all of a sudden, a big lakeside lodge painted one of those bright blues favored in Quebec and the Maritime provinces as an antidote to winter’s palette of gray, green, and white. Downstairs was a dining room with communal tables, and a lounge where a fire danced in a glass-door woodstove.
I went up to my room, which looked like the room in your country aunt’s house where your cousins lived before going off to college. But these cousins were different — their family followed that oldest Canadian profession, trapping. Tossed onto each bed was a beaver pelt, a perfect oval of brown fur so dense that my fingers couldn’t reach the skin beneath. This was a fine, authentic decorative touch, backcountry Quebec’s answer to Laura Ashley.
There was still an hour’s daylight left when we arrived, and Georges knocked on my door just as I was settling into my room. “The manager asked if we want to try ice fishing,” he said. I pulled my snowmobile boots back on.
Georges augered a couple of four-inch holes into the frozen lake. I took a homemade wooden jig, baited my hook with a chunk of half-frozen night crawler, and dropped ten feet of line into the water. I jigged the bait up and down for no more than five minutes before I felt that wonderful insistent tug, and a few seconds later I was hauling out a twelve-inch rainbow trout. Georges and I were served the trout for dinner that night — as a first course, to be precise, because in Quebec dinner is served in three or four courses, with wine, even in outfitters’ lodges where it is perfectly acceptable to trundle in from the fireside to the dining room shod only in heavy woolen socks. The trout impressed our tablemates. They had roared in shortly after we had, six young friends from Montreal who were adding the annual installment to their dream of snowmobiling every trail in Quebec.
After a main course of pot roast, we had a provincial specialty called sugar pie. Made with maple sugar — sorry, Vermont, but Quebec is the world’s leading producer — sugar pie can be grainy or creamy, served with a top crust or without. It got to be a standing routine between Georges and I: presented with our dessert choices each evening, we’d look at each other, and both say, “sugar pie.” Comparisons with the previous night’s version would follow, as if we were tasting our way through Napa or Bordeaux.
But we were tasting our way through rural French Canada, where the cuisine addresses the abiding fact of winter. It nourishes people who picked a tough place to settle, and then had to keep dealing with the weather when the settling was done. It is comfort food, all the more comforting because, being French, it is not only substantial but good.
I woke after nine hours’ sleep to perfect snowmobiling weather, barely over zero F., the snow hard and crisp and less likely to slop your machine from side to side. The country was different, too. The land opened up, the mountains unraveled — there was a real sense of approaching the sea.
And another, odder sensation came upon me. I realized I was going into a terrain-trance, brought on by the relentless motion of the snowmobile and the lulling rhythm of snow and sky and trees, their elemental colors endlessly repeated. I would think back over where we had driven for the past few hours, and nothing would fall into order. There was no longer any sense of when we had been where. Like the sequence of the terrain, time itself was beginning to disintegrate, churned up under the track of the snowmobile.
All of a sudden, we were eating lunch in a shopping mall. After flying down a steep trail on the flank of a ski mountain, we had pounded across the rumpled ice of a saltwater inlet and crossed a busy road to reach the town of Gaspé, and a mall called the Place Jacques Cartier. Cartier, of course. It was in the late spring of 1534 that the explorer planted a cross near here, and claimed Quebec for the French. Out of sheer tenacity, nowhere more evident than in the settlements of wintry Gaspésie, they can claim it still.
We had wanted to follow the road that runs alongside Forillon National Park, on a narrow headland outside Gaspé that faces the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Seals bask along Forillon’s frozen shoreline. But we were disappointed to learn that the road had been closed to snowmobiles, as too many riders had yielded to temptation and crossed the park’s forbidden territory as a short-cut back to town. So we hit Gaspé early, and checked into our motel. The parking lot had as many snowmobiles as cars.
Georges and I walked down to a bar called the Brise-Bise, and he told me snowmobile-guide stories. There was the man from Montreal who threw in the towel in Gaspé and took the bus home, leaving his rented snowmobile; and the Europeans who come here and ask where the Indians are. Quebec snowmobile excursions are big with the French and Germans. They are fascinated by the idea of hopping on a machine all but unknown at home, and driving the equivalent of the distance from Marseilles to Berlin while running into fewer people than they usually see when they go out for a newspaper.
At the Brise-Bise, I drank a bottle of Quebec-brewed beer called La Fin du Monde. There is a map of the province on the label, and I’ve never figured out if the beer is named “End of the World” for geographic reasons, or because it is nine percent alcohol. I favored the former as the more poetic explanation. Looking at the tip of Gaspésie on my beer-bottle map of Quebec, I decided that this was truly, to use the English idiom, one of the ends of the earth.
But Percé Rock is an even more abrupt end, and it was there that we headed early the next morning, traveling south through thousands of acres of pulpwood plantations. The 1,500-foot long, 288-foot high rock stands only a few hundred yards offshore at the little town of Percé, an artists’ summer colony that leads a down-to-earth winter existence along its one main street. Cartier saw this great severe slab of stone on his approach to the St. Lawrence, and named it for its “pierce,” an eroded archway near its outer tip.
We saw the rock when we crested a hill outside of Percé, and immediately knew that we would get no closer to it than the government dock in town. The harbor was open water. In colder winters, thick ice extends all the way out to the arch, and snowmobilers make the short trip. For whatever reason — global warming, El Nino, who knows — there would be no riding above the fishes today. I had to be content with a postcard view of a cluster of machines and their smiling owners, posing at Percé Rock.
Heading west again, we flew across farmland that slopes gently toward Chaleur Bay, on the peninsula’s south coast. This was where I found that long, straight power line corridor, along which I rocketed like a high school kid who finds a perfect stretch of copless blacktop. The week after my trip, I learned, the first provincial snowmobile speed limit would be going into effect. The new law caps riders at 70 kilometers per hour, about 43 mph. I celebrated the end of the old days by edging my velocity up just a little bit higher than that.
We spent our final night on the trail at a turreted hotel in the little town of Bonaventure, arriving just in time for a spectacular sunset over Chaleur Bay. Tucking in early after a dinner of fresh local salmon, and for a change no sugar pie, we left at seven the next morning to meet the last and greatest challenge of the trip — a 200-mile run across the entire peninsula, through the Chic-Chocs and back to Matane.
This last day was the coldest so far. It was well below zero when we set out, and by the time we left Route 5, turning onto a narrower trail that snakes up the valley of the Little Cascapedia River, my breath had created a thick patch of ice on the inside of my visor. We were climbing, working our way up into the central massif of Gaspésie. North and east of our route stood Mt. Jacques Cartier, at 4160 feet the highest point in Quebec.
These are raw, abrupt mountains, gouged heavily by the last glaciers. The trail wound past one peak whose sheer face reminded me of Yosemite’s Half Dome; but here, at this farthest northern reach of the Appalachians, it would never achieve anywhere near the California mountain’s celebrity. The Gaspé remains a private treasure, known outside Quebec only to a few salmon anglers and long-haul snowmobilers.
Deep in the forest, Georges stopped his machine ahead of me and pointed to the snow on our right. It was perforated with cloven oval imprints that continued across the trail. “Moose,” Georges said. “Just a few hours ago.”
We stopped for lunch at the Relais Faribault, a forest oasis decorated with snowmobile posters and beer ads. There was a hockey game on the black-and-white TV behind the counter. Table d’hote, out here in the sticks: Quebec’s signature yellow pea soup, boiled beef and cabbage, and rich homemade cake. A jolly crowd filled the benches at summer-camp style tables, and a slew of machines were parked outside. A bonfire was stacked and ready to go for a weekend party.
Soon we were back on Route 5, covering old ground as we finished our loop. We made Matane by dusk. But before dropping me off at the hotel, Georges led me over to his house, which is almost directly on the snowmobile trail. “Here,” he said, reaching into his freezer. “Take this home. It’s caribou.”
Driving back to Vermont with my tenderloin of the far north in the trunk, I realized that I had not merely traveled through the Gaspé, I had traveled through winter itself. WInter in this place is not something that happens to the landscape, depriving it of its normal state. For half the year, it is the landscape. People here deal with it, revel in it, plunge into its heart on their snowmobiles and cruise merrily along.
IF YOU GO:
For information on snowmobiling in the Gaspé, including guided expeditions, visit http://www.quebecmaritime.ca