Part 38: International Appalachian Trail (IAT)—Quebec (Mile 4,462.6 to Mile 4,861.3) Day 235-251

Shouldering the weight of my food-filled Hyperlight pack over the Interprovincial Bridge, I crossed the Restigouche River and entered my second province of Canada—Québec. Back in New Brunswick (Fr. Nouveau-Brunswick), I had secured my Quebec Parks Pass through Sépaq (Société des établissements de plein air du Québec), planned a mileage-based itinerary, and even brushed up on some colloquial French. Admittedly, I felt apprehensive about the communication barrier that I’d likely face; however, there was also a fresh sense of optimism for hiking the trail into an idyllic unseen land, which put my mind at ease. It was the birth of a new day, and there was much about which to be optimistic.

There is much more to Canada than Tim Hortons (restaurant chain), Familiprix (drug store), Canadian Tire (popular department store), Petro-Canada (fueling station), Canada Post (post office), Molson beer (official Canadian beer), and poutine (staple French-Canadian cuisine, pronounced “poo-tin”), even though I’ve come to appreciate all of these places and things! Beyond the commercial creations and foodstuffs, there is a special land with beauty of unequaled measure. It’s a place teeming with the lushest forests, some with sun-nurtured undergrowth and others with a carpet of needles from stands of heaven-pointing pines. Lakes, rivers, and brooks are innumerable and the source of much refreshment and visual delight. Having a creamy appearance, water from gushing waterfalls (Fr. chutes) cascades gracefully down rocky precipices, spewing into plunge pools below.

For the hiker, Québec is a Land of Milk and Honey—a backpacker (Fr. randonneur) paradise! Indeed, the Québec wilderness abounds with rich verdant valleys and fern-topped mountains as far as the eye can see. Wildlife is abundant in every corner of the forest interior, and hunters (Fr. chasseurs) construct wood stands to take their kill shots from an elevated position. French-settled provincial villages are welcoming and peopled with a warm community that is amiable to locals and foreigners alike. Rural Québecers are modest and traditional, placing much value on family life and preserving their inherited Québecois mores and conventions. Catholic churches (Fr. églises) and cemeteries (Fr. cimetières) dot the hillsides, as do schools (Fr. écoles) and French-styled houses (Fr. maisons). Blue provincial pole-raised flags wave boldly, juxtaposed against the backdrop of a cloud-blanketed Canadian sky.

Québec (pronounced “Keh-Beck” by Anglo-Québecers and “Kay-Beck” by French-Québecers) is more pristine and mountainous than my mind ever visualized. This was a place to release one’s city-induced anxiety and become attuned to the natural world. The randonneur and chasseur, if anyone at all, learn to listen and watch with careful attention. There is a world within a world of which one may become a part if he or she, if only for a brief time, open up to a new means of understanding.

Upon crossing the bridge, I came upon a Québec sign at the border that, in bold capital letters, read BIENVENUE, a word the Frenchies use for “welcome.” Commencing the Québec section of the IAT, or more appropriately the SIA (Fr. Sentier International des Appalaches), I passed beneath the decorative trail archway and began an immediate ascent. After having completed miles upon miles of roadwalking and having spent weeks on seemingly endless ATV/snowmobile trails back in New Brunswick, it was such a relief to be back on proper hiking trail again. Much like the AT, the “switchbackless” trail in Québec takes the hiker straight up and straight down mountainsides without any consideration of elevation gain and loss. Such climbs are so steep and precarious that rappel ropes were tied around trees to assist the hiker in avoiding injury or death. The SIA-Québec has four-sided shelters called refuges, which the hiker can reserve in advance. The fully enclosed structures provide relief from the elements, especially in the harsh winters for which Canada is known. Inside a typical refuge are bunks, storage shelves, and a central fireplace for heating. Most of the refuge sites also include a pit toilet, wood platforms for tents, as well as a fire ring and picnic table.

The rectangular SIA-IAT trail markers in Québec which hang mostly from trees and posts also have a “GR” identifier, which is a common convention found in Europe, particularly in France, to designate a trail’s level of difficulty. GR stands for Grand Randonnée, meaning “long hike.” GR trails provide a range of excursions of varying levels of difficulty lasting from one to several days and spanning one or more regions or even whole countries. According to the IAT/SIA Council, the trail in Québec “leaves Matapedia and proceeds to Amqui then through the Reserve Faunique de Matane to Mount Logan in the western portion of the Parc de la Gaspésie. The trail then turns eastward to Mont Albert, Mont Jacques Cartier, and the legendary cliffs of Cap Gaspé in Forillon National Park.”

Further into the Québec mountains stood whole farms of wind turbines with their metallic aerodynamic blades cranking like clockwork. The bottommost section of the turbine towers were painted with gradated green-hued stripes so as to camouflage the monumental installations with the surrounding tree life. The mechanical humming of blades in rotation became strangely peaceful but camping beneath them is not advised, especially in the unlikely event of a detaching rotor blade!

The charming villages of Québec provided much insight into rural agrarian and small town life of northeastern Canada. At Sainte-Marguerite-Marie, the first municipality along the trail, I was chased by a curly-haired poodle from a French-Canadian’s porch; however, the dog had more of an interest in licking my pant leg than biting my ankle! “Bonjour Madame,” I exclaimed to the woman while making a quick wave of the hand. The woman, seeing I was thru-hiking the SIA, kindly returned a wave. As I passed by her house, her eyes lit up with curiosity. “Passe une bonne journée,” she replied with a wide smile. At Causapscal, I stopped by the information bureau to chat with some local townspeople. Needing to rest, I took a break up the street directly in front of an iconic church. St-James-the-Great Catholic Church is an edifice of Gothic Revival architecture with pointed ogival arches, towering spires, flèches, and spirelets, all of which created a dramatic spectacle of great height and proportion. From the belfry housed at the top of the bell tower, church bells knell. A deep ringing toll (“tintinnabulation”) powerfully resonates throughout the village center. Following the Causapscal River out of town, I worked my way to Amqui; here I took a nero day, resupplying at the Maxi grocery mart and then checking into a lower-level hotel room at Auberge Beauséjour. The concierge, who spoke some English but was by no means fluent, filled me in on local events and respectable dining establishments. Of particular notice to me were phone booths, which are largely defunct in the United States but still common in Canada. The coin-operated hardlines can be useful for hikers to place a call when someone, such as myself, lacks a Canadian phone plan.

The walk along the Matapédia River (Rivière Matapédia) was pleasant and featured rows of luxurious riverside residences with picturesque boat docks in the backyards. At the end of each driveway, green plastic Publi-Sac newspaper boxes, which hold the day’s headlines, can be seen. Saint-Vianney, under construction when I passed through, was the last hamlet before entering the Matane Wildlife Reserve (Fr. Reserve Faunique de Matane).

Matane was the remotest section on the SIA-Québec, so I loaded up with extra supplies in Amqui to ensure I’d be able to get through the Reserve in one shot. There were numerous ascents within the park, leaving my overworked calves on fire. The torrential rainfall made trudging through the bogs especially difficult. At one point, I slipped into a knee-deep pool of mud! Crossing the Matane River (Fr. Rivière Matane), I stopped briefly to filter water using my Sawyer. While sitting, I snapped photographs of a row of clouds reflecting like a mirror upon the crystalline water. Ruffed grouse, odd-behaving birds with a pea-sized brain, have been ubiquitous on trail ever since Maine. The ruffed grouse is a brownish bird that has a triangular crest and fan-shaped tail. It’s a ground-dwelling bird that ruffles its feathers like a chicken, whines like a dog, and flies from the forest floor up to a tree branch or some other high place whenever it encounters a predator or human being. As I walked by, these birds flew frantically out of nowhere, nearly hitting me at times on their flight to the nearest “safe zone.” With plumage puffed out, grouse will even dart after a hiker in an aerial charge, especially when baby cheepers are nearby.

Slightly north of Mont Blanc shelter towards the end of the Matane section, I had a frightening, yet survivable, bull moose encounter. Having previously shooed off numerous cow moose by loudly tapping together my trekking poles and employing a broad waving motion—a tactic often employed to drive away bears—I felt confident the procedure would work on a bull. Holy smokes, was I wrong! The bull moose, with its broad beastly anatomy, velvet palmate antlers, and characteristic dewlap under his chin, completely blockaded the trail, which prompted me to try to drive away the animal. Apparently I’d interrupted his “berry-picking time.” Instead of causing the animal to move away, my unintentional provocation provoked the bull to charge me. With only moments to think, I recalled a deescalation technique a Canadian once taught me. Rather than trying to outrun the moose—the results of which would be unfavorable even to a star athlete on a track squad—I was advised to find narrow, confined spaces where the broad-bodied moose would not be able to reach me due to its bulky frame and outstretched pair of antlers. Using my comparatively small human stature as an advantage over the bull, I dove into a stand of dense pine trees and began walking speedily around the animal to rejoin the trail on the other side. The bull stopped pursuing me, and I had learned a valuable lesson—don’t pick on anyone or anything bigger than me!

The trail transitions from Matane Wildlife Reserve to Gaspésie National Park (Fr. Parc National de la Gaspésie). Gaspésie was a remarkable section with world class mountain walking and stunning Alps-like views. At the Discovery Center, after visiting the nature museum room, I sat outside on the deck and nursed an ice cream bar to satisfy my dairy fix, all the while taking in superb picture-postcard mountain vistas. Summiting Jacques-Cartier with its commanding belvedere tower was breathtaking—a drama in itself. The summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier (4,160 ft) is the highest point in southern Québec and the Chic Choc Mountains. Here caribou (reindeer) are often spotted near the summit, giving a fairytale-like experience.

From Gaspésie, I pushed on to Mont-Saint-Pierre at the north coast of the Gaspé peninsula, the first of a series of coastal towns I’d hike until reaching Cap Gaspé. Seeing the St. Lawrence River for the first time, especially at sunset, was beyond spectacular! It was Day 245 and I’d hiked 4,723.2 miles to get to the St. Lawrence. While in Mont-Saint-Pierre, I conducted a full resupply at Marché Bonichoix. From Mont-Saint-Pierre, the trail elegantly weaves in and out of the villages of Mont Louis, Gros-Morne, Madeleine-Centre, Grand-Vallee, Petite-Vallee, and L’Anse-a-Valleau. At many of the town stops, French cuisine became my top prioritization! At Madeleine-Centre, I came upon a restaurant called Le Casse-Croute. A sign in the window stated OUVERT (“OPEN”), so I made my way inside and ate a hearty multi-course breakfast. Having some time to kill, I topped off my electronics and drank prodigious amounts of sugar-sweetened coffee. Despite my still-lingering “hiker stench” most others would find repugnant, the proprietor of the restaurant took a pleasant liking to me and fielded me with questions about my Key West-to-Belle Isle hiking quest.

In two separate stretches, I hiked along a “beach trail” which is only accessible at low tide. Along the rocky shore I found numerous discarded objects, including a rusty bicycle, car engine, and discarded bed spring. Sea shells, washed-up crustaceans, sea urchins, and sea jellies were also found among the rocks. Sea weed and other marine plants with a rather offensive odor had also landed ashore. The geological formations at the coast were impressive; one can observe the results of dramatic folding of the earth’s strata. The ever-shifting rocks and pebbles were challenging to walk on, as one would expect, but the fresh ocean breeze made up for any temporary inconvenience. Also, from the beach trail I spotted my first whale! Further up trail toward the end of the coastal walk, I stopped at Pointe-à-la-Renommée which is a historical site of the first maritime North American radio station, installed by Marconi in 1904. While there I juiced up my iPhone one last time in an outlet on the picnic grounds. Before turning inland at L’Anse-a-Valleau into the canopied conifer forest interior to make the final leg to Cap Gaspé, I took in one last view of the vast St. Lawrence.

In the forests of Québec, hikers penetrate numerous logging operations, both active and inactive. The logging industry and wood product manufacturing are dominating features within Canada. As one would expect, the forest sector is a major contributor to the Canadian economy; indeed, its handsome share of the GDP relates to the fact that 39 percent of Canada’s land acreage is covered by forests. Private logging companies process trees systematically with a complex assortment of specialized machinery, including skidders, feller bunchers, forwarders, harvesters, swing machines, and knuckleboom loaders. The logs are then loaded onto timber trucks and transported out of the woods through a network of logging roads to mills where the logs are then cut into conventional lumber and a number of other wood-based products. Private landholders in the hill country of Québec sometimes even own and operate their own personal portable mills, loading the felled logs with a tractor-pulled log loader, what I like to call a “log picker-upper.”

Hiking the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) has been a life-renewing experience. The IAT is a critical piece in completing a thru-hike of the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT) because it shares the same treadway from Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in northern Maine (just after the 11.8-mile “IAT Approach Trail”) to Crow Head at the northern extremity of Newfoundland. From Maine, the IAT stretches to the northeast for 721.9 miles connecting up with Cap Gaspé. Passing up Mount Carlton in New Brunswick, it crosses the Matapédia Valley, and then goes through Matane Wildlife Reserve. Next it climbs Logan, Albert, and Jacques-Cartier mountains in Gaspésie Park before coming to an an abrupt halt at Cap Gaspé in Forillon National Park. From Quebec, the IAT resumes in the provinces of Prince Edward Island (IATPEI), Nova Scotia (IATNS), and Newfoundland (IATNL). The IATNL extends from Port aux Basques in southwestern Newfoundland to Crow Head just east of L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. Although Crow Head is the northern terminus of the IAT in Canada, the ECT terminates at Belle Isle (Fr. “Beautiful Island”), which is located some twenty miles north of Newfoundland at the Atlantic entrance to the Strait of Belle Isle. The ECT’s northern terminus of Belle Isle is what I’ve come to affectionally call the “Nimblewill Finish” in honor of the legendary M. J. Eberhart who named the ECT trail system which I’ve been hiking. Its the “victory stretch” of the ECT. Belle Isle is the off-the-coast symbolic location for the climactic ending to the 5,700-mile walk originating in Key West, Florida.

After walking 4,861.3 miles on the ECT, I arrived at last to Cap Gaspé, the northern ending point of SIA-Quebec. The site is marked by a historical lighthouse that looks like something taken right out of a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem. It’s brilliant white tower structure which supports the lantern room above stands in contrast to the open blue sea. Lighthouses are usually tall, imposing towers. The Cap Gaspé lighthouse, however, is only 12.8 meters high but perched atop a 95-meter cliff, sailors far at sea can see its signal. It’s a beacon in the night. When darkness or fog obscures the coast, sailors depend on lighthouses to guide them safely to port. Three lighthouses in turn have stood at Cap Gaspé since 1873. Each used the same basic type of lighting system—a catoptric one. The name comes from the Greek word katoptrikos meaning “mirror.” Catoptric systems use a parabolic metal reflector to take light rays from a light source and focus them into an intense horizontal beam. In the catoptric system, the parabolic reflector multiplies the intensity of the light source, giving off the magnificent light for which a light house is known.

In 1873, a fixed red light produced by four kerosene lamps shone from the first Cap Gaspé lighthouse. Sailors up to 23 km (12 nautical miles) away could see it. The second lighthouse (1892) had a revolving white incandescent light. The signal for the Cap Gaspé lighthouse was three flashes at intervals of 15 seconds, then a 30-second pause. It could be seen from 50 km (26 nautical miles away). The current lighthouse system uses a white electric light that flashes every five seconds. The distance the light can be seen was reduced to 29 km (15 nautical miles) as most modern boats have sophisticated electronic systems for navigating out of sight of land. The current system now uses solar panels in lieu of conventional electricity. A nearby infographic captured the sentiment:

For a hundred years we took care of this lighthouse and watched over the sailors plying these waters. But in 1972 we were replaced by an automatic system. In fact in 1983, our station became the first in Canada to operate on solar. They tell us this is progress. Apparently, by 1989 there will be no more lighthouse keepers left in Québec.”

Lighthouse keepers have fascinated me since I was a youngster. From the bygone days of manned lighthouses, these dutiful workers, sometimes nicknamed “wickies,” were the keepers of the wind and fog. “We didn’t just sit around all day long and watch the horizon through our spyglasses,” one keeper commented. “There was always lots to do. In fact, when a storm raged, we often didn’t find time to sleep for days.”

Every day, in both fair and inclement weather, lighthouse keepers and their family members who resided there with them had numerous chores:

• light and put out the lamp

• reset the system of weights that controlled the rotation of the light

• check that all navigation aids were working

• keep a record of temperature and precipitation, and also a ship’s log

• set off the fog signal

• clean the parabolic reflectors

• replace and clean the glass in the lantern

• maintain the buildings

• polish the brass

• obtain the fuel and everything else needed to run the light and sound warning systems

Next to the lighthouse stood a venerable building painted white and red. This was the oldest building at the Cap Gaspé station. Built in 1883, it was used to store the fog cannon and gunpowder. Also, the sound rockets were fired from its roof.

From the lighthouse, I took a short 375 m spur trail down to the cliffs at the very edge where the land meets the water. The sign designated the trail with a most peculiar yet appropriate name. It was called Bout du Monde, which means “land’s end.” I’d walked until the land stopped! My hike had taken me from the ocean waters of the Florida Keys all the way to the St. Lawrence River and around to Gaspé Bay (Fr. Baise de Gaspé) at the fringes of eastern Canada. The imposing 95-metre cliff takes its name from the Micmac word Gesbeg, meaning “land’s end.” Seeing the name “land’s end” struck me to the core as it had special meaning for me. For you see, I’d unwittingly uttered the phrase months previously in a dialog with a stranger all the way back in Florida. Once while I was bridgewalking down in the Keys, a passerby inquired as to how far I was going. Since this was early on in my ECT journey, I was unprepared in terms of a satisfactory response. “C’mon, how far you headin’ my friend?” the fellow asked. With only a brief moment to reduce the hike into its simplest expression, I glowingly replied, “Until the land ends.”

Of course there is much more trail still ahead as I hike through the maritime provinces of PEI, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.

The best is yet to be.

The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,

And on its outer point, some miles away,

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,

A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,

Through the deep purple of the twilight air,

Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light

With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!

Not one alone; from each projecting cape

And perilous reef along the ocean’s verge,

Starts into life a dim gigantic shape,

Holding its lantern o’er the restless surge.

The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din

Of wings and winds and solitary cries,

Blinded and maddened by the light within,

Dashes himself against the glare, and dies.


A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,

Still grasping in his hand the fire of Joue,

It does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,

But hails the mariner with words of love.

“Sail on!” it says, “sail on, ye stately ships!

And with your floating bridge the ocean span;

Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse,

Be yours to bring nan nearer unto man!”

The Lighthouse
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1849
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