I am the second to arrive at the meeting point to catch the bus to the trail-head of Mont Jacques Cartier. I nod a greeting to the young man already there, then lower my pack down onto the slatted wooden boards of the wrap-around porch outside the visitor lodge in Parc-National-de-la-Gaspesie. It would be a cloudless sunny morning except the sky is hazy with smoke, wafting eastward from the fires burning in northern Ontario. Smoggy or not the early morning temperature is foreshadowing a very hot day.
By 8:45 am the porch is filled with hikers. The older couple to my left each have small day packs, brimmed caps, hiking shoes and hiking poles. A family of four huddle in a group, the woman uses her fingers to brush aside a strand of hair from the youngest girl’s face. Both of the children have on running shoes and capri pants, neither have their own packs but both the mom and dad have on mid-sized packs, equal in-size to mine. The older of the two says something to her dad in French, and he digs in his pack and pulls out a bottle of water and hands it out to her.
Two men on my right have on long-sleeve shirts, shorts, no jackets or walking poles, and they each carry enviously tiny back-packs. The older of the two makes a comment about the size of my pack. “… You can’t be going on the same hike as us….” He chuckles, and glances over to his buddy. It is a bit of dig about my full blown hiking mode. I ignore his rudeness, and mentally itemize what I am carrying; 2 liters of water, two sandwiches, two protein bars, a baggy of trail mix, one pair of extra socks, some band-aids, a tensor wrap, a fleece and a lightweight wind breaker, my phone, an extra camera battery, lens cleaner, and a pair of tiny binoculars. My hiking poles are folded up and stuffed in the pack-side pocket. My camera is draped around my neck. I conclude I need everything I am toting.
Mont Jacques-Cartier stands at 1,268 m or 4167 feet. Not quite Mount-Katahdin-Maine, but it is the highest mountain in the Canadian Appalachian range, and the tallest in southern Quebec. We will be hiking a round trip distance of 8.3 kilometers independently, into remote alpine tundra. If the moment hadn’t already passed, I would have volleyed back a flippant comment.
When the bus arrives we herd towards it. The driver flings open the doors granting us access inside. There is a possibility that not everyone will fit, and I am glad I am near the front of the procession. Several people lag back and wait for the second departure at 09:30. Twenty minutes on a dusty gravel road, the bus empties us out into an open space with a change house and toilets. Weaving around hikers and backpacks, I proceed directly to the trail and march behind a stream of hikers.
The dirt path inclines immediately and as the elevation increases the trail becomes eroded down to the bedrock. Within ten minutes the hiking pack starts to string out as they find their own pace. Within 20 minutes some pull up and rest against boulders, swilling from water bottles and sucking wind. Those unaffected by the heat and incline inherit the front two tiers with other well-conditioned hikers, taking over the lead.
Under the sun’s intensity, the mountain snow pack is retreating and the trail has become a trench channeling the melt waters. It is like hiking through a stream. More hikers abandon the eroded bedrock path in favour of the high-sided banks. Slogging along, my hikers are waterproof and I pass my fair-weathered male counterparts, tip-toeing their way along the bank, trying to keep their feet dry. I can’t resist letting loose the smile that cracks across my face.
Arriving at the snow line, I stab my hiking pole in, to ensure it is solid and won’t break off or collapse under my weight. It is still several feet deep, and though it is granular in texture it is slippery, necessitating a heavy foot-placement to imprint before advancing forward.
It is a good half hour of snow hiking to the tree line and back to bedrock hiking. I make a hard push forward, passing a husband and wife team that stops to have a snack. I have been tracking behind them most of the way up.
The slope levels off into a table top plateau. This spot presents as a natural place to take a break. I use the outhouse then eat a sandwich and look over the interpretive plaque. Groups of people hang out, some follow the side trail. I wander over to the precipice the guides say is a 465 m drop. It is supposedly a good vantage point for viewing the resident herd of woodland caribou as they graze on the slopes. I squint thorough my binoculars but see no caribou. Then I continue upward to get ahead of the group of hikers catching up.
I had read that the trail became a wide open rocky tundra with no protection from the elements. A series of platformed stairs landing filled with titter boulders is unpleasant to walk on.
What my mind had perceived as a difficult rocky path, as the trail guide described, and what I was actually experiencing was very different. I would describe it as closely related to a moonscape.
The unevenness of the ground is causing me to wince in pain. My ankle can’t take much more. I can’t get decent foothold, and my hiking poles are useless with nothing to brace the tips against, they slide off every rock I place them on. My progress slows drastically. I swear at myself for attempting such a hazardous hike, and curse at the writers of the brochure for sugar-coating what the trail is really like.
As hikers advance upward I am being left behind. Several signs warn to stay on the trail to prevent erosion, and I ignore them, momentarily searching for respite from the rolling rocks, but there is none to be found. The mountain tower at the top is within view but I have to make the hard decision,. The thought of wrecking my ankle is too great, and I stop and retreat. There will be no photo of the summit for me to show you nor any photos of caribou. I have reached my limit.
As I pick my way downward, people are still making their way up the long approach. Assuming I am returning from the top, they keep asking me, “How is the view from the top? Did you see any caribou?” I drop my head down in defeat and say, “I wasn’t able to summit.” I feel the need to explain that I have a plate and pins in my leg. Many nod in agreement, the way is difficult and they hadn’t expected it. The older couple I passed a while back have resurfaced, he is further ahead of his companion and he stops to chat with me and let her catch up. His breathing is laboured, We chat about the rocky trail, and he says ” One bad step up here would be a horrible long and expensive rescue …..”
Slowly I walk back down, repeating a refrain of words to pay attention to every foot fall. Every step could be the one that requires an evacuation.
Through the snow, through the riverbed, it is the longest hike in the history of hikes. Just when I think it will never end, I start recognizing landmarks from the start of the trail. Finally the change room cabin. Oh the relief that I made it out in one piece, 23 days shy of a year since I fractured my ankle on the Fundy Footpath. I sprawled out on the wooden deck and remove my hikers, pulling off my damp socks and wiggling my toes in the warm July sun.
The family with two girls stroll up the path, successfully back from their hike. The dad got a bad blister and is limping. The older couple stroll in heavily, stabbing their poles into the ground, they cheerfully extol the pleasure of the experience. “It was a great hike, although a bit tricky underfoot…” The two men slide down onto the steps guzzling back water. They don’t know I didn’t make the top, and for all I know, they didn’t either. The older one nods at my hat, and says “Johnny miles road race…. I finished fourth in a half marathon three weeks ago.”
Not exactly sure why he is talking to me, but I respond with ” Oh good for you, where you happy with your time?” He says “Yes, somewhere around 43 minutes….” I am not sure if he is bragging or competing with me but I don’t bite. “Did you run in the Johnny Miles race?’ he asks. I repond with, “Yes, last year… just the five kilometer run. I finished third in my age group.” He makes small talk while we wait for the 2 O’clock bus to take us back to the campground. He goes on to tell me he and his buddy are staying in Cap Chat, then heading back home tomorrow but doesn’t say where and I don’t ask.
The bus arrives and the group forms a line. One by one we enter the bus and take a seat. The energy is drained from most of us. I wasn’t quite ready for this hike but I am glad I attempted it. Please join me as I stop in Matane, and have a look around the town. Happy travels from Maritimemac.
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