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The Great Gaspé

Enjoying solitude in Quebec’s winter wonderland


By Mark Chester
Created: December 30, 2012 Last Updated: December 30, 2012
Related articles: Life » Travel
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Snowshoeing near the Mount Albert Inn. (Mark Chester)

Snowshoeing near the Mount Albert Inn. (Mark Chester)

Winters are fairly mild here on Cape Cod where I live year round, and I was itching for some serious snow with towering drifts. Tropical climes and beaches just don’t get the adrenalin going. So I ventured north to Quebec, to flake out and get invigorated in the mountains of the Gaspésie Peninsula, referred to as The Gaspé.

The Great Gaspé is no fictional character—it has its own, literally. It is a peninsula approximately the size of Belgium with a population near 100,000. Its topography ranges from sea level, running along the St. Lawrence River and jutting into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to mountain peaks exceeding 3,200 feet.

It is possible to spot caribou in the highlands and whales off shore in the span of a single day—though that could make for a very long day.

The Notre Dame Mountains, formed by glaciers eons ago, are actually the northward continuation of the Appalachian Mountain Range with high plateaus, ridges, and deep valleys. The wind blows year round; the Utah-like powder snowfall here is heavier than anywhere else in Quebec, often dumping more than three feet in a single day.

The Gaspésie region is home to Quebec’s provincial National Gaspésie Park, or in the vernacular, Parc National de la Gaspésie. (www.sepaq.com).

For five days, I stayed above sea level in this winter paradise, breathing clean, crisp air, and warming by fireplaces in the Mount Albert Inn (Auberge Le Gite du Mont-Albert) and the isolated mountain lodge in the Chic-Chocs, Native Indian for “impenetrable wall” or “a wall that cannot be crossed.”

Quebec’s provincial government administers the two lodges. Guests are in good hands with qualified staff, ski guides, and hardy, gourmet meals prepared by Cordon Bleu chefs from popular Quebec City eateries.

It is very peaceful here. You can look within and walk with your thoughts. And the mountain gods oblige—that is, there’s no cell phone reception.

La Martre Lighthouse. (Mark Chester)

La Martre Lighthouse. (Mark Chester)

With temperatures in the single digits and winds howling, I was dressed in multi layers of clothing. I waddled in snowshoes the first day on the trail, acclimating to my eye-foot coordination.

My legs felt heavy trying to keep up with my travel companions as we climbed the 3.5- mile Serpentine Trail near the Mount Albert Inn. Snowshoeing is like running in sand—more like quick sand to me. Being in shape is a good idea.

Maybe jogging the beaches in the Caribbean might have been a better choice after all. But I was determined to finish and join the others for lunch by the toasty wood stove at the warming hut.

Nonetheless, I was happy with my slow pace, surrounded by the pristine, white virgin snow. Gray jays perched on the snowy tree limbs tweeted at me, sounding like Heckle and Jeckle, mocking my lack of physical prowess.

Our guide Pasquale backtracked to make sure I was still on my feet. Together we trekked the remaining 40 minutes to the shelter.

The next day we saw moose as we drove to the Chic-Chocs Mountain Lodge. The 90-minute journey from Cap-Chat on the highway is an adventure inside a roomy 10-passenger Ford 350 V10 truck. Triangular tractor treads are affixed to each wheel axel, hugging the snow-packed road safely. This is a new snow van vehicle specially designed for the 25 miles up the mountain. Snow-cat vehicles used the previous years were slower and handled like a car without power steering, according to our driver.

Speed is relative here on top of a mountain surrounded by nearly 40 square miles of wilderness. It is untamed, with wild trails, the longest of which is 2.5 miles. Oh, there are no ski lifts up here, either.

For this non-Alpine skier, I am content walking around in snowshoes through the woods, piddling around in slippers inside, and just hanging by the stone fireplace, in the expansive post and beam second floor, in a rocking chair reading and taking in the mountain views.

For the powder hounds and the expert skiers, there are many slopes, as there are for intermediate and Telemark enthusiasts. Another type of skiing found nowhere elsewhere is Meta skiing.

The Mount Albert Inn. (Mark Chester)

The Mount Albert Inn. (Mark Chester)

At first, I thought it was called “Medi-Care,” so I checked my health insurance policy.

Meta skis are short and wide; the bottoms are fitted with “skins” that make the climbing easier and reduce speed going downhill. It’s really a hybrid of a snowshoe and a cross-country ski. The Lodge acquired the entire inventory of Meta skis from the manufacturer.

The Gaspé Peninsula, at least during my visit, does not seem to attract Americans. It takes nine hours to reach this spot by car from Quebec City. The twenty-four guests were mostly from the Quebec City and Montreal areas.

Despite our American group being the minority, we shared their energetic demeanor and “joie de vivre.” With French spoken during lunch and dinnertime, it really felt as if we were in the French Alps.

Everything a Skier Needs

The lodge accommodates 36 persons (18 rooms), yet feels big enough to have more. There are six experienced trail guides available for the three various ski activities offered: Alpine, Cross-Country, or Meta.

Equipment is provided for those without their own. Each guest must carry his own avalanche beacon sensor and a two-way radio receiver when on any trail. Safety measures are emphasized.

With jagged chunks of ice congealing on the St. Lawrence River, the Gaspé Peninsula looks like an avant-garde sculpture that never ends. It is a fine piece of work—a piece de resistance.

Mark Chester is a freelance photographer/writer on Cape Cod. His new book is “Twosomes.” (www.markchesterphotography.com)

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