Finding someone who knows the land and the landscape can be a good thing, even in a place as familiar as Canada.
When I departed my small plane in the town of Gaspe, near the eastern tip of the Gaspe Peninsula, I was met by a young woman named Zoe, who would be my driver and guide over the next five next days. After I gathered up my belongings and hopped into the van, she took out my itinerary and said there would be an immediate change.
Originally, my schedule for, as the locals say, Gaspesie showed nothing more challenging than a visit to the Jacques Cartier Monument National Historic Site on this first afternoon on the peninsula, but Zoe was mindful of the weather, which at the moment was absolutely gorgeous with temperature in mid-70s, blue skies and mild breeze, and said we would be headed to Perce to catch the boat for Bonaventure Island and not wait until the next day.
It was a smart call because over the course of the next two days, I was scheduled to be on the St. Lawrence River twice more, including a boat ride to the northern coast to see whales. I never made either of those trips because the winds picked up by the afternoon of the next day and tourist boats didn’t leave port.
In a land a beautiful places, Gaspesie remains a gorgeous, natural landscape. The mountainous and heavily forested peninsula forms the eastern most land mass of Quebec on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River. Looking at it on a map, the land mass reminds me of the alien creature that popped out of the stomach of Harry Dean Stanton in the first Alien movie.
Developmentally, the peninsula is very much like a volcanic island anywhere in the world, where 90% of the people live along the shoreline and the remaining hardy souls live in the mountainous interior. Most tourists – very few of which are Americans -- circumnavigate the peninsula stopping at the picturesque seaside towns and national and provincial parks along the way. This was going to be my route, with a detour to a lodge high in the interior mountains.
My first stop on that first day was to Perce, a delightful little tourist town with a harbor defined by an unusual rock-wall with a hole at the base punctured by the wind and waves.
The first pass of my tour boat was toward the rock wall and then it swung around to the far side. When everybody had sated their first euphoria of picture taking, the boat turned into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and toward Bonaventure Island, home to the third largest colony of northern gannets in the world.
Bonaventure Island rises from the sea and then at peak, the land drops off as if an ancient earthquake took half of it to the bottom of the sea. The gannets love the sharp cliffs and at last count 52,000 pairs found the place to their liking. As the boat slowly floated past the cliffs, which were completely adorned with the white birds, it was time to pay attention to the rocks, where the grey seals lolled about waiting for appreciation.
The boat eventually journeyed to the eastern side of the island where there is a small harbor and few buildings including a store. It’s here where the path to the top of the island begins and everyone starts walking. It’s a good 20 minutes to the top and although it’s all uphill, the trek is worth it, because it ends at the center of the gannet colony – you are right there, at one with 100,000 birds. It’s one of the great close encounters with wildlife in North America.
In fact, one woman I met was so enthralled by the birds, she burst out in exclamation, “I just love the gannets!”
When the wind picked up, blowing cool, invigorating gusts off the St. Lawrence, and the tourist boats remained tied up, I did get into the chilly waters.
At Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, there’s a large park, harbor and aquarium called Exploramer - informative for adults and really a fun place for kids.
What’s really interesting about Exploramer, however, is that it offers guided walks into tide pools and shallow waters of the nearby cove. To do this, the guides put you into full waders, essentially rubberized overalls where the straps latch over the shoulder. You feel a little silly, but when you are sloshing around as the gentle waves of the ebb tide putter around your thighs, you know you got the right clothes on for the right activity.
Fish, crabs, plant life, there’s a myriad of biology and wildlife in the shallows and the guide knows them all. This is not just kid stuff. I was in a group of about eight adults and we all had an immensely good time.
Before I turn away from the coast, I just want to highlight one unexpected pleasure, the Reford Gardens, which I was informed was the most northerly botanical gardens on the East Coast. Originally a fishing camp for industrial magnate George Stephen, a descendent of Mr. Stephen still runs the gardens today. I generally don’t get excited about botanical gardens, but I spent hours meandering around the grounds. I would also advise staying for lunch. The local chef at the botanical gardens excels in creating meals from the lush flora of the property.
I can still recall the nice spoonful of strawberry, begonia, pansy, nasturtium, arugula flower and coriander, served as an appetizer. Yum!
Later in the day, as I was leaving the gardens I noticed a red fox sneaking into the property.
Although I really didn’t see much wildlife, other than the occasional marmot along the shore regions, Gaspesie, which is mostly uninhabited lands, is rife with large mammals. The peninsula boasts one of the highest concentrations of moose per square kilometer than just about anywhere else in North America. And the same can be said for the black bear.
I spent a few days in the Gaspe mountains at the beautiful Auberge de Montagne Chic-Chocs Mountain Lodge built atop a ridgeline looking into a waterfall-fed valley. Among the many animals sighted here were plenty of moose, grouse and even beaver.
The lodge runs a number of interesting hikes including one they call the “moose hunt,” where the guide promises you will see a moose. He was right. On the day of my hike, we encountered a 600-pound female. She got within 20 yards of us before moving on. Later that same day while mountain biking I encountered another moose and finally that evening a mother and calf came licking at the salt lick near the lodge
If we didn’t have to keep silent so as to not scare the moose family away, I would have exclaimed, “I just love the moose.”