Stretching northeast from the northern tip of Maine, along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, the Gaspésie (or Gaspé Peninsula, as it is often called) is Quebec’s summer playground. With over 500 miles of coastline, it’s a natural for Québécois trying to escape the heat. Beyond that, however, the Gaspésie is home to some of the world’s most famous salmon rivers, drawing fanatic anglers from around the world. The International Appalachian Trail brings hikers through the interior to Cap Gaspé, the end of the mainland trail. All in all, it has a thriving, busy, bustling summer economy for such a remote area.
But winter…well, that’s a different story. Snowmobilers are the predominant tourists, drawn by over 1000 miles of maintained trails and the regular lake-effect snow caused by having water on three sides of the peninsula. Doesn’t that seem like a total waste of snow to you, particularly in an area filled with mountains? It certainly did to us. Even though there are no “major” ski mountains on the Gaspesie, there must be something for us non-motorized winter enthusiasts, right? Time for a road trip…and what better time to do it than February, when the snow is deep and the days are getting longer, which means more skiing time!
If you are heading into the Gaspé by all means plan a stop at Quebec City. It’s hard to justify going all the way up there without enjoying all that marvelous city has to offer. Lodging can be had at relatively modest cost outside the city center, but if you’re going to splurge there are a couple of great options, including the historic Château Frontenac. Owned by the Fairmont hotel chain, it’s been upgraded but not stripped of charm; how many hotels do you know of that have a four-legged official greeter? Santol is a trained guide dog, but he prefers to socialize with as many people as possible…and he made us feel right at home. On the way back from the Gaspesie, we stayed at the Hotel Château Laurier; in many ways, it’s the opposite of the Frontenac. Yes, it’s in Old Quebec, but…well, do wine vending machines in the hallways sound traditional? Another non-traditional twist is that the hotel doesn’t have a dining room; rather, they partner with other restaurants in the city to create packages that appeal to different gastronomic tastes.
We awoke our first morning in Quebec to a sound we really didn’t want to hear…rain dripping off the roof of the Frontenac. Fabulous…here we are in Quebec in February to head into the snowy backcountry, and it’s raining??? With our usual optimism only slightly dampened, we headed for the town of Ste. Anne des Monts. We’d planned the first day to be relaxed, with sightseeing along the way; it’s roughly a 6-hour drive up there (see why we wanted to stop in Quebec City the night before?) along the St. Lawrence River, so there should be plenty to see, right? Well…not so much in a cold, foggy rain, when we were wondering if there would be snow at the destination OR if the rain would turn into ice and leave us stranded. The St. Lawrence was barely visible through the fog, but one feature of the trip stood out…windmills! Canada is investing heavily in a renewable energy future, and we saw hundreds of the massive beasts, turning slowly and gracefully in the distance. It’s magnificent, and a reminder of the focus on reduced pollution in the area (yes, we’re comparing it to the slow progress in the U.S.).
By Ste. Anne, we’d decided to relax and make an early start into the mountains the next day. Luckily, it’s hard to go through any town in Quebec of any size without finding a nice place to stay and some good food. The former was easily met by La Seigneurie des Monts, a historic inn close enough to the St. Lawrence that Tom Brady could chuck a football into the water from their porch. Unfortunately, their dining room wasn’t open, but the seemingly bizarrely named Pub Chez Bass wasn’t far away. On a cold, foggy night, pub food seemed perfect, and the warm atmosphere relaxed us…and as we ate, the rain turned to snow.
After an excellent breakfast at La Seigneurie, we were on our way to the Gîte du Mont-Albert…and more snow! We’d somehow found our way into an oddball weather system where the warm rain near Quebec City had broken the ice on the St. Lawrence, and a cold north wind was lifting the moisture off the river and depositing it on our heads. Over the next 5 days, we literally had a only few hours when it wasn’t snowing. Unfortunately, the stunning views the area is known for were mostly hidden; but the tradeoff was nearly constant fresh tracks. Life is so hard…
For our first day at the Gîte, we decided to go snowshoeing and shake the travel kinks out of our legs before beating them up on the boards. The Gîte provided us with a brown bag lunch and sent us out with a guide to the Abri de la Serpentine, a shelter tucked up among the mountains. It’s a 12.6 kilometer, roughly 5 hour trip; the first section is a LONG uphill climb to the cabin, where you can rest, warm up, eat lunch, and then head back toward the Gîte around Lac du Diable. Even though it was cold and snowing, it didn’t take us long to strip down to our baselayers as we climbed…and climbed…some steeps, but mostly just a nice, steady, manageable uphill. The views were almost surreal; the sun clearly wanted to come out, and there didn’t LOOK to be much in the way of clouds above, but the snow just kept coming and coming. We were certainly ready for our break when we reached the cabin, and no food was left behind, either! The trip down was…well, just plain silly fun. Thigh deep powder on snowshoes means hard work while climbing, but downhills are pretty much a standing glissade; well, at least until I caught a toe of my snowshoe on a branch and executed a perfect header, to the great amusement of my companions, who unanimously scored it a 10.
Back at the Gîte, the bar was about as nice a place to relax before dinner as any we’ve ever seen. The combination of soaring ceilings and traditional wood construction was both modern and homey at the same time…and a friendly bartender and a nice glass of wine prepared us for the kind of comfort food you’d expect at a mountain lodge. Okay, not really…this is Quebec. The food was almost shockingly gourmet; it almost felt as if we’d been transported back to Quebec City. Roughing it, this isn’t! After dinner, back to the room; no late night for us, as we knew what was coming the following day…
And in the morning, I was off to take advantage of one of only two full-on cat skiing operations in the Northeast (the other being in Newfoundland, even farther into the middle of nowhere). Ski Chic-Chocs exists to make it easier for backcountry skiers to enjoy the ridiculous amounts of powder the Gaspe receives, providing guides (and rental equipment) as well as somewhat-warmer-than-outside cabins in their Catski to drag us back up the hill. It’s not Western cat skiing; the mountains aren’t that big. But, they’re plenty big and plenty wild, particularly in the disorienting conditions of constant snowfall. Up top, in the howling wind, the surfaces were scratchy…but as we skied down, the snow underfoot got deeper and deeper. In the trees, protected from the wind, it approached waist deep in places.
Using AT (alpine touring) gear, we alternated runs to the bottom where the ‘cat met us and took us back up with partial runs where we put skins on and glided back up to cover more of a particularly lovely glade area. If you haven’t tried AT, you’re missing a treat. Downhill, you have the control of traditional downhill skis/boots/bindings. Uphill, you have the ability to ski the kind of areas that most of us associate with Telemark. Remarkably, climbing back uphill on these boards is in many ways easier than snowshoeing; length and width gives floatation to stay on top of the snow, the skins give great grip, and when you hit an area that’s flat or slightly downhill for a bit, they glide in perfect control, faster than any snowshoes. With ski manufacturers finally figuring out the wide shaped ski equation, AT gear is not an unreasonable option for a skier who mostly uses lift-serviced slopes day in/day out. You then have the option to take advantage of an operation like this, or getting farther off into the open glade areas at ski resorts, where there’s no easy return to the lift without climbing. Either way, for a skier who wants something close to lift-serviced, but relishes a different challenge and gorgeous powder, this is a truly unique opportunity!
Susan, being relatively new to alpine skiing, wisely decided to pass on this adventure, and instead went out snowshoeing with a group in the same area we were skiing (which led to a whole bunch of shouting and echoing when we saw each other on nearby peaks!). She, too, had a ball; by taking advantage of Ski Chic-Choc’s cats, her group was able to start much higher and cover much more terrain than if they’d had to climb from the lodge. Even though the views were limited by the constant snow, winds would suddenly open a view to a mountain, or into a valley, giving them a constant sense of anticipation of what might happen next. Having a guide from Ski Chic-Chocs meant freedom to focus on what was around them without worrying about where they were going, a very agreeable luxury!
By the end of the day, we were ready for another night of relaxation at the Gîte, more great food and companionship, and an early bedtime, knowing that we had an early morning ahead of us…we were headed DEEPER into the wilds of the Gaspésie!
There’s a politically incorrect phrase heard often south of the Canadian border: “those crazy Frenchmen.” But, without in any way making that a negative, they HAD to be wonderfully, magnificently crazy to build the Auberge de Montagne des Chic-Chocs. Nobody remotely sane would build a four-star hotel at the TOP of a mountain that you can’t reach in the winter. Okay, maybe not at the top of the mountain, exactly…there ARE higher peaks in the area. But, the “base lodge” is at over 2000 feet…and you ski DOWN from there. Did I say you can’t reach it in the winter? Okay, I lied. You can. But only by THEIR custom, deluxe, converted van snowcats. Very comfy…which is a bloody good thing, since it’s 40 kilometers to the lodge from the last place you can take something with wheels. On, of course, a serpentine road that hugs the mountainside, crosses stunning rivers flowing through mountain valleys…you get the picture. The ride itself is a treat, making you wonder…can the lodge really live up to the buildup? Worry not…it’s as stunning as the scenery, and as unexpected.
I wish we could say that we paid full attention to the introduction that Guy Laroche, the manager of the Auberge, gave us when we arrived. He did his best, letting us know that surprising variety of amenities offered (being hedonists at heart, we DID pay attention to where the outdoor hot tub was), the great array of equipment for our use. With great patience, he even got us to pay enough attention to know where our room was and be able to head there and store our luggage. But…out the windows, there was SNOW. Not snow, SNOW. We did pay attention to the need for avalanche beacons, and other safety instructions, but details about the lodge itself? Nah. That could wait until after dark.
And, soon after, we were out with a guide and some Karhu Meta Skis. These are real oddballs that, unfortunately, never captured the public’s imagination, possibly because no one really understood them. People thought they were backcountry skis, and by that measure, they’re terrible (although using them with Telemark or AT boots, as opposed to your basic winter boot, dramatically improves their downhill skiing performance). If you think of them as really fast snowshoes, however, they’re a blast! We wound around in the most amazing winter wonderland, up and down; since the skins are built into the ski, there were no delays, no waiting while we put on skins to climb, or took them off to go downhill. The Meta Skis really shine on mixed terrain with rolling hills, and we found plenty of them. As the shadows lengthened, we headed back for the lodge very, very reluctantly.
That really wasn’t fair; the lodge deserves to be fully appreciated. It would be impressive if it were in a “normal” location; here, where a tent is near luxury, it’s fabulous. In particular, the great room, which really is a GREAT room, is noteworthy. It’s a massive open space, punctuated by a 4-sided glass fireplace. Unlike the Gîte, which has separate rooms for bar and dining, this is the “everything” space where you eat, drink, hang out, talk, read, you name it. We found ourselves sort of rotating from space to space over an evening…a warm cup from the superb coffee/espresso/cappucino machine when we came in from an outdoors session, to the bar after a hot tub or nap, then to the long tables for dinner, and over to the cubbies near the windows to talk and share some port after dinner was over. It’s a warm, relaxing space, in keeping with the “casual elegance” theme.
Dining follows that same theme; breakfast and lunch are buffet, and dinner is served family style, with large platters of fabulous food (venison with roasted carrots and asparagus, for instance) being passed around. It makes sense, since there isn’t a pool of neighborhood talent to call on for wait staff; yes, your server WAS your backcountry guide a few hours before. Guy even doubles as wine steward, and will happily recommend a perfect match for your dinner from his latest selection of “finds.” Don’t worry about going hungry…there’s PLENTY of food (and there’s always something hanging around to eat when you come in from a long ski and are hungry enough to eat your own arm). Basically, this is “roughing it” only if you’re a Ritz Carlton Platinum Elite member.
But even the Ritz can’t give you the profound silence that comes with being this far from anywhere. About the only thing that can disturb your night’s sleep is wind, and we didn’t have enough to notice. Talk about waking refreshed…and excited! Backcountry skiing was on the agenda, and a look out the window showed us that our tracks from yesterday had utterly disappeared. I’m afraid we didn’t give breakfast the attention it deserved; we were too wound up and wanted to be sure we were totally prepared when our groups were ready to go. The guides broke us up into two groups; Susan went out to explore some gentler glades with several other people who didn’t have much backcountry experience. I swallowed the lump in my throat and went out with the REAL lunatics. The group included Steve Gorman, a longtime backcountry telemark fanatic, Rob Story, a Telluride native and an writer for “Powder Magazine” and others, and our host Guy, who lives/works there for the simple reason that he can ski out his back door all the time. And, we literally went out the back door, skiing directly from the parking lot down through thigh-deep powder to Chute Hélène, a waterfall famous in that area. I wasn’t anywhere near in the league of the other skiers in the group, but they were kind enough to stop halfway down to let me catch up. On the first run, I pulled up next to Rob and said “Whaddya think?” He said only one word…”Epic!” There you have it; a Western native skier, describing Eastern natural powder as “epic.” I looked at the sky…no signs of gathering clouds or massive lightning bolts. Still, I was happy when Rob skied away from me; who knew when the sky was going to fall???
It wasn’t just the skiing that was epic, though. When we reached the bottom and put on our skins, it was a short glide to Chute Hélène…and we were more than rewarded for the effort. Stunning even in its frozen state, Hélène seemingly falls directly from the sky down a cliff. A stop on the International Appalachian Trail, it’s hard to imagine how extraordinary it must be in late spring, with massive amounts of snowmelt churning down. Clearly, we need to go back when the snow is gone!
But for now…back up the mountain for another run. One of the great advantages of skiing AT in a group, besides the shared fun and increased safety, is taking turns breaking trail on the climb back up. Trust me, it’s a real workout whether you’re on the front or the back of the line; strip down to light layers, or you’ll sweat until you regret it! It makes for great skiing, though; you’re warm, your legs are loose and energized when you reach the top, so you have great flow on the way down again. Want to know how much fun the skiing really was? Take a look at this video of us having a ball!
In the other group, Susan was having as much fun as we were. After learning mostly on hard, scratchy resort snow, playing in the powder came naturally to her. By the end of her session, she was wishing she’d gotten to come out and play with us. She’d gotten great tips from her guide, and had followed the cardinal rule of glades: Look at the SNOW, not the trees! One of the most important things she’d found out, in fact, is that there’s a lot more snow than you’d expect. Looking down at a backcountry glade, it can appear utterly impenetrable; but, when you ski down to it, you suddenly find that there’s a lot more space between the trees than it looks from above. What had seemed scary to her as she headed out had become FUN! When we met up for lunch, she was glowing and laughing. Truly, can you ask more from a morning of skiing than that?
After lunch, Steve and Rob and some of the other hard-core types headed back onto the slopes, but we wanted to explore, so we grabbed snowshoes and headed out. The Auberge has well-marked trails to follow; even though snow had filled in any signs of them, the tree markings made it easy. We explores a quick hour or two loop from the lodge called the Bucher; after wandering through moose heaven for a while, you come out onto an edge with unbelievable views of Mont Nicol-Albert, among others. The strange constant snow we’d been having was finally starting to calm itself down, and with the sun forcing its way through the clouds, the effects were like something out of an Ansel Adams print. We’ve probably seen views AS beautiful, but I doubt we’ve ever seen anything MORE beautiful.
Back at the lodge, we were in time to catch a quick nap, a soak in the outdoor hot tub, and then to the great room for a drink before dinner. The mood was as light and happy as any we’ve ever seen; it had been a perfect day, with enough effort to have earned our magnificent meal, stunning scenery, and a sense that we’d participated in something truly unusual and very special. Dinner flowed into some vintage port as we all sat and chatted in the lounge area; we knew we had to leave in the morning, and didn’t want to let it end.
Alas, morning brought packing up and heading out, yet even that was a true joy. The sun had finally broken through, giving us a brilliant morning to take a snowcat ride out to the “real world”. The moose were cooperative, and we saw several groups of them when we could tear our eyes away from the mountains. Too soon, we reached the cars, and headed out on the long trip back to Quebec City. It was a strange transition…seeing houses, cars, normal signs of civilized life was disorienting after spending time in such splendid isolation. In some ways, the long drive was a boon, as it gave us all time to gently come back to what we tend to think of as “normal” life.
And back to our regular lives we went…subtly changed. I started looking for an AT ski setup, Susan asked for Meta skis for Christmas (sadly, an unfulfilled wish, as they’re no longer made and are very hard to find), and we know we’ll be heeding the call of the Gaspésie and heading up again, both in summer and winter. Be forewarned ..if you take a trip up, you may find it addicting. Like us, you may realize that you’re randomly looking at weather forecasts for Cap Chat, wondering how much snow THEY’RE getting!