(Publisher’s note: Correspondent Brett Lund has many years of backcountry skiing experience and has taken numerous Avalanche evaluation courses through AIARE — the American Institue for Avalanche Research and Education. His constant and careful checking of snow conditions is of utmost importance in areas where avalanches are possible; if you don’t have that level of experience, err on the side of caution. Hire a guide, go with a more experienced companion, go to one of the “swanky” places mentioned where it’s their job to keep you safe, or get training from AIARE, the Appalachian Mountain Club, one of the other organizations listed by the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, or other organizations outside of New England. And, while Lund is experienced enough to go solo, we always recommend having a companion to share the fun and add a safety net!)
Bon Jour! Comprenez-vous Anglais? Thank goodness most Quebecers do, because that is the extent of my French besides “fromage” and “la bière s’il vous plait”. While I always plan to learn at least basic conversational French before making a trip north of the border, I typically get distracted with trip plans instead. There was no difference while planning my trip to the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec in February of 2011. This would be my 3rd trip to the Chic-Choc mountains to partake of some of the best backcountry ski terrain outside of the White Mountains.
This trip would be different from past trips. I wanted to venture deeper into the Parc de la Gaspésie to explore some terrain farther away from the better traveled roadside attractions I had skied previously. Secondly, I was going to take this trip alone versus with a backcountry ski partner. Little did I know that David, our associate editor would be backcountry skiing and snowshoeing in the Gaspésie the following weekend, though he had much swankier plans (is that a real word? I’m too cheap to know . . .) The Gaspésie and the Chic-Choc mountain range lie near the tip of the Gaspé penninsula, which is the thumb shaped peninsula that sits directly below the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. These are the northernmost mountains of the Appalachian range, and unlike the Appalachians of New England, they have expansive plateaus with a lot of terrain above tree line. The proximity of this highland land mass to the waters of the Saint Lawrence, and, to its south, the Baie-des-Chaleurs mean that the Chic-Chocs get copious amounts of snow. The northern latitude ensures that this snow stays consistent and bountiful. Each time I travel to the Chic-Chocs I am happy with the snow cover, even when New England is starved for snow. Especially when New England is starved for snow!
To plan my trip I searched the SEPAQ website (the Quebec Park system). This is really a wonderful website with informational links to all of Quebec’s parks and their amenities. One of these days I may even be tempted to travel to another part of Quebec but for now I still have too much to explore in the Gaspésie. Initially I focused on 2 possible destinations to ski within the Park and adjacent nature reserve. One of the destinations was Mont Logan, which is in the westernmost portion of the park. Getting there would mean a mandatory 5 day loop, with 2 days at a hut near Logan. Mont Logan would be the best opportunity to make some fun and maybe steep descents, and it looked spectacular. However, there were also rumors of avalanche risk at that point…hmmm.
The other option was an area called ”Mines Madeleine”, which was highly recommended by backcountry skiers as an excellent destination with a good variety of terrain. According to all information, there was no lack of steep or tree skiing opportunities in this area as well. Due to the level of uncertainty around the Logan tour, and the need to spend 2 days touring to get to good vertical terrain, I opted for Mines Madeleine. I wanted to get to Logan, but I also did not want to trek into the woods for 3 days only to have avalanche hazard keep me from skiing. I love to tour, and there is plenty of touring to be had in the Gaspé, but I really like to go downhill. I had planned to do a couple nights in the park system huts, and a couple of nights tenting. This would allow me some flexibility in traveling, but would also help to keep costs down.
I booked 2 nights at the Mines Madeleine hut, and planned to camp en route to the hut on the first night I arrived in the park. The drive to the Gaspé is a long one, fully 12 hours from the Concord, NH area. Maine can seem to go on forever, but at the same time this is a lovely drive, especially when you get to Quebec. You could go straight north and stop in Quebec City and out from there. (see the “swanky” article previously mentioned), but I prefer to drive through Maine, then short cut across New Brunswick to the beginning of the Gaspé peninsula. The drive along the Baie-des-Chaleurs is beautiful, with lovely coastal towns. After an hour or so of coastal driving a left turn brings you north toward the Parc de la Gaspésie. Even in the dark pulling into the Chic-Choc mountain range is impressive. The snow is always piled high and the trees are caked with it like giant popsicles.
I arrived at the Parc Headquarters at 8:30 pm on Sunday, and immediately inquired about potential campsites or shelters along the way to the Mines Madeleine. Unfortunately and unbeknownst to me the Parc has very strict rules about camping outside of designated areas, and in winter the only tenting allowed is a half mile from the Park Headquarters. I leased a tentsite for the clear and starry night, found a nice site that had been packed down a bit. There, I put down my tarp, and set up the winter tent I had been asked to review. The LL Bean Backcountry Dome 3 was easy to set up and very roomy for one person (yes, we’ve had people take it out with 2 people and been happy with it, as well). After getting myself situated, I had to make one more quick run to the car for my toothbrush. As I rounded the corner of the tentsite trail, two large forms came walking out of the woods, not very gracefully either. Two huge moose, who, thankfully, were afraid of my headlamp. They wandered across the trail and back into the shoulder-deep snow and through the woods. I was hoping that they wouldn’t stumble through my tentsite during the night, or decide that nylon tasted good.
The following morning when I woke and began to pack, I noticed that these same two moose were in a nearby campsite. I have been around moose many times, including when they ambled through my campsite a few feet from my tent at 2 in the morning near Mount Carrigan in the Whites. Despite many pictures from previous encounters I felt the need to try to”sneak up” on them to take a picture of the large female moose and her yearling munching on the vegetation near the edge of the campsite. Just as I rounded the corner to snap a picture, the young moose, who was broadside to me, wheeled and started running toward me. Now, moose are big and look slow, but they can get moving quickly. I think Carl Lewis would have been impressed with my aceleration. Thankfully the yearling stopped, but I am sure that he had a good laugh with his moose friends about the old guy sprinting down the trail.
I had a long slog out to Mines Madeleine and wanted to get an early start. At Park Headquarters, I checked in quickly with the front desk and was advised that I should indeed get started as my trek would be long and uphill. I had borrowed a Nordic Cab pulk from our Executive Editor, planned to load my backpack and other necessities into the pulk and tow it to the hut. A “pulk” is essentially a trailer for humans. It attaches with a waist belt, and two slender poles back to a sled. I would be traveling on Telemark gear with skins.
The track to Mines Madeleine is basically a park road that is not plowed in the winter. The park services shuttle gear to the hut via snowmobile, and some group outings on snowshoes are brought out the 12 miles for better views and solitude. The day was beautiful and while it was cold (around 20) I quickly began to warm under the bright blue skies.
The grade was a fairly steady climb all the way to Mines Madeline, with a few short downhills. While the pulk was easy early, the longer I trekked, the more tired and frustrated I became. I found myself working much too hard to tow the pulk and wishing I had just stuck to my 5000 cubic inch backpack. Whenever you have more room to bring gear you will fill it, usually with crap you really don’t need. Those “extras” in the pulk were killing me by late afternoon. For the last mile of the slog a snow squall kicked up, and I wound up getting to the hut about an hour before dusk, frustrated and exhausted.
The Mines Madeleine hut is an old mining crew bunkhouse, and was well equipped with a woodstove, running water, and a bathroom. Upstairs were beds for 14 or so people in a relatively open space, divided by half walls. It is very inexpensive to stay, a little more than 20 dollars per night. I was there alone for about an hour and took a nap until awakened by a young couple from Montreal who were touring from another nearby hut (the Gaspésie has many backcountry huts that can be rented and toured on cross country skis). They would be my only company this evening.
Though it was dark, I wanted to venture further up the trail to get a view of my surroundings. There was still a bit of twilight lingering, and though the snow was still blowing I put on my head lamp and skis and headed uphill. The service road runs to the top of Petit Mont Sainte Anne,and I went about half way up before turning back to the lodge. I stripped off my skins and had a fun solo run in the dark back to the hut by the light of my headlamp. The trail was smooth and about 15 feet wide, and I could see the distant glimmer of the lights in the hut as a reference. Otherwise I was alone in a sea of blowing snow. It was simply spectacular. I returned to the hut, prepared dinner and chatted a bit with the couple before retiring for a long and welcome sleep.
The next morning I woke early to a partly cloudy day with blowing and drifting snow. After breakfast I said my goodbyes to the young couple and set out for the summit, packing lunch and planning to explore. My plan was to summit, then continue across the plateau to Mont Comte and Mont Jacques Cartier to see if I could find some skiable terrain a bit farther away. I had read on many web blogs that Mines Madeleine apparently had a lot of terrain right outside the hut door, but due to the blowing snow I couldn’t see it. I wanted to find somewhere that was more wind protected.
This plan would require about 4-5 miles (one way) of travel and route finding across the plateau. As I climbed toward Petit Saint Anne the new snow hung precariously on steep slopes above me. I stayed on the road to minimize my exposure, and felt generally safe because there were many trees anchoring the new snow. Once I reached the top I was well above treeline and I knew right away that summit travel would be difficult and my plan would likely have to change. I was blown over several times by 80-90k gusts and had a very difficult time seeing my hand in front of my face. I pressed on for about 3/4 of a mile before I realized that route finding was simply too risky in these conditions, especially alone in unfamiliar terrain. It was cold, and the wind chill was substantial.
I paused by some caribou tracks (the Gaspésie is home to the southern-most herd of caribou in North America). They were fresh and the animal was likely close by watching me, though I could not see it. She knew where she was going. I didn’t. I returned to the summit trail, stripped off my skins and began the long winding decent to the hut. I didn’t realize how cold I had become on the summit, so I was glad to return to the warmth of the hut. The couple had left, but two Parc Snow Rangers were inside warming by the woodstove. They were evaluating the avalanche hazards in the area following the new snow. We discussed conditions for the day, and all agreed that, with the blowing snow, the local bowls would be unstable and dangerous. Not that we could even see them anyway! I asked if they could recommend some good low angle tree skiing close by, and they directed me back down the trail to a side road used by SkiChicChocs, a local cat skiing operation.
About kilometer down the road, I found a turn for the snowcat operation. Another kilometer or so through the woods brought me to a snow covered snowcat, at the bottom of what appeared to be a narrow road going up. This road actually led up the other side of Petit St Anne from where I had been in the morning. It was much more sheltered in the trees than near the hut, and I was able to gain quite a bit of vertical in short order. The trees were loaded with snow, and I could see steep chutes through the trees to my left, down into a drainage. While it looked appealing, I didn’t want to ski steep trees while alone, especially with no one at the hut or within many miles, so I stuck to the road and safety.
It was a nice pitch down through shin deep powder, and where I could get enough speed up I ventured through the trees on the edge of the trail. I took 3 loops before my weary legs told me to wrap it up. I put on my skins for the climb back to Mines Madeleine.
When I reached the hut a friendly and athletic group of backcountry tourers from New Brunswick had just arrived. They traveled in from a nearby hut, and had an adventureful ski on the way. Many falls and a lot of laughing. Skiing on cross country gear, and carrying fairly large packs, they took a beating but had a blast. They showed me many pictures of their faceplants. We chatted into the evening over wine and dinner. They were well prepared and had a snowmobile deliver a “restocking” of wine and a birthday cake for one of their party. What a wonderful way to spend a birthday!!
I planned to leave Mines Madeleine early the next day if the weather had not changed. If the weather was better and the snow had stabilized, I would take another trip up Petit St. Anne for some touring and descents. I slept hard that night, and woke before the sun. The wind of the past two days had abated, and I dressed quickly, made some tea and oatmeal, packed my bag and went out the door just as the sun began to crest the hills. For the first time in 36 hours I could see the terrain around the hut, and it was spectacular. The ski opportunities were limitless, enough for many days of fun, but I had to leave that day. Grabbing my skis and backpack I made for the summit to get in as much skiing as possible while I could.
It was a sunny morning, with bluebird skies, and I knew that I wanted to get some skiing in before I left. I assessed the “tube” which is the most obvious line off the hut side of Petit St. Anne, and after digging a hasty snowpit found a weak snow slab that made this aspect (the direction the slope faces) too scary, so I opted for a lower angle and slightly different direction off the summit which had softer snow, and finished through some nice snowladen trees.
While I was disappointed not to be skiing the bowls and gullies, this was the safer choice and still spectacular skiing. After a few laps, and one run down the shoulder of Petit St. Anne I realized that I needed to pack up and start my trek. Around 11:30 I descended the trail I had taken to the summit, and ducked through a short stand of pine trees to get my last fix before I needed to grab my gear, load the pulk and start the long trek out.
I wanted one more night at the tentsite, and a day skiing Champs de Mars, before heading back to New Hampshire. Headed out on the long push back to the car, I was hoping that the pulk woud be easier to manage going mostly downhill. Much to my chagrin, and largely due to the new snow, the pulk acted like an anchor all the way back, so no rest for the weary.
Five hours later, I made it back to the car, and drove back to the campground to pitch the tent. I did not see my moose friends that night, but had more time to cook a proper dinner. I also had more time to evaluate the 3 man LL Bean tent, which functioned very well. It assembled easily for a large tent, and ventilated well during the night, keeping me comfy and dry, and the design is bombproof. That’s of real importance in a multi-night trip in an area like the Gaspésie, where heavy snows can fall at any time. As a bonus for cheapskates like me, it’s also one of the most affordable 4-season tents out there; the tradeoff being that it’s somewhat heavier than the higher end versions. The following morning I made breakfast, packed my car and drove a short distance to one of the easy-to-reach and very rewarding roadside backcountry skis.
There are several daytreks for backcountry skiing just down the road from Parc headquarters…Mt Hogsback, Champs de Mars, Mont Blanche La Montagne and a slightly longer trek to Mont Albert. Within the Parc, skiing is limited to particular zones, primarily due to the caribou herd preservation. Champs de Mars and Hogsback are the easiest to get to in a short period. For a longer day trek, the runs on Mont Albert are great fun, but I didn’t have time. At Champs de Mars, I quickly set skins to skis and began the 2 kilometer trek up a winding trail to the summit.
About two thirds of the way up, a cleared birch glade seduced me, and I took a nice run about halfway back down the mountain. Then I skinned up again and continued to the top. At the summit I took in the beautiful views; as the cloud cover lifted I could see Blanche le Montagne and other peaks in the distance. I set off down the center snowfield, and had knee deep turns all the way to the bottom. It was too good, so I skinned up one more time and this time went as far right as I could, weaving through patchy trees and tops of scrub pine. Two top to bottom runs on stable and soft snow with the mountain to myself….could not have been more perfect.
It was approaching noon and knew I had a long drive ahead of me. I took a cut-through trail to the summit trail, then skied part of the birch glade one more time, finishing through some narrow pines and chutes at the bottom.
What a great way to end the trip! As I was loading into my car and getting ready to leave the lot a large party arrived, and we exchanged knowing smiles and a nod that said it all. “Was it good?” “Oh Yeah, its good…go get it!!!” My Gaspé adventure was finished, theirs about to begin. How about YOURS?