Backpacking Gaspesie National Park: The International Appalachian Trail (IAT-SIA)

This year's annual trip had us exploring the Chic Choc mountains of the Gaspe Region of la belle province: Quebec.  Our plan was to backpack for 4 days, camping and exploring Gaspesie National Park.  The trail we were following is part of the International Appalachian Trail (IAT or SIA (Francais)), which officially travels from the US through Quebec, Newfoundland and even parts of Europe.   (Of note, the association recently met in Mabou, NS to discuss further expansion of the IAT trail. Including the proposed Seawall trail, taking a similar route to our 2013 hike).  The Gaspe portion was featured in National Geographic as one of the top 20 hikes in the world. I had my first experience at the park back in 2003 when Sheena and I arrived at Gaspesie to camp for our honeymoon.  At that time in June, we were impressed by the 'rocky type' mountains and found out that the snow was still deep in the mountains despite being late spring. 

This year with Kris and Matt, our plan was to hike from the western section of the park starting midway at 'La Huard' and continue to the Mt. Albert campground which is mid-park.  This involved daily sections of trail with varying kilometre distances: La Huard to La Soule, 12.6k;  La Saule to Cascapedia, 12.4k; Cascapedia to La Fougere, 15k; Fougere to Mt. Albert campground(19k).  The last day involves crossing and descending from Mt. Albert, a challenge in itself. Here's a Map of the Gaspesie portion of the SIA Backpacking trail. A shuttle is available from the Mont Albert visitor's centre at 9am.  Of interest, the shuttle does runs to the Mt. Logan sector and takes roads normally closed to the public and as such access can be gained to the more remote sections of the park.  If we had time and energy, I also hoped to hike to Mt. Jacques Cartier from Mt. Albert campground, as it is the highest point in southern Quebec at 1268 m.  (The Torngat Mountains in Northern Quebec have the highest mountain, Mt Caubvick). That would involve a 25k return trip in addition to the approximate 60 kms backpacking.  In general, if a person didn't want to backpack, the park is set up so the Mt. Albert campground could be used as a basecamp for day trips to the various sectors of the park.  

As well, we planned to stay at campgrounds/tent sites, but it is interesting to note that each area has a Hut/Shelter which hikers can also stay at.  They have well built bunk beds, wood stoves, firewood, kitchen areas and bathrooms. We found these were very well kept and maintained and wished we could have stayed in them ourselves!

Gaspesie National Park is one of Quebec's 'provincial' parks, held to the standards of any National Park found in Canada.  I have recently been very impressed with the province's emphasis on outdoors activities.  Passing through Quebec highways you can see it displayed in the provincial rest stops,  picnic areas and quality services and facilities offered in the parks.  Despite a difference in language, the park employees were welcoming and made every effort to ensure our stay was a good one.  


Our hiking trip started off ominously with thundershowers and heavy rain as well rode in the shuttle toward our trailhead.  Looking into the mountains as we approached them, the sky was almost black, despite that it was ten in the morning.  As lightning flashed on our windy trip up into the mountain, I hoped the electrical storm would pass far away from us before we began our ascent.  During our drive, the driver stopped to check on two hikers who were taking the road in the downpour.  They related a story in French about having left the hut 'La Mesange' this morning, deciding to descend from the hills for safety in the storm.  This weighed in my mind as we kept going up into the hills.  Thankfully, the thunderstorm had passed over us before leaving the shuttle and we only had to contend with downpouring rain.


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As the rain came down, we climbed upward into the mountains trails. The wind and rain battered us as we travelled through the forest and along the ridge tops of Mt. Arthur-Allen and Mt. Blizzard and finally the Pic de l'Aube.   We were obviously missing lots of views with the nasty weather.  The photo to the right is one view we saw, but I've attached a link to what you could see without clouds during the day.

We travelled until around 2 pm, when we took a short side adventure in an attempt to dry off and stopped at the hut, La Mesange (below left).  To us, the hut might as well have been a hotel room.  With a wood stove, mattresses in the bunk beds, a dining room table and chairs, even split firewood, it was a joy on a wet day.  We spent several hours in the hut pondering whether to stay or leave the warmth for a tent.  Eventually, other hikers had arrived and we decided to keep our original plans to stay at the tent campground at La Soule.  Thankfully, we did have a chance to warm up and dry off.  We would later learn that you can stay at the huts on a 'per bed' basis, but we didn't know this and didn't want to disturb anyone's reservation.


At our campsite, the wind howled through the trees all night and we woke to a chilly but sunny morning.  Above is the empty tent pad we used to eat our food on and have our morning warm drinks.  I think all of us were realizing that staying in a hut would have been a welcomed luxury!  Because of the clear weather, we now were able to have a taste of some of the views to be experienced in the park. We began our approximate 13 k trek to Cascapedia campground early in the morning as usual. The below photo was taken amid very strong wind of the mountains around the Pic a Brule area. 

IMGP4208From here, the sky was so clear you could easily see the Bay of St. Lawrence and the other side of Quebec leading to Labrador.  The trail skirted the edges in these areas, but was well away from any cliffs.  The wind was very strong any time you left the trees. 


Because the trail kept to the ridges, travel was somewhat easier during most of the day as the elevation changes were at a minimum. Although, what also came with that was at the beginning of the day usually involved an ascent from the campground after breakfast and long descent to get to supper! Our quads and knees were thankful for the rest at the end of each day. The photo below is at Mt. Ernest Menard (850m), with the camera looking off toward the eastern sections of the park.  


For our second night, we stayed with permission at the closed campground at Cascapedia which was our 'halfway point' and enjoyed the closed off picnic shelter.  We were pleased to have warm water at the campsite washroom for a little cleanup — something we normally aren't expecting on our backpacking trips.  The evening did bring some discussion on our next plan of attack for the rest of the park. Because of issues beyond our control, Kris and Matt decided to head back to the Mt. Albert campground via the connecting road and I decided to continue on via the trail for the planned two more days.  We planned to meet at the Mt. Albert campground leaving my car in the parking lot with the location of their campsite in the campground.  That's the plan that we started with anyway!  


Day three involved some steep uphill climbing from Cascapedia.  The first ascent was Mt. Ells, which was 2.7k of steady uphill.  It provided the first views of Mt. Albert's back side (above left).  I would need to ascend that mountain from roughly the area pictured in the far distance.

The days weather was clear again and seeing that I was up high, I decided to check for cell reception.  I found good cell reception and confirmed via the Environment Canada website for the park (again a new experience while backpacking) that there was quite a bit of rain coming the following day for my trip over Mt. Albert.  

Keeping this in the back of my mind for the whole day, I continued across the ridges to Mt. Milieu (above right).  This mountain is in between Mt. Logan and Mt Jacques Cartier, which are situated at either ends of the park. A neat monument is placed there, which I assume points to either mountain.   Following Mt. Milieu, it was a steady decline for almost a couple of hours to the hut at La Pauline.  

La Pauline was a nice spot, and I was thinking it was too bad it wasn't farther in the woods to time a return trip to the Mt. Albert Campground.  It had a nice deck to sit on, which beautifully overlooked Lac Hayman.  Water was available from a spring opposite the shelter as well.  However, starting from La Pauline in the morning would involve more than 23 kilometres to the end, likely in the rain. 

Around noon time, I left the shelter and continued along the trail to La Fougere campsite.  Walking the 3.6 kms between the hut and the campsite, I was feeling the heat of the day (impressive for September) and the previous ascents and descents as well.  Then, to round off my concerns for the next day's on-coming weather, I began to see many bear tracks along the trail to my campsite.  It was later in the day (1pm) and, I knew I had to stay at La Fougere for the night as the kilometres to travel was too far to make it in less than half a day to the next shelter.  Darkness was a consideration, because in these mountains, the evening light fades quickly after 6pm.  

IMGP4250IMGP4237So knowing had I to stay,  I set my campsite up early in the afternoon and found more cell service (surprised) on the highest tent pad.  Looking at the map, La Fougere campsite is really in the middle of nowhere! Its a 13 to 20 km hike in either direction.  As I had seen the bear tracks and the expecting rain, scheduled to start sometime over night, I was taking the usual precautions with food and good coverage for my gear in the rain.  In protecting from animal visits, we usually will eat our meals away from our tent site, typically on a second tent pad a distance away.  We also raise our food off the ground in some way for safe keeping.  I borrowed an idea from Kris and stored my food … in the outhouse to keep it safe and dry.  In my defence, it was likely the cleanest and freshest outhouse I had ever found – and nevertheless hung my food with the seat down(!).  I spent the evening prepping my gear for the next morning, which I wanted to have an early start. 

After a long night of waking up to the rain pattering and at pretty near every 'loud' sound in the woods, I started off breaking down camp with a hint of daylight at 455am.  Getting my water filtered and pack squared away, I started on the trail at just before 6 am.  I began the roughly 19-20 kms of the day's travel for 7 kms in the quietest forest I've ever hiked, which eventually lead to the approach to Mt. Albert.  In case you were wondering, the rain started  in the 1st kilometre and began with a pleasant drizzle, eventually greeting me with an hour's long downpour.  The rain never really stopped throughout the day and to put it in my daughter's terms, my pack cover was 'pretty well useless' at that point.  Just before arriving at the Mt. Albert approach, there is a somewhat disheartening downclimb to the Grande Fosse brook (below left).  Once above the treeline, I looked back to where I travelled through the quiet forest valley from La Fougere (below right). 

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  The rain and thick fog was consistent for my travel across the back of Mt. Albert.  I spent most of my time keeping my eyes on the white wooden trail markers and cairns [Kris!] which are spaced fairly close together, for reasons I was now keenly aware of (see below photo at left).  Although due to the tight restrictions at the park for off-trail travel and the fact that it is the IAT (SIA), there really is only one fairly worn trail, so route-finding was easy as long as you pay attention.   Where the travel became most challenging was the long (and terrible in the rain) descent from the plateau.  It began with a steady crossing of a boulder field, well marked with the iconic IAT red and white markings on the rocks.  I was quite thankful for these markings as well.   These wet boulders were challenging to navigate with a backpack and I took great care to ensure I didn't fall in the deep holes between them.  One other factor I was glad about on the rainy day was that the textured composition of the brown type rocks so prominent on Mt. Albert, which made gripping them much easier.

IMGP4237 IMGP4257I knew that with all the fog and rain, I was missing probably some of the nicest views of the trip, especially given that it was above the tree-line. Here's another photo showing what I was missing!  The descent trail follows a long (I mean LONG) rocky valley where the 'Ruisseau du Diable' begins its flow.  As I climbed down the trail, going from rock to rock so I didn't go ankle deep in water due to the accumulating puddles, I was reflecting on the name of the valley and finding it was well suited to describe the travel as 'Devils river' valley.  The water was now flowing over each drop in the trail like its own waterfall and I was drenched to the bone.  Gladly, there was little to no wind.  I decided to keep hiking without breaks to stay warm and didn't dare take my backpack off.  I kept my right arm tight against my body to stay warm as the temperature was likely 7-8C on the mountain.  (Yes, it was getting to be that type of hike!).  Passing by the Serpentine Hut was difficult, but I knew I would just get wet again if I did try and stop knowing that the down pouring rain was inevitable and its true escape was a dry change of clothes at the car.  

It was also hard to take pictures and keep water off my lens.  When I did reach a point where the fog and clouds lifted enough to see, I was near the junction with the summit trail (See below left).  I found that the descent trail continues with rocks, roots or other obstacles just until reaching the actual Devil's Falls area, about 3 kilometres from the visitor's centre.  I stopped to take some quick photos of les Chutes du Diable (Devil's Falls), but kept going to stay warm.  I was very surprised to see the trail completely under water at Devils Lake (Lac du Diable) — which had been detoured into the woods for about 500m of bushwacking with ribbon tape marking the trails seemingly well prior to today's weather.

IMGP4259 After nearly 6 hours of travel, I pushed through the rain and cold and arrived at the visitors centre around 11:30 am.  The denouement story is I arrived there to find no car.  I immediately thought that Kris and Matt likely did not expect me to arrive this early and walked into the visitor's centre to inquire about their campsite.  Trying to speak in French while creating a puddle on the floor at the visitors desk, I learned they had rented a hut for the night (thanks guys!!), but it was 2 km back where I came from.  Thankful but clearly done with the kilometres for the day after already travelling 20+, I headed back to the huts — again in the rain.  I arrived there, but could not find my car and decided to set up in an empty hut as I wanted to get dry.  Unbeknownst to me, Kris and Matt had changed their reservation again to a more private 'O-Tentik' (luxury!!) type shelter and I later found them after making a quick walk around in the campground in semi-dry clothes.  To their immediate credit, they retrieved my gear left at the last hut and greeted me with drinks and chocolate, as well as a great place to warm up.  We spent the following few hours catching up on our adventures and reflecting on how lately each of our trips seems to end in a different way !  The afternoon and evening had lots of laughs, and enjoying the 'glamping' and a shared a rare event, glasses of craft beer over supper.   

I was a bit sore after the last day and decided against heading to Jacques Cartier the following day.  (Plus, there was more low cloud making views almost non-existent.) It will however give me another reason to head back to Gaspesie Park.  

On the road back, we stopped in Carleton-Sur-Mer for the craft brew spot 'Microbrasserie Le Naufrageur'.  In the following days, I was quite impressed by their beer — which definitely rivals our local Picaroon's for smoothness and taste!  

Thanks Kris and Matt for another great trip — and to Matt for enduring the lovely NB roads.

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