For a momentito, I had flirted with the notion of cutting off the nose of the peninsula and heading south into New Brunswick, but the woman was firm, even imperious. I felt like saying, “Yes, Mother Superior, I will round the Gaspé.”
But she was right, and I’m very glad I did.
The Gaspé peninsula forms the southern shore of the Bay of St. Lawrence before jutting into the Atlantic. The road hugs the coast, passing through scattered villages in its way, then finally rounds the bend at Forillon National Park.
After restocking at Ste. Anne des Monts, which was maybe the last fair-sized town I’d run across for a while, I began the trek east around the Gaspé.
Traffic grew sparse, and the road clung to the steep hills with the blue ocean below. Villages were tucked away in valleys with houses scattered about like marbles.
It’s a perfect drive: good road, engaging scenery; little traffic. If you go to Quebec, you must drive around the peninsula. Mother Superior said so.
* * *
After passing through tiny Cap des Rosiers on an open, sunny bluff, I reached Forillon National Park—Le Fin de Terre—the end of the earth, where the Gaspé literally drops into the sea in a dramatic plunge of rock and forest. There’s something compelling about the end of things.
Forillon has been one of my favorite stops so far.
I expected it to be beautiful, and it was. The campsites were woody and private and felt like home. Harbor seals whooped and bellowed at night from the shore far below.
The hike to the end of the peninsula is one of the four “musts” recommended by the park, so Julia and I dutifully attempted it on a day when the mist drifted across the land like smoke, creating a sense of hushed mystery. The trail cuts through the homestead of a cod fisherman and of the dry goods store–buildings from the era of the cod fishing industry.
This was to become a dominant theme in our journey through the Maritime Provinces. The story is fascinating and ultimately distressing—the tired, old tale of excess on the one hand, and poverty on the other, of people on the top and people on the bottom. And of overconsuming an abundant resource until it’s gone.
At Forillon, I began to grapple with this multi-hued tale, and the park does a fabulous job of introducing it. (More on this in future posts,)
The trail then meanders through the forest and along the coast and beside the cliffs, finally ending in a dramatic fall at the end of the land.
And after hiking, oh, about 5 miles, this is what I saw:
No matter. The doing of the thing was enough; it was a gorgeous hike. Besides, on yet another hike up Mont St. Alban and across the peninsula, the view from the observation tower in the middle was compensation enough.
Most of the park’s programs were in French, but one promised an evening of traditional music, which sounded like it might transcend language barriers.
But I always get the 24-hour clock confused, so I ended up at the tent an hour early.
Good thing, because that canvas was bulging at the seams and kicking out the jams before the night was over. The park staff threw in a little poetry, a few ballads nicely acted out with humor and hyperbole, and some knee-slapping traditional tunes.
Since I am from the Midwest, where restraint is a cardinal virtue, our audiences sit in respectful silence throughout even the most rousing musical extravaganzas. Put a lively show in front of a audience in my neck of the woods, and the most you’ll get is polite toe-tapping or a gentle titter at a punch line.
During one such evening, for example, a couple of Irish guys were playing their hearts out before a typically geriatric audience. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore and started clapping.
What I discovered was that if you are the ONLY person clapping in the audience, you become the percussion section by default and to stop creates an embarrassing silence. In this case, the jig or reel or whatever it was went on for a long time, and the palms of my hands were like raw meat by the end of that interminable tune.
No such trouble with this French audience. They knew the songs, and they sang along–lustily. They stomped and swayed and hooted and hollered.
I couldn’t understand much, but the spirit was infectious. There was one song about a man courting two sisters. One about a wolf, which I think was meant metaphorically. One about a guy whose pants fell down (enthusiastically mimed). It was an evening and a performance that left you thoroughly warmed.
Forillon is one of those places where unique topography (the end of a peninsula) and natural beauty is twined within a compelling and historic human story. It was a great introduction to a theme I’d see played out repeatedly (the rise and fall of the cod-fishing industry), and the hikes were lovely, even in the mist.
Many thanks to Parks Canada for its generous support of my visit to Canada’s fabulous national parks. (I’m at six and counting…)
You read it here first! Catch my series on Newfoundland on Huffington Post. Here’s the first post. Read it; comment; “like”; make a fuss. Thanks.