On the eight-hour bus ride, from Montreal to the Gite du Mont Albert, our hotel in the Chic-Choc Mountains in Gaspé, Québec, I had one thing on my mind. Cross-country skiing. What the Québecers call ski de fond. I was about to embark on the toughest physical challenge of my life — six-days, 300 skiers — a 200-kilometre-plus ski odyssey, through the cold, rugged eastern part of Québec, across the mountainous Gaspé Peninsula, known as Traversée de la Gaspésie (TDLG).
Now in it's twelfth year, the traverse has no equal in the world of cross-country skiing.
I worried about the distance. About the climbs. About whether my lightweight skinny skis, with only fish scales for grip, could go the distance. The tracks would be set by a skidoo each morning, through the deep snow in the Parc National de la Gaspé. On a couple of days, the first few skiers leading the way would make the tracks for the rest of us to follow.
I worried about whether I could go the distance too. Above all, this traverse was about perseverance and grit. About putting one ski in front of the other across ice and snow, for something like six to eight hours each day. And what of the bone-chilling cold of the Gaspé, high winds, snowstorms, and steep terrain? It was about months of stubborn preparation, working on technique, and pushing my limits. I had never actually skied 39 kilometres in one day.
But it was also about the draw of the natural world of eastern Québec — winds, cold, snow, and ice — of the solitude of wide-open spaces and the ideal of joie de vivre. And ultimately joy.
By the time I stepped off the bus, I was ready for a change from all of this mental preparation. I was ready to stretch my legs, unpack my skis, pack, and gear, and secure some skins. I knew, for the steep sections, they were going to be crucial for the long climbs. I checked the forecast again (-10C and partly sunny). I was as ready as I could be for the 39-kilometre first day on Mont Ernest Laforce.
What I wasn't ready for at all was the celebratory greeting and immersion into the culture Gaspésie. A unique, warm welcome that our group of skiers was about to receive as we disembarked from the bus. The kind of welcome that makes your eyes sparkle, your spirit come alive, and friendships flourish.
We were met by a welcome reception of drummers, accordion music, singing, dancing, bottles of beer placed in the snow, shooters, women dressed up as white rabbits handing out chocolates. All of this before we even stepped inside. Inside a jazz quartet greeted us, there was a hasty message from the organizers to find our rooms, and we were told to hurry back for the pre-ski welcome.
The Gaspésie take their celebrations seriously. And things were just heating up. Before I could think otherwise, I had devoured my chocolates, downed a very lethal shooter, secured my room key, dumped my bags, and foolishly returned to the main hall for more shenanigans.
I don't come from a background of celebrations. But suddenly I was laughing with the host for the week, rushing around the hall making new friends, ravenous at the sight of trays of smoked mackerel and caribou paté, and sliding perilously into a long night of celebration — when I should have been in bed.
"Why worry," said Pierre, an attorney from Quebec City. "You have to enjoy yourself. This is the traversée. I've done it for six years. It's for fun."
And so it went, everyone telling their stories. Some skiers returning for the ninth or tenth year — others, from Seattle, Boston, and towns in Vermont, Maine, and Colorado, like me, on their inaugural trip. Friends, husbands and wives, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters. Groups of friends on an annual ski holiday. Among those of us here for the first time, you could sense the nervousness — like the night before a big exam. Hoping we'd prepared enough.
Before 8 a.m. the next morning we began purposefully moving through the Discovery Centre — the building that housed our skis and gear. Picking up our equipment, packing skins. Most skiers were waxing. Picking up our packed lunches. Filling two water bottles — one or both with hot water. Checking the route map.
You'd think we were all suffering a day of hard labour the mood was so somber. Outside, Sylvie Gallant was playing her accordion and building the group into a pre-departure frenzy. Sylvie would become a presence on the traverse, greeting the skiers, tirelessly, on every depart and return. Perhaps we all just knew too much — the route would be a steady climb from 225 metres to 825 metres, a descent, a long undulating traverse through forest, more climbing to a flat rocky windswept peak, and then about a five-kilometre descent. And after all of that, a five-kilometre uphill finish. Excitement, worry, fearing the cold perhaps — minus 10C and overcast and storm coming in— they all played a part. The wind chill would become a worrisome factor in the Chic-Choc Mountains, a northward continuation of the Appalachians. Skiers can go from comfortable, to cold, to very cold in no time. Especially when we would be on the route for, well I didn't know how long. Few of us did.
I enjoyed that first long day. Well, I survived it.
The ascent was interminable. The route through the forest, during which I seemed to be completely on my own, was charming, like a dream. The descent in a complete white out wasn't challenging for a downhill skier. I made up time there. Though I fell more than a few times.
The real "bitch," as the final portion of the route came to be known, was the last five kilometres. An ascent at the end wasn't exactly thrilling.
I came in just before 4:30 p.m., straight into the arms of a smiling woman with sparklers in one hand and a hot rum and maple syrup shooter in the other. Somewhat stunned, on wobbly legs, surprising myself that I'd made it, I threw back the shooter.
I don't think of myself as athletic. I'm mentally strong though, and much of what I have achieved in my life has been the result of bloody mindedness. Simply not giving up. I would later learn that a good number of skiers came down throughout the afternoon on a snowmobile. And some of the group came in as late as 7:30 p.m. with headlamps. So I was tired and sober, and around about the middle of the pack.
Then we were provided live music, a beautiful lodge lounge to mill about, free beer tickets, and lots of socializing and commiserating before dinner. This is a good time to say that I never saw a tray of pasta or bagged salad the whole week. The meals were superb. Roast duck, vegetables, carrot and cabbage salads, and plenty of fruit and desserts. I'm embarrassed to say this though, but I left home a vegan. Here, at the Gite de Mont Albert, I ate everything! The duck confit, the caribou paté, the beef bourguignon, the salmon tourtière. Afraid if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to get up those mountains.
Day 2 switched with Day 3.
The weather looked more promising on Day 3 for the 40-kilometre outing on Mont Jacques-Cartier, which everyone was quietly buzzing about. It's hard. Windy at the top. And cold. There were plenty of ominous hints being thrown around about Day 3. I couldn't make myself listen. I had to get my feet back in my ski boots, and face Day 2 right now: Mont-Albert et ses plateau.
Mont Albert, at 1,151 metres is one of the highest mountains in the Chic-Chocs. Chic-Choc comes from the Mi'kmaq word meaning crags. The mountains are heavily eroded, and have a distinct rounded, and flattened top, with steep sides. The summit of Mont Albert is a nearly flat plateau, above the tree line, about 13 km across, and composed of alpine tundra. The ascent of Mont Albert from near sea level is challenging, but on a clear day would offer us a view of the St. Lawrence River's north shore, part of the ancient bedrock of the Canadian Shield.
Day 2 was to be 21 kilometres — allez-retour — out and back. Ascent and descent. This sounded almost civilized after Day 1. As it turned out, the sunny forecast vanished, and we had a full on snowstorm all day, -7C and -15C with the wind chill. I felt we were tucked in by the weather though, and was surprisingly not cold, although the storm made us all look isolated in our own little worlds. Up, up, and up until about 2 p.m. Then down the way we came. I was beginning to look forward to the descents. They were the easy part for me. There were some skiers with beautiful descent technique, a kind of winding gracious telemarking. More often there was a random chaotic pile-up of skiers, trying to snowplow through deep powder. The same skiers, who had beautiful form on the flats and on the ascents, suddenly seemed overwhelmed going down.
We had been told to arrive at 5:30 a.m. for the briefing. The forecast was -14C today and -26C with the wind chill. Much colder than had been predicted. We would be ascending 12 kilometres up Mont Jacques-Cartier. At 1,760 metres, the highest point in the Parc National de la Gaspésie and the second highest peak in Québec. There was a lot of serious talk of the fierce winds on the plateau, about skiing in groups for safety, and about the high potential for avalanches in this area of the park.
If I was religious I might have prayed before setting out. But I'm not. What I also heard was talk of the beauty and mystery of the plateau. There are 400-year-old trees up there, and a high mountain climate of tundra. People whispered about the ghosts of the plateau. About the possibility of seeing caribou. As I laced up my ski boots and gathered my equipment, that's what I was hoping for.
I began the long ascent with the most ski clothes I have ever worn at one time — a wool base layer, wool zip-T, wool hoodie, down jacket, and soft shell. On the bottom I had wool underwear, two pairs of wool leggings, and my wind-proof ski pants. I had two toques on by 10 a.m. and my hood up, tied snug. A neck gaiter up to my goggles as well. It sounds like I'm making this up. I'm not.
I spent the ascent, watching as three hundred skiers spread out into the vast terrain, until I saw no one. Surrounded by silence and my own fears, I made my way up, growing cold and colder, wiggling my fingers and toes, willing them to come back to life. I did a stupid thing too. I didn't stop.
I had been given a wonderful bit of advice by Jenn Tabbornor at the Cross-Country Connection at Lost Lake before I left home. "Set your watch so that you stop every hour. Eat something. Anything sweet is good. Desserts taken from the dinner table. And drink water at every stop." Well thanks Jenn. Mostly I followed your sage advice.
But not on this day.
I just plodded on. Not stopping. Watching skier after skier turn around and descend. Hands covering their faces. It was just too damn cold. I made it to the beginning of the plateau before I stopped and turned around. The mysteries of the plateau would remain safe with the caribou for now. I followed the tough scientist from Washington State. He was the sort of sensible person who would not lose his head in these adverse conditions. When he turned I turned. I followed him back to the bottom of the mountain, racked my skis, and went back to my room, and stood for an eternity under the hot shower. What I really wanted to do was crawl into bed. Instead I stood under a steamy shower, not getting warm, and eating my sandwich like a ravenous crazed person. Later that night, I gathered my gear, knowing that the next morning we would be leaving the Gite and skiing further east, in central Gaspé. As I returned to the Discovery Centre to organize my gear, one of the volunteers who greeted the returning skiers at the end of the day, waved me over. "I have your shooter," she said. "I saw you earlier, but you walked right past me." I had walked by the trunk load of hot chocolate shooters earlier, when I was in a frozen daze. So there I was, my mind likely still slow from my day in the cold, downing one more shooter. "It's medicine," I said, managing a smile.
That evening, jazz music was beginning to fill the great room of the Gite, and we all mingled by the warmth of the fire, downed smoked mackerel and turbot appetizers, and told our horror stories of the day. Each one heaping on more cold, fright, and frostbite than the one before. "I saw many small angels up there today," said Jean-Pierre, a skier from the Quebec Gatineau. "Je crois que j'ai vu jésus aussi." A Quebecoise actress, Pascale Buissière, who was also doing the traverse, was called to the stage to read a poem. She read it so beautifully, I'm not sure it was necessary to understand, the nuanced verse. Looking around, I was in a room full of skiers, crying over a poem. Like we had been released. Another tray of shooters was making its way around the room. The truth is, we'd all been spared. Soon all the war stories were faded memories.
They say on a trip like this, Day 4 is always the toughest. You are tired. Three days tired. And I'd been unbearably cold. The idea of Day 4 was unappealing. But there we were, the next morning, getting ready to push deeper into the Gaspé. As though once on the freeway, there were no exit ramps. By 6 a.m. I had pulled all of my ski gear back on. The day had dawned completely sunny. The light on the Chic-Choc Mountains was exquisite as the bus pulled away from Mont Albert. Minus 6c with a wind chill to -16C was acceptable. The 32-kilometre route would take us through forest, following along a river, eventually across a well-frozen lake, and for the last two kilometres, another ascent. Another "bitch." We would end up in the old copper mining town of Murdochville, now a centre for wind turbines. Together, the wind turbines in Murdochville, actually make up the greatest wind generating capacity in the world. All this said to me was, this place was most likely going to be windy.
As it turned out, this was my favourite day. The long hours skiing alone on a meandering, undulating trail through the forest was exquisite. I wasn't lonely. These hours, for me, were times to be with my own sensibility, my own fatigue. I fell into a rhythm in the solitude, listened to music, and tried to really see the world around me. I thought back to the man who had sat next to me at dinner the night before. Bert, from Bowdoinham, Maine. "I've been cross-county skiing for 50 years," he said. I felt like an imposter. Cross-country skiing was new to me this year. Bert had driven here alone, and was making the traverse on a pair of beautifully crafted 40-year-old skis. The traverse seemed to attract that kind of skier.
By the time I came to the lake crossing, I couldn't see anyone in front or behind. The lake was a wide expanse of scattered diamonds of ice, crackling in a seemingly endless white dreamscape. Unpretentious, but exquisite, with the feel of something primitive and ancient. I made myself stop and simply stand and witness the wonder of this remarkable beauty. I would never see this again. I wanted to really see it now.
Then I reached the "bitch." It was late, after 4 p.m. A man on a skidoo arrived to announce, that eight of us could proceed, everyone after us would be taken to the end, by skidoo into Murdochville. My legs were wobbly and I could feel my skiing becoming sloppy. I wasn't in pain. I was tired. I hadn't stopped for food or water for a while, and decided now was the time for one of those packets of Gu, energy liquid. And within minutes, I could feel a strength flowing back into me. That stuff works. At least for a final push. Enough, I decided, to start up the "bitch."
When I reached Murdochville, it was getting dark. I made my way to the Community Centre, where the Mayor, Délisca Roussy, was waiting with local volunteers and school children, all who had come out to greet the skiers, and serve home made soups, and maple syrup pie. Nothing could have been more welcoming.
During the last two days of the traverse we were based in the town of Gaspé, at the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula, on the St. Lawrence River. This is where Jacques Cartier took possession of New France in 1534. Gaspé is known for its large snowfalls during winter and high gusty winds. It is a town that embraces winter. In a way, Gaspé is winter.
The day began with a forecast of -8C, but in full sun. -16C with the wind chill. The wind chill was becoming meaningful again though, as this route would take us out on a 26-kilometre aller-retour, through the Parc National Forillon, to the very tip of the unprotected peninsula of the Gaspé.
The park, which includes forests, seacoast, sand dunes, cliffs, and makes up the Eastern End of the Appalachians, was opened to skiers for the first time this year. The route would primarily follow the St. Lawrence for the entire day. After the days in the mountains, staring out now at the sparkling frozen St. Lawrence was welcome. When we arrived at the sea, I watched one skier after the other stop, and take in the paysage. I was doing it too. Suddenly there was time for pause. We were not all in a race to the end. The poet Mary Oliver wrote a line that came to me — "Looking, I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open." There we all were, breathing in the landscape.
In the evening we congregated in the local high school, where dinner was prepared by the students of the Culinary Institute. Tasty appetizers, smoked mackerel chowder, baked salmon, vegetables, and more beautiful desserts. There was music and dancing too. The artist who had been skiing and painting en plein air all week, was putting the finishing touches to his painting, that would soon be auctioned off. The TDLG is a non-profit organization, and survives on government grants, the attendees, and fund raising.
It was hard to believe it was already the sixth and final day. The week had flown by. We started out under a cloudless sky, blessed with sunshine on this very cold final day — -12C was the high, -24C with the wind chill. The wind chill would have its way with us before this day came to an end. We skied 27 kilometres, almost entirely on the St. Lawrence River, following the shoreline, until we reached the town of Gaspé. The wind was unrelenting, and as each skier passed along the track, within seconds, the wind would sweep all signs of their presence away. It was cold too. Stopping for water and a mouthful of food was a trial. Taking off a glove was a risky ordeal. But the scenery was a wonder. Otherworldly. Windswept clouds of white for as far as I could see. There was a joy rising in me that is hard to explain. But there it was. This is what I had come all of this distance for.
We skied to the Musée de la Gaspésie, took off our skis and climbed up the slope to the entrance. Not surprisingly, we were greeted with some kind of warm tropical shooters.
We gathered on the floor of the museum, a group of red, wind-burnt faces, and listened to the accordion, banjo, and guitar music of the local musical group, Les Zappalaches, until the last of the skiers arrived in for the day. Now we would begin the most important ceremony of the week, the final traverse, along the St. Lawrence, into the town of Gaspé — every skier taking their place in the long, symbolic chain. We would be greeted by the people of the town; the children were out of school for the day, many of them with instruments to play as we arrived, police had stopped all the traffic, allowing 300 skiers to pass. The main street had been decorated. Ice sculptures and maple syrup candy had been made. This was the joie de vivre of an entire town.
There was one last evening of celebration still to come. A Mardi Gras masked ball in the Gaspé marine building. So, in a true fête of live music, dancing, masks, costumes, and feathers, we were all handed one last shooter, and made a final toast to an unforgettable week of tough adventure, stunning grandeur, sore muscles, new friendships, winds, cold, snow, and ice, of the solitude of wide open spaces, and the joie de vivre of the Gaspésie.
Mary MacDonald is a poet, writer, and member of the Whistler Writer's Group, The Vicious Circle. She prefers to travel by foot — especially with long, deliberate, gliding movements — rather than by motorized transport.