Gaston Lacombe

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“And to Percé, I shall return one day.” This was the last verse of a poem I wrote when I was eight years old. For our annual summer vacation that year, my parents had driven the family to Percé, an enchanting village on Québec’s Gaspésie peninsula, and I had been captured by its wild beauty. The poem won me a pile of expensive books in a local literary competition, but, until now, I had not yet fulfilled the promise I had made to myself to return to Percé. It took me nearly 30 years, but armed with my camera, a notebook, as well as with a good dose of excitement, I finally retraced my childhood steps along Gaspésie’s shore.

 

The Gaspésie peninsula sticks out like a giant tongue into the sea, south of where the Saint-Lawrence River imperceptibly transforms into a gulf. Situated at one end of the Appalachian Mountains, it is a place where land and sea collide in a most spectacular way. In the language of the native Mikma’q people, who used to inhabit Gaspésie’s thick woodlands and ragged coast, its name means “land’s end.” The name still feels right, despite the occasional boutiques or internet cafés. Winters here are long and harsh, and the heavy snowfalls often cut Gaspésie off from the rest of Québec, making the warm summer days that much more precious and liberating for the peninsula’s inhabitants.

 

Each year during the brief summer and fall months, over one million tourists disregard this remoteness and make the journey to Gaspésie, attracted by its crisp crystalline air and stunning scenery. Ever since cars revolutionized travel, driving around the Gaspésie peninsula has been the quintessential family vacation for French-Canadians. The region however still remains relatively unknown outside of Canada. In the last few year, tourists from elsewhere have only just begun trickling in, to loop their way around the peninsula, and discover what all these Canadians have been raving about for decades.

 

I begin my journey from the New-Brunswick/Québec border near the city of Campbellton. For the next few days, scenic Route 132, a road that hugs every bend along the peninsula’s Atlantic shore, will loyally guide my way. Rimouski, at the other end of the circuit, stands nearly 750 miles away. The long drive alone is worth the trip, to admire the crags of the jagged coast, the uninterrupted views of the ocean and the picturesque villages with their fishermen’s piers. While you could spend weeks in Gaspésie and still not enjoy all it has to offer, I only have four days for this trip, so I decide to concentrate my time in the village of Percé and in Forillon National Park, at the eastern tip of the peninsula. With the car windows down, the sea’s invigorating breeze seeps in and snaps my head clear of all worries.

 

Arriving in the minuscule village of Percé you would never guess that you have just stumbled across Gaspésie’s tourism capital. The village is no more than a half-mile stretch of private homes, snack-bars, quaint motels and a couple of “dépanneurs” (corner shops), all within a few feet of the pebbled beach. But adepts of eco-tourism, admirers of arts and culture, as well as families seeking the sun and the waves keep coming year after year, attracted by the area’s magnificent landscapes and wide variety of activities. Despite all this attention, Percé has retained its rustic charms, resisting the temptation to erect large resorts or invite in international fast-food chains. As I park my car on the main street to go register at my motel, a flock of young boys on bicycles pedal by, each one chanting in turn: “Bonjour monsieur!” If it weren’t for the souvenirs boutiques, I could think I was the first visitor in this village at the edge of the world.
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Perce Rock at Dawn

The village’s French name translates as “pierced”. This originates from the fact that, right in front of the village, a colossal burnt-orange cliff, with a 50ft high yawning arch perforated at its feet, rises from the sea floor. Predating the geological formation of North America, the massive limestone stack (1420ft long, 296ft wide and 289ft high) used to display two holes, until the outer arch collapsed on June 17, 1845, leaving an obelisk standing in its place. Percé Rock continues to slowly crumble from sea and wind erosion, at a rate of about 300 tons of rubble a year. With a weight of over 400 million tons though, this mastodon will still stick around for a few centuries.

 

At high-tide, the rock stands like an island in the sea; but at low-tide, it can be reached by foot. As the water recedes, a narrow zigzagging path, about 300 ft long, appears from under the waves and connects the rock to dry land for a few hours every day. Flanked by the ocean on both sides, you have the impression of walking on water when treading down this path. The memory of crossing to Percé Rock was one of my most cherished moments from that childhood trip 30 years ago. I still have pebbles I had gathered at the base of the limestone cliff, some imprinted with ancient marine fossils.

 

The sun was illuminating a bright blue sky, but the wind, as we say in my French-Canadian dialect, was strong enough to rip the horns off a bull! At around 4pm, the tides had retreated far enough to open up the way to Percé Rock. I set foot on the path of polished pebbles, excited to retrace my childhood steps. The closer I came to the cliff, the stronger the wind rammed at me, and the waves sprayed mightily from both sides of the slender path. But nothing was going to hold me back. Wet, and barely staying on my feet, I finally reach my old rocky friend. I petted its stony edge affectionately, took a few pictures and made my stumbling way back to the shore, not able to go any farther because of rubble from a major rock slide a few years ago. Walking to Percé Rock can be a treacherous adventure for some, because of the fickle weather, the slippery trail and the crumbling cliffs. Québec’s National Park Services, therefore, recommend that tourists inform themselves of conditions at the National Park headquarters near Percé harbor before heading down on the sea path, and wardens are available to escort tourists during the summer season.

 

Percé Rock is part of one of Québec Province’s most popular national parks, along with its neighbor, Bonaventure Island, where I spend my vacation’s second day. From the village, this round and flat landmass looks like an enormous pancake floating at sea. Regular ferries make the short trip between Percé harbor and the 1.5 square mile island, bringing visitors to one of the largest and most accessible marine bird colonies in the world. The island’s celebrities are the nearly 120,000 Northern Gannets that nest there every year from April to November.
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Northern Gannets on Bonaventure Island

Already from the ferry the sea air smells of the ammonia emanating from the massive nesting colony, and the sound of gannets diving all around us in the sea just about drowns out the roar of the boat’s engine. Thousands of birds fill the air (gannets, guillemots, puffins and razorbills, to name just a few) or fight for space with grey seals on the rocky shore. Startled by this display, a few passengers brave the wind and climb to the ferry’s upper deck. With one hand, they cling to the railing with a firm grip, and with the other, click away furiously with their camera. My ferry mate Sue, an avid birdwatcher from Massachusetts, comments: “This is incredible! I’ve never seen so many birds at once! I can take all the pictures I want, but nobody will ever believe me!”

 

Over 15 miles of well-kept trails crisscross Bonaventure Island, and the shortest way to the gannet colony and back requires a 3.5 mile hike over slightly rough and uneven terrain. Anyone who has felt a shudder of fear watching Hitchcock’s “The Birds” will be well advised to stay away from these awesome nesting grounds. The western coast of the small island – cliffs, fields and all – is carpeted with these large white, yellow-headed, blue-eyed birds, with a six-foot wingspan and a beak as sharp as a spear. Northern Gannets are big and gregarious birds, the largest of the booby family, and they are not intimidated by a few humans infringing on their territory. The chaotic air traffic of gannets bringing fish and seaweed to their nesting partners is dizzying, and their cackles mount to a deafening screech as all the neighbors spar with the new arrival to steal its booty. If the spectacle of the gannet colony is not enough, over 200,000 other birds from about 250 species also call Bonaventure Island their home, enough to spin even the most jaded birdwatcher’s head.

 

After two days in Percé, I continue my circuit around the Gaspésie peninsula, making my way to Forillon National Park, a scenic 90-minute drive north. It is early in the morning, and all along the shore fishermen are dotting the bottom of the shallows with lobster cages. In every village’s harbor, rough looking men in rubber coveralls are already emptying their catches from their fishing boats. Still today, a large percentage of Gaspésie’s inhabitants rely on fishing for their subsistence. While cod used to reign supreme, today, lobster, crab and scallops bring in the highest revenue. However, small-scale fishing is not an easy profession, nor is it highly profitable, and fewer and fewer boats sail from Gaspésie’s shores every summer. In addition, many young people leave the peninsula each year, attracted by the urban lights of Québec City or Montreal. But, even with this continuous exodus, the thriving tourism industry is still capable of convincing enough young professionals to stay home, as well as of enticing other Québequois to relocate to Gaspésie.

 

That was the case with my sea kayaking expedition guide, Benoit, who was born in Québec City, but in his late 40s decided to move to Cap-aux-Os, near Forillon National Park. Like me, he had been haunted by his memories of vacationing in Gaspésie as a kid, until he came back one day and decided to stay. For the last eight years, he has been working with a company organizing river tours and expeditions out at sea. Benoit and I paddled away at 8a.m. for a kayak expedition in Gaspé Bay. We were retracing the same route taken by the French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534, when he sailed up this bay and became the first European explorer to set foot in what is now Canada.
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Kayaking in Gaspe Bay

Bizarrely sculpted cliffs line Gaspé Bay. The rocks are so twisted and tormented that you can almost hear the tectonic forces still at work on the landscape. These walls of sheer rock dive far into the deep waters of the bay, which harbor some of the richest and most varied sea life off the coast of Canada. As Benoit and I gently glide over the bottomless blue sea, we can hear in the not-so-far distance the loud echoes of whales snorting as they surface for air. “We often see whales coming up near our kayaks over here,” Benoit says, “it’s never threatening, but no matter how long I have been out here, it’s always surprising!” He then tells me how last summer, no more than two feet below his kayak, an enormous whale-shark slowly swam by, its wide mouth gaping open to let in the krill and plankton. While I was not lucky enough that morning to have a whale circling my kayak, smaller mammals were still closing in on us. Grey seals and harbor seals, lazing on the shore, cheered us on and applauded as we paddled by. Some jumped in the water to get a closer view. A couple of playful brats tried to bite our paddles, and draw us into a game of hide-and-seek.

 

My encounters with wildlife continued for the rest of the day. Hiking around Forillon National Park’s endless trail network, through wildflower meadows, steep forested mountainsides and pebbly beaches, I came across a bear, a moose, a beaver, a porcupine and countless bird species. The biggest shock though was seeing three whales from the coast. I could not believe my eyes at first, but I was not the only one seeing them, other hikers were also pointing in disbelief. There they were, the largest mammals on the planet, back fin, blowhole and tail, surfacing in Gaspé Bay just a hundred yards from our coastal vantage point.

 

The area around Forillon National Park is one of the best whale-watching regions off Canada’s east coast, because of the water currents rich in nutrients that converge by its shores. From May to October, eight species of whale can be regularly spotted here, including the biggest one of all, the Blue Whale. Along with a few other tourists, I don a long yellow raincoat, hop on a terrifyingly small zodiac, and spend an afternoon chasing tails, fins and plumes. Some whales surface so close to us that we can see straight down their blowhole and we get sprayed by tall fountains of salt water when they exhale. As the passengers squeal and the cameras click, the captain jokes: “Don’t worry, no whale has managed to swallow us yet!”

 

Every evening after my daily dose of adventure, I wandered around searching for culinary satisfaction. On a couple of occasions, I try the fancy tourist restaurants, where Québec’s hearty home-cooking meets European refinement. Maybe fancy is saying too much; while it would not be recommended to show up in your cycling spandexes, your best designer wear is not necessary for the laidback and welcoming atmosphere of these fine eateries. Even if over 400 years separate France from its former colony, many of its gastronomic traditions are still alive in Gaspésie. Aficionados of locally produced cheeses, delicately prepared seafood, or dainty cakes will definitely find something to their taste. However, I preferred finding the village “casse-croute” (snack bar), where the locals meet to discuss politics and catch up on gossip over a “club-au-homard” (Lobster club sandwich,) “guédille” (Lobster roll,) “poutine” (French fries covered with cheese curds and gravy) or “tarte au sucre.” At every occasion, unfazed by the arrival of a stranger in their neighborhood hangout, all heads turned in the usual “Bonjour!” chorus.
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Lighthouse at Cap-des-Rosiers

On my journey’s last evening, I sit on the beach of Cap-des-Rosiers at the foot of the tallest lighthouse in Canada, and listen to the jingle of billions of pebbles in the surf as the sun drops in a bird-covered sea. As the sky turns from orange to black, I return to the inn. My hostess Claudette greats me with blue and green curlers in her hair. She invites me into her kitchen, offers me a piece of freshly baked rhubarb cake, and sits down with me for a cup of tea. As if we had known each other for all our lives, we talk about our families, our jobs, our plans. I tell her I will be heading out early in the morning, since I need to drive all the way to Montreal, 11 hours away. Claudette tells me how she lived in Montreal for 13 years, but then, on an impulse, she stuffed her children and her belongings in the car and came back to Gaspésie, where she has always been the happiest. “The trip will be very long,” she says, “you can’t leave without a good breakfast!” The fridge swings open and the colored curlers disappear behind the door. Claudette puts together more food than one person could ever consume for breakfast, and gives me nearly half of the rhubarb cake. I’ve only know Claudette for a few hours, but already, she treats me like family. Maybe that is part of the reason people keep returning to Gaspésie… No matter how many tourists the Gaspésiens meet every year, they still have the talent to make each individual feel welcomed, like an old friend they had long been waiting for.