Published on February 18th, 2012 | by Brian Mohr and Emily Johnson0
In the Grasp of the Gaspé | A Journey by Ski in the Western Chic Chocs
Never had we been more excited for a little rain.
Barely 12 hours into a five-day ski traverse of the western Monts Chic Chocs on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, it felt like we had been in the mountains for days. Ski traverses have a way of making you feel this way. You are immersed in the mountains, committed to a route, and ideally, there’s no turning back.
We had spent the afternoon skiing under sunny skies near the Chic Chocs Mountain Lodge and were relaxing in the lodge’s outdoor hot tub when we received a weather update: a cycle of mild temperatures, rain and then cold, was approaching. Good news since the snowpack was still showing its many winter layers and was prone to avalanching. This new weather system would likely help to stabilize the late-winter snowpack; and with some luck, fresh snow would follow the rain.
We were accompanied by our close friend and long-time ski partner, Brennan Severance, with whom we’ve skied in Alaska, British Columbia, and East Greenland. He was taking a break from his work on the ski patrol at Mad River Glen. All of us were eager to be pushing deeper than usual into the mountains of the Gaspé. Brennan was especially thrilled to be in the backcountry for more than just a few hours—free from the relative confines of ski areas.
“We need a few huts like this in Vermont,” Brennan said, while soaking in the hot tub. “I think it’s time to work on getting my guiding certs.”
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The next morning, we ventured out with Julie LeBlanc, the head guide at the Chic Chocs Mountain Lodge. Sleet was falling, but it mixed nicely with the powdery snowpack, and the skiing was a pleasure.
“You guys aren’t really excited about the rain, are you?” Julie asked. “The powder has been so good lately!”
We managed to squeeze in a couple of powdery descents in the forest surrounding the lodge before gusty winds and rain showers ushered us in for lunch. “There goes our powder!” Julie said.
We pored over the map. Our plan was to head east the next day and ski alongside Mont Collins and Fortin—crossing into the Parc National de la Gaspésie—and then beyond Mont Logan (at 3,773 feet, one of the highest mountains within the Parc) before sliding into the La Chouette hut for a couple of nights.
La Chouette is one of nearly a dozen backcountry huts managed by the Parc, most of which are equipped with only woodstoves, kitchen space, bunk beds, and mattresses. The Parc protects more than 300 square miles of mountain lands, forest and wildlife on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, including the majority of the Monts Chic Chocs and McGerrigle—two mountain ranges that collectively represent the northern terminus of the Appalachian Mountains. These backcountry huts provide a comfortable way to access the more remote corners of the Parc.
After exploring the terrain around Mont Logan and La Chouette, we would continue east to the Le Carouge hut before completing the traverse by skiing out to the tiny village of St. Octave. (At the start of the trip, we shuttled our car and gear to St. Octave, located just outside the Parc, before traveling by snowcat from the outskirts of Cap-Chat, to the lodge.) For about $50 per bag, we had arranged for the snowmobile transport of our extra gear and food from St. Octave so we could make the longer pushes between the lodge and La Chouette, and then Le Carouge back to St. Octave, with just a day pack. Traveling light would allow us to enjoy several nice climbs and descents on these longer sections of the route.
By sunset that evening, a steady rainfall had set in and Julie was starting to understand our excitement about the rain. While there are plenty of steep lines in the Chic Chocs, there is also an abundance of lower-angle ski terrain here, terrain that is especially playful, long-ranging (two-mile-long descents!) and fun to explore on skis—if the snowpack is relatively fast and firm. If the rain leaves us with a firm snowpack, and then we score several inches of fresh snow, we’ll have the best of both worlds.
“It’s all good,” said Brennan. “It doesn’t even matter what the snow is like. It’s just great to be out here.”
Luck was on our side. By midday the next day, we were well on our way to La Chouette hut, enjoying our second run of the day, as a light mist was changing back to snow and the snowpack was setting up again. We had been following moose tracks all morning. We’d seen a porcupine, ravens, snowshoe hares, and chipmunks, and we were finally onto some caribou tracks. The Parc protects Canada’s southernmost habitat for the woodland caribou, so it’s not unusual for visitors to spot them in the backcountry. The caribou and moose tracks mingled in a remote meadow where we prepared for another climb.
“What if our bags don’t make it?” wondered Brennan, with his suspicious smile. “Got any good caribou recipes?”
Snowfall was picking up. A still-distant Mont Logan and its surrounding ridgelines were now obscured by clouds and snow. We spent the rest of the day relying on the map, navigating to La Chouette. In the dim light of dusk, with just an inch or two of fresh snow coating the firm snowpack beneath, we kicked open the door at La Chouette.
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Julie suggested some good tree skiing options near La Chouette hut, and after spending our first day near the hut exploring some alpine lines around Mont Logan, we took her recommendation to heart. Our second morning at La Chouette treated us to a few more inches of fresh snow, and shortly after breakfast, we figured out what she was talking about. The snow was deep enough to offer good edging in the steeps, but not so deep that we couldn’t enjoy skiing in the lower-angle stream beds toward the valleys below. Light snow continued to fall throughout the day. We skied again till dark.
This pattern held overnight, and with plans to shoulder our gear and move to Le Carouge hut, we got an early start so that we would have time to lay some fresh tracks around Lac de Iles, a big lake in the area. An easy descent starting just above La Chouette brought us right to the frozen lake’s edge. We dropped most of our extra gear and enjoyed several delectable ski runs around the lake. Snow squalls were now producing whiteout conditions. We were no longer scratching the rain-crusted snowpack beneath. Not having seen another soul for several days, it felt like we were in skiers’ heaven.
Back at the lake’s edge, we polished off the hot tea in our thermos and fueled up on beef jerky and dried pineapple. Only one last climb and descent laid between us and our next hut, Le Carouge, but we were hard-pressed to leave the beauty and solitude of Lac de Iles.
As we shouldered our gear again and began the slow, uphill haul toward Le Carouge, our thoughts swirled with the wind-driven snow, giving voice to discussions about our route and talk of future ski adventures, then drifting from the ski tracks we left across the lake to the warm meal we’d soon be enjoying around the woodstove.
What to Know So You Can Go
Parc National de la Gaspésie
981 Route du Parc
Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, QC G4V 2E4
Hotel, chalet and backcountry hut accommodations
Backcountry hut rates are approximately $25 per person per night; baggage transport is approximately $25 per bag, each way.
Chic Chocs Mountain Lodge
981 Route du Parc
Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, QC G4V 2E4
Fully catered backcountry lodge
Rates start at $240 per person, per night.
Haute Gaspésie Avalanche Center
464 Boul. Sainte-Anne Ouest
Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, QC G4V 1T5
Avalanche safety; snow and weather reports
Ski Chic Chocs
Guided backcountry and snowcat skiing adventures in Parc Gaspésie
Guided ski touring starts at $130 per day; guided cat skiing starts at $300 per day.