Posted December 1st, 2009
Looking down on the Mines Madeleine cirque with Mont Albert in the distance. Photo by Peter Bronski.
Some landscapes you visit just once in your life. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with them, but rather because there are simply too many other places to see in the world. But sometimes, a landscape grabs you and calls you to return. Such is my relationship with Quebec’s Gaspesie, a mere stone’s throw (globally speaking) from the Green Mountain State’s borders.
Simply put, the region’s Chic Chocs Mountains—an extension of the Appalachian chain—represent one of the most stunning alpine landscapes in eastern North America. To a New Englander, there’s something comfortingly familiar about the Chic Chocs. Their topography and their ecology are reminiscent of the Green and White Mountains. But they’re slightly different, like New England once removed, a kind of first cousin. At the same time, the Chic Chocs are also wonderfully exotic. They’re set within the heart of French-speaking Canada, and smoked salmon seems as abundant on your plate as the snowpack is in the mountains.
I first experienced this Shangri-la of East Coast backcountry skiing in 2007, when I spent a week at the Chic Chocs Mountain Lodge, a wilderness retreat set deep within the Matane Wildlife Reserve. During my stay, other guests kept talking about another such place—Gite du Mont-Albert—located in the adjacent Gaspesie National Park, one of the flagship provincial parks in Quebec’s SEPAQ system. The Chic Chocs beckoned me back, and so last winter I returned.
The Gite du Mont-Albert sits beneath the imposing flanks of its namesake mountain, deep in a valley that serves as the functional dividing line between the Chic Chocs Mountains and the McGerrigle Range. This winter, the Gite celebrates its sixtieth anniversary. There is a range of accommodations—48 luxury guest rooms, the Caribou Pavilion, 15 guest cottages, and a campground with basic huts. There’s four-star cuisine—caribou tenderloin, rabbit, locally-smoked salmon, trout. And there are the outdoor recreation opportunities literally out the back door.
I began my sophomore Chic Chocs experience with park director Francois Boulanger. Our first target: Champs des Mars, a smaller, rounded summit just outside the park boundary in the Chic Chocs Wildlife Reserve. As we reached the height of the peak, we were suddenly greeted by two separate groups—a trio of guys from Burlington, VT, on their first trip to the Chic Chocs, and a guy from Maine who’d been coming for 15 years and this time brought his son and some friends. This kind of meeting is unbelievably unlikely, given that more than 90 percent of the region’s visitors come from within Quebec, and only a small portion of the remaining minority come from the U.S. And yet, there we all were… drawn north by the same thing: the reputation of the Gaspe.
The next day I headed to the centerpiece of the park: Mont-Albert, an immense, hulk of a mountain with sheer sides and a flat summit plateau with enough real estate to host the World Cup soccer matches. I went with Dominic Boucher, the director of the Centre d’Avalanche de la Haute Gaspesie. A decade ago, no one thought of having a regional avalanche center. But with mountain recreation on the rise, and the region’s first two recreational avalanche fatalities, which occurred within in a week of one another in 2000, the need is there. We warmed up in the wood-heated Serpentine day-use shelter before checking a weather station and digging a snow pit on a nearby slope. Then we continued up valley, passing cirque after cirque. Here, it seemed, a place as impressive as Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mount Washington would get lost amidst the sheer quantity of options. For ours, we chose to make turns on the Grand Cuve, a broad bowl at the head of the valley.
By day three, it was time to give my legs a break from all the uphill, and ride along with Ski Chic Chocs, the region’s only snowcat skiing operator. Run by Gaspe veteran Stephane Gagnon, we snowmobiled to the Mines Madeleine valley where we met the cat. Using old mining roads to access the terrain, we dropped in for lap after lap, easily logging 10,000 vertical feet, perhaps more, by late that afternoon. Snow had been falling all day, and conditions were shaping up for a grand finale tomorrow.
Bright and early on day four, I met up with Jean-Pierre Gagnon (no relation to Stephane). During the summer, he’s a park ranger; by winter, he’s a forecaster with the avalanche center. We cruised over to Mont Hog’s Back, one of the premier ski destinations in the area. The mountain features a long, corniced summit ridge with a vast east face riddled with chutes, couloirs, and open snowfields. The snow conditions in the couloirs off the north summit looked lousy, and so we returned to the south summit to ski the Secret Chute. Such is the benefit of skiing with a local who knows where to find the goods!
We dropped off the ridge and down the east face, cut through a tiny slot in the trees, and emerged into a field of untouched powder. The runs (plural… we of course skinned back up for a few more laps) were exactly what I’d returned to the Gaspe to ski—the kind of deep, blower-light powder and big terrain that have made the Chic Chocs an underground sensation with backcountry skiers who’ve been let in on the secret.
As my Gaspe encore rapidly drew to a close, I was reminded of a conversation I had over dinner (smoked salmon, of course) on my first night of the trip. I dined with Marie-Pier Mercier, who works with Quebec Maritime, an organization that promotes tourism in five of Quebec’s eastern regions, including the Gaspesie.
“We have a saying,” she said to me. “Never two without three.” She was referring to visiting the Gaspe… if you loved it enough the first time around to return for a second look, then surely you’ll be back for a third visit.
How prophetic her words have proven! The Gite du Mont-Albert offered me my second taste of the Gaspe, and already I’m scheming the next trip.
Peter Bronski (www.peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer, passionate backcountry skier, and frequent contributor to Vermont Sports. His latest books are Hunting Nature’s Fury, about storm chasing, and Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking, a cookbook. He’s also the author of Powder Ghost Towns: Epic Backcountry Runs in Colorado’s Lost Ski Resorts and At the Mercy of the Mountains: True Stories of Survival and Tragedy in New York’s Adirondacks.