When the concierge said “This is good one,” I knew it was bad. Here was a Canadian getting impressed by a blizzard. I thought it was part of the deal that to be Canuck was to be immune to snow. Like Legolas.
I was in the Parc national de la Gaspésie, in the isolated southeast maritimes of Quebec. It is astonishingly beautiful, astonishingly primordial, astonishingly prey to the Arctic winds that howl down every winter. And pretty much the rest of the year, too — take a look at the map and you may notice not too many people call this corner of the Great White North home (and that is just how the locals like it). For all you folks who like mountain men with French accent, this is your Nirvana.
The emptiness certainly went a long way in the establishment of the Parc; it was practically one already thanks to the minimum human population. The final spurs of the Appalachian Mountain unravel in a frenzy of imposing ridges and peaks; the local Mi’kmak tribes called them “Chic-Choc,” a word falling between “crag” and “impenetrable wall.” With tops barren and windblown, the summits give the impression of aerial islands surrounded by a tourmaline sea of cedars and larch, haunted by moose and a rare caribou.
None of which I should see thanks to a 47-inch snowfall — yowza. The mountains rose into and became part of a featureless leaden gloom as if they were made of it. So it might not be too much of a shock that I spent the night enjoying the amenities of my hotel (that is, the bar; did you know there is a yellow gin?), the Gîte du Mont-Albert. It’s pretty much the only game in town/park. Come the morning, however, with miraculously (almost unnervingly) clear skies from one horizon to the other, I was ready for some hardcore hiking.
But let’s face it: with that much snow on the ground, my options were, shall we say, limited. I also wasn’t prepared for having to plow my own trails, no easy feat when I was tits-deep in no matter where I tried to go. Not that I cared. The view was out of this world.
What had been tourmaline was blasted the white of quartz under a desert sun. It was also the only time in my life a walk through the woods turned into a hard-core cardio workout. I’m 5’7”, with is about 67 inches tall; put me 42 inches deep in snow and I am literally tits-deep. I had to plow my way through the trails. Totally worth it, though; the land was truly winter-wondrous. I had come for the natural beauty, and I got it in spades.
The snow had yet to be shaken out of the trees. It clung to the trunks (no question which way the wind was blowing). It gathered in the branches and boughs like wildflowers in a little girl’s arms. And the air was so still, the whole world could have been holding its breath to keep everything the way it was. It was a freeze-frame, no pun intended. This was what the storm had brought. A perfect winter forest.
The funny thing is, I hate winter. I am a warm-weather kind of guy. But in Gaspésie I was wide-awake in a dreamscape of powder. True, the sheer depth of the snows kept me from the more hither-and-yon trails and it was inevitable that I would meet other hikers and jarringly brought back to reality, but even hardened snowbirds like the Canadians have their limits when a luxurious hotel with bang-up food and drink is an alternative. Often it I was perfectly alone in the white woods, the last man on Earth. The quiet was palpable.
And I would have stayed out longer, save for the fact that night comes fast this far north and it was not going to get any warmer. I quickly shuffled back to the Gîte under purpling skies, hung my sweat-soaked clothes up to dry, and was back at the bar sampling that yellow gin again.
But I did brave the chill and took a seat outside to watch the sun set over the “impenetrable wall” the Mi’kmak found so impressive. The green of the forest turned to black, the snow sighed from silver to lilac. And suddenly I was really into winter.