Travel: A dark and stormy night in Gaspésie

Taking a break with the Chic Choc mountains in the background
Words: Rob Harris. Photos: Rob Harris unless otherwise credited

Have you ever been to the Gaspésie region of Quebec? It’s that bulbous peninsula of land that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean at the eastern end of the south shore of the St. Lawrence. It’s also the northeast terminus of Appalachian Mountain chain that starts in the deep south of the US and includes the legendary Tail of the Dragon.

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If you’ve been there, it’s most likely that you went around the peninsula on Rt.132, a glorious strip of asphalt that divides land from sea. But, if you’re anything like me, I bet you looked inland at those mountains and wondered if there’s a way to ride through those as well?

The good news is, yes there is, if you don’t mind getting a little dirty. Or in our case, completely lost, soaked and out of gas. Yes folks, it’s another CMG expedition and who better to do it with than Jim Vernon, who’s recovered from his separated shoulder after our last CMG expedition to Labrador in 2011.

This trip would provide me with a much-needed excuse to test out the Adventure Project KLR 650 and see how all the mods have fared, as well as a chance for Jim to hurt himself again.

At least this time he’d be on his own machine …

The game begins

This looks like an up to date map of the Gaspesie, yes. See the green bit? That's where the Vernon and Harris expedition entered the jungle, hoping to find the northeast passage to Percé
This looks like an up to date map of the Gaspesie, yes. See the green bit? That’s where the Vernon and Harris expedition entered the jungle, hoping to find the northeast passage to Percé

Jim wasted no time on his mad rush to the hurt locker, arriving at Matane a little shaken after an Unidentified Flying Orange Object (UFOO) had struck his handguard on the highway just out of Montreal, taking off his right side mirror in the process.

With the GPS routing proving to be as accurate as Fox News, we reverted to a local native map drawn in charcoal on beach-bark. Photo Captain Vernon
With the GPS routing proving to be as accurate as Fox News, we reverted to a local native map drawn in charcoal on birch bark. Photo Captain Vernon

He also confessed that he’d had some difficulty loading the suggested routes into the GPS. When we found ourselves heading back toward Montreal the next day instead of into Gaspésie’s interior, we decided to explore by a very small-scale map which had all the ATV routes.

What could possibly go wrong?

By 11 p.m. we had managed to get lost enough that we gave up trying to find a good route and just headed directly east through the middle of the peninsula. This was the first good decision of the trip and we found ourselves at the Réserve Faunique de Matane  – one of many Quebec Wildlife Reserves where you can camp, hike and even shoot the wildlife too. Most importantly, they don’t appear to have any restrictions on exploring the trails by motorcycle.

They also sell detailed topographical maps of the area at the park’s main building (a mere $6). Those allowed us to chart out a pretty good route that eventually dumped us off the eastern edge of the park and into the unknown. And boy, what great trails we found — all very KLR friendly. Our explorations resulted in a great ride and spectacular views of the Chic Choc mountains to boot.

A lot of the main forestry roads are pretty straight, until you hit the mountains.
A lot of the main forestry roads are pretty straight, until you hit the mountains.

But when the map ended, the trouble began. The small-scale trails showed several options of minor connecting trails that would all dump us out on the targeted north-south bisecting Rt. 299, with its access to civilization and all its amenities – a mere 80 km east away.

This trail had me convinced that it was the wrong but, it got us exactly to where we wanted to be.
This trail had me convinced that it was the wrong but, it got us exactly to where we wanted to be.

Doubts hit me as soon as we left the more major gravel route of the park for a narrow overgrown ATV trail. With a large ridge in the middle, there was no alternative but to ride in the wheel ruts, with overgrown bushes snatchng at the bars and spinning mirrors like a mischievous eight-year-old. Still, it was all doable and we eventually found our way onto a bigger, much more well-traveled trail right where we’d expected to find it.

Now for those of you who haven’t ventured into our true north trails (you should, really, it’s a gem that is unique to Canada), you may think picking a good trail is relatively easy. But the very logging industry that makes them also makes them impossible to read.

You see, logging trucks don’t have to get from A to B. They only have to start at A, go to where the current logging is, load up and get back to A. As a result, a well-worn and clear trail may look like a pretty good option but you often find yourself at a dead end clear cut with no option but to backtrack out. On the other hand, an overgrown narrow trail like the one we took may seem like a dead end, but all of a sudden it opens up exactly at your destination.

A good wide trail like this can look really promising, but it may just go to the latest clearcut and dead end there.
A good wide trail like this can look really promising, but it may just go to the latest clearcut and dead end there.

Either way, reading a trail is as much luck as it is skill. The real skill actually comes in knowing when to call it and turn around, though I have a knack of pushing that a kilometer too far and have spent many hours manhandling a heavy bike out of a mucky hole.

And this is the end of the trail ...
And this is the end of the trail …

By now it was 5 p.m.; we thought we were on the right trail, but we ended at a dead-end with no obvious routes to our destination. Despite being only 70 km from our goal, that 70 km had a lot of variables, and from experience, being 70 km away from salvation at 5 p.m. in unknown trails warrants a rethink of the plans.

With no obvious route, way out we decided to backtrack to a camp we’d passed through five km previously. Once here, Jim babbled French with a hunter before jumping on his bike and telling me to follow him – right back the way we’d just gone.

It seemed like madness, but just before the dead end, he swung off down a narrow, waterlogged trail that was sure to end in misery but actually proved to be the elusive connector through our maze and dumped us out onto what appeared to be a rather major trail.

Here's a good view of the Chic Choc mountains. Sadly we didn't find any chics or chocs.
Here’s a good view of the Chic Choc mountains. Sadly we didn’t find any chics or chocs.

“Good job Jim, now which way?”

Unfortunately, Jim hadn’t asked for instruction past this point, so I set the GPS to compass mode and took any trail that headed in an easterly direction.

Once you get into the hillier part of the Gaspesie, it gets to be almost alpine-like. Almost.
Once you get into the hillier part of the Gaspesie, it gets to be almost alpine-like. Almost.

After several dead ends we found a trail that took us in the right direction and was absolutely stunning too. It was almost alpine in its grandeur as it took us into a wisp filled valley by the Cascapedia River, which of course we needed to cross.

Both the ATV paper map and Jim’s topo map on his GPS promised a bridge crossing but as I slid the KLR up a hairpin-to-hairpin gravel trail out of the valley I realized that we were not only heading away from the river, but worst of all, due west.

It was the point where a hint of desperation turns into a flood of despair. It’s easy to panic and hammer on but it’s better to stop and consider the options.

There were three factors to consider – light, fuel and food. It was now 7 p.m. and the sun was getting big and orangey as it slid toward the horizon. Fuel was probably only good for another 60 km and food? I was out of energy bars and ready for that restaurant that we were supposed to be supping at right now.

Bugger.

Jim wanted to try another couple of side trails but when the first ended in yet another dead end, I realized that our game was up and called it. We could keep on the main trail and head west into the unknown or play it safe and once again go back to the camp for help. There was food, shelter and maybe even fuel, even if it might require some shameless begging to secure.

Our saviours! Guy to the left of 'Arris is the one who supplied the gas. Name was noted but now I can't find it!
Our saviours! Guy to the left of ‘Arris is the one who supplied the gas. Name was noted but now I can’t find it!

Backtracking down all-too-familiar trails by now was somewhat demoralizing, but it was logical and by the time we hit the camp again, the sun had slipped out of sight. Thankfully life there was life there, and after peddling our sorry story, one kind soul went to his trailer and pulled out a 10-litre gas canister filled with high octane jet fuel.

On these roads the KLR could indeed go very fast, jet fuel or no.
On these roads the KLR could indeed go very fast, jet fuel or no.

“You can go very fast now, yes?”

I couldn’t see how even jet fuel would make a KLR go fast but it would make it go, and that is all we needed. Well, not all, we needed an exit route too –  a camp with cars in it means that there has to be a good easy road out. Sure enough we found ourselves on a highway-width gravel road.

Trouble was, it was now night, I had a tinted visor and the forests in Gaspésie are renowned for their very large moose. Oh.

Man vs. Bullwinkle

We were told  it was 100 km to the town of Causapscal … ironically, a mere 84 km south of Matane, where we’d set out 12 hours previously.

Jim took the lead, since his fancy Denali spot lights were able to illuminate the moose ahead. I was more than happy to file in behind and follow the little red tail light to a hot meal and a warm bed.

Riding a wide, paved, moose-fenced road in my home province of New Brunswick at night is a little daunting, but riding a gravel road, hungry and tired, in the moose-infested woods of the Gaspésie was positively nerve-wracking. Moose are a very clear and present danger on the east coast and it’s best to avoid riding at night if possible.

Following Jim
Following Jim

It wasn’t possible, though, and within the first 10 km Jim’s brake light came on as a mother moose and its large and lanky offspring galloped alongside us before disappearing into the woods.

Dammit, I’m not enjoying this.

Stopping to fix Jim's dangling Denali light
Stopping to fix Jim’s dangling Denali light

Then the road up ahead became a bright white light. Now I know that you’re not supposed to go to the bright light, but this was coming to us and it could only be one thing – a large road-consuming logging truck. Oh for fuck’s sake, is there no rest to the horrors that can kill us tonight? Well, at least this killer came with a bright warning.

But this is a CMG expedition and gangly killer moose and illuminated bone-crushing trucks is not enough. No what we needed, what we really needed was something to cut visibility and make the road horribly slick.

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the indisputable flashes of lightning in the distance. The day had become layer upon layer of bad luck and to top it all, it was forcing me to drop my visor, which I now remembered was tinted. Goddammit! I just wanted to fall off, curl into a ball and cry.

Ping, pang, ping came the drops. Faster, heavier, nastier. All I could see now was Jim’s taillight that — thanks to the psychedelic properties of a wet tinted visor — was now an hypnotic wobbly circle, dancing elusively in front of me.

The only option available to me was to find a speed that if I did hit a moose, would give me my best chance of survival, yet be fast enough to keep from falling asleep and crashing into a ditch. That speed, fellow CMGers, is 40 km/h.

Obviously this isn't from that night, but it's a picture of rain from a day or two later and so we thought it would be a good place to use it.
Obviously this isn’t from that night, but it’s a picture of rain from a day or two later and so we thought it would be a good place to use it.

The final insult was confirmation that my pants were not actually waterproof; I spent the last painful hour and 40 km sitting in a puddle, left index finger permanently wiping away hallucinogenic rain drops from my tinted visor, pondering what would be a more painful death; moose, logging truck or ditch.

Luckily the main gravel roads are pretty straight. Well, luckily if you're following a faint red light in total blackness.
Luckily the main gravel roads are pretty straight. Well, luckily if you’re following a faint red light in total blackness.

But good adventures are not written by the dead, and sure enough, Causapscal emerged from the dark, damp woods like a beacon and we dismounted to high fives and inane grins at the town’s only motel.

The sign read “Non Vacance – Complit”. i didn’t need to be fluent in French to understand that.

Bugger.

For once in this day, lady luck finally made an appearance as the owner came out to help the two sodden riders and within 15 minutes had us booked in at the Auberge Coule Douce. There, we not only had beds for the night, but they even opened up the restaurant (it was now 10:30 p.m.) and made us a superb dinner.

After a day like that, a piece of wet cardboard would have tasted good as long as it was warm, but this was a spectacular meal – something that I find to be common place amoung the Auberges and Gites in rural Quebec. But what a day – it felt like we’d already done a week’s worth of adventure and this was just Day One.

The rest of the trip proved to be somewhat more successful, though the weather was still on the damp and chilly side. Unfortunately we never did find a way through that alpine-like area from the day before but we did find the glorious 30 Trans Quebec ATV trail and hooked up with the guys from RidAventure.ca for some guided exploring.

But that’s a whole other story from the dual sport play ground of the Gaspésie.

I'll leave you with a pretty lake shot.
I’ll leave you with a pretty lake shot.

Thanks to:

Matane
Matane

Quebec Maritime for helping with the accommodation:

Riotel Matane
250, avenue du Phare Est, Matane (Québec)
418-566-2656
www.quebecmaritime.ca/riotelmatane

Auberge Coule Douce
21, rue Boudreau, Causapscal (Québec)
(418) 756-5270 / 1-888-756-5270
lacouleedouce@globetrotter.net


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6 thoughts on “Travel: A dark and stormy night in Gaspésie”

    1. The good news, Wes, is that you can buy a DR650 instead to replace it, which is a far superior motorcycle … or at least, I’ve been telling Rob that for the last three years.

  1. Good article. I like the adventure/touring articles.
    But, please cut down on the naughty language;
    there may be paratroopers reading.

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