International Appalachian Trail
|Maine IAT board member admires the Cap Gaspi tip of the Gaspi Peninsula and the end of the Appalachian Mountains.|
When I saw the International Appalachian Trail in the spring of 1998, several sections were still incomplete. I however saw enough to know it would not just beckon to thru-hikers determined to bag the international extension to the Appalachian Trail, but would be a destination trail in its own right for pleasure hikers looking for uncrowded hiking through some of the most spectacular and unspoiled country on the continent. The Gaspi region of Quebec is one of the most sparsely populated areas of French Canada and its lushly mountainous interior is reminiscent of the French Pyrinies.
The fastest way to put yourself in the heart of the Gaspi is to fly round-trip to Quebec City and then either hire a car or take a train from there. There is of course the added lure of flying through Quebec City to sample all of those authentic French restaurants waiting for you when you come back 20 pounds lighter and ready for some serious troughing down.
To access the newest and most untrammeled sections of the trail, you should go first to Matapidia, an old lumber town at the junction of the Restigouche and Matapidia rivers on the border between Quebec and New Brunswick.
Matapidia looks like it fell on hard times with the demise of the lumber industry but is looking forward to better times as a trailhead town with the arrival of the IAT. What kept the town from going under is salmon the Restigouche has a worldwide reputation for the caliber of its salmon fishing. No less a fly fisherman than George Bush has testified to that. There's even a hostel for hikers at Matapidia run by 24-year-old David LeBlanc, who also helped build the trail and is the local source for trail information. Also local fishing and hunting guide Pete Dube runs the Restigouche Hotel whose rooms may be utilitarian comfortable (and affordable), but whose dining room is hard to beat for its grilled salmon steaks and authentic backwoods Canadiana. Legendary fishing guide Richard Adams a Norman Rockwell portrait of what a fishing guide should look like is a permanent fixture in the lobby.
You can hook into the IAT at Matapidia with a modest climb up an escarpment that overlooks the confluence of the two rivers, then head due north over a series of escalating ridges to the small mill town of St. Andri-de-Restigouche. This is a warm-up hike of about 12 miles whose highest point peaks at about 1,500 feet and offers a grand view of the surrounding country and a sizable swathe of neighboring New Brunswick.
From St. Andri-de-Restigouche the trail continues another 12 miles to the Assemetcougan River where a shelter was due to be built by the year 2000. From there you're on the valley trail which follows the Creux Stream for about 80 miles through two old-growth forests that are about as good as it gets. This is one of the few times in your life you will have the opportunity to hike at length through pristine ancient forest and it's worth getting in shape just to be able to do this section, which takes about a week on its own and will leave you in the village of St. Marguerite. If you do get bushed, it's worth noting that there are access and egress tracks leading to hamlets all along the trail. If you have to bail, you're never more than a day hike from help.
Note: If you need reminding, ancient forest means more animals than humans, including bear, so make sure you know your bear drill and practice it when you make camp for the night.
From St. Marguerite, you could easily leapfrog Causapscal and head straight for the Matane Reserve about 40 miles north. For a reasonable fee you can arrange through David LeBlanc or Pete Dube in Matapidia for a ride or delivery of your own wheels. You can rejoin the trail from highway 195 at the Matane Reserve for a juicy35-mile hike that follows the crest of the Appalachian Mountains which Quebecers have named here the Southern Mountains for reasons all their own and which also parallels the route of the Matane River. The succession of peaks and river views makes for a demanding but scenically rewarding hike. Plus, whenever you can hike no more, there are plenty of SEPAQ camp sites administered by the province of Quebec. SEPAQ stands for Sociiti des Etablissements de PleinAir du Quibec, which, literally translated, means Society of Open Air Establishments of Quebec.
You are now headed toward the Parc de la Gaspisie, destined for many hikers to become the jewel in the crown of the IAT. A 500-square-mile conservation area under the protection of the Quebecgovernment since 1905, the Parc hosts a 70-mile section of trail that traverses 13 peaks between Mont Logan in the west and Mont Jacques Cartier in the east. At 4,160 feet, Mont Jacques Cartier, named after the French explorer who optimistically claimed North America for France, is the highest mountain in Quebec and on the IAT.
This hike requires 10 days by itself and takes hikers through four distinct eco-systems: old-growth forest at the lower altitudes, firand white birch, fir and black spruce, and alpine tundra. Halfwayalong, the trail circumnavigates the massive elliptical plateau of Mont Albert which is home to the only herd of caribou south of the Arctic Circle, and is hard to leave in a hurry, unless of course it's rutting season (for the caribou that is).
Mont Albert is probably the most heavily visited section of trail on thewhole IAT and while that scarcely makes for crowds, the only overnightaccommodation is in small huts with limited bunk space. Reservations must be made with the park authority well in advance.
Of course you can always do what I did and stay at the Gnte du Mont Albert, a luxurious inn in the middle of the park with comforts all too ready to seduce the irresolute hiker. (I may as well declare myself now: I believe the outdoors are for enjoyment, not suffering). The inn also has chalets on its grounds, which can accommodate families or groups of hikers up to eight and ten strong. The strength of the American dollar these days makes these chalets seem cheap. You can tell the inn is geared for hikers the moment you approach the front door and spy the stiff bristled brushes set in grates in the floor where you can clean the trail off your boots before going in to tell the restaurant how you want your venison cooked.
After Parc de la Gaspisie you can drive about 70 miles along the northern coast of the Gaspi Peninsula to Parc Forillon at Cap Gaspi. It feels a lot like cheating, but the cliff-side views are breathtaking all the way and you will have energy aplenty for the hike through Parc Forillon, a 15-mile trail that takes you along high ridge line and through old-growth forest to the lighthouse and 300-foot cliffs that mark the continental demise of the Appalachian Mountains.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication