Tuesday, August 16, 2011

oh Canada, one day at a time

Perhaps peeking into someone's hiking adventures and mishaps is not your thing. Tally forth, then, to the next post. This one's not for you. For the others - sit back. I've got a lot of catching up to do.

Saturday: failing in the art of compromise

The day is brilliant, the views are enticing... but the train is late pulling into Gaspe. It is already two in the afternoon, we have no maps, no idea yet how to get to where we want to begin our hike.

The general plan is spectacular: we will take the International Appalachian Trail to its end -- at the tip of the Gaspe peninsula. The trail commences in Georgia and both Ed and I have hiked various segments of it (he, significantly more than I) and so it is quite a thrill for us to take it along its final Canadian segment. And I'm even okay with wild backwoods camping and with having an ambitious walking agenda for each day, despite the iffy weather forecast for this region.


But as we discuss our options at the Gaspe Tourist Office, the clock ticks forward and I am growing uneasy.
I want a tiny bit of time on the computer, I say to Ed.
Okay, we'll find Internet first thing.
There's some kind of festival in town. Places are packed. An how do we find the trailhead for the International Appalachian Trail (IAT)?
Here, it's off this highway. We'll have to hitch a ride there. It's about two dozen kilometers from here.
And if no one takes us?
Someone will take us.
The lady here says it's so packed with tourist this weekend because of the festival that hitchhiking is not an option.
We'll walk then.

I look at my watch. It's nearing 3. Maybe we should stay here overnight at some BandB and start out refreshed in the morning. (I'm thinking of the sleepless night on the train with the moaning kid and the last shower back on Friday.)
We can start the hike now and camp.
What if we have to walk the two dozen miles to the trail head and it turns dark?
We'll pitch off the side of the road.
I don't want to pitch off the side of the road.

I may be bold in matters of rains and planes, but in all matters related to camping, Ed is the one who is maximally adventurous. I'm fussier. Camping anywhere, including, if need be, in the gutter, won't do. I don't need campsites. I don't need toilet facilities. Running water can be of the brook kind. But I do need ambiance. A nest of sorts.

Hoping for a day's pause in Gaspe, I find a place for us to stay halfway up the road toward the trailhead. Ed's not happy. He urges us to push forward. I'm not happy. And so we reach a compromise and of course that simply means that neither of us is happy -- we book what's left in town and what's left is a room that is, by our standards, too much and it looks out onto the loud festival.

On the upside, the fast food place where we find WiFi also has fantastic local tiny shrimp, served in a pita wrap.


And surly the festival music will end before midnight.



In the hotel now. I plug in the iPad, Ed tries to sleep. The music down the road is blasting. Oh, oh oh oh, da da da da! Ed is tossing. I say to him, want to go take a walk through the festival? He responds - no... He admits it, he's sulking. If there is one thing you don't expect in northern Canada it's noise and here, by happenstance, there's plenty of it. I feel sorry for him. An inauspicious beginning, indeed.

Okay, do you want to leave? I ask.
Can we?
Even if they'll charge us for the room? We haven't used anything, but still...
I'll talk to them.

He does. No charge. We're out. Now what?
Want to reclaim that room half way up the road to our hiking trail? I ask. Now he's feeling magnanimous.
But it was not to be. All places within miles are now booked solid. You know, because of the festival.
Let's get a ride to the trail head and begin our hike now.
Really Ed? It's after six. It gets dark here early. Really?

We get a ride to the trailhead. The driver is chatty, a little baffled by our plan, but he drops us off right where the sign reads: the International Appalachian Trail. In French and English.

We aren't ambitious on this night -- how could we be, it's almost seven, dusky dark and the forest around us is thick. Perhaps a kilometer into the hike we start looking for a spot to pitch the tent. It's hard! The sloppy terrain offers no choices. Finally, we sort of find a half level surface. We unload our bags and settle in. Not hungry for dinner, not thirsty either. Tired. Out by 8:30.

Sunday: all hell breaks loose

Well, you know we are alive, because you're reading this post, but man oh man, this day had it all: the steep uphill climbs, spontaneous clouds of bugs -- in a few spots swarming as if nothing worth eating had passed through in years. Then, too, storms and torrential rain. And flooded paths with ankle deep mud. Still more: washed out stream crossings. Three of them.

But let's not forget luck. We had a lot of good calls and even more good luck.

We set out highly optimistic and hugely behind schedule. Sleeping for some 12 hours, lolling for a couple more, it's 11 before we're packed and out. Still postponing eating. Waiting for the right spot, the right moment.

The path is initially ridiculously steep. The packs feel heavy and despite the cloudy skies, we're sweating. We reach a slight spur -- a descent to Lac Renaud. Here's where we pick up the hoof prints of an elk and here's where we also pick up the boggy, muddy portion of the trail. We begin now, too, to feel the mosquitoes. Still, we pause at the lake, wash ourselves to the core and Ed even takes a brief plunge. Total immersion. Good for him.


Me, I'm hearing the rumble. And feeling the familiar unease when I am in the middle of nowhere, in difficult terrain and a storm is about to descend.

It wasn't supposed to storm today!

Ed, can we get out of this lake area?
He reluctantly gets out of the water and then in a painfully slow manner, begins to pack his pack again. Louder rumble. Ed, please hurry.
But for what reason, one may well ask. It's not as if there's shelter nearby. Deep rumble. I just want to get going. Away from the lake, somewhere under some cover even if it's only tree cover.
We're wading through thick, puddled mud, finding our way back to the trail, which, too is one mud bath (the Gaspesie has had a horribly wet month) and now the sky looks like we are in for a cloudburst.
Let's put the tent up! Now! It's not easy to find enough of a level surface to pitch a tent, but I tell you we are lucky, because behind some thick branches there is enough of a level-ish spot that we can quickly and I mean QUICKLY throw the tent up. Not a minute too soon. The skies open up and it pours, buckets and buckets of crashing, thundering rain. It's nearly two now, we haven't eaten breakfast yet, but all I feel is the tremendous relief of having shelter.

Two hours later, it passes. The skies clear and it is actually quite pretty outside. Our tent is soaked and there is still a patter of drops from the wet branches, but Ed finally boils water and oatmeal and coffee never tasted so good.

We set out again, buoyed by the luck, by the narrow escape, by the trail before us, by the fresh scent of wet pine.



But much of that high five feeling passes as the trail deteriorates. It's flooded in places: streams gush through it and there is so much mud that sometimes it's impossible to avoid sloshing right in, ankle deep. Hiking boots are soaked, pants -- don't even ask.

And never before have we hiked to washed out stream crossings. Not just any stream -- gushing torrential streams with icy water and terribly slippery rocks.


And all the while, hoof prints in the mud, to remind us that we are not alone. Except we really are alone. The are no backpackers here, no camping people, no hikers either. We plod on. What can you do but continue. We have a goal -- there is a rough camping space some kilometers ahead. To make it there, ah to make it there! Past lakes, severe now in the fading light, past clumps of mushrooms growing on the path, up an incline, sloshing down again, and so we continue...




We're there! And miraculously it is by a lovely stream so we can wash away the mud from pants, socks and shoes.


And oddly, the mosquitoes disperse so that in few minutes, we are with no bugs at all. As if the Canadian mosquitoes do not like dusk, or the cool night.

We splash and wash and Ed boils water again for our pouched dinner.

We had wondered why the label for this stretch of the IAT is "difficult." How could it be, when the elevations aren't so steep. Now we know. Difficult indeed. So happy to be inside a semi dry tent now, typing away...


Monday: it's how it should be

Wake up to the sound of rushing waters. I go out and note the fresh hoof prints in the mud. The stalking elk was here last night.

The water is icy cold, but we wash up anyway. Who knows when the next opportunity will present itself.

I've gotten used to drinking water treated with Ed's iodine pills. We fill up our bottles, boil some, too, for breakfast and really, it all is so predictable and therefore comforting -- the routines of camping and hiking are finally setting in.


And it continues to be this way throughout the day. We have a huge climb early in the day and a descent on along a stretch of slippery rocks that sends me crashing on my butt, and, too, there is an hour of a mosquito attack that comes out of nowhere, but all this is not unusual. The skies stay gray early on, but by late afternoon, we see spots of blue.


And the flowers. In clumps along the path, in fields, everywhere we see the purple buds.


Berries, too. You can tell where the bears have recently passed -- the plants will have their heads cut off. In other places, you can see them, untouched yet.


And the mushrooms. Under the tree, on the tree...


And every few kilometers, we come to a view, to the mountains, to the gray sea waters beyond.


Perhaps our finest moment is when we pause on a bridge (yes, imagine that! A bridge! This second segment is much more tended than yesterday's path) and dangle our feet, even as we don't quite touch the water.


We reach the wild camping spot in good time and here, too, there is the sound of a stream nearby. Soothing sounds. And the smell of pine. Sweet Canadian pine. I imagine that this smell will stay with me. A reminder of these dense, sloping forests, and elk tracks mixing with our own.

Tuesday: in search of civilization

We're a day or two away from the end of the IAT, but we want to take a break from the wilderness and touch base with the world. It feels odd for me to be out of contact for so many days. And so when the trail crosses a road, the plan is to veer off and head to the shore. Surely there we will find ...well, for starters, Internet service.

A good plan. A mutually agreeable plan. Except in the middle of the night, the rain starts. And it continues -- a steady drumroll of water against a sagging wet tent. 6 am, still pouring. 9 am, pouring. 11 am, raining hard. Noon - a momentary lull. We take the tent apart and hide under a roof, conveniently there at this particular campsite. (There are 3 wild camping areas along this 45 kilometer stretch of the IAT. We stayed at two. All have been completely empty.) And we wait some more.

Finally, at 1, I make the call. Let's go! Now! Go, while it's only drizzling!

Ah, but it's slick out there! This time Ed lands on his butt. We have rain gear but the drizzle lets up (for the most part) and so we relax. And really, as always, we are thrilled by this magnificent forest (the part we hike belongs to the Forillon National Park of Canada). The fragrance alone can send you into a dizzy spin. The fauna is dense and always changing. On this day, we pick up the tracks of animals again. We're told later it's not elk at all, it's moose. And we completely lose all pesty bugs. Despite the cloud cover, the views remain breathtakingly splendid



We reach, finally, intersection with a road. Ed thinks we can hitchhike our way to civilization, but our crossing point is on a steep hill and no one can slow down for us, even had they wanted to. And so we continue. One more mile, another, and another, moving along the trail, aiming to at least reach the Park's Recreation Center. Surely they'll have WiFi.

They do not. But the ever so nice receptionist is almost done for the day and if we wait for her, she'll drive us to the Youth Hostel (someone mentioned there is one down the road). We wait. There is a snack bar and we order shrimp salads to pass the time.


She drives us the dozen kilometers or so and even though there aren't available rooms at the hostel (or, is it that we aren't youth?) we are allowed to pitch a tent and use the facilities, including WiFi.

We're sitting in the lobby room, on futons that remind me of student days. Ed has pitched the tent somewhere in the back of the house. We're both enjoying being online. But the smell... What is it? I go to investigate. Ah, a youth hostel that serves dinner. I look at the list of foods for tonight: lobster, crab, seafood over pasta, tarts, pre dinner drinks, after dinner drinks...what? This is hostel food? It's late, but we ask if we can have just one plate of something -- the sea food pasta will be just fine. With a half carafe of wine. The tent is waiting -- Ed tells me he had to pitch it just off the parking lot. I don't mind. Ambience? Eh, overrated.