Québec is not a land of low calories. Rather, this is the place that invented poutine (a proud feat, really—to triple the calories of french fries in single serving). I’ve also noticed that as a people, the Québecois are dedicated to dousing random things in maple syrup. At this point in my journey, I am beginning to think that I perspire the stuff. These beads of sweat on my brow are actually maple-flavored.
Fortunately, Québec’s physical education system is rather advanced in combating the after-effects of poutine. They even have a gym class here called plein air, which simply means “the outdoors”. Classes in plein air are offered at schools and at university and include everything from kayaking to camping and snowshoeing. If they had offered snowshoeing back at my middle school, I think I might have liked gym class a whole lot more.
And so I head into the deep interior of the Gaspé peninsula in hopes of a bit of exercise in the plein air. I found what I was looking for in the Chic-Choc Mountains, known locally as Les Chic-Chocs. In Miq’maq, the word chic-choc (pronounced shick-shock) means “impassable” which these mountains most certainly are. Part of the hugeness of the Gaspé peninsula is that the middle of it is rather impassable—you normally have to drive around the coastal road—a scenic journey of more than 500 miles full-circle. My own voyage up into the higher altitudes of Gaspésie involved an hour-and-a-half car climb on winding dirt roads through pine forest and across fast-flowing trout streams where, as if cued for camera, fly fishermen with floppy hats cast their rods into the coffee-colored pools below.
Les Chic-Chocs are technically the Appalachian Mountains, but these are the Gaspésienne version. They can appear long and steep like the back of a stegosaurus, or gentle and rolling, almost Vermont-esque—waves of high hills dropping into unseen valleys. In the summer fullness of August, they almost glow with the deep dark green of a mixed forest—spindly spruce, sugar maples, towering aspen and waist-high ferns. Contemplative moose appear out of nowhere and busy chipmunks run from one tree to the next, then spiral up the trunk. The only sound is the sound of water falling on rocks, which happens beaucoup in these mountains.
From my window at l’Auberge de Montagnes des Chic-Chocs, I could see (and hear) the Chute Hélène, a magnificent waterfall that lays a white streak down the face of the mountain. For a moment, I thought how nice it would be to relax up here—just enjoy the view of the mountains. Mais non—I was put to work right away.
First on the agenda was hiking to the falls, a nice morning jaunt through the woods that took us across the famous Appalachian Trail (which extends all the way to Gaspé, for those who like going the extra mile). I arrived and was welcomed by the cool spray of Helen’s Falls soaking my face. This was nature’s invitation to come swimming, and I said yes.
Jumping into a cold rock pool at the base of a 300-foot waterfall was bracing at first, but also entirely refreshing.
The others watched me swimming in the cold water—they looked jealous and I was glad. In my opinion, not bringing your swimsuit is a travel crime. People often ask me about travel necessities—On the road, what’s the one thing I just can’t live without? Well, excluding my passport and toothbrush, I’d say it’s my swimsuit. So there’s my word of travel advice: Always, always, always pack a swimsuit—even if you’re going to the North Pole—because you never know.
Swimming beneath a waterfall in the Chic-Choc Mountains was uplifting—I didn’t want to leave the water—I could have stayed there the whole day, alternating swimming with sunning myself on the rocks. Instead, we hiked back up the mountain, which was somehow more challenging then the hike down.
My afternoon was spent mountain biking through some intense mountain terrain–thick pine forest, rocky outcrops and a couple of outrageous descents. I’m not so much an extreme sports kind of guy, but the three hours I spent on the back of a bike were pretty extreme. (Now I know why they call them rock shocks.) Honestly, the Chic-Chocs made me feel like I was living in a Mountain Dew commercial.
In search of a quieter evening, I finished off my day by tracking a moose–the Chic-Choc Mountains are home to the highest concentration of moose in all of Québec. No matter what trail I walked on, I saw their telltale prints in the mud, pointing in the direction that the moose had traveled. In real life though, these gentle giants are a bit more elusive. I finally caught up with a large female who seemed entirely unimpressed with me and kept right on defoliating a young sugar maple. But my hours of moose-tracking paid off, because there’s nothing quite like staring a wild moose in the face and having that moose stare back at you.
Exhausted, sore and physically beat, I retreated to my auberge on the hill and jumped into the hot tub. At that point, I felt like I deserved it. As a concept, I like the idea of an active vacation, but I also don’t mind relaxing now and again.
Lucky for me, Les Chic-Chocs offered both.
P.S. In case anyone ever wants to repeat my day of minor physical feats, here are the specs:
My Chic-Choc Triathlon
- Hike downhill through pine forest for 2 miles
- Swim underneath waterfall (temperature 12° C; 53° F)
- Hike back uphill 2 miles (1,000 ft. ascent)
- 3 hours mountain biking (1 hour downhill, 2 hours uphill)
- Track a moose for 2 miles (2 hours)
- Hot tub (20 minutes)