Last winter, we drove north for a midwinter getaway during a brutal cold snap. This winter, we drove north for a midwinter getaway during a record warm spell. Just as we can’t anticipate what is going to happen in weird and wacky Washington, it seems as if we can no longer anticipate what our weather is going to be. It makes planning life and vacations a real crapshoot.
Our objective for this winter’s sojourn was to sample the cross-country/backcountry skiing possibilities in the Charlevoix region northeast of Quebec City. We drove north on a Wednesday afternoon, arriving in Old Quebec City in time for a nice Quebecois dinner and comfortable night in the Hotel Acadia. From there the plan was to continue northeast to Baie-Saint-Paul where we would spend three nights, while exploring the surrounding area.
Down east doesn't only refer to the coast of Maine. The shores of le Fleuve St. Laurent, as the St. Lawrence River is known in Quebec, also trend eastward. With the river flowing in that direction, boats travel east and down-stream. Like the Mainers, the Quebecers speak of going “down east” as they travel in that direction along the river.
While I had looked at maps, I wasn’t really expecting what lay ahead as we left Quebec City on Route 440, which turns into Route 138 along the river. We passed the bridge to l’Isle d’Orleans (a large agricultural island) and Montmorency Falls (visited last winter). There is a narrow strip of valley below the mountains that rise to the north, but strip development has gobbled most of the farmland. As we drove through Beaupré, Route 138 turned away from the river. Passing the access road to Mont Sainte Anne we started to climb. The road does not follow the river here because there is a mountain mass in the way that drops dramatically into the river for a distance of about 20 miles.
Many years ago industrious engineers carved enough of a bench to run a railroad along the river, but when the road builders faced the obstacle, they decided to build the road over the mountains.
The road crosses the Saint Anne River and climbs up onto a flat terrace that lies 400 feet above the St. Lawrence. We passed the entrance to the unabashedly touristic Canyon Sainte Anne and then the entrance to an enormous gravel pit. The “canyon," the terrace, and the gravel pit are all geologic clues, although they don’t explain the mountains rising straight out of the St. Lawrence. The canyon is a gorge cut by the Saint Anne River, falling over a series of waterfalls as it enters the much larger valley of the St Lawrence. Since the melting of the glaciers the river has ground its way down through many feet of slate, down to the more resistant granite that forms the bedrock of the Canadian Shield. That bedrock is 1.2 billion years old and is the core of the North American continent, as opposed to the rocks of the Appalachians, including our Vermont mountains, which are much younger additions to North American geology. The St. Lawrence River takes advantage of the boundary between the Canadian Shield and the northern reaches of the Appalachian mountains.
The flat terrace and gravel pit alongside the Saint Anne tell us that the level of the St Lawrence used to be at least 400 feet higher than today’s river. Flat terraces are common along the sides of the Connecticut River valley and many other large river valleys. They form when rivers carry sediment into a large body of standing water. As the river spills into the body of water the flow stops and the sediment drops out, settling out in flat layers. During glacial times this part of the world was depressed by the tremendous weight of ice. As the ice retreated, the St Lawrence valley was submerged beneath a huge sea for a thousand or more years. It was during that time that the flat terrace of gravel must have been deposited by the Saint Anne River emptying into that ancient sea.
After crossing the terrace, Route 138 climbs in earnest. Big signs fitted with flashing lights warn of steep grades and tough weather. The flashers come on to warn drivers if the road is closed ahead by blowing and drifting snow. That happens a lot, I gather. The road climbs in several stages over about 20 miles to an elevation of 2200 feet. Having started at sea level, that’s about twice the climb up Sheffield Heights from Lyndonville on I-91. Half way up, we passed through a small town called Saint-Tite-des-Caps, which is the southern terminus of a 50 mile trail known as Le Sentier des Caps. Caps shows up in a lot of place names in the area, a result of a series of points, known as caps, that jut into the St. Lawrence along this shore.
Up at the high point of the road is the entrance to Le Massif, perhaps the most dramatic ski area in eastern North America. The gravel access road winds in to the lodge, which is nearly at the top of the mountain. From there you ski down to the St. Lawrence, 2500 feet below, and ride lifts back up again. Betsy and I don’t downhill ski, but I had scoped out a sled ride that we couldn’t resist. For $40 Canadian the intrepid adventurer can take a sled down a four mile long trail to the bottom of the mountain and ride the gondola back up. It’s a blast, and the views are indeed dramatic as you whiz down toward the wide waters far below. If you search for “sledding le Massif” you can watch you-tube videos of the experience (other people, not us).
Continuing northeast on Route 138, we started to descend toward Baie-Saint-Paul. Emerging from the mountains, the broad St. Lawrence was spread before us, accentuated by a glowering gray sky. The river widens rapidly below Quebec City, and by this point is more an inlet of the ocean than a river. Tidal flats line the shore and whales cruise deeper waters. We walked out on the municipal “quai” and marveled at the ice-filled bay tucked under the mountains that rise directly from the sea.
The town of Baie-Saint-Paul is about the size of St. Johnsbury, but has a character all its own. Set amid picturesque mountains and farmland, the town has long been a magnet for Quebec painters. Today the small downtown has several galleries along with restaurants and other tourist haunts. This is the hub of the Charlevoix Regional County Municipality, which stretches from the St. Lawrence back across about 30 miles of rolling farmland into the surrounding mountains.
The Charlevoix region is itself a wonder of geology. Some 360 million years ago, a meteorite 2 km in diameter struck north of Baie-Saint-Paul, penetrating 5 km below the surface. The impact caused a crater about 54 km across. About half of the crater is now under water, but a look at the terrain using Google Maps shows an obviously circular basin. Confirmation of this being a meteorite impact crater came with the recognition of shatter cones in rocks along the shore. These distinctive rocks can only form under the intense temperature and pressure of a meteorite impact or an underground nuclear explosion. The crater has endured over 300 million years of erosion, deposition, and glaciation, and today is the reason for the fertile basin that feeds this part of Quebec.
We wanted to explore skiing possibilities in the Parc National des Grands-Jardins, situated in the jumbled mountains forming the northwestern rim of the ancient crater. Amid the mountains are over 120 lakes and ponds and a harsh localized climate and ecosystem. Some of the frost hollows have a frost free season of only 15 days. Black spruce is the dominant tree, and grows very sparsely on whatever thin soil exists in these rocky mountains. Fires have been common over the centuries, the latest being 1991 and 1999. Despite an elevation of less than 3000 feet, the mountains feature arctic-alpine vegetation. The uniqueness of this place was recognized when UNESCO made it the core of the Charlevoix Biosphere Reserve.
Unfortunately for our skiing, freezing rain was threatening as we drove up into the Grands-Jardins mountains, and our time was limited. We skied for a couple of hours and saw a couple of the rustic cabins that are available for overnight ski trips. Twelve years ago we skied in the fabled Chic-Choc mountains on the Gaspé Peninsula, and the Grands-Jardins landscape is very similar. They both get lots of snow, have few trees, and to top it off, both are home to herds of caribou.
We left to drive back to Vermont on Sunday morning after a few inches of snow had fallen. As is usually the case in the St. Lawrence Valley, the wind was blowing, creating the white-outs that are so typical of winter driving up there. But we made it back, and the guy at US Customs in Derby even welcomed us home. The Charlevoix region is an interesting destination, and I expect we’ll return someday.