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Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula brings out your childlike wonder

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By Gaston Lacombe
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 4, 2010

And to Percé, I shall return one day.

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That was the last verse of a poem I wrote at the age of 8. For our summer vacation that year, my parents had driven the family to Perce, and I had been captivated by this enchanting village on Quebec's Gaspe peninsula. The poem won me a pile of expensive books in a local literary competition, but until recently, I hadn't fulfilled my promise to go back. It took me nearly 30 years, but armed with my camera and a good dose of excitement, I finally retraced my childhood steps along the Gaspe's shores.

Ever since cars transformed travel, a drive around the peninsula, which sticks out like a giant tongue in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, has been the quintessential French Canadian family vacation. Each year, more than 1 million tourists, like my family so many years ago, pack their cars to spend a few days in this place where land and sea collide in a most spectacular way.

The name Gaspe derives from a word in the language of the Micmac people, who once inhabited the peninsula's thick forests, meaning "land's end." Zigzagging toward Perce on Route 132, I feel that the name still fits, despite the occasional roadside boutiques or Internet cafes.

And once in town, I find it hard to believe that I've arrived in the Gaspe's tourism capital. Perce huddles along no more than a half-mile stretch of country road that's lined with private homes, snack bars, quaint motels and a couple of "dépanneurs" (corner shops), all within a few feet of the pebbled beach. As I park my car on the main street, a flock of young boys on bicycles pedals by, each one chanting in turn: "Bonjour, monsieur!" If not for the souvenir shops, I could think I was the first visitor in this village at the edge of the world.

The village's French name translates as "pierced," and it's obvious why. Right by the fishing harbor, a colossal burnt-orange cliff, with a 50-foot high arch yawning at its feet, rises from the sea floor. Perce Rock used to display two holes until the outer arch collapsed on June 17, 1845, leaving an obelisk standing in its place. The limestone stack continues to crumble slowly from sea and wind erosion, but this mastodon will stick around for a few centuries, remaining a cherished symbol of Quebec tourism.

Crossing to Perce Rock was one of my most cherished memories from that childhood trip 30 years ago. I still have the pebbles I gathered at the base of the cliff, some imprinted with ancient marine fossils.

As soon as the tides have retreated far enough, I set out to retrace my long-ago steps. A 300-foot path of polished pebbles appears only for a couple of hours a day, linking this lonely island rock to the shore. The sun illuminates a bright blue sky, but the wind, as we say in my French Canadian dialect, blows strong enough to rip the horns off a bull!

Flanked by the ocean on both sides, I feel I am re-creating the Bible scene of Jesus walking on water -- something the staunchly Roman Catholic Gaspesiens could surely appreciate. The closer I come to the cliff, the more strongly the waves spray and the wind rams at me.

Walking to Perce Rock can be treacherous because of the fickle weather, the slippery trail and the crumbling cliffs. Quebec's National Park Services recommend that tourists check on conditions at the park services' headquarters near Perce harbor before heading down to the path. Wardens are available to escort tourists during the summer season.

But nothing will hold me back. Barely balancing on my feet, I finally stretch out my wet hands to pet my rocky friend's sharp edge. It had seemed so easy to prance over to the cliff on that sunlit day when I was a boy. Should I blame age or the elements this time? I take a few pictures, shielding my lens from the spray with a cupped hand, and make my stumbling way back to the shore before the sea swallows up the path for another day.

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