Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula brings out your childlike wonder

By Gaston Lacombe
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 4, 2010; F01

And to Percé, I shall return one day.

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.

* * *

Perce Rock shares one of Quebec's most popular national parks with its neighbor, Bonaventure Island. From the village, this round, flat landmass looks like an enormous pancake floating at sea. On that long-ago family trip, my parents had chosen not to board one of the regular ferries that make the short trip between Perce harbor and the 1 1/2 -square-mile island. I never forgave them! The time had come for me to get rid of this old grudge and witness for myself one of the largest and most accessible marine bird colonies in the world. The island's celebrities, approximately 120,000 northern gannets, nest there every year from April to November.

On the ferry, the sound of gannets diving all around us just about drowns the roar of the boat's engine, and the sea air smells of the ammonia emanating from the massive nesting colony. The odor doesn't seem to faze first-graders from the local school, who have embarked for a day-long excursion. Teachers and students alike make excited conversation with the tourists on board, fascinated to hear about where we all come from.

As we approach the island, the kids rush to the windows to marvel at the thousands of birds swirling around us. Startled by this display, a few passengers brave the wind and climb to the ferry's roofless upper deck. With one hand, they cling to the railing to avoid tumbling overboard, and with the other, they click away furiously with their cameras. "This is incredible!" exclaims my ferry mate Sue, an avid birdwatcher from Massachusetts. "I've never seen so many birds at once!"

The shortest way to the bird colony and back requires a 3 1/2 -mile round-trip hike through forested terrain. Northern gannets are big, gregarious birds, and they are utterly indifferent to a few humans infringing on their territory. Anyone who has felt a shudder of fear watching Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" will be well advised to stay away from these awesome nesting grounds. The large white, yellow-headed, blue-eyed birds carpet the western coast of the small island -- cliffs, fields and all.

The noisy air traffic of gannets bringing fish and seaweed to their roosting partners -- males and females take turns roosting and foraging -- forces me to duck and seek shelter under the roof of wooden observation platforms. If this spectacle is not enough, more than 250 other bird species also call Bonaventure Island their home. That's enough to spin even the most jaded birdwatcher's head.

* * *

After two days in Perce, I make my way to Forillon National Park, a 90-minute drive north. At daybreak, fishermen dot the shallows along the shore with lobster cages. In every village harbor, rough-looking men in rubber coveralls are already emptying their catches from their fishing boats. Even today, a large percentage of the Gaspe's inhabitants rely on fishing for a living. While cod used to reign supreme, lobster, crab and scallops bring in the most income nowadays.

Small-scale fishing is not an easy profession, though, nor is it highly profitable, and fewer and fewer boats sail from the Gaspe's shores every summer. In addition, many young people leave the peninsula each year, attracted by the urban lights of Quebec City or Montreal. But even with this continuing exodus, the thriving tourism industry manages to persuade enough young professionals to stay home and to entice other Quebecois to relocate to the peninsula.

This is the case with my Forillon National Park sea-kayaking guide, Benoît. A Quebec City native, he decided in his late 40s to move to Cap-aux-Os, near Forillon. Like me, he had been haunted by his memories of vacationing on Gaspe as a kid. For the past eight years, he has been working with a company organizing boating tours all over the peninsula.

Benoît and I row away at 8 a.m. for an expedition in Gaspe Bay. We retrace the route taken by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534, when he sailed up this inlet and became the first European explorer to take possession of what is now Canada. Bizarrely sculpted cliffs surround us. The rocks are so twisted and tormented that I can almost hear the tectonic forces still at work on the landscape. Walls of sheer rock dive far into the deep waters of the bay, which harbors some of the richest and most varied sea life off Canada's Atlantic coast.

As Benoît and I gently glide over the bottomless blue sea, we can perceive the not-so-distant echoes of whales snorting as they surface for air. "We often see whales coming up near our kayaks over here," beams Benoît. "It's never threatening, but no matter how long I have been out here, it's always surprising!"

From May to October, eight species of whales can be regularly spotted here, including the biggest one of all, the blue whale. Benoît boasts that last summer an enormous whale shark slowly swam by no more than two feet beneath his kayak, its wide mouth gaping open as it feasted on krill and plankton.

While we aren't lucky enough this morning to have a whale circling our kayaks, smaller mammals close in on us. Gray seals and harbor seals jump in the water to get a closer view, while others, lazing on the shore, applaud and cheer us on. A couple of playful brats try to bite our paddles and draw us into a game of hide-and-seek.

* * *

Each evening, after my daily dose of adventure, I wander around the Gaspe's villages searching for culinary satisfaction. On a couple of occasions, I try the fancy tourist restaurants, where Quebec's hearty home cooking meets European refinement. Maybe "fancy" is saying too much; though I might have drawn bemused looks by showing up in cycling spandex, my best designer wear is not necessary for the laidback atmosphere of these fine eateries.

But I prefer finding the village casse-croute (snack bar), where the locals meet to discuss politics and catch up on gossip over a club-au-homard (lobster club sandwich), a guedille (lobster roll), a poutine (French fries covered in cheese curds) or a tarte au sucre (sugar pie). At every occasion, unfazed by the arrival of a stranger in their neighborhood hangout, all heads turn in the usual "Bonjour!" chorus.

On my last evening, after a day of long hikes and wildlife encounters in Forillon National Park, I sit on the beach of Cap-des-Rosiers at the foot of the tallest lighthouse in Canada. Billions of pebbles jingle in the surf as the sun drops in a bird-covered sea. When the sky turns from orange to black, I return to the beachside inn where I'll be spending the night.

My hostess, Claudette, greets me with blue and green curlers in her hair. She kindly invites me into her kitchen, offers me a piece of freshly baked rhubarb cake and sits down with me for a cup of tea. As if we had known each other all our lives, we talk about our families, our jobs, our plans. I tell her that I'll be heading out early in the morning, since I need to drive all the way to Montreal, 11 hours away. Claudette recalls how she lived in Montreal for 13 years, but then, on an impulse, stuffed her children and her belongings in the car and came back to the Gaspe, where she has always been happiest.

"The trip will be very long," she says. "You can't leave without a good breakfast!" The fridge swings open and the colored curlers disappear behind the door. Claudette puts together more food than one person could ever consume in one meal, and wraps up nearly half of the rhubarb cake for me. I've only know Claudette for a few hours, but already, she treats me like family.

Maybe that's part of the reason why people keep returning to the Gaspe. No matter how many tourists the Gaspesiens meet every year, they still have the talent to make each individual feel welcome, like an old friend they've long been waiting to see again.

Lacombe is a Washington writer and photographer.

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