Our Trav­els: Cruis­ing the Gaspé Penin­sula

Stun­ning views and his­toric sites await around ev­ery bend along this leg­endary route

More of Our Canada - - Contents - By Clive Bran­son, Ot­tawa

Dis­cov­er­ing that, from the warmth of its peo­ple to its nat­u­ral trea­sures, there is no where quite like La Gaspésie.

For sev­eral years, I’d heard Que­bec’s Gaspé Penin­sula de­scribed with glow­ing su­perla­tives. It was of­ten re­ferred to as “the Cana­dian ver­sion of Cal­i­for­nia’s High­way 1” with its ma­jes­tic views. So when I was in­vited to ac­com­pany my friend Janet to visit it, I had to see if such ac­co­lades were ac­cu­rate.

We spent the ma­jor­ity of our trip driv­ing— our yel­low Bee­tle cov­ered more than 1,700 kilo­me­tres in ten days. Route 132 through the re­gion, known as the BasSaint-lau­rent, out­lines the Gaspé Penin­sula. Along the north shore, the high­way soars to ce­les­tial heights be­fore dip­ping into deep bays, then out onto windswept capes. Dom­i­nated by the Chic-choc Moun­tains, forest­cov­ered hills are ablaze with colour in the fall.

The ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion lives along the lengthy coast­line, and most of the towns have their own pic­turesque fea­tures, wheth- er it is a mu­seum, light­house or a quaint fish­ing har­bour.

The Gaspé Penin­sula, while ap­pear­ing no larger than a thumb­nail on the Cana­dian map, is ac­tu­ally larger than Bel­gium. It’s bor­dered on the north by the im­mense flow­ing rib­bon of the St. Lawrence River, and on the south side by the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which emp­ties its steel-blue ex­pan­sive­ness into the At­lantic Ocean. As far as the eye can see, sky and sea merge like a faint wa­ter­colour. View­ing it was a hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence, fill­ing me with a feel­ing of iso­la­tion and soli­tude.

In Percé, an assem­bly line of tourist buses dis­gorged their loads of pas­sen­gers to wit­ness the lime­stone marvel, Percé Rock, noted for its fa­mous nat­u­ral arch­way. Percé Rock

is im­pos­ing; as I walked along the sand­bar to­wards it dur­ing low tide, it loomed over­head like some moored ocean liner. As the light of day dwin­dled, it mag­i­cally trans­formed the rock’s hue from rusty brown to caramel to a glow­ing, golden am­ber.

There are boat tours avail­able to take vis­i­tors around both Percé Rock and nearby Bon­aven­ture Is­land be­fore dis­em­bark­ing at Bon­aven­ture Is­land’s pier. From here, there are trails to ex­plore if you wish. The is­land boasts a con­ser­va­tion park and large bird sanc­tu­ary.

As I walked the un­du­lat­ing for­est trail, I could hear the dis­tant crash­ing of waves; it sounded like can­nons be­ing fired! Of the many species of birds to see, the most im­pres­sive res­i­dents are the gan­nets. With a wing­span of six feet, they have white bod­ies with black-tipped wings, yel­low heads and strik­ing blue eyes.

As I stepped out of the con­fines of the for­est, I was sud­denly con­fronted by a pha­lanx of birds. Thou­sands of gan­nets squawked, pecked, nod­ded and fed. The stench was in­cred­i­ble. Hardly sur­pris­ing, as the birds re­gur­gi­tate fish re­mains to feed their chicks. I was in­formed of the method these birds use to catch their prey in the ocean. Cer­tain seabirds de­tect the scent of fish oil on the wa­ter’s sur­face and will fol­low it for miles. Oth­ers, like gan­nets, have re­mark­able eye­sight and can spot any­thing mov­ing un­der­neath the waves from hun­dreds of feet in the air. They zero in and, with folded wings, dive like Stuka di­ve­bombers, pierc­ing the wa­ters and snatch­ing their prey. They swim as well as they fly. To pre­vent in­jury from the im­pact against the

ocean’s sur­face, gan­nets have been equipped with pro­tec­tive mus­cles in their heads and chests.

The re­gion al­lows salt wa­ter and fresh wa­ter to col­lide, en­abling an abun­dance of marine mam­mals— in­clud­ing fin, minke, hump­back and blue whales—to feast on a rich­ness of plank­ton and krill that emerges from greater depths. Among the churn­ing waves is a habi­tat for grey seals.

There are many light­houses around the penin­sula, and for good rea­son. Prior to their in­ven­tion, sea cap­tains feared the penin­sula’s treach­er­ous coast­line, par­tic­u­larly in thick, rolling fog. The sea floor is lit­tered with the skele­tons of ves­sels dat­ing back to the mid-1800s. Each light­house tells its evo­lu­tion­ary story con­cern­ing the trans­for­ma­tion of light­ing equip­ment and use of horns. Most are now au­to­mated or have been con­verted into mu­se­ums or B&B ac­com­mo­da­tions.

To my mind, the most im­pres­sive light­houses in­cluded those at Cap-des-rosiers, Pointe à la Renom­mée and Pointe-au-père; this last one is 100 years old and bore wit­ness to the

tragic sink­ing of the Em­press of Ire­land.

Ad­ja­cent to the light­house is the Em­press of Ire­land Mu­seum.

A short walk away is the HMS Onondaga, Canada’s first pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble sub­ma­rine. Not only was the on­board ex­pe­ri­ence fas­ci­nat­ing, we were for­tu­nate enough to re­ceive ad­di­tional info from a will­ing staff mem­ber who demon­strated how the tor­pe­does were loaded and fired, and ex­plained the process in­volved in be­com­ing a sub­mariner.

We also vis­ited Fort Penin­sula, part of a larger WWII naval base built to pro­tect Gaspé Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence from stealth at­tacks by Ger­man U-boats, and to pro­vide a safe haven for a por­tion of the Al­lied fleet in the event of an in­va­sion of Great Bri­tain by Nazi Ger­many.

Al­though we didn’t get to see ev­ery­thing the area has to of­fer, we made the most of our time there. Janet and I thor­oughly en­joyed ex­plor­ing the Gaspé Penin­sula, from the warmth of the peo­ple we en­coun­tered to its nat­u­ral trea­sures. We vis­ited at just the right time, too—late Septem­ber to early Oc­to­ber. We weren’t con­strained by traf­fic, tourists or weather. It was ten amaz­ing days that left a last­ing im­pres­sion. ■

Clock­wise from top left: Pointe à la Renom­mée Light­house; Percé Rock; gan­nets on Bon­aven­ture Is­land.

Clock­wise from left: The town of Percé; a gan­net on Bon­aven­ture Is­land; a row­boat at the Chan­dler har­bour.

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