ECT Day 131 – Exceeding Expectations

Riviére Towagodi to Mont William-Price
Sleepy Strawberry Camp to Tartar Moose Sunshow Camp
ECT miles: 17.7
Total miles: 2612.1
Elevation change: 4534ft gain, 2835ft loss

Y’all are probably tired of me talking about how hard everything is. The flat stuff is hard, the steep stuff is hard. The easy stuff is hard, and the hard stuff is hard. Where does it end? Well, I’ve gotten tired of asking that myself too. Turns out, there’s usually something hard on any given day during a thru-hike. And that’s where expectations come into play. If I’m expecting a particular day to be hard, based on the elevation profile or whispers gathered along the trail, then it ain’t so bad. Is it hard? Sure, but at least I saw it coming and could prepare my mind for a struggle. Think the Presidential’s in New Hampshire. The real turd in the punchbowl occurs when an expected easy section turns out to be anything but. Remember day two in Quebec? Yeah, that was a gut punch. Not that we expected that day to be a total breeze, but we thought that the flat miles along the river would give us some easy cruising at least. Ha, nooooope. What if I just expect every day to be really hard? Yeah, well, I’m too smart to fall for that one. Nice try, brain. So what’s my point? It’s that expectations are everything. The more one knows about what’s coming, the better prepared they can be to handle it without getting overwhelmed, frustrated, or swallowed by despair. The beauty of today was that SpiceRack and I finally reached the “hard” section of the IAT. It was time to hike through the realest mountains since Katahdin, along the epic spine of the Gaspé peninsula, including a wildlife preserve and national park. Time to get our butts kicked, time to earn some dope views. And no more getting surprised by the hard stuff. During a phone conversation to discuss our permits with the people in charge of everything, our point of contact, Samuel, let it slip that Réserve faunique de Matane contains some of the most challenging trail of the entire Quebecian IAT. Spice took that info and baked shorter days into our itinerary accordingly. Well, today we hiked into Matane, and yes, it was hard. But because we saw it coming, it wasn’t a hit mentally, even though we really did get our butts kicked. Several rounds of rain didn’t knock us down either. We came to hike hard, to grind, and party Matane-style. And party we did (sort of, not really).

A peach sunrise woke me up and held my attention for about ten seconds before I decided that I’d seen enough to remember it forever and fell back asleep. Unfortunately, that memory was already well-faded by the time our dueling alarms buzzed at 6am to get us up and moving. Spice and I shared some dry granola before passing a fresh pot of Timmy’s instant coffee back and forth to wash it down. Alright, you got me. I ate some cookies too. Then with a flurry of activity, we packed up our home in the gravel pit, and got hiking. 7:15am. Lots to do, lots to see.

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A slippery start to the day.

It was already 70°F and extremely humid. Clouds of all sorts covered the sky in various shades of gray, demonstrating a striking collection of different shapes and textures. So far, the forecast was shaping up to be correct, which meant that we’d be getting wet. But not yet. We pushed through a gully dense with ferns, slipped on stones soapy with humidity, and dunked our feet in a creek at first opportunity. After all that excitement, we were spit out onto a major road, probably only so we could make use of its bridge over the mighty Riviére Matane. A bunch of signs that all said the same thing pointed us right, upriver into Matane.

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From here to there.

We followed the quiet entrance road for a few miles before turning with the trail crests into a fern jungle along the river. The lushness was heightened by the heavy air, and green things tickled us from all directions up to our chins. When it began to rain, the jungle beauty got even heavier, with sparkling blobs of water weighing down the wide leaves and fiddles. Our shirts soaked it up, but we didn’t care. It was sticky warm, and the water was pleasingly cool. Upon reaching a riverside picnic area, we dropped our packs at the covered bench and took turns in the privy. While I waited my turn, I experimented with eating a handful of instant oatmeal dry, straight from the packet, chasing each pour with a sip of water. It was pretty good, or at least not very bad. Fine Canada, nobody sells decent energy bars here? Well, then I’ll eat dry, sugar dust instead.

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Lush and humid along Riviére Matane

The rain got progressively harder, and this time at least, it was perfectly timed to coincide with our next break at the John Registration Center park entrance. There were just a few people around, and no one interested in us, so we made ourselves at home in the fully-enclosed pavilion, covered and surrounded by four walls of windows. There was a bench inside on which we could scatter our things, and power outlets to charge our chargeables. I pealed off my soggy socks and sat on the ground next to SpiceRack. We hadn’t planned to stay long, but the dousing of hard rain convinced us to hang out for a little while. We managed to play a couple rounds of cards before our growing anxiousness got the better of us. Big things ahead.

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Heeeeyyy, another sign. I don’t really know how to interpret distances given in kilometers, but let’s roll with it.

A few more miles of jungle walking along the river got us significantly wetter this time, and then we were done with the flat portion of the day. From an empty trailhead, the trail climbed steeply up the forested slopes of Mont Charles-E. Vézina, into the mountains, into the cloud. There wasn’t much to see on the way up besides the classic eclectic amalgamation of various greens, but on top there was just enough lift in the clouds to grant us a view south, across the low rolling hills of the Matapédia Valley. It was amazing how small that world looked now from this perch. Our last few days of hiking meandered out there somewhere, but it all looked so similar that I couldn’t claim with confidence that I recognized a single feature or wind turbine.

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Yeah yeah, I get it, time for my rain jacket.

As we traversed the connecting ridge, we found ourselves in the cloud, in the sideways blowing rain. At first I resisted the temptation to layer up, relishing the liquid cooling on my soaked right shoulder, but then my logic kicked in and I pulled on my rain jacket. This weather was wild and there was a lot of day left. Best not to underestimate these mountains so soon.

With a break in the rain and a wider than average trail, Spice and I took the opportunity to sit on our wet pads and cook up some oatmeal. It was close enough to lunch time, and we had no idea how the weather was going to treat us for the rest of the day. Again, I peeled off my sodden socks and gave them a squeeze. That was as good as it was going to get. There was no point in wasting a pair of dry socks on a day like today.

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Oof, that’s a steep trail.

We had to pull hard on our poles immediately after getting to our feet again, but once we were up several hundred feet, we were able to enjoy a fantastic rollercoaster ride through a magnificent forest full of cloud and energy. A knee-high carpet of baby maples and ferns rippled and bobbed continuously as we traversed along the edge of a bottomless slope. Taller maple and pine shuddered and swayed above us, giving shape to the invisible wind and taking my spirit along for the ride.

It was all beauty and dampness until an angry grouse exploded out of the bushes towards my face. Why it had let Spice pass unperturbed ahead of me, I didn’t have time to consider as I turned, ducked, and yelled. I ended up on my butt, no damage except for a scratch to my ego. I had my precious eyes, which was all that mattered. Spice, to her credit, held in her laughter until mine started up, which was no easy feat considering how silly such a small bird made me appear. How many times now? Bears, cougars, snakes, bigfoot. Why doesn’t anybody talk about grouse?

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Hmm, this is kind of nice. Hard to leave this behind when the sky is threatening to rain again.

It was tempting to spend the night at the next shelter, protected from the rain by a roof, and from the bugs by a zippered door, but after a rejuvenating mug of tea, we decided to push on. The sky lightened as the clouds thinned overhead, reducing the illusion of gathering dusk. Turns out that it was still pretty early in the day. Turns out that we still had some gas in the tank.

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Look at that sunshine. Life is good.

The clouds continued to disperse as we rounded a steep shoulder of the mountain until eventually there was bright, bonafide direct sunshine in the valley below. The blue above us deepened, and my appreciation for all things thru-hiking followed. By the time we neared the top of some unnamed lump, I was feeling dry and rejuvenated. Curiously, a wide clearcut opened up views of a landscape that looked like anything besides a wildlife preserve. Mega logging roads crisscrossed these higher lumps, connecting patches of forest in various stages of regrowth. So was the land within the borders of Matane actually protected? Just the animals maybe, but the stilted hunting blinds begged to differ. However, whatever the government decided to do with this land, there was one thing that I was sure of, this view ruled. Clearcut, schmearcut.

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Hey, that’s not fair. What was that blue sky all about then?

The clouds regrouped, casting an all-encompassing shadow over the forest once more. Then a rising grate of perturbed leaves swept our way like a crashing wave as the darkness above dropped swimming pools on our heads. There had never been a more complete soaking. The clear air turned to mist as droplets exploded all around us, sending soggy shrapnel in every direction. We hiked on, kind of in shock and awe. The rain drowned out our words so Spice and I communicated with shrugs and facial expressions that said, “what the…”

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Getting glowy as we scoot over Mont William-Price.

Then the rain passed, and so it was that we were soaked again as we topped out on Mont William-Price. There wasn’t much to see from the wooded summit, but the horizon was glowing a brightening shade of pink through the boughs. It was time to find camp asap. These were the moments that we lived for (Spice in particular, Queen of the Sunshow), and this was our chance to sleep up high, out of the trees, under all the glory that a tumultuous sky and setting sun could create together. Another logging road adjacent to the trail gave us everything that we could have asked for. We followed it to a slight rise, and pitched our tent on the soft gravel under a swirling flame of blowing cloud.

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Bam, fire in the sky.

The show was epic, and kept us out of the tent, spinning in place, absorbing the majesty of the constantly changing color show. Unfortunately, I couldn’t capture said majesty with dinner, resulting in what could only be described as tartar sauce couscous. A little heavy on the mayo, I think. We choked it down, and it was worth it to hear Spice’s chuckles as we punched our pillows into shape and lay back for good. It had been a hard day, but we’d expected it, which allowed us to forget the hard stuff and focus on the good. And the unexpected good had blown us away. What a sunset, what a day. More please.

This post was originally published on my blog Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including the CDT and Sierra High Route.

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