ECT Day 144 – The First Last Day

Reviére du Petit-Cloridorme to Le Zephir Refuge
Road Is Life Camp to Whale Porch Camp
ECT miles: 20.92
Total miles: 2831.5
Elevation change: 3054ft gain, 3156ft loss

How many days do we have left? Is it three, or is it four? It doesn’t really matter does it. After 35 days of hiking the IAT with SpiceRack, and a full 144 days since hiking north from Springer Mountain in Georgia, it is almost unbelievable that we are so close to reaching the end of our northward journey. Does one extra day mean anything in the scope of the larger adventure? No. But on the other hand,  of course it does. Even if one more day doesn’t seem important at the beginning or in the middle of a long journey, by the time it is one of just a handful of days left, then it matters a whole lot. One extra bite of ice cream might seem insignificant when one has a full pint in front of them, but when there’s only a few soft scoops left at the bottom of the cardboard container, each sweet, creamy morsel is something to savor. It was today that I finally realized that I was running low on ice cream, that it was time to savor each day like it was the last.

This was a familiar transition for me after experiencing the same phenomenon on previous thru-hikes, but it still took me by surprise. I’m not sure what triggers it, but eventually my perception changes from “just another day. I’ll be doing this forever.” to “woah, this thing is almost over.” When that change occurs, it becomes the first last day. It’s the first step in a mental wind-down, a protective preparation for the end of a life that I’ve come to love and hate. For months, I changed, quite literally, what I eat, breathe, and do, while flying over hills and through the clouds. Now it’s time to begin landing procedures and turn for the final approach. Let’s get this bird safely on the ground. That means appreciating the trail while we still have it. That means being uncompromising in our pursuit of enjoyment. That means using the wisdom that we have gained to say “screw the trail, we’re hiking on the road.” That means leaving the ego behind. That means staying for a little bit longer to soak up a good view. That means closing our eyes to that view so that we may feel and hear more. That means loving one another. That means loving ourselves. That means living today like it is the first of the last.

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So hot already.

Another hot morning was sure not to be the last. The sun boiled down on us, and though it was just a little past 6am, I was awake and restless. I’d slept great, felt refreshed, now I wanted to break free from this sauna. However, I stayed calm and took notes on my phone while Spice snoozed, making it an hour before the heat and anticipation became too much for me. I started rustling various bags and plastic things, gently letting Spice know that I thought it was time to go. We did the granola and coffee thing, then packed up and were on trail by 8:30am.

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The refuge is tall, and the trees are taller.

We were at the bottom, and we needed to be on top, so up we went. Back on the trail for the first time since we ditched it yesterday evening, we were neither surprised nor thrilled to notice that it had not turned from its evil ways. Steep on top of steep, it chose the shortest way up, and we followed it because for this section at least, we had no alternative. That, and in just a mile we would reach Les Cascades Refuge where there was no doubt a privy with my name on it. I made it just in time, then joined Spice in the quiet cabin that sprouted from the hillside on tall stilts of wood. As long as its legs were, it felt like it should have been the tallest thing around, but alas, the trees were much much taller, limiting the view from the high porch to the immediate clearing of bushy green things. However, not all was lost. Inside, there was a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, in english, a story about the og thru-hike. I dropped it in my pack for later.

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A little bent out of shape, similar to how I felt after a predictably rough section of trail.

The classically crappy trail experience continued from the refuge, doing nothing to endear itself to those who already felt betrayed. Not that the trail owed us a single, damn, thing, but we were on the outs, and this steep, overgrown nonsense was doing nothing to repair the frayed edges of our fellowship. Fortunately, it was short, and we knew that we were hitting dirt road again in three miles. All we had to do was make it there.

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A dizzying amount of green.

We did, but just barely. The stifling stillness of the close forest, my rising heart rate, and a powerful hunger, left me feeling a little dizzy and unsettled by the time we clambered from the trees into the hot sun. I staggered around looking for the perfect balance of breeze and shade, then sat down to eat and drink a bunch. That helped a lot, but the unfamiliar shakiness confused me. Stranger still, Spice felt almost exactly as I did. We had to wonder what kind of forest voodoo was acting to take us down. Realistically, we had probably both just made the same mistakes this morning, and were underfueled and underwatered as a result. I pushed that logic aside, preferring to blame a mystical scapegoat instead.

Luck was on our side, and we were cured of whatever had stricken us by the time we got moving again. The wide road was hot in the bright sunshine, but it was also everything that we wanted, smooth and fast. We cruised, we smiled, and we were not in the least bit perturbed when we realized that we had missed the inconspicuous junction where the trail dove back into the trees. A short discussion had already covered the topic of sticking on the road rather than returning to trail, and I bet that you can guess where we landed. Forget the trail, we were road people now. Whatever patience we’d regained on the road yesterday evening had been obliterated by the offensive miles this morning. Our patience quota was showing a negative balance now. The trail, that blessed, creative expression of freedom and connection to nature, could go to hell. I was grateful that at least we’d reached this conclusion early in the day and so could benefit from our punkiness for many hours to come.

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Back on the road, back on the coast.

You know who also liked the road, Mr(s). Porcupine. I thought that it was a beaver at first, padding in our direction, 50 meters up the road, but as it got closer we could see the prickles on its back glint in the sun like the frosted tips of a middle-schoolers head in the 90’s. It nibbled on some grass, then waddled several steps further before sampling something else, not a care in the world. When it got 30 feet away, we decided it was best to not let it come any closer, lest it possess some porcupine superpowers of which we were unaware, such as shooting quills or skunking us in a stinky cloud. We yelled and clacked our poles together. It looked up, bristled, then sprinted with all the speed of molasses into the bushes. After a few more miles, the trail returned to our road after doing all kinds of unspeakable things in the woods. Back together again, we pounded downhill, back to the coastline.

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A tiny strip of shade and break from the wind is all we need. Beaucoup popcorn helps too.

Whitecaps were still texturing the surface of the deep blue sea, as they probably had been all night, and the tall grasses still sizzled in the wind like a delicious plate of Mexican food. I followed Spice across the highway, into a small community of modest homes perched along the edge of a grassy cove with a tiny breakwater. We stopped for a few moments at a sign marking 100 kilometers to Cap Gaspé, confused about exactly how far that actually was while understanding roughly that it wasn’t far at all. We plunked down to consider these things on the leeward side of a fancy boat shed next to the water. I ate a ton of popcorn, forgetting about what I was supposed to be considering while getting lost in the wicked dips and dives of the swallows and sea birds.

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Barking like a fool. #spicepic

On the other side of a small point, we took the narrow track down a short cliff to the beach. It was slightly less windy today, and thus more peaceful, and we soon felt like we were the only people on our private little stretch of shore. There were no buildings to our right today, just tall cliffs of crumbling rock and the trees that were trying to keep it all together. Aside from wind turbines on the horizon, there was no evidence of humans anywhere. Our only companions were the creatures who truly called this place home. Small groups of sea birds zipped downwind, while others struggled back upwind. Why some were going one way, and others the other way was beyond us. A seal bobbed in the waves just off shore, following us with an inquisitive stare before disappearing, only to reemerge next to us once more. I barked like a fool, trying to speak its language, but the inscrutable creature didn’t bark back.

The miles of rocky beach made for mindful stepping and purposeful movement, and despite the slow progress, it was a sublime stretch of walking. Together, Spice and I sat on a rock to eat some peach candies, watch the waves, and give our ankles a rest. I felt constricted by the cliff and sea on our narrow strip of land, but it wasn’t unpleasant. The combination of the overt simplicity of our route and the open space to our left was a mental boon that eased my mind like bowling with bumpers. The route ahead was clear, it was unique, and it was beautiful.

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A rockier part of the rocky beach.

The wild beach looked like it had no end. There was no break in the cliffs as far as the eye could see, and around each bend, more of the same. That is, until we were directly on top of our exit. A narrow cove cut inland at a river’s outlet, and there was just enough flat land for Spice and me to turn the corner. We would not have been so lucky on the other side of the river, where sheer cliffs jutted straight from the water, rising high to a mellowing shoulder of forest. We hopped over some larger boulders, then found some shade near a trickle of fresh water where we could stay for a while and eat lunch. The beach had been exposed and punishing, dry and misty. I was out of water and feeling it, so Spice sat me down and went to filter some fresh stuff. A rounded protuberance of shale made for an excellent recliner, and so we made it an excellent lunch break. The temperature was perfect, the wind had abated, and the company superb. We traded turns reading LOTR and barking at the seal(s) that spied on us from the rolling waves.

We were done with the beach for the day, and so joined the pavement for a long walk along the shoulder. This was a pleasant turn as the road bent inland, following the river past two huge lakes that glittered in the bright light, looking extra dark and mysterious in their basin of messy green foliage. The road was quiet as it wound through the inland hills, so Spice and I were able to hike side by side most of the time, listening to podcasts and chatting as we liked. Some of the conversations made me feel old, like a true adult, for their complexity and nuance, and I was grateful to have Spice, my chosen partner, right there with me, asking questions, throwing out ideas, and navigating this complicated life with me. What wasn’t complicated at all was our decision to stay on the road when the trail left it to climb up to and along the parallel ridge. Following it up there felt like a guaranteed way to ruin our day, so we stayed on course, ready to get back on the red line after it cut out its nonsensical traipsing through uninspiring forest.

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A portal of something to somewhere.

A few miles later, the trail returned to us as it crossed from one side of the road to the other. This is where we jumped back on. And guess what, it was steep and stupid, at least momentarily as it topped a short hill. From there, things actually went quite smoothly. A swarm of mosquitoes descended on us to harass our ankles, but we were relieved of them when the trail broke into a clear-cut. With a breeze and a view, we sat on our mats to appreciate the changing light and flavors of popcorn. Those wind turbines that had been so distant from the beach were now behind us, churning away at the sky, powered by the invisible force flowing from the peachy horizon. The overcast had built into a hazy mat of faded color and low contrast, but sharp beams of sunlight angled through a circular portal in the clouds, lighting the blades briefly before the hole slammed shut. It was surreal, almost like a painting, and with my giant bag of popcorn in my lap, I could have scrutinized it for a very long time.

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If you believe the signs, this station was a big deal back in the day.

However, there were exciting things ahead. A dirt road did its smooth thing, and we fell towards the sea as it paralleled the coast, eventually arriving at Pointe-à-la-Renommée where a magnificent lighthouse rested amid well-kept lawns and picnic benches. It was a historical site of some sort, but the visitor center was closed for the day and my legs were too tired to stand in front of the informational signs, so I didn’t learn a lick other than that adirondack chairs are amazing. Spice did some exploring, but I just sat, enjoying the view of the sea and the pleasing architecture. The red tower was bold and beautiful, its prized lens a massive jewel of an eye, and the adjacent living quarters reminded me of a wooly mammoth, dressed in fuzzy looking wooden shingles like it was. The wind was calm now, and I was calming down with it.

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Never mind how the stairs shake and shudder. They’ve got to be good, right?

Spice came to join me for a few minutes, then we filled our bottles at a nearby spigot and kept moving. A smooth trail carried us up a few switchbacks, past a small collection of more informational signs. These ones were about the history of European settlers in the area and pretty interesting, but with the end of our day so near, the facts were begrudgingly learned and promptly forgotten. Then it was all downhill to home. A long flight of wooden stairs deposited us practically at sea level, and a final scoot along a grassy hill brought us to Le Zephir Refuge, the best refuge of the entire trail, objectively, subjectively, flubjectively. It was built in the same style as the others, but the location could not be beat, just a meadow away from the St. Lawrence. We dropped our packs on the porch and immediately saw the spout from a whale burst from the smooth surface. Soon after, another, or the same, seal bobbed by. Oh yeah, and we had it all to ourselves. Wrapping my head around that this place existed in the first place was one thing, but I could not believe that somehow we were the only ones staying the night. I was sure that the same thing in the US would be overrun, covered in graffiti, and odorous with the shock of stale urine.

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Yeah, that’s the water. Right there! Amazing, and almost impossible to believe.

We lit some candles and set up to sleep on the porch, then cooked up a mega portion of ramen for dinner. For desert we conducted a blind taste test of creamy versus extra creamy peanut butter, then finally settled that excitement with a visit with our good friends Frodo and Sam. The book did a good job of knocking us out, but a few drops of rain and the relentless bugs forced us to the floor inside. But hey, even the floor of Le Zephir Refuge was better than any other floor of the ECT. A superior floor to end a superior day.

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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