Like much of North America, the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec has four distinct seasons. But instead of “spring”, it’s more “the season of anticipation” at the beginning of May when I walk along Route 132 around the finger of land that juts out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Soon the snow will melt, people tell me. Soon the whales will return. Soon the lobster fishing season will begin.
Early spring in northeastern Quebec isn’t a traditionally Instagrammable season either – the silvery gray of a church steeple almost fades against the steel gray of the river or the taupe gray of bare trees. The snow is brown with late winter sand, and sometimes the wind howls so loud that trying to get out of my car I’m afraid it will blow the door open.
But on a solo trip in this calm season, I have plenty of room to myself as I cruise the 90-year-old waterfront highway. There are few other visitors as I see unusual sculptures emerging from the river, explore thousands of fish fossils, and visit quirky local museums. I’m also learning something about the dark history of the region. And along the way, as the fishing boats start to return with their spring catch, I eat as much of the fresh shrimp, seafood chowder, and lobster as I can.
Coffee and chocolatine
I start my trip to Quebec with a coffee and a chocolatine (also called Chocolate bread or a chocolate croissant), crossing the south shore of the St. Lawrence to take the busy Highway 20. Local friends advise me to go around the peninsula counterclockwise, keeping the water to my right for a better view, so in Mont-Joli I turn inland on route 132. When I reach the Baie des Chaleurs, in the direction of Miguasha National Park, I see the red cliffs of the Gaspé for the first time. In the smallest national park in Quebec, I learned that “Miguasha” means “red earth” in the Mi’kmaq language of the First Nations whose traditional territory includes the Gaspé.
Before people, however, there were fish. The park tells the story of the Devonian period (“Age of Fish”), when sea creatures evolved into organisms that walked on dry land. An interpreter in the park shows me dozens of well-preserved fossils of primitive fish and amphibians, most of which are casts of the originals that scientists have dug from the surrounding cliffs.
In the waterfront town of Carleton that evening, I wander into Bistro La Talle and find that I am the only restaurant. The chef, blasting out some rap music, lowers the tunes low enough to tell me it’s wild mushroom season. I choose wild mushroom puff pastry, a crispy pastry stuffed with mushrooms picked nearby.
In the morning, at the Acadian Museum of Quebec in Bonaventure, I look at exhibitions on the Acadians who arrived from France in the 1600s. I learn The great inconvenience (or the Great Expulsion) in 1755, when the British forcibly expelled over 6,000 Acadians. Many returned to Europe, while others headed south to the United States, establishing the Cajun community of Louisiana. Still others eventually returned to eastern Canada where their descendants live today.
Back on Route 132, I go up a hill and suddenly the Gulf of St. Lawrence extends below. When I get to Percé, however, the inns are closed and “closed” signs hang from closed shops and restaurants. A sign on the docks tells me that later in May, a tour boat could transport me to Bonaventure Island, home to a colony of over 100,000 Northern Gannets, a type of seabird. in bright colors. But today, I see at least the other attraction of the city: a famous rock. The Rocher Percé, the “pierced rock”, is a reddish limestone slab with a gravity-defying arch, sculpted by the sea.
After the strange and off-season atmosphere of Percé, I am relieved that the Bistro Bar Brise-Bise in the city of Gaspé is full, the tables crowded with Gaspé microbreweries. I decide not to tackle the huge plates of seafood nachos, but instead dip myself into a crunchy salad topped with locally caught shrimp.
At the Musée de la Gaspésie, a maritime history museum, I venture on a surprisingly compelling virtual reality trip on a fishing boat from the 1960s. Grab the wall to stabilize myself.
I had hoped to walk to Land’s End in Forillon National Park, at the eastern tip of the peninsula. A hostel owner tells me I could do this if I had snowshoes and walked more than 20 kilometers (almost 12.5 miles) from the still locked park gates. Without equipment, I decided instead to bypass the park along Route 132 towards the end of La Gaspésie, under a sky that became a dazzling blue. When I stop for a photo at Cap-des-Rosiers, Canada’s tallest lighthouse, the sea seems to stretch out forever, broken only by splashes of foam blown up by the wind.
The first lobster of the season
Soon the gulf hugs the road on one side and craggy boulders hem on the other, cascades of slush tumbling down the boulders. One yellow warning sign warns of winter ice climbing, and another shows a wave flooding a car. Although the water seems fairly calm, I realize that if the waves were high enough to crash into the causeway, there would be few places to escape.
I calm my worries with a roadside salmon and shrimp sandwich hostel (French for an inn or restaurant), and, that night in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, with a soothing, deep casserole of scallop and shrimp chowder, covered in gooey cheese.
As I continue west, the landscape – more farmland and less rugged sea – begins to feel calmer. However, the Gaspé still has surprises in store. At the Center d’Art Marcel Gagnon gallery in Sainte-Flavie, I marvel at more than 80 human sculptures emerging from the St. Lawrence and falling on the sand.
I passed several billboards lobster (“Lobster! First of the season!”), Then I line up under Captain Lobster’s cartoonish giant crustacean for a toasted bun stuffed with chunks of sweet meat.
Savor the solitude
Coming off the highway at Montmagny, I find the Accordion Museum, a 19th century wooden house that contains everything you could want to know about accordions. I listen to clips from the museum’s annual festival, and discover how versatile the instrument is – it’s not just for your grandmother’s polkas.
In Berthier-sur-Mer, I board a boat for a 45-minute crossing to Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site, an island where immigrants from Europe, particularly from Ireland, were forced to self-quarantine from 1832 to 1937. (similar to Ellis Island in New York). A costumed nurse shows how the arrivals were sequestered for fear of cholera and a monument is engraved with the names of those who did not survive their isolation on the island.
Back home, thinking back to my Gaspé road trip after months of much less difficult pandemic quarantine, I can only imagine the lives of these immigrants, quarantined so far offshore. I realize that this quiet season trip has helped me appreciate what I could see and do again, instead of focusing on all the things I could not. I didn’t hike to Land’s End or marvel at the island’s seabirds, but on the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, in this anticipatory season, I could still savor the scenery, the seafood and loneliness.