Conclusion: In which the mountains dip into the sea
The Gaspe Peninsula in southern Quebec sticks out beneath the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway like a pouting lower lip.
The peninsula’s interior is wild and mountainous — the last hurrah for the Appalachian chain — but its perimeter is bucolic, with small, quiet villages, each with a church steeple at its center.
Between Matane, where the peninsula begins, and Cape Gaspe, where it ends 200 miles later, there are only two roads that cross the interior.
From north to south, the roads leave the St. Lawrence, climb the Notre Dame and Shickshock mountains (aka Chic-Choc, in the bilingual nation) and wander down the deep river valleys lined with pine, fir and birch, only to come out on the prairie-lined towns along the Baie des Chaleurs.
The spine of the Appalachians runs the length of the Gaspe and it finally dives under the salt water at Forillon National Park, only to churn up the water beyond land’s end in a series of offshore shoals before sinking down into the sea bottom.
That last flowering of the ancient mountain chain is a splendid one, as the rock hangs over the water in a scalloped series of cliffs, each with a small semicircle of beach under it. The beach is made up, though, not of sand, but of small, smooth lozenges of stone that hiss and rattle as the breakers foam through them.
Nor does the shore slope smoothly into the water. All along the water’s edge, there are upended strata of rock that make for good clambering. At Cap Bon Ami — named for an old sea captain who spelled his own name Bonamy, and not for the scouring powder — the park road ends and you begin to hike.
A short way downhill from the parking lot, there is an observation deck and a set of several hundred stairs down to the beach. From that point, you can see the whitish cliffs spreading out in both directions. Cormorants and sea gulls swoop around you. Behind you rises Mont St. Alban, the last high peak of the Appalachians, which isn’t even 1,000 feet above the sea.
And in front of you, the sea itself spreads out like a gleaming satin tablecloth, flat and rippling with the sheen of daylight.
This is the sea that Jacques Cartier saw in 1534 when he made his first voyage to the New World. The French explorer discovered the native peoples of the area and kidnapped two of them to take back to show off to the king. On his second voyage, Cartier did not stop at Gaspe. Perhaps he knew his welcome no longer would be warm.
The few hardy French pioneers who took to living in the ”Gaspesie,” as the area is called by Francophones, found their towns burned down in the first half of the 18th century, when the English attempted a takeover of the whole New World. The Acadians, as the local French were known, were arrested, deported or forgotten.
In the following years, wars in Europe and North America sent migrants to Gaspe. Among them were American Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, Irish fleeing potato famine, and merchants and fishermen from the islands of Guernsey and Jersey.
They settled in a patchwork across the peninsula, leaving towns along the coast as ethnic enclaves. That is why, in this corner of the French-chauvinist province of Quebec, you find towns named New Carlisle, Chandler and Newport, where English is the predominant language.
The interaction of languages produced a few oddities: What originally had been ”Hunger Point” in French, or Pointe a la Faim, was translated by the English as Point Fame, which later was retranslated into French as the current Pointe a la Renommee.
What was once ”Grande Grave” — named for the type of pebble beach called grave in French — was pronounced ”Grand Grave” in English, like a burial plot. This then later was spelled in French as Grand Greve, to match the sound of the English.
Most who lived in the region became fishermen. In the 19th century, large fishing corporations set up and ran ”company towns” that abused their workers in the same manner as mine owners in West Virginia. The families always owed money to the company store. There was no money; debts were paid in dried codfish, which the companies shipped out and resold at good profit.
Those who were lucky enough to avoid the codfish treadmill turned to subsistence farming. A few became whalers.
Such a life continued unchanged until the 1920s, when roads were built, a railroad came through, and mail-order catalogs appeared. Electricity showed up after World War II, and the area, once as remote as anything in North America, began joining the 20th century.
Today, the southern and northern rims of the peninsula are very different.
Along the southern shore the towns collect around river mouths, surrounded by prairies of long grass blowing in the almost-constant wind. The land is flat, but you can look inland to the mountains.
The north shore, though, is right up against the hills, which break off into the water in bright bluffs and craggy cliffs. The one road that manages to squirrel from town to town is constantly climbing steep slopes and dropping down to the town in the next hollow.
And although the southern shore is ethnically varied, the north is almost entirely French.
There are two towns of note: Perce and Gaspe, both at the sea-end of the peninsula.
Perce is a tiny resort town parked near Perce Rock, an offshore seastack with a hole eroded through it like a giant stony donut. The town is the closest thing the Gaspe has to a tourist trap and the road through town will slow you down in summer with traffic stopping for souvenir shops and fancy restaurants.
There are also boat trips available to the large Ile de Bonaventure, sitting just offshore and one of the great bird-watching spots in the world.
Gaspe, on the other hand, is a working town and capital of the region. It is not particularly scenic, with its banks and gas stations, but it sits near the head of Gaspe Bay, the small inlet that separates the Forillon Park from the rest of the peninsula. It is at Gaspe that Cartier first landed. A museum commemorates the event.
And it is at Gaspe that we met the woman who runs the bookstore called the Librairie Alpha on the town’s hillside among the narrow, gray streets. She lamented the passing of the old days, and more, the old winters.
”It snows quite a lot in Gaspe,” she said in heavily accented English. ”But it doesn’t snow like it used to 20 years ago.
”I don’t know what has happened, but it isn’t so deep as it was in my childhood.”
In the winter, the bay ices over. It freezes ”as far out as the horizon,” she said. It stays frozen from December to April and people go out on the ice and fish.
”But they aren’t really there for fish,” she said. ”They bring beer and have parties on the ice.
”It freezes down two meters.”
In the winter, an icebreaker sails up into town as far as the bridge, breaking up the ice, but in a week, it is solid again, she told us.
But it doesn’t snow like it used to.
”I remember my father telling us about the really deep snows and how the snow would be so deep that everyone in the village would slide down their own rooftops into the snow.”
She said she remembered doing that when she was a child, but except once, the snow doesn’t pile up to the eaves anymore.
”Two years ago, it snowed so much, I took my children up to the roof to slide down. They may never have that chance again.”
Gaspe is the ”roof of the Appalachians.” It is the final glory of the mountain range that begins in Alabama and rises like a spine through the East.
It is also a place of roofs. The old houses with their clapboard siding and double-insulated windows sport shingles of many bright colors. There are some that are royal blue, others Kelly green. If there are no shingles, but a tin roof, it is painted. I saw one that was the color of lilacs. Orange and red are also popular.
But it isn’t only the roofs. The houses themselves are often quite garish. One two-story house we passed in Grande Vallee was green on the bottom and pink on the top, with corner accents of opposing hues.
There was a green barn in Perce that was the color of mint. Its owner must have had a little left over, because he painted only one face of his house, sitting next to the barn, with the same breath-mint shade. The other three sides of the house were a peeling white.
It is true, however, that the majority of garish houses were on the south shore of the peninsula. Once we hit the northern shore, the strange colors nearly disappeared. Only once or twice in each village would you find a tin roof painted sky blue or vermilion.