Journey to the End of the Road: Following the Cote Nord

10 Jul

The end of the road has become an almost mythical place in our modern collective imagination; the place where a person runs out of options and must turn back or begin anew. The objective truth is that most highways don’t simply stop. Rather, they merge with or junction at other roads so travelers can roll on to their next destination. Yet here I am. The official highway sign says “FIN” and behind it lies a wild untamed river. I’ve been told that Quebec intends to extend the road all the way to Labrador in the future, but for now Route 138 ends at the Natashquan River.End of the road-KJA

 

It’s my father’s fault. At a very early age he instilled in me an insatiable curiosity about where a road might lead. On Sunday rides he’d spy a road and ask, “Where does this go,” and our family would be off on a minor journey of discovery for the remainder of the day. Route 138 is a familiar highway. It crosses the Mercier Bridge and becomes Rue Sherbrooke, an intimate part of Montreal that’s less than a mile from home, while the Chemin du Roy to Quebec City and even through the Charlevoix Region to the Saguenay River is well-known territory. Eight hundred and sixty miles long, it stretches from the New York border at Trout River to Natashquan on the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and 500 miles of that is east of Tadoussac. But what lies beyond Tadoussac? What will be found at the end of the road? I had to know.

Tadoussac is the oldest permanent French settlement in North America and this charming little village with narrow winding streets is perched on a hillside along what is recognized as one of the most beautiful bays in the world. As a tourist destination it’s known as a departure point for cruises up the stunning Saguenay fjord and offers some of the best whale-watching opportunities in the world.

 

Route 138 from Tadoussac to Natashquan is known as the Whale Route and these giants can be seen from observation points along the shore.

Route 138 from Tadoussac to Natashquan is known as the Whale Route and these giants can be seen from observation points along the shore.

From here to Natashquan the highway is known as La Route des Baleines, The Whale Route. The great cetaceans actually have their own highway, the Laurentian Channel, a submarine canyon that’s 300 meters deeper than the rest of the St. Lawrence River and runs from the continental shelf of the Atlantic Ocean to the mouth of the Saguenay River. In many places this canyon is so close to the northern shore of the St. Lawrence that whales can be easily seen from vantage points on terra firma. There’s no place else in the world where Blue, Fin, and Humpback, Minke, and Beluga whales are seen 800 miles away from the nearest ocean. With whales, tides, sand beaches, and mountains on the opposite shore barely visible on a clear day, it’s no wonder that early explorers were certain that this was the fabled Northwest Passage to China.

 

I had an itinerary–places mentioned in tourism leaflets and discovered through weeks of Internet searching—but after numerous excursions down side roads to interpretation centers that were closed or whale-watching vantage points that turned out to be nonexistent during low tide I discarded all but my lodging reservations. Released from the burden of expectation this opens me to a sense of exploration, the very essence of what a road trip should be.

 

It’s 50 km/hr through a long strip of residential development that’s marked on the map as the settlements of Baie-des-Bacon, Sault-du-Mouton, and Saint-Paul-du-Nord. Provincial and municipal rest areas with toilets and picnic tables are frequent. An abundance of road signs provides no excuse for getting lost or not knowing how many miles there are before the next gas station. Cell phones die beyond the city of Baie-Comeau. Mundane travel details rarely get noted in guidebooks, but aren’t these the most important?

 

A thin, white plinth appears in the distance. This Egyptian-styled obelisk marks the entrance to the Manicouagan Peninsula in Ragueneau and while it’s worthy of note my preference is for quirky things. Someone has created a full-size sculpture of a brontosaurus and her baby on this beautiful rocky peninsular. A major effort by an unknown artist they serve no representational purpose and this is part of their appeal.

 

Located in Baie-Comeau, award-winning Les Jardins des Glaciers focuses on effects of the last glacial epoch and current climate change. Look out IMAX! This 3-D –without the weird glasses– multi-media presentation is the best I’ve ever seen, while the computer center is satellite linked to researchers around the globe and could double as a sci-fi movie stage set. Zip lines, including the longest in Canada, are an adrenalin rush while providing access to glacier-gouged cliffs. The Valley of Shells is the most important post-glacial marine fossil deposit on the planet and the recreations of ancient Innu lodgings use real whalebone and caribou hide. This place blows me away.

 

The secret fjord.

The secret fjord.

Christian Bouchard, the director and force behind Les Jardins des Glaciers, invites me back to his house where friends are celebrating Victoria Day on the beach. The Cuban-style driftwood cabana beach bar has been erected for the occasion, a campfire built on the sand, and the waves rolling in from a St. Lawrence that’s more sea than river. This is the Côte Nord I’ve come to find! I’m reluctant to take “The Beast” back on the road.

 

The summer encampment at the mouth of the Moisie River is funky community that has a raw sort of intimacy reminiscent of a 19th-century mining camp. Camper trailers that will never move again sprawl across this grassy point of land, evidence that owners return year after year. They come for one reason: to fish the famous Moisie for Atlantic salmon.

 

After crossing Riviève Moisie the road, which has been rather mundane since leaving Franqueiln, changes to one that is a joy to ride. It has the sweepers, the hills, and great views of the coastline. I say coastline because the St. Lawrence has now taken the appearance of being more ocean than river as it approaches the Détroit de Jacques-Cartier that separates the north shore and Anticosti Island. The road soon becomes long, straight, and smooth with a few undulating hills thrown in. There are few vehicles on this highway, but it is patrolled – as I soon discover. The two officers had never seen a T-Rex and this, plus a clean license, saves my day. “Keep it down to 115 (km/h) and you’ll have no trouble,” I’m advised. They pull out a camera and ask me to take their picture posing with The Beast – I guess it’s catch-and-release day.

The lure was the open highway and these officers were fishing.  Fortunately it was “catch and release,” but they requested to be photographed with their trophy before allowing me to continue.

The lure was the open highway and these officers were fishing. Fortunately it was “catch and release,” but they requested to be photographed with their trophy before allowing me to continue.

 

I stop at a provincial information/rest area. The well-worn path from the parking area leads through an exquisite boulder-strewn forest covered in a meter-thick blanket of moss. It’s a boreal cloud forest, something exceedingly rare and a wonder to behold. Wooden stairs lead down to the 108-foot high Manitou Falls. The pink granite bedrock is covered with day-glow green, orange, and red lichen in such profusion that it appears to be the work of a 60’s surrealism painter. I’ve never seen anything like it. The river is in full spate and I don’t even attempt to approach the maelstrom of the main channel: these rapids would be fatal even for a world-champion kayaker.

At 114-feet high Manitou Falls is one of many dramatic sights along Route 138.

At 114-feet high Manitou Falls is one of many dramatic sights along Route 138.

 

Blink and you miss it. Some places that are named on the map, like Pictou and Manitou Falls, don’t really exist. Others, like Magpie, are quite small. This one has a rest area near the harbor pier where a trail leads to a rock formation that is a lookout for whales. The economy of this town, like so many others on the Côte Nord, was built on cod fishing, which no longer exists. Moving north and east it’s these small towns that catch my interest. Each is unique and-painted signs prevail over commercial ones. Some villages are rough and ragged, others prim and neat, but all are clean—there’s no graffiti, no random trash. With boardwalks along the beaches and small roadside food stands for tourists and truckers it feels like I’ve returned to the 1960’s.

 

In places, the road seems to go on forever, narrowing en route to infinity.

In places, the road seems to go on forever, narrowing en route to infinity.

The land changes after Mingan and the highway cuts through a vast plain dotted with countless small pools of dark water that reflect a big sky. This is where taiga intrudes upon the boreal forest and the few trees in existence are dwarf tamarack and spruce. It’s rather surreal and some would even call it bleak, but this landscape is a new experience for me and has a unique kind of beauty.

 

Natashquan turns out to be a pretty little town on the Petite Riviére Natashquan with a few hotels and a restaurant. It has miles of beautiful sand beach and the warmest water on the Côte Nord – although “warm” is relative. There’s a boardwalk that runs from the new tourism center to the old general store that’s been transformed into an interpretation center. A small café and ice cream stand faces the water and offers the best views in town. The old schoolhouse is out behind the church and new school. It’s dedicated to a native son, song-writer/musician Gilles Vigneault, and features twelve of his famous songs that are illustrated by artifacts that relate to the persons who inspired those compositions.

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The fishing sheds on the rocky outcrop of Les Galets in Natashquan have survived for 150 years and is now a heritage site.

The fishing sheds on the rocky outcrop of Les Galets in Natashquan have survived for 150 years and is now a heritage site.

 

The pavement ends in Pointe-Parent, but Route 138 continues as a gravel road for another 18 kilometers across Innu land. The road has been freshly graded, but its width and long straight stretches suggest that it sometimes doubles as a landing strip.

 

The official highway sign reads “FIN 138.” I’ve reached the end of the road. Signatures are scrawled across it, testimony to others who have made the same pilgrimage as me. I find a space to add mine, then turn around and begin to retrace my path. The road is no longer a stranger, and it leads back home.

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