This morning was cold and the fly of the tent was wet from the scattered showers that passed through in the night and from condensation. We were toasty warm in our sleeping bags, which made getting up to make the morning coffee and then pack up our wet things a very unappealing prospect. Although fall hiking is wonderful, the cold, wet mornings are always the hardest part of the day for us.
We headed out around 7:30 am, gently descending on a long, wide, mossy track bordered on both sides by balsam firs. It was a pleasant and easy walk, and we enjoyed watching the sun come up and create shafts of golden light across the soft, mossy green trail. Around this point we scared the first of many, many heart attack inducing Ruffed Grouse as they erupt out of the bushes at our feet.
We followed the main trail up a gentle incline to the edge of Le Massif de Charlevoix, which is a very large ski resort. There was a lot of construction going on in the area, and the trail turned from a grassy track to a newly cut corridor through the trees, which hadn't been entirely cleared of fallen sticks and debris yet. After this we began to descend on another grassy track through a very wet, muddy, marshy area. As the cold water grew deeper and deeper on the grassy trail, it soon became clear that we seemed to be following an old chord road.
Unenthusiastic about slogging through the mud and freezing water, we decided to divert onto the adjacent Le Lugeron trail, which was a dry, hard packed, crushed stone dust pathway that trekked parallel to our own path. We followed this lovely winding trail through a stand of dense balsam fir, enjoying the cool, refreshing, sweet smelling morning air. A row of modern looking ski lodges were tucked into the trees above us, their huge glass fronts offering stunning views out over the Saint Lawrence Seaway. This trail brought us out to a large sandy parking lot at the top of the ski lifts, which was filled with construction vehicles, and from there we picked up another trail, which brought us back to the main route. Our diversion may have added some distance, but it gave us the chance to see a little of Le Massif de Charlevoix, and to keep our feet relatively dry.
Continuing on, the walk to Refuge l'Abattis was mostly a pleasant descent down a wide, grassy track bordered with mixed forest. For a short time we walked beside a small stream that bubbled and sang in its mossy, rocky bed. Colourful mushrooms grew along its lush, mossy, emerald green banks. A mixed group of birds suddenly filled the bare branches above us, chattering excitedly and refusing to stay still. We recognized Purple Finches, American Goldfinches, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Dark-eyed Juncos in the excited mob.
Just before 10 am we reached the small wooden cabin - Refuge l'Abbatis - which was perched on the coastline. Wow, did it ever have a spectacular view over the waterway below, the small islands in the middle, and the coast on the far shore! The hills stretched out below us in a green and yellow blanket, the sunlight shone on the rippling waters of the seaway, and the misty blue mountains disappeared into the distance beyond. When we entered the small wooden cabin it was still warm from the wood stove, which the previous occupants had clearly used last night. What a treat! We stopped to take a break, have a snack, dry out some of our wet gear, and enjoy the spectacular view.
As we headed out of the delightful wooden cabin a light rain began to fall. We made our way past several tent platforms, and just as we rounded the corner back onto the trail Sean spotted a baby porcupine on the pathway ahead! It ambled over to a small birch, and when it noticed Sean taking photographs, it hastily climbed a few feet up the trunk. It remained on the backside of the tree, peeking its endearing furry face around the edge every few seconds to see if we were still there. As we watched, a group of four young ladies came down the trail towards us and stopped for a few moments to watch the incredibly cute young porcupine. Not wanting to disturb it too much, we all continued on and left it in peace.
After l'Abbatis we followed a very wide dirt logging or construction road. The Sentier des Caps website had warned that we might run into some work being done by the ski resort, and as we continued the trail crossed a large metal pipe that crossed under the trail standing very steep angle. Another large metal pipe was laid out on the edge of the dirt road as well, punctuated every few hundred meters by round metal structures with cameras or monitors on top.
As we walked the dirt construction road we spotted a few sets of moose tracks, and a set of white-tailed deer footprints. We've been hoping to see a moose, which is noted in the English translation of the guide book as the "Canadian Behemoth", but so far haven't had any luck. We also haven't seen any signs of black bears at all, although we've been advised to hang at food at night to avoid attracting them.
We descended relatively gently on the road for some time before the trail once again ducked onto a forested footpath that wound up through the forest. We climbed up for a short distance, enjoying the bright yellow of the leaves that now glowed from the recent rain. Unfortunately the rain had made the leaves a bit slippery, which slowed us down a little as we made a long, rather steep climb more or less straight up Montagne de Salut. Although it was a bit strenuous, it was an enjoyable climb up through the quiet, wet forest, and there were several lookouts that offered magnificent views out over the Saint Lawrence.
Eventually we emerged from the forest to see the Saint Lawrence Seaway spread out before us. It was a fantastic view! A hard-packed gravel road that looked like it might also be part of the construction took us straight down the other side of the mountain. It was very steep, but an easy walk, and the bushes on both sides of the road were brilliant reds and yellows which made it very colourful.
We climbed way down on this road, before once again climbing a very short distance through the forest. We passed a very well-marked water source, and then before we knew it, we were at the Refuge Cap du Salut. We passed a couple wooden tent platforms tucked into the trees, and a large sign saying 'Bienvenue Sentier des Caps' before scrambling up a steep rocky slope, and voila, there was another lovely wooden cabin with a great view out over the seaway.
When we made our reservations to walk the Sentier des Caps we weren't sure if
this trail would be like the Fundy Footpath (extremely challenging for us, and
slow going), the East Coast Trail (challenging in some parts, allowing a
moderate pace), or the Casque Isles Trail (challenging but enjoyable). We
chose the suggested 5 day itinerary, which would only require us to walk 7-14
km per day. According to this schedule, our goal for tonight was Salut du
Cap. However, since we reached it around 12:30, we decided to push
on. We emailed Linda at the Sentier des Caps trail center, and she very
kindly agreed to change our reservation and let us push on to the
Anse-aux-Vaches Refuge for the night.
Filled with confidence about the pleasant trail conditions and our respectable pace, we set off - only to get a bit of a surprise. The nature of the trail dramatically changed after Cap du Salut! We found ourselves climbing a very steep, rocky, root filled, and rather slippery hill that went straight up! Although it was tough going, the mossy forest was magical, and we were very glad for the cool, fresh air of the afternoon. We also paused to enjoy several fantastic viewpoints from the top of the mountain.
Luckily for us, the climb up wasn't too long, but it was followed by a very long, steep, rocky descent that seemed to last pretty much until we reached Anse-aux-Vaches. In some places it was so steep, rocky, and slippery that there were ropes for assistance! Right at the top of the slope we met two guys sitting on the ground having a snack and looking pretty tired. They said they had started walking at 5 am from Cap Tourmente, that it had taken them 9 hours to reach the spot where we met them, and that the trail was about to get much more difficult. They admitted that maybe they were crazy for trying to do what they were doing, and wished us well on our hike.
We met several other hikers coming in the other direction as well, and they all looked pretty tired from the long, long, hard climb they had to do. We felt particularly bad for a group of seven or so young ladies that we met around 3:30 pm, about 1 km from the Anse-aux-Vache Refuge. They said they were heading to Cap du Salut and asked about the conditions. We didn't want to be discouraging about the climb they had ahead of them, but after they had headed off we began to wonder if they had enough daylight left to make it, and if we should have warned them of what lay ahead. It is just a hard thing to offer advice about hiking trails and gear. Each of us have different skills and strengths. Are we beginner hikers, intermediate, experienced? I honestly don't know. Is our gear the best or simply the most practical for us? Again I don't know. When asked, how do you balance honesty and advice to help someone while avoiding sounding as though you are trying to scare them or sound arrogant about your own achievements? We struggle with these questions a lot when people reach out or ask us questions about trail sections, experiences on pathways and hiking gear.
We stopped at the small water source just before the refuge and filled up all of our water containers from the clear spring. Then we made our way to the refuge, which sits in a grassy clearing in the forest, surrounded by tall mountains.
When we changed our reservation we booked the refuge instead of a campsite, and it turns out that we have the little cabin to ourselves for the night, although it has space to sleep ten people. We spent an enjoyable evening making dinner, drying our things out by the wood stove, and watching another porcupine grazing outside the window. It snuffled through the grass with its adorable face, stopping to sniff every now and then. Watching closely, we discovered it was selectively eating only the dandelions! What a great method of 'weed' control for those who consider that important (although admittedly it only ate the dandelions and not any of the other leafy greens in the lawn).
And so another beautiful day on the trail comes to an end. We are lying in a warm, dry shelter in the absolute darkness, looking out of the many windows.
On one side we can see the dark silhouettes of the mountains against the sky above us, and on the other we can see lights twinkling through the trees from towns and villages across the Saint Lawrence. Once again, we are feeling incredibly lucky to be out here!