Why I Don't Leave Anyone Behind

Parc Jacques Cartier, December, 1989

Having determined to build a new life for myself in Montréal, I became a member of the "Club de Canot Camping Les Aventuriers du Québec." It began with an excursion to the Outaouais River with Marcel Lebeau and Christiane Tremblay, and over the summer I completed a "stage de canot-camping" and a couple of river trips.

In December, I signed up for a three-day cross-country skiing trip in Parc Jacques Cartier, not realizing that most of the people in our group of six were in far better shape than I was. The morning of our departure it was -13° C. Our companions were out of sight within 15 minutes, leaving me and one other woman shuffling along as fast as we could to keep our feet from freezing.

We spent that night in a "refuge", and took turns getting up every few minutes all night long to feed frozen logs into a tiny wood cookstove, but were never able to get the temperature above 10° C. My sleeping bag froze to the cabin wall, and in the morning I was too anxious to eat breakfast.

In the outhouse, a giant stalagmite of human waste protruded from the opening. One of the guys finally broke it up with a log.

The next day, half delirious with fatigue and anxiety, I shuffled along miles behind the rest of the group, using every bit of energy I had to combat frostbite. I kept hallucinating that I heard snowmobiles in the distance.

And then suddenly there they were, three guys from Mont-Ste-Anne who had heard we were on the trail and came out to see if we were okay.

"Je vendrais mon âme pour descendre de cette montagne," I said, and a few hours later I was warming myself by the fireplace at a ski lodge in Mont-Sainte-Anne. I was very surprised that the other woman who was struggling as much as me didn't come along. She arrived the following day, with frostbite, and the first thing she did was throw her ski boots in the trash.

I would go on to make many more trips with Les Aventuriers, and I eventually become a trip leader, organizing multi-day cross-country skiing and bicyling trips in Vermont, Québec and the Eastern townships. But I never forgot that narrow escape and it's the reason why, to this day, I won't leave anyone behind, and am happy to bike, hike and ski at the pace of the slowest person.

Why I Am Slower than Molasses

Bicycling the Côte Nord, July, 1990

The following summer I made memorable trip with fellow club member, Claire Thémens. We threw our bikes on a bus bound for Sept-Îles, determined to bike to what was then the end of the road in Havre-St-Pierre. It was an epic trip from start to finish. The 15-hour bus ride gave me a new appreciation for the enormous size of Québec. I was dazzled by the scenery — the steep climbs and precipitous descents, the eagle's eye views of the ocean, and above all, the incredible emptiness.

We were thrown off the bus three times because our bicycles took up too much space in the baggage compartment, and we lost a day waiting for them to catch up to us. While we waited, we spent a day on Île Grande Basque — one of the seven islands that gave Sept-Îles its name:

We took a day to hike all the way around the island, on sheltered sandy beaches, through black spruce forests on dense carpets of moss, over rocky cliffs covered with caribou moss, bunchberries and phosphorescent lichen. We visited a remarkable waterfall, which tumbles through a hole in the ground and becomes a shower of diamonds in a grand 'faille' facing the sea.

After a rain delay, we finally got underway on Tuesday, July 17:

It was a different world on the other side of the Moisie River. We climbed quickly onto a plateau overlooking the ocean. Up there, the sun was bright, the air fresh and the wind brisk. We were traversing the subarctic, where there were large expanses of tourbière with its dense carpet of Labrador tea, sheep laurel and cloudberries and its fringe of black spruce and tamarack. I tried to put my finger on its special smell — a mixture of hot maple syrup, strong tea and damp basement.

We rolled effortlessly at an average of 16 km/hour. Our only problem was eating. The black flies descended the minute we stopped pedaling. We learned to keep an assortment of snacks in our handlebar bags so we could eat "une bouchée à la fois."

No matter how quickly we zipped ourselves into the tent at night, we typically spent a full hour exterminating blackflies, and the tent floor was thick with their carcasses. "A sound like rainfall punctuates our fitful sleep — a million black flies throwing themselves against the sides of the tent. Des vraies monstres!"

Near Sheldrake, another change of scenery. Stunted trees give way to bare rock, thinly padded with a few arctic berries, mosses and lichens. Unobstructed views in all directions. Amazing downhill onto an old iron bridge. Slap of a cold ocean breeze. We see the first village, the first stores, the first houses we have seen since crossing the rivière Moisie 100 kilometers ago.

We take refuge from the black flies in a dingy casse-croûte in Sheldrake, where we order glass after glass of Coke, milk and coffee, eat our lunches and leave a big tip. I guess we are no worse than the other tourists, who wander in and out in their fluorescent lime green, tangerine and electric yellow shorts and tank tops, the women all perfectly coiffée et maquillée, to have a coffee and continue their whirlwind tour of the Côte Nord (two days aller-rétour Baie Comeau-Havre-Saint-Pierre with a cruise to Les Îles Mingan). 99% of the other tourists we saw were on that hamster wheel.

We only met two other bicyclists on the Côte Nord, both of then solo and pedaling 100+ kilometers a day. I wondered how much of the Côte Nord they saw? Neither of them mentioned that it was beautiful — only that it was easy to pedal, and they were making great time.

One woman had pedaled solo all the way from Québec City to Sept-Îles, where, exhausted, she left her bike and hitch-hiked to Havre St-Pierre. But having arrived at her destination so much sooner than expected, she didn't quite know what to do with herself.

She was born in Québec, she explained, but her mother was Swiss, so she divided her time between Switzerland and Québec.

"When I'm in Switzerland, I miss my friends in Québec," she said, "and when I'm in Québec, I miss my friends in Switzerland."

"But," queried Claire — who had a magnificent knack for always saying exactly what she was thinking — "if you miss your friends so much, why did you take off all alone on a bicycle?"

By now, I was keeping my journal in a mixture of French and English, and this next passage is best left in its original language:

À Riviere-aux-Tonnerre, des trés beaux paysages. Rivage rocheux et dénudés d'arbres. Belle chute d'orée, tourmentée, découpée en milles morceux par son fond caillouteux. Sur chaque bord du village, il y a une grande butte, où on trouve des iris sauvages, des mousses de toutes variétés et des petits étangs d'eau avec leur vie en miniature. Claire passe son temps à venir en aide aux petite ménés piègés dans les étangs d'eau. Elle les transporte une à la fois au large. Je lui donnes le nom "Notre Dame des Poissons Ègarés".

The trip included a fascinating but rather melancholy day on Île Niapiskau, a tour of Île Nue, and getting lost on some old logging roads near Havre-Saint-Pierre.

"But our best times were when we were on our bicycles," I wrote. "In town, we were stymied by the lack of public transport and by our isolation. I would gladly have kept pedaling another two weeks, and I'm sure I wouldn't have tired of it."

Traveling by bicycle, your contact with nature is immediate and intense. The direction of the wind, changes in temperature, the scent of flowers and the rivers with their tea-colored water, the heat of the sun and the size and frequency of the drops of rain — all sensations are slowed down, amplified and prolonged.
Sur 400 centres kilomètres sur la Côte Nord, nous avons pris le temps de régarder de près, de toucher aux petites mousses — parfois friables, parfois épongeuses — de goûter aux plaque-bières et de mettre le nez dans les vases mystérieuses des plantes voraces.

We later learned that the other two cyclists we met both ended up hitch-hiking back to Montréal, too exhausted to continue. But Claire and I, at our "vitesse d'escargot", pedaled back the way we came. Our last day was the only high mileage one. With the wind at our backs, we cruised easily 120 km from Rivières-aux-Tonnerre to Sept-Îles.

It was midnight when we returned to Montréal, on a sweltering summer night, after 15 hours on the bus from Sept-Îles. We could have hopped on the métro, but instead, we threw our gear on the bikes one last time and slowly wound our way north across the island, through the darkened, silent, fitfully slumbering city.