Gaspésie | Father and Sunrise
Welcome to Land’s End.
This is the stunning eastern coast of Québec, where Canada drops suddenly into the crashing sea.
We knew the Gaspésie would make for outstanding off-road and on-road riding, but this small peninsula blows away our expectations.
I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of my car, anxiously drumming the steering wheel and listening to a computerized voice repeat:
Do not park in the airport arrivals lane. Passenger loading and unloading only. Do not park in the airport arrivals lane. Passenger loading and unloading only…
I’m parked in the arrivals lane, but only because the computerized voice doesn’t register in my brain. The gravelly voice of an old riding buddy rings in my ears instead.
Don’t go to Gaspé in the spring, man. The weather is shit. The roads are shit. You’re gonna freeze in the spring. Better to go for late summer, when the weather is warmer and your skills are sharper. Don’t go to Gaspé in the spring, man…
It’s the spring, but only because this is the one time that my dad could fly in from British Columbia to ride with me. Most of Canada lies between B.C. and Quebec, so I don’t get to see my dad too often. It was different when I was growing up; we were rarely separated by more than a following distance. 20 metres on the snowmobiles, 30 metres on the dirt bikes, two seconds on the road.
But we haven’t ridden together since I left Kelowna five years ago. And the weather is shit. And the roads are shit.
And we’re going to Gaspé.
The day before we leave feels like one big to-do list: get my dad from the airport, pick up the loaner V-Strom, install the engine bars, skid plate and radiator guard, pack our camping kit, load the sidecases and hook a SENA up to my dad’s helmet.
There’s hardly any time to catch up, but we’re okay with that. My dad and I have always bonded through activity. I wrench on one side of the bike and he works on the other side. We exchange sockets underneath like sentiments in a conversation.
When I was seven years old, my dad would wake me up before sunrise to go fishing. He would creep downstairs to brew a coffee and a hot chocolate while I packed Chips Ahoy! cookies into two plastic bags. I remember opening the box of cookies in the closet, because I was afraid that the wrapping would make a crinkling noise and wake my sisters. But the two of us always escaped alone.
It’s 5am when I tiptoe into the living room of my apartment to wake my dad. We shower and suit up as quietly as possible, but motorcycle boots on hardwood floors can’t be hushed. My wife wakes up to say goodbye; I wish that we didn’t have to leave without her.
Getting back on the road with my dad is surreal. Over the SENA, we chat about the power of the VStrom and my family back home. We chat about the gas in our tanks and the dreams in our heads. We play 20 Questions and yell Braaaap whenever we pass a semi-truck.
It’s hard to stay awake through ten hours of highway riding, but the chatting helps. A giant sign that reads “Motorcycle Museum Next Exit” helps too.
It’s called L’Épopée de la Moto and it’s fantastic. My dad heads straight to the Italian room, walking past retired race bikes and historical rarities. He focuses on three wooden crates in the centre of the display area. They contain a 1986 Bimota DB1S, a 1981 Ducati 900SS and a 1986 Laverda SFC1000 … unopened since they came off the assembly line.
The bike-in-a-box is cool, but I don’t get that tingly feeling until we go upstairs. At the far end of the exhibit hall is an original Harley-Davidson XR-750 flat track racer. Only it’s not a flat track racer. It’s one of the 200 XR-750s that Harley was forced to homologate for street use. “Rare” doesn’t begin to describe it. “Expensive” is a pathetic understatement. This bike has been my desktop background for the past year and Saint-Jean-Port-Joli is the last place I expected to find one.
I refuse to be moved from the Harley for the next hour; we leave L’Épopée de la Moto far behind schedule. When nightfall hits, we’re only in Saint-Leonard, New Brunswick. I also hit the proverbial “wall” at this point. My back and shoulders have felt every one of the 600 kilometres that we’ve traveled. My bum hasn’t felt any of the last 100, which is probably worrying.
Mercifully, we leave the drab slab behind at this point. HWY 17 to Campbellton is nice in the twilight. An hour later – in the moonlight – it’s absolutely sublime. The air is frozen in place, barely perturbed by the puffs of breath that escape under my chin bar. The same goes for the steady puffs from my exhaust – wisps of heat and moisture that are dragged behind and swallowed by the cold night.
The stars twist and twinkle above, while the pavement markers twist and twinkle below. I’m somewhere in between – fully immersed in the beautiful darkness. The hypnosis is only fractured by the occasional check-in from my dad.
You still good?
You see that moose?
It’s gorgeous out here.
We arrive at our target destination just before midnight: a campground in Carleton-sur-mer. The site is still closed for the off-season, but the city is asleep and we slip in unnoticed. My dad and I choose one of the 200 empty platforms at random. In the pitch black, we set up a tent that we can’t see with hands that we can’t feel. And I hear my old friend’s voice again.
Don’t go to Gaspé in the spring, man … You’re gonna freeze in the spring.
I started pestering my parents for a dirt bike when I was nine years old. My mom hated motorcycles but I knew that my dad used to ride. When I was ten, my dad bought a Suzuki DRZ400 and a blue riding jacket to match. When I was eleven, my parents gave me a small box for my birthday. Inside was a key with “Honda” printed across the top. I spent the next few years chasing my dad’s blue jacket.
We wake up at sunrise. Not because we’re hard-core, but because we unwittingly camped on the spot where the sun rises. My tent is sitting on an eastern-facing beach at the eastern coast of Canada. And when the day breaks out here, it’s like God flicks a light switch.
The daylight reveals that we’ve made it – coastal cliffs, sandy beaches, lush forests, lighthouses, fishing harbours. Yes, we’re definitely in the Gaspésie now. The light also reveals two ice sculptures that used to be our motorcycles – a translucent layer of frost glistening on each one.
We spot a strange light through the morning fog. It’s way above Carleton-sur-mer, but too low to be an airplane. My dad reckons that there’s some kind of building on top of the coastal mountains. And whatever it is, there must be a hell of a road leading up to it.
I know that the pavement will be frosty at altitude and I know that my dad hasn’t been riding much. I have more experience on the bike, but my steady hands don’t count for much when I’m shivering. My dad reads some of these thoughts before I can say them.
We’ll take it easy to start.
The pavement is shit, but the vistas are incredible. This twisting road is perfect for stretching out yesterday’s highway stiffness. At the end of the hill climb, we discover the source of our strange light: a Catholic Oratory.
From the oratory we head to Rocher Percé. My dad takes the lead today, which feels more familiar to both of us. And damn – he’s had that blue jacket for a long time.
According to my plan, we ride counter-clockwise around the Gaspé Peninsula. This way we’re always on the ocean side of the road. In this direction, we also hit Rocher Percé via the côte surprise. It’s a long, blind hill that reveals one hell of a surprise at its crest.
We arrive at Rocher Percé for low tide, which is also by design. At this hour we can walk across to the five-million-tonne slab of limestone. It loses about three hundred tonnes every year to falling rocks, so approaching the formation is understandably discouraged. All the same, we can’t resist the temptation to touch it.
One of my earliest memories is speed. I don’t even know how little I was. My dad took me to an abandoned airstrip on his snowmobile and gave it gas. I sat in front of him, holding onto the center of his handlebars, watching the speedometer climb and climb over the wool of my mittens. My dad yelled “WooHoo!” so I did too. The two of us – eyes pinched against the wind, mittens locked onto the handlebars – yelling. When we finally slowed down my grin was frozen in place.
I’ve always said that I’d rather be cold than hot. The cold is manageable. I can put on two layers of woolly socks, long johns, sweat pants, rain paints, thermal top layers, microfleeces, sweatshirts and gloves. Then I can get in a 3-season sleeping bag and a 4-season tent and call it a night.
Last night I did all that. And I’m still cold. I get up on the wrong side of the Therm-a-Rest, but my mood doesn’t last long. Opening the tent fly is enough to lift anyone’s spirits.
We feast on frozen granola bars and stale bagels from my dad’s sidecase, then head for Forillon National Park. Our cameraman can’t stop talking about a documentary that he saw on this place. According to him, the grounds cover forests, coastal cliffs, beaches, salt marches and the upper reaches of the Appalachian Mountains. There’s history too – WWII gun emplacements that guard an emergency evacuation site for the British Navy. These beaches also boast a 2000-year-old arrowhead-making area.
For once in my life I’m hoping to step on something sharp.
We leave Forillon National Park with a hard decision. HWY 132 continues north with its most beautiful and ocean-hugging segment. Alternately, HWY 198 moves west into the remote mountains of the Gaspésie interior. I haven’t touched a pebble of gravel since we left Montreal, so I make the hard choice.
Highway 198 to Murdochville is strangely reminiscent of Highway 17 to Campbellton. It’s Deja-vroom. Despite the rubbish road quality, the complete lack of traffic dares us to go faster. When I finally arrive in Murdochville my grin is frozen in place.
My dad and I “look” for a campsite on the ride into town without spotting anything. Probably because we already have one eye on the Hotel Copper and its central heating. We inquire about a place to eat after checking in. “Something close by,” I say, because the armour in my jacket is still rock-solid from the cold. The receptionist tells me that the Hotel Copper – Murdochville’s only lodging – also hosts the town’s only restaurant.
Ordering a lobster sandwich in a half-dead mining town is usually a stupid thing to do. But in the Gaspésie you can get away with that kind of thing. My lobster is the freshest thing I’ve tasted in days. And the Hotel Copper is the most luxurious place on earth.
By the time I was thirteen I had mastered my Honda XR100. My best friend and I would tear into the mountains further and faster than our parents imagined. When you’re thirteen, riding a machine that will go 200 kilometers and 80km/h feels freer than flying.
Until you biff it and bend the handlebars into a 90-degree angle. I was so embarrassed about “breaking” my motorcycle that I rode with perpendicular handlebars for the rest of the season. When my dad went to put the bike away for winter, his eyebrows shot up. “When did this happen?” he chuckled. My dad grabbed a BernzOmatic torch and had it fixed within seconds.
We fire up the engines at 7am. The temperature warning light on my dash is strobing harder than a dance club. Believe it or not, I don’t need a flashing indicator to tell me that the wind whipping my body is below freezing. I flick the traction control off and grab a handful of throttle. The back end drifts back and forth for 30 metres before hooking up. Yep – it’s going to be that kind of day.
Riding around Murdochville is a little sad, to be honest. It was a boom town once, but today I can barely hear the echoes of prosperity. Full-size homes are unsold at $30 000. The sidewalks are untrodden and grown over. The schoolyard is quiet. And looming above, the abandoned copper mine casts a very long shadow.
I ride back onto the highway, then take the first dirt road on the left. It turns out to be an access road for a giant wind farm. Each turbine is connected to the next via a dirt path, creating a massive labyrinth of ADV terrain. Surprisingly, we don’t see any signs that prohibit riding here. My dad and I bomb around for an hour, kicking up as much roost as possible. We stop periodically to watch the windmill blades slash and churn our clouds of dust.
From here, we head west into the Chic Choc mountains. There is no cell reception anywhere in the interior, so navigating the endless snowmobile and 4x4 trails is an imprecise science. We head west until noon, then north. My dad points out that we’re on a peninsula – eventually, we’re bound to find our way back to the ocean.
Our route includes washboard gravel highways and boulder-strewn dirt roads. My dad twists the suspension adjustment knob on his Strom, which turns his motorcycle into a steam roller. He cruises over the terrain as if it were perfectly flat.
I’m happier to bounce around on the stuff, but the hardware on my motorcycle isn’t. My license plate loses a bolt and comes flying off around 3pm. The camera crew hums and haws over it for a while. They hypothesize about “borrowing” a bolt from elsewhere on my motorcycle to re-attach the license plate. Then, they hypothesize about how miffed a policeman would be if I rode around without one.
I just grab a roll of duct tape from my sidecase, twist it into a sticky section of rope, and tie a loop where the bolt used to be. It’s fixed within seconds.
The final unpaved section is the highlight of my trip thus far. It’s like Laguna Seca before the invention of pavement. The tacky dirt road makes perfect twists, turns and corkscrews as it descends into Mont-St-Pierre. I’ve never gotten my knee down while off-roading, but this is the closest that I’ve come.
When we arrive in Mont-St-Pierre there’s a new highlight waiting for us: a near-vertical road to the top of the mountain. Apparently, paragliders and hang gliders use this trail to gain elevation. A sign at the bottom warns that nothing except 4x4 trucks should attempt the climb.
I like my chances over a Jeep any day.
The next day, my dad and I settle in for the long ride back to Montreal. I tell him that the name “Gaspé” comes from the Mi’kmaq word for Land’s End – the place where Canada forms a jagged edge, dropping suddenly into the crashing sea. He thinks back on our latest adventure, then responds.
That makes sense to me.
My old riding buddy was wrong after all. You should go to the Gaspé in the spring. Yes, we froze and the roads were shit. Yes, the tourist attractions were closed. And if you count the dings and scratches on my motorcycle, you’ll find a few with Chic Choc mud in them. Gaspé was rugged, desolate and – at times – brutal.
But that’s the way it should be.
Tips for Motorcycling the Gaspésie
- Plan to arrive at Rocher Percé for low tide. There’s a two hour window when you can walk across to the iconic rock formation. Watch out for falling debris and – if you go in the summer – watch out for tourists too.
- Get on the road early. The 132 and 198 are beautiful curvy roads with zero opportunities to pass. We didn’t encounter much traffic in the spring. But if you ride in the summer, these highways will be RV central.
- Stay flexible. The weather changes in a heartbeat out here. On some days, the fog rolls in so thick that you can’t see Rocher Percé from the main land. So give yourself plenty of free time to work around the weather.
- Brush up on your French. It doesn’t matter if all you can manage is “bon-joor” and “see-voo-play.” Just put the effort in, and les Gaspésiennes will too.
- Make it to the top of Mont St. Pierre. In my opinion, this is the best view on the peninsula. It’s easily do-able on an ADV bike and dual-sports will make quick work of it. You could probably get a standard motorcycle up there too, depending on the size of your kahunas. Cruisers and sport bike riders should pack hiking shoes.
- Ride the 132 near Gros Morne. We doubled back for this section and it was certainly worth it. The road is literally the dividing line between land and sea. There is all of Canada, then Highway 132, then the ocean.
- Follow the windmills. Wind turbines are the unofficial markers of off-road terrain out here.
- Load your GPS routes ahead of time. There is no cell service anywhere on the interior.
- Skip Maison du Pecheur. The Gaspésie’s iconic seafood spot seems to be resting on its laurels. The food is underwhelming and the prices are overwhelming.
- Eat salted cod instead. The “Gaspé cure” involves soaking cod in brine for 3 weeks, then stretching it across wooden racks to dry in the sea breeze for another 3 weeks. It’s world famous and not to be missed.