We spotted the cow moose through the trees not more than 40 feet away. Maury Eldridge, our semiofficial expedition photographer, threw off his pack and skis and churned through the deep snow to get closer.
In his eagerness, Maury lost his balance and fell backward. The enormous animal advanced on him, thrusting her outsize muzzle down to within a few feet of his camera, as Maury bravely clicked away. Then the moose ambled to his backpack, stomped on it twice and trotted off down the trail. She had made her point.
This exciting, if risky, encounter occurred on the final day of a five-day, 40-mile cross-country hut-to-hut skiing tour through the remote Chic Chocs Mountains of Quebec’s Gaspesie National Park.
For me, though, the most important encounter on this trip was with myself.
I’d had misgivings about going on the trip even after I’d accepted the invitation from my Montreal friend Mike Evans. It wasn’t that we were neophytes. Mike and Clement Chayer, also of Montreal, had done the trek before. Maury and my college classmate Chuck Benson, both from Massachusetts, and I were also athletic and had experience in the winter mountains.
But we were getting – I’m reluctant to say it – old.
Mike, then 71, had had a heart attack a few years earlier and had stents in his arteries. Maury, 63, had so little cartilage left in his knees that while skiing, he wore polio-victim-style braces on his legs. Not long before our trip, Chuck, 68, had passed out after a collision with another downhill skier. I didn’t know Clement, but he was 65.
I wondered most about myself. I was 68 and had recently had knee cartilage surgery. I still limped from time to time. I was afraid of not being able to keep up. But I suspect that we all felt we were in a race against time to squeeze in as many outdoor adventures as possible.
On a Sunday night in mid-February, we gathered in a tidy new chalet near the northern edge of the 198,000-acre provincial park that encompasses many of the small but bare-topped mountains of the Gaspe Peninsula. The chalet was part of the Relais Chic-Chocs, a resort 12 miles inland from Cap-Chat, a town on the St. Lawrence River’s south shore.
Clement, a stocky man with an instantly disarming manner, handed beers to Chuck and me as we came through the door after our daylong drive from my home in Maine. Trout and homemade fruitcake followed.
In the morning, we deposited our big backpacks on a sled hauled by the park outfitter’s snowmobile, which each morning took them to the next hut. All we had to carry were daypacks. For me, used to toting heavy packs in the Maine wilds, this was unaccustomed luxury.
The sun was bright, the temperature mild. We headed south on a snowmobile highway toward an impressive mountain wall 6 miles away.
As we passed groves of spruce, fir and birch, I soon found myself overheating.
“Take off your parka!” Maury commanded.
“Thanks,” I said after cooling down. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.”
“It’s your security blanket,” responded Maury. Dr. Eldridge, a psychologist, dispensed unsolicited but free counseling.
When we reached the escarpment, the climb steepened sharply. The others put “skins” – sticky fabric strips – on their ski bottoms. I tried to rely on my backcountry skis’ fish-scale bottoms, but near the top I had to take the skis off and walk up the packed trail.
On the high plateau, we looked back over the faraway great river. A rainbow encircled the sun, a halo portending a change in the weather.
Approaching the first hut, Le Huard (The Loon), I lost my balance on an icy patch and in the tumble cut my forehead on a metal ski edge. I was still surprised by my reduced sense of balance.
The roomy cabin – on a small lake, peaks all around – was brown clapboard and insulated. Spring water poured from a pipe sticking out of the snow. Our packs had arrived, and a fire smoldered in the woodstove. After an antipasto of hummus, crackers and canned oysters, Maury served up a hearty tortellini.
In the morning, it was snowing lightly but steadily. We left early. It was 8 miles to the next cabin, La Nyctale (The Boreal Owl), where we would stay two nights. We skied across the lake, then on a faintly snowmobiled trail up and down forested hills. The trees were small and draped with moss. There was no wind, and the snow swathed us in a lovely stillness.
We met only one group – eight friendly, middle-age Montrealers coming from La Nyctale, which we reached after a stiff milelong climb.
Favoring my knee, I’d used skins to slow myself on the steep downhills, of which there were many. With his fancy Alpine touring skis, Mike zipped down them. The others all had more downhill-skiing experience, so I was usually bringing up the rear. This trip was testing my well-developed sense of competitiveness.
At the new hut, we were more tired than we’d been the evening before. After supper, however, as we massaged and stretched our sore muscles, we found the energy to talk about politics – the Canadians found American politics appalling – and tell stories of our travels.
Maury and I were the only ones who weren’t retired. Mike and Clement seemed to use their retirement to travel the world. I cherished this sociable cabin-in-the-woods storytelling, accompanied by a shot of brandy in my cup.
We spoke a madcap mixture of French and English. Mike and Clement spoke French to each other, Clement’s English was halting, and Maury didn’t know French. Chuck and I enjoyed practicing our rusty French. He and I had become friends on a Dartmouth foreign-study term in France 49 years earlier.
We went to bed by 9 p.m. – though being men of a certain age who have to get up at least a couple of times to go outside meant that we would see each other throughout the night.
The next day, despite the continuing snowfall, we decided that it might be safe to try to climb Mont Logan, the tallest hill around. Its summit was just 2 miles away and a modest 3,773 feet in elevation.
Faced with poor visibility, though, Chuck, Clement and I eventually decided to turn back. “Everything looks alike,” Chuck said in his quiet way. Maury and Mike pushed on, making it to the summit and seeing nothing but the cloud they were in. They arrived back at the hut at dusk.
By dawn, big gray clouds were blowing off the mountain, exposing its expansive bare top. Maury was bent on climbing Logan again to try to find and photograph caribou in their only population south of the St. Lawrence. The others wanted to get in a good dose of glade skiing on the way to the next hut.
I, too, had summit fever, and I wanted to compensate for my caution the day before. But could I keep up with Maury? He was a tall, strong, strike-off-on-his-own guy.
“Are we a team?” I asked him – in case something happened. He responded with sarcastic assurances.
Dazzling in the sun, two days’ snow cloaked the dwarf spruce so heavily that they bowed like hooded monks. The climb was trouble-free. We made it up in an hour.
Logan’s summit was hardly wilderness. There was a radio tower encased in rime and snow. True to form, Maury decided to descend by himself to a wooded tableland to continue looking for caribou. I told him that I’d start back, slowly, to catch up with the rest of our team.
First, though, in solitude, I gazed out upon the white and blue of the river and mountains beyond. I was amazed to see a small helicopter thudding over the hills toward me. It landed nearby in its own small snowstorm.
A man in a blue parka jumped out, ran up and said in French, “I’m a biologist with the province of Quebec. Have you seen any caribou?”
No, I hadn’t. He wanted to put radio collars on them. It seemed unlikely that they would hang around while a giant, noisy mechanical insect descended upon them. He took off in another cloud of snow.
Having found no caribou, Maury caught up with me even before I made it back to La Nyctale. We soon started down a trail nicely broken in by our comrades.
My increasingly weak knee made me ever slower going downhill. But Maury stopped often to take pictures of the magnificent windswept lakes, the jagged rock outcroppings on the hills, and the graceful tracks that our friends had left as they’d swept down in the powder through the trees.
In the final mile before reaching a tiny cabin where we expected the others to stop for lunch, I decided to see whether I could steam ahead. I was tired of always being last. Despite my age, I had a teenager’s competitiveness.
When Maury paused to take a photo, I accelerated. By the time I arrived at the shelter, the sweat was pouring into my eyes. To my perverse pleasure, the rest of the group seemed surprised to see me arrive first. Maury appeared 15 minutes later.
But I was wiped out, almost shaking. The crew, including Maury, wanted to press on to the next and last hut, Le Carouge (The Blackbird), to arrive before dark. I needed to rest by the stove, so I told them to go on ahead.
When I did leave three-quarters of an hour later, I felt hugely relieved to ski at my own pace. I realized that there was something weird about the effort I’d just made. I reflected on the tension I’d often felt between the conviviality of such a trip and my worries about keeping up with the others.
I stopped to watch a puff of wind blow powder off the trees in the golden winter afternoon light. My physical competitiveness also got in the way of my enjoyment of the moment, I realized. Maybe it was time to give it up. At my age, it was a losing proposition.
I made up a metaphysical mantra that I chanted, in tune with Quebec, in French: “Le paradis? C’est ici.” (“Paradise? It’s here.”) This rhyme fit the gentle cadence of cross-country skiing.
My reveries were interrupted when I saw Chuck and Clement, my old and my new friend, skiing toward me. They’d come to escort me to the hut.
“We are an equipe,” Clement said – a team. “We take care of the other.”
I thanked them and said that I didn’t need an escort. But I was touched to see them, and we skied together to Le Carouge.
Later, Clement wrote me in an email: “Yes, I am slower. Yes, I get tired faster. But, yes, now I know how to appreciate this wilderness.”
Maybe this was something that I, too, was finally beginning to learn.