travel / travel magazine / nov08


Chic-Chocs chic

A backcountry retreat deep in the mountains of the Gaspé Peninsula delivers the ultimate wilderness experience. And fine cuisine.

Story and photos by Jerry Kobalenko

A 50-kilometre-an-hour wind howls on the summit of Mont Matawees, in Quebec’s Monts Chic-Chocs, but the snow is too hard to blow around. Earlier winds have already packed it like Styrofoam. Even harder snow coats the krummholz, making these squat alpine bushes as rigid as fire hydrants. I caution my wife Alexandra, whose skis seem magnetically drawn to trees, to avoid these stunted woods at all costs.


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Here, we believe in the three ‘S’s’: sport, sauna and sofa,” said Gilbert Rioux, the mastermind behind the Chic-Chocs Mountain Lodge, when we had arrived. This part is definitely sport. The wind freezes the long, sweat-dampened hair of the women in our group into nests of darning needles that poke out from under their colourful toques. Clouds scud across the pastel midwinter sky, shedding angular flakes that sting our faces. No one is keen to spend too long on the summit, so we cautiously point our skis downhill and are soon back in the forgiving snow of the trees below timberline. Young birch saplings bend like slalom gates as we cut past them.

At 17 kilometres, the Mont Matawees loop is the region’s longest day tour, attempted by only a handful of skiers each year. But our group is fit, the return leg goes quickly and we reach the lodge just before dark. A table with hot mulled wine has been set up outside the boot room. Clearly, it is now time for the other two “S’s.”

We had arrived at the Chic-Chocs Mountain Lodge three days earlier, after a 90-minute ride by snowcat from Cap-Chat, on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. With its spacious seating and partly glassed roof, the red snowcat has the luxurious feel of a train observation car, and we scan for moose and dreamily watch night descend on the Chic-Chocs. As we pull up to the lodge’s front door, Dominique Gagnon, the manager and sommelier, clangs a brass bell in welcome. The guides give us each a small plastic box containing an avalanche beacon, a walkietalkie and a room key on a carabiner. Alexandra and I walk along the tamarack floor to settle into one of the lodge’s 18 rooms.

Quebec has plenty of fly-in hunting and fishing camps, but this is the province’s first and only backcountry lodge devoted to skiing, snowshoeing and hiking. It is a classy oasis in a boreal wilderness where tents were the only previous backcountry ski accommodation. The lodge is owned by the government agency Sépaq (Société des établissements de plein air du Québec), but it is the brainchild of Rioux, a mountaineer, skier and lifelong Gaspesian, who convinced his bosses in Québec to fund the project. The way he wryly describes it, he seems to have been surprised by his own powers of persuasion. “They gave me an envelope with $10 million,” he says, “and I had to figure out what to do with it.”


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