As I eagerly anticipate my next trip – both far away and in Toronto – I’ve decided to share a tidbit from my creative travel writing course!¹
Last week, I wrote an account of my childhood road trips in detailed point form. By answering a few questions, I reached far into my repository of memories and uncovered a plethora of buried thoughts about Gaspé that I’d long forgotten. Like blowing off the dust from an old book. So, this post builds from my exercise into an album of snapshots from my family trips to Gaspé, Québec. While accounting for this journey, stories about my travels and my family – many of whom I haven’t seen in years – materialized, even when I least expected it.
When I was young, my family and I drove to Eastern Québec three times within an eight-year period. Our car trailed all they way up the Gaspé peninsula, jutting out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is where my grandparents grew up and we traveled to visit relatives.
My family rented a van for the long drive, something similar to a Dodge Caravan. They were spacious enough for all four of us plus our dog Jewel, with ample amounts of food – Doritos, chocolates, sandwiches, water, soda – books and Game Boys. On the third trip, my cousin accompanied us. Jewel was comfortable in vehicles and she’d effortlessly walked about through the middle of the van, sometimes lying down at our feet.
In the back seat, brother and I occupied individual seats, with open space in the middle for Jewel. I had the passenger side on every trip. This has always been my favourite spot, even on short rides to the supermarket. I sat slumped back, head tilted towards the window, gazing straight at the road ahead. I’d always stretch my arms and legs over the passenger seat after sitting for hours on end. The fabric felt like a soft vinyl or nylon, easily pliable from my fingers pressing down. They cushioned me until I eventually started to feel a dull pain in my behind, making me squirm and shuffle. I recalled how much the van dirtied over time from bugs and bird droppings on the windshield.
These trips were always during our summertime school breaks. As we drove through Ontario and the interior of Québec, the heat warranted a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. The further east we drove, the more I layered up slightly with jeans and a light jacket – sometimes borrowing my Mom’s – to offset the breezy northern climate. I remember one of my favourite shirts – I’m sure I wore it there. It was a t-shirt with glittery lollipop designs on the front. When you rubbed a lollipop with your finger, the shirt emitted some kind of “fruity” scent. It was one way I got kids’ attention at recess.
Aside from playing Game Boy or reading Harry Potter until I got carsick, I’d do nothing but stare out the window, watching cars and mountains appear then disappear, all day long. I found it soothing. I constantly snacked too, appeasing my continuous hunger in between pit stops. My Dad cracked jokes, sometimes complained about drivers or quizzed us on music trivia. But our chatter was typical of a family road trip – discussing pee breaks, food stops, directions or our music selections, whether who’s CD to play or what radio station to dial.
We often stayed at hotels in Rimouski, situated about halfway up the Gaspé peninsula, for the first night. From that point onward, my eyes glued to the window. I saw vivid blue waters of the St. Lawrence and clear skies. Old white cottages, small towns with church steeples rested along the shoreline, approaching every few kilometres. I also saw mountain peaks and rocky slopes from the Appalachians towering over us. This was especially striking in Murdochville, where we stopped to picnic before crossing inland. A stream lay at the foot of the mountains, guiding us forward. This was a soothing respite from yesterday’s chaos from Montreal – the stuffiness, screeching of speeding motorbikes, winding crumbling highways and confusing French signs. Now, I felt like I was in the Maritimes.
Seeing the Gaspésie² made me feel amazed and awe-inspired, like a world away from the mundane suburbs of the GTA. I was refreshed and content. At night however, when there was nothing to see but the highway, boredom and hunger settled in. I’d be thinking about dinner, but simultaneously content, imagining the gargantuan Percé Rock before my eyes. I was especially comforted to have Jewel in the back with us.
The three times I’d gone, our destination and home base was Barachois, a tiny settlement on the very tip of the Gaspésie. On the first trip, we stayed at my grandmother’s childhood house – a nostalgic homestead that once slept a family of nine children! The next two visits we rented old cottages along the shoreline. One house in particular was adjacent to an empty church with an old graveyard in the back, dating over 100 years. It was likely the pastor’s residence at one point.
My grandmother often reported seeing spectral figures and hearing a soft ghostly wail at night. She was frightened at the prospect of walking that graveyard at moonlight. Meanwhile, my Dad enjoyed serene evening strolls with Jewel amidst the crumbling gravestones.
And now – here are some memorable places and stories from my trips down East:
On cool mornings in Barachois, we walked down to the beach and skipped rocks into the chilly waves. Directly across the bay was the town of Percé. We could see the Rock’s tiny silhouette on the water followed by Bonaventure Island to the left over the horizon. To our right, a steel bridge ran across the sandbar and over our heads. A VIA train used to pass this bridge, stopping right here in Barachois.
The Fab Four
It was often in Gaspésie where I reunited with my great uncles Floyd, Gary, Mel and Alec, four of my grandmother’s eight siblings. Uncle Alec passed away in the early 2000s, and it was perhaps one of the last times I saw him. Their humour, ingenuity, adventurism and musical talent delivered some fond memories from my visits. Behind their old house, my brother and I once picked blueberries, while nervously watching for black bears. Mel used to take us for rides on his ATV, tearing downhill through the grass as we gripped the side handles tightly.
One evening, with my cousin there too, we all sat around in a circle in Floyd’s living room. The Uncles brought their guitars and belted out old folk and country tunes, stomping their boots in unison on the muddy floor. The music was heavily inspired by Stompin’ Tom Connors. I imagined that some of the guitars were beautifully hand-crafted by Floyd himself. At one point, their baritone harmonies synced so perfectly, that I felt the ground vibrate beneath my feet.
My grandfather and Uncle Alec took us fishing on a nearby pier. The first time we went, I instantly caught a big bite. My Dad helped me reel in a silver mackerel. It thrashed on the pavement until Alec picked it up. We posed for a picture. To this day, this was all the evidence I had to demonstrate my angler side. But upon our second journey years later, my hook only caught nibbles but was ultimately bereft of wriggly sea creatures. To my left, my brother held up the rod, showing his third catch. I occasionally feigned a smile and a cheer. But as their backs turned, I frowned as my luck sank into the sea.
The Blue Lobster
Speaking of seafood – which is paramount in Gaspé – you couldn’t be hard pressed, even in such a sparse region, to find fresh lobster. We visited one fishery in town, where the man let us pick out the best lobster from his tank – about the size of a swimming pool! The man pointed at one in particular that was off limits, resting in its own tank. A blue lobster. Its rarity in colour attracted the attention of a nearby university, who would soon be conducting research on this curiously hued crustacean.
Despite unrestrained natural serenity, the pleasures of breathing in the salty sea air and hearing a pin drop at midnight, we often craved daytime activities by going to Percé. It was a 20 minute drive both uphill and downhill around the inlet. I remember how my Dad’s humourous shrieks of “no brakes!” had my brother and I in stitches, but my grandmother recoiling in fear.
Between a Rock and a Nice Place
In Percé, we’d stroll through the downtown, which was just a main street dotted with colourful houses of art studios, cafes and restaurants. Some patios emanated the chipper melodies of French folk tunes and their guitars and accordions.
One of my grandmother’s friends owned a hotel on a hill with a sweeping view of Percé Rock and the Gulf. We’ve stayed a few nights ourselves, having a quiet dinner by the sea.
And on low tides, we could walk directly to the Rock itself. This giant limestone monolith towered over at over 450 metres, and dates over 400 million years old. A separate “piece” of the Rock, detached from its original shape, still stands only metres away and separated by water. Currently, I own a place mat, a miniature carved in wood, and a figurine of the Rock in a corked glass bottle – like the ship souvenirs you’d find in Nova Scotia. For years, I kept a piece of the Rock itself, which was russet in colour and about six inches long (this was technically against regulations).
Travelers to Percé can opt to pass by the Rock by way of ferry to Bonaventure Island. The island was once home to an early fishing port of New France during the 1790s. It had a tiny population until about the 1970s, when the Québec government evicted its residents following land expropriation. The buildings remained and were restored for visitors. However, Bonaventure’s fame derives from being one of the largest colonies of gannets in the world. Over 200 species supposedly reside on this tiny island.³
Visitors can trace the island entirely on foot or take a boat for some ideal bird spotting. Some of these boats were whale watching tours, which also allowed people the chance to spot seals and gannets along the cliff side. From all directions, I saw big water spouts, followed by fins sticking out of the water. Immense grey masses popped up from underneath like submarines, creating ripples before they submerged again. Everyone gasped as one curious whale approached as close as five metres!
Our trips spanned no longer than seven days at most. Upon returning home, stopped to see my grandfather’s old house in Shigawake. Perhaps even smaller than Barachois, this settlement rests south of the peninsula with New Brunswick peeking across from the bay on the other side. The house’s white exterior and red roof were still vibrant with a covered verandah aligned with four posts. It reminded me of a home from Anne Shirley’s beloved neighbourhood of Avonlea. Up close, I saw cracks in the panels and cobwebs nestled in the corners of wooden window panes.
We sometimes took an alternate journey home, to change up the scenery. But once we left Québec City, it felt as though we left the “old world” behind. Then came the commuter chaos of Montreal, and reality crept back on me. Although as a child, I was admittedly relieved once we crossed the border back into Ontario. Not for a long while would I be forced to try – and ultimately fail – at conversing in French.
The Gaspésie evidently holds a significant chapter in my genealogy and ancestry. This is especially meaningful to my grandparents. Still, my grandmother returns “down home” every few years, and she remains in touch with her best friends and family through weekly phone calls and emails. Every time I visit her, I see copies of the Gaspé Spec, their local newspaper, lying on the coffee table, after a long trek to Toronto. This part of Canada is where everybody is a neighbour and truly knows one another.
Someone from Gaspé would never run out of stories to tell. They uncover hundreds of years of family history. It’s been 14 years since my last trip. I’ve been hankering ever since to go back. I have an inkling to learn more about generations past, catch the St. Lawrence breeze and see Percé Rock once more. And of course, I’d leave all its pieces intact – as they should!
¹ This post – mostly the memories part – is an extended version of an application exercise I had to complete for my course.
² Gaspésie is another term used to define the Gaspé Peninsula. Although Gaspé is an actual city, my family and I use the two names interchangeably when talking about the general region.
³ Check out this article on National Geographic about exploring Bonaventure Island and seeing thousands of avian occupants.