9/02… Invisible Caribou

As cold as it has been so far, it is no hyperbole to say that I am typing up this morning’s entry between rounds of warming my fingers with gloves on.

***

Yesterday was Caribou day, which became a huge triumph for the girls despite the fact that the park’s herd of Caribou (the only herd south of the St. Lawrence, and an endangered one at that) completely eluded us for the entire day.

I woke early as usual and got some writing done and was joined by Val and the girls around 8.

The Caribou at Gaspeisie live in a protected area that happens to also comprise the top of the highest mountain in the park, and the second highest mountain in Quebec, Mont Jacques Cartier.  The only way to get to the trailhead is via a shuttle bus that departs from the smallish kiosk located right outside our campground, so our plan was to be organized to be on the ten o’clock bus.

During the night, I could hear an intermittent but persistent rainfall tapping away on the tent fly, so I was hoping to wake to discover the inclement weather had worn itself out by sunrise.

No such luch as it was misting so thickly it was as though droplets of rain had been paused and suspended midair, and I was forced into my waterproof gear right off the bat.

Still, weather on a mountain changes every five minutes.

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Sandwich production underway at dawn

So Val and I sat down and made a pile of sandwiches, packed my day bag with extra hats, mittens, water, Oreos, and the camera’s zoom lens, and stuffed the girls with huge bowls full of oatmeal and raisins and milk and syrup.

And we lined up for the bus, along with at least thirty other people who, equally infected with hope, had made it out in the cold mist to seek the herd.

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There will be no stuffed caribou this day

We had to pry Sylvie out of the kiosk as she had become incredibly attached to a stuffed caribou (her weakness, and a painful one as it inevitably involves tears and recriminations) but the bus ride itself was novel for the girls and by the time we got off everyone’s cheer was restored.

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Team Optimism about to board

Up the trail we went, a robust four kilometers with roughly a thousand meters of vertical gain to get to the observation tower at the top of Mont Jacques Cartier.  The trial, while not steep per se, was a nonstop ascent and populated largely with loose rock and this scree, damp with rain and fog, quickly established itself as extremely tricky to navigate.

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So, knots of people with the hiking boots, walking poles, gaiters and day bags that included foam rolls and caribiners made their way past me, the guy walking up the hill in his minimalist trial shoes, no socks, and equipped with a five year old.

Val was similarly outfitted in her raincoat, running shoes, a wool hoodie and a seven year old.

The weather was a huge challenge – the fog was so dense the trail disappeared within 15 to 20 yards, it kept every square inch of your body wet all the time, and it led to a sinking feeling that absent literally walking directly into an animal, we weren’t going to be seeing a lot of these caribou.

And of course, I was in a panic about how all this, the terrain, the weather, the sheer challenge of the trail, would go over with the kids.

The girls, however, immediately threw themselves into the hike and were having a blast.  Leonie, as she does, took the lead and she and Val quickly made their way ahead of us while Sylvie kept an eye on the trail’s edge, overcome with delight every time she saw a flower or clutch of berries that was new to her, inspecting them and demanding I take a picture.

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And the trail grew steeper and the weather grew worse.

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By the halfway point, I was feeling the effects of the hike – the lumpy, irregular rock that comprised the trail made simply balancing from step to step very difficult, and gusts of wind dove unexpectedly cool tendrils of moisture into every gap in my clothing.

I told Val I was feeling good, my Ironman code word for “surprisingly tired and willing to lie to you about it”.

She said that Leonie seemed fine and was excited to keep leading, and Sylvie was equally showing zero effects from her exertions.

Further, this herd of caribou kept teasing us with their presence.  The girls sang out with delight every time they spotted droppings in the trail, and those sightings were becoming more and more frequent.  Sylvie spotted, in several places, cresecent shape hoof prints.  We could see trampled grass and trails leading on and off the hiking path.  There were clearly dozens of the damn things, all around us, but the fog and rain were keeping them shrouded.

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Cari-poo

Val doled out her strategic reserve – chocolate covered biscuits – and we pressed on.

At this point, the trail left the forest behind, and we found ourselves on a quite martian landscape.  It was completely quiet save for our own voices and the sound of our footfall, we were completely isolated and could not see beyond the twenty yard radius the fog would permit, and the ground was a layer of asymmetrical granite rock that was coated with delicate lichens that were a yellowish green that appeared to almost glow in the fog.

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Over the years, rangers had build large rock cairns to mark the trail, several feet in diameter and from four to six feet in height.

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We would walk, slowly, looking for these eerie beehives in the mist, and suddenly one would emerge from the gloom and we would move toward it and begin looking, again, for the next one.

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It was cold on the mountaintop, and we had the girls in their rain pants, rain coats, long shirts, fleece jackets, and quilted hoodies.  With every step, I became more and more concerned about the girls and how far away from the trailhead they were, and with every step they enjoyed the hike more and more.

Perhaps thirty steps behind Val and Leonie, Sylvie and I jumped from rock to rock and, given the complete absence of caribou, struck up a long conversation.  She wanted to talk about her shoes, why her cousin probably shouldn’t bite people and used the word “cannibal” in context, whether or not Grandma’s dog, Tina, would be able to do this hike, why people put clothes on dogs, why did our long departed Shar Pei, Vida, liked snow so much, why she didn’t like it when people used her picture online without her permission, and whether were on the tallest mountain in the world.

It was incredible, and the slow steps to the shelter and observation tower we were heading to disappeared into the mist as I absorbed Sylvie’s questions, monologues, and pronunciations.

Hungry, cold and tired, and on the trail for easily over two hours, we found ourselves quite suddenly at the observation tower, itself rendered completely impotent by the weather.

Still, we herded inside and found a small circle of benches around a wood stove, shed our exterior layers, and Val refueled the girls with two sandwiches each, on cheese, one peanut butter and jelly.

The girls crushed them, then scrambled up the stairs to the observation deck to confirm that there was, in fact, nothing that was observable.

In the back of my mind I was worried about getting the girls down the hill, the weather was going from bad to worse and going down in these conditions could easily prove to be more difficult than going up and further, while they seemed to be fine on the hike up the hill, it was unclear how much energy they’d have for the descent.

Val and I rebundled them, and with a twinge of regret, we left the cozy wood stove behind.

And, incredibly, the girls had more fun on the way down than they did on the way up.

Further, they were bouncing along at a pace that, quite frankly, was fast enough for me.  By the time we made it to the halfway point, Val dispensed her last hidden treasure: a pocket full of Oreos.  The girls had found their Valhalla.

Sylvie ducked into the sole restroom at the halfway mark, locked the door behind her and for some reason began to sing at the top of her lungs.  Another couple made their way into the halfway clearing and waited their turn, and Sylvie kept singing away.

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mountaintop karaoke booth

We couldn’t help but laugh, and shortly the other couple was laughing, and a third set of hikers passing through stopped to enjoy the show.

Sylvie popped out of the restroom to applause, grabbed her ration of Oreos, took my hand, and bounced off down the trail.

And, of course, the weather suddenly broke, as if it had simply been waiting for a child’s song to alter is prescribed pattern.  The sun fought through the clouds, the banks of fog separated, and we suddenly realized that we were on top of a mountain – there were peaks and troughs all around us, and our trail wound down to the wooded valley below.

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We shed a few layers, Sylvie kept talking and singing, and made our way down various crooked pitches to the trailhead.

At one point Sylvie ran ahead to descend with Val, so I caught up to Leonie and the two of us made our way down, chatting the entire time.  We discussed what we might do if a caribou actually crossed the trail in front of us.

Her answer, of course, was “ask him if he would mind taking a picture of us”.

Val, who may well have been a tracker in a prior life, would occasionally and suddenly halt on the trail like a dog on point, cocking her head and holding her hand out toward the brush.

We were back in the trees, and while wandering the top of the mountain in the rain and fog the caribou had clearly moved to the shelter of the woods.  She could hear them, and the hiking trail was covered with new tracks.  We could actually smell the caribou – Sylvie pointing our as we clustered, hushed, at a bend in the trail that “it smells like the goats at the zoo in Brooklyn”.

It was wondrous, there was a tangible energy in the air, and there was a very real sense of feeling the animals all about us.

But we never saw them.

The girls continued the descent, now on the trial for well north of four hours, and still not a shadow of complaint from them.

Leonie discussed her tired legs with me at one point, but in more of a detached way, and I told her how my legs would get tired when I raced.

Sylvie would also announce that her legs were tired, but then she’d run full tilt down the trail , slipping and sliding, because she thought she saw a new kind of flower.

At one point, I told her that I thought she deserved a medal for doing all this hard work, just like they gave out at the end of my races.  She thought about that and said “a medal and money.”

Just as Leonie was expressing what I had been thinking for hours, namely, that she was genuinely tired and was hoping that we would find the trailhead soon, we were upon the small gravel loop and shelter that marked the bus stop.  We had roughly 20 minutes to wait for the bus, and Val and I collapsed heavily on the porch of the shelter and shed layers.

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I pulled my shoes off and rubbed some life back into my beleaguered toes.

The girls, meanwhile, chased each other in circles in the parking lot.

The hike had been meant to tire them out, and it was as though we’d just given them both a double espresso.

The bus arrived and they bounced on board to get “the best seats” while Val and I slumped into a bench and closed our eyes.  Other hikers shambled on and tumbled, inert, into their seats.

The girls raced up and down the aisles, counting the seats, and pestering me with questions (“Dad, why is eleven an odd number?”) until I had to beg them to leave me alone.

Back at camp we made a huge pot of mashed Gaspe potatoes, right on the fire, and seasoned them with some local herbes salees that Val found at a small supermarket on our way into the park.

The girls devoured them and kept right on going, racing around the campground, exploring the woods, chopping kindling for me, working on some exercise books that Val got for them, and then joining us by the fire to talk about the day, talk about tomorrow, and try out as many knock-knock jokes as they could think of.

They were as animated and alive as they have ever been, it was intoxicating.

Secretly, as I pressed their toothbrushes into their hands to get them ready for bed, I was happy the caribou had hidden from us.

It meant that instead of spending a day observing these animals, I spent the day observing my kids instead, which is exactly why I left my job and headed off into the unknown in the first place.

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