The rain of the prior day did have one thing going for it – it was cool, certainly, but not actually cold.
Waking up with the rain well past to what appeared to be a sunny sky, I wandered about the campsite getting ready to start the day and realized that I was really cold, which was odd – with the sun rising it should have been getting warmer.
I bundled off to the shelter with a cup of coffee and set about writing for a few hours while the girls slept in, and presently they ducked their head into the building along with Val.
Everyone was bundled up.
It was, indeed, chilly.
We’re far enough north, even after having driven a few hundred miles south, that the second week in September is legitimately fall.
With a bowl of hot oatmeal behind us we packed off to the information center to learn more about the park and settle on our options for a hike. Now that we know the girls can comfortably do an eight-kilometer hike in adverse conditions to the top of a mountain, we try to get out once a day to knock out at least 5k.
Further, they love it – they can run ahead, navigating and looking for animals and flowers, while Val and I get to amble along behind, refereeing the occasional dispute, and politely reminding them that we cannot pick the flowers, and we are certainly not bringing any frogs back to Grandma and Grampa’s house.
So, we settle on a circumnavigation around Lac Solitaire, which begins and ends at an activity center itself a short drive from our campsite. We opt on a quick lunch prior to the hike to make sure everyone has calories in them, and discover the activity center is a nirvana.
It’s a Sunday morning, and the parking lot is crawling with cyclists, who have clearly gathered for their regular group ride through the park, where the primary road winds itself through spectacular, Laurentian scenery for over 50 kilometers before you’d have to turn back.
“Feel any longing?” Val asks as she catches my gaze falling upon various bikes, and riders gearing up for the day ahead, arguing about tire pressure, nutrition, cassette sizes, and the appropriate layering for the cold.
Despite my limited ability, I really grew to enjoy cycling as a component of my Ironman career. Cycling is phenomenal when it’s really working for you – the speed you can carry, the distance you can cover, and the fact that you are very present in the moment as you are always thinking about the terrain ahead, making decisions about gearing and pace and line.
But in triathlon it is lonely – with no drafting, you’re never really able to simply chat with the fellow next to you while you’re out on the course for over 100 miles. It was probably the training rides that I enjoyed the most, clustering with JP and his friends in Prospect Park at 5:30 in the morning, or heading out to Connecticut at some absurd hour to meet KO in his driveway at six for a four hour excursion.
Or “competing” in the Murph 102, where Murph and I were the only entrants in the race, and we simply rode and chatted with each other all over hell’s half acre upstate around his house.
So, seeing a parking lot full of friends, older couples, grey beards like mine, slapping their legs to wake them and talking about past rides and this ride and likely about to enjoy a solid four hours in each other’s company, I did feel a twinge.
“Hey Dad” piped up Sylvie, “CandyCane Snowflake is faster than all these bikes, right?”
“She sure is sweetie”.
Mauricie clearly sees a ton of recreational use, and so there is a lodge built for cyclists, skiers, runners, and anyone else who would want to spend a hard day outdoors, and then take warm shower and get into some clean clothes on the follow.
The thing has a lunch room, a lounge with leather sofas and a fireplace, off of which is a terrace with deck chairs overlooking the trailheads, and a downstairs locker room with generous space and hot showers.
I can’t imagine the luxury of this, thinking back on all the training runs we did at Harriman State Park in the middle of winter, only to come back to our freezing cars and hurredly wolf down sandwiches and bananas before we miserably tore off our sweat-soaked under layers on the side of the rode, leapt into dry clothing and drove home, stewing in our own clammy funk for the next two hours.
Here at Mauricie, we’d be splayed out on sofas or lounge chairs, toweling our hair off in front of a fire while someone came back from the lunch room with bowls of steaming hot oatmeal.
Off on the trail, and it’s a tough one – there’s a lot of elevation changes but largely a climb up to Lac Solitaire, and roots weave in and out of the path, making for a perilous journey for the inattentive.
Like, for example, Sylvie, who is leaping and running and spinning and, literally, doing cartwheels on the path but not exactly paying attention to it. However, after every spill, she bounces to her feet and announces “I’m OK!” to everyone and resumes her frenetic gait.
Leonie is the workhorse, planting herself at the front of our group and studying the trail markers, keeping a steady pace and leading us toward the lake.
We’re ultimately rewarded with a view of a lovely little lake, a button of clear, deep water pressed into the landscape like a finger pressed into clay, with trees running down to the water’s edge where there is soil, and where there isn’t, granite ramps provide beaches.
We head down to the shore and the girls hunt for frogs, flowers, look for birds, and balance along the timbers that jut out.
Having been heavily logged a century ago, most of the lakes and riverbottoms in the region have hundreds of logs lining their bottoms as the certain of the timber sank while being floated downstream to the sawmills and pulp plants in Shawinigan.
Looking down on the lake, you can see through the clear water the outlines of these giants, as the fresh, cold water has basically preserved them intact.
Val and I stretch out on the granite and chat, taking in the sun and enjoying the fact that we’re too warm right now.
We chat about what next, but without the pressure of having to decide the discussion is luxurious.
An organizing principle has presented itself to us and we flesh it out tentatively – since we more or less began our trip at the end of the world (as least, insofar at the Chic Choc people were concerned) why not go ahead and connect the dots with the other end of the world – the tip of the Baja Peninsula?
Leonie has, against our fickle warnings, waded right into the lake and soaked her feet up to her knees in order to catch frogs and show them to the older Quebecois couple that is taking a break from the trail nearby.
She and Sylvie have also made, out of sticks, leaves and mud, a Beaver lodge.
We announce it is time to move on, because we’re wary of being out on a trail too long with girls who have wet feet. Both Val and I have spent enough time in the backcountry to not want to take any chances with we clothes and variable weather, certainly as it relates to the girls.
Sylvie, normally exploding with energy, flops down on an uphill segment and refuses to budge, saying she’s hungry. Because we ate lunch just before going on the hike, while we have water, we don’t have food – Val rationed the last of a chocolate an hour ago at the lake.
Sylvie has bonked.
Just as I am about to give her a pep talk to try to get her moving again, Val hauls Sylvie onto her back, without complaint, and carries her the next hilly, wooded kilometer without so much as a peep of a complaint.
Back at activity center we all enjoy the facilities, wash up and drink deeply. Then it is off to the parking lot where we feed the girls a half a loaf of raisin bread, which the devour slice by unadorned slice.
Never again will we hit a trail without some kind of food, even if it is just for ten minutes.
We have to go to the information center to get firewood, and the ranger jokes that we’ll certainly want to get two bundles. Why, I casually ask.
Because a cold front is on the way tonight and it is supposed to dip toward freezing.
I give Val the lowdown in the truck on the way back to the tent. We’re going to be smart about this because the second the sun goes down the temperature could really plummet, and cold and dark is a tough combination, especially for the kids.
We establish a plan, she will get the girls to the showers and take a long, hot soak, I’ll get the firewood chopped and fire started, we’ll begin roasting the squash we got at the farmer’s market in Sally and dice up the remaining vegetables to make a ratatouille, we’ll lay out warm pajamas, hats, socks, put books in the tent to read, and nail this thing.
At the site, I leap out of the truck and grab the bottle of Canadian Club.
There is no crisis that cannot be improved upon by taking a mouthful of whiskey – the Irish have proven it, and I am not a man to question science, or the lessons of history.
I hand the bottle to Val and grab the hatchet.
After a decent swallow, she herds the girls toward the showers.
Dinner is a giant success, warm and plentiful and fresh, it is almost as though I can feel the calories and the vitamins and nutrients being delivered to my entire body even as I swallow.
We clean up and I take my shower, probably taking too long but it is hot and a luxury and I steal a few extra minutes. Val has soldiered through the dishes and we give the girls headlamps to go after toads and bugs with, and we square away the camp for the night.
Val and I get into the tent and organize the bags and pull on warm, clean clothes.
We settle in with the books (it is my turn to read out loud) and shortly the girls are in the tent’s annex – they can’t find any frogs and they are cold and what are we doing in the tent and is it warm in there?
It is, and they come in, change into their night clothes (two pairs of pajamas and two socks each on this night, we’re not taking any chances) and immediately decide to find out if four people can fit into a two person sleeping bag.
I read them the first two chapters of “Misty of Chinquoteague” which holds Sylvie rapt – involving, as it does, brave ponies who survive adversity.
Then we’re tired, and it is damned cold, and we adjust our sleeping plan – Val and Sylvie in the big bag, and Leonie and I pressed up against each other in smaller bags.
Leonie burrows into her down bag, easily the warmest bag we have, and is out like a light. I pull a wool had on and force myself into Sylvie’s bag, which does not exactly fit properly and is therefore not as warm as I would like, but I look and see Val and Sylvie tangled up together, hidden save their faces peering above the bag for warmth, and have no complaints.
I shut my eyes and enjoy the cold, solemn quiet of the night.