Around the Gaspé

Story by Joe Benning// Photos by Joe Benning
May 1 2010

Motorcyclists tend to be an independent bunch, and when one is leading a group of them on a long-distance ride, it is akin to herding cats through a dairy barn at milking time. In other words, it can be quite a challenge. Throw in the issue of a little language barrier, and such a ride becomes the type of adventure that real memories are made of.

Five couples belonging to the Central Vermont Harley Owner’s Group set out for a trip around the Gaspe Peninsula in the Province of Quebec. Among the ten anglophone riders on this trip, the cumulative French vocabulary consisted of approximately nine words, most of which could not be strung together in one coherent sentence. We’d have to learn as we travelled. Our collective trepidation added to the sense of excitement.

We set out on a Sunday morning and saw something we hadn’t seen for almost two months: the sun! The whole northwestern corner of North America had seen record rainfall and low temperatures for days on end, meaning Max couldn’t wash his bike before we left. Not that I’m superstitious or anything, but traditionally when Max washes his bike before a ride, it inevitably rains the day we leave, so things started out really well. Our planned route took us first through New Hampshire and Maine to Houlton, where we intended to cross over into New Brunswick and ride north along the St. John River to Saint-Leonard. Then we’d head northeast on Route 17 to Campbellton to cross Chaleur Bay onto the Gaspe Peninsula. But then Max’s wife Judy’s bike sprung an oil leak, so we altered our plans and detoured for a Harley dealership in Caribou, Maine.

We had two Tims on this trip. One of those Tims has travelled with me on numerous long-distance rides and has become addicted to using a GPS on every trip. It is not just a coincidence that he has managed to plug in every Tim Horton’s location into his system, one of which he noted happened to be right next to the Harley dealership in Caribou. We’ve yet to figure out whether ‘Timbits’ are an actual food product or something not discussed in mixed company. His wife, Bobbie, was riding her 883 Sportster and had the smallest gas tank of all the bikes, so he’d also carefully plotted out gas station locations along our intended route. Gas stations, especially those with premium unleaded, can be hard to find on the Gaspe, so the GPS came in pretty handy.

The other Tim was on his first long-distance trip with this group. It got interesting whenever someone shouted “Hey Tim!” because neither Tim would know who was being called, so naturally neither would answer. Perched on the back of his bike was his wife, Patty. Rick and Marie, also on their first long-distance trip with this group, rode matching Deluxe Softails. My wife Deb, riding pillion behind me, completed the group of ten.

The kind folks at Plourde’s Harley-Davidson had Judy’s bike fixed up in a jiffy, so we rode up to Van Buren and crossed the border into Saint-Leonard, New Brunswick. Our lack of French vocabulary almost stopped the trip at the border when the French-oriented border guard asked me with his limited English if I’d ever been to court. I suspect he was actually just trying to figure out whether I’d ever been convicted of a crime, but as a trial lawyer I had to concede I was in court almost every day of the week. I knew my affirmative answer to his question was bound to raise his eyebrows, but there was a brief moment when I thought there was about to be an international incident. Humor won out (it always manages to bridge language gaps), and we were off into New Brunswick on our way to the Gaspe.

Perce Rock stop along the motorcycle tourAs an experienced motorcyclist, I am familiar with all the normal hand signals used to communicate between riders, but every once in a while Rick would suddenly raise his left hand to his head, stick his thumb in his ear and extend his remaining fingers. After seeing this mysterious signal flashed several times over the course of a couple hours of riding, I took advantage of our next rest stop to ask what it was all about. “That’s a moose warning sign,” he said. Somehow I’d missed that one in my rider’s training manual. Thereafter, the entire group would flash that signal whenever we saw a moose crossing sign. It must have made for some interesting conversation for passersby.

As the only one of the group who had been to Campbellton before, I just had to lead them all around the statue of the big fish down on the waterfront. We were lucky enough to see it twice after I made a wrong turn, causing concern with pedestrians who thought the town was being invaded by a horde of Harleys.

Bright sunshine lit our way over the bridge onto the Gaspe Peninsula. We landed in Saint-Simeon for the night, where a small restaurant doubled as the office for a tiny campground and an even smaller hotel complex right across the street. I entered the restaurant and was greeted with a hearty “Bonjour!” by a smiling young woman. Launching into my best French, I managed to return her greeting and then said, “Parlez-vous anglais?” Her smile turned to bewildered embarrassment as she replied, “Uh, non!”

It took a couple of awkward tries before I finally remembered the words for “five” and “hotel rooms” and “please,” but other than that it was a series of hand gestures and giggles on both sides. Dinner with the ten of us trying to decipher the menu was a real treat. We pretended we knew what we were ordering and ate what we got. Luckily, the words Labatt Blue sound the same in both languages.

The winding mountain roads along the rocky coastline of the Gaspe Peninsula are a motorcyclists’ dream. For hours on end, you ride with a wilderness full of wildlife on one side, and on the other an ocean view where it is often impossible to distinguish the water from the sky on the horizon. Eagles, bear, moose and deer are more often seen than humans. Quaint villages with towering church steeples provide countless photo opportunities. In Perce, we arrived during low tide, which enabled us to walk out to the big rock that has been a navigational aid to sailors coming from Europe since the 1500s, and a tourist magnet for motorcyclists since 1903. But we dallied too long taking pictures and then had to walk through knee-deep water to get back to dry land as the tide began to come back in. After a little shopping and an outdoor lunch, we were on the road for the town of Gaspe.

Perched near the end of the peninsula, the town of Gaspe has all the amenities a travelling motorcyclist could ask for. Not far away, on the very tip of the peninsula, is Forillon National Park. We unloaded our luggage at The Commandant Hotel and rode over to Cap-Bon-Ami in the middle of the park. After a two-kilometre hike (straight up, both ways!) ten tired motorcyclists were treated to a spectacular 360-degree view from an observation tower that rose above the treetops. We looked down on the tops of thousands of blue spruce. We could see the town of Gaspe to our west and the rock at Perce to our south. It was so clear, we could even see the coast of Ile d’Anticosti.

Touring the country sides of Quebec The next day, we rode along the shoreline of the St. Lawrence River to Matane and took the ferry across to Baie-Comeau. A faulty starter switch landed me in the big parking lot of Hamilton and Bourassa Harley-Davidson early the next morning. As I waited for the dealership to open, I was suddenly greeted by a helicopter landing in the parking lot. Now that is not something you normally see at a Harley dealership! The available English at the service desk was roughly equivalent to the available French in my brain, which meant another series of comical hand gestures accompanied now by broken starter-motor sounds. The language barrier was broken when a mechanic pushed the starter button and heard the noise himself. The rest of the group did laundry while my starter was replaced, and then we headed south along the St. Lawrence.

Route 138 is divided by the Saguenay River in the tiny town of Tadoussac, where we pulled in for the night. Tadoussac was founded as a French settlement in 1600 by a company of sixteen men, only five of whom survived the first winter. But the settlement clung to the rocky shoreline as France established its foothold in the New World, and it served as the supply depot for Samuel de Champlain’s excursions inland during the first decade of the seventeenth century. From there, Champlain established new settlements in what is now Quebec City and Montreal, eventually finding his way to a lake that now bears his name and serves as the western border of my home state of Vermont.

Tadoussac is a very pretty little town with wonderful shops, great restaurants and a magnificent hotel called The Hotel Tadoussac that overlooks a beautiful harbour. The Saguenay fjord dominates the landscape, and the deep waters surrounding the town possess an abundance of krill, making them a feeding ground for whales. It is a true tourist destination for whale watching and hiking. Not able to stick around for any more exploration as we had hotel reservations in Quebec City, early the next morning we were loaded onto the free ferry that connects the interrupted portions of Route 138, and were on our way south to the Plains of Abraham.

French Canadians know how to build two things to perfection: hockey rinks and churches. It seemed that we would ride for hours and see nothing but trees and water, and then there would be a beautiful church next to a hockey rink. This process repeats itself as one travels around the Gaspe and the north shore of the St. Lawrence. Every church is picture-perfect, but the church that really took our breath away was the Shrine of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre. Many years ago, my now-deceased grandfather had gone on at length about this incredible church, and when he learned I was going to college in Vermont, he urged me to visit it. I never got around to it. But since we were now riding right by it, I figured I owed it to his memory to stop in. Wow! I’ve seen Notre Dame in Paris and Westminster Abbey in London, but Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre ranks right up there among the top churches to see.

Just inside the old city wall of Quebec is the Hotel Manoir d’Auteuil. The proprietor, Dan, is a transplanted fellow Vermonter. He agreed to let us park all eight motorcycles in his enclosed garage, and for the next two days we wandered about the old city with no worry about the bikes. We saw the changing of the guard at the Citadel, watched the outdoor presentation on Quebec’s history called “The Image Mill,” sat on the old wall ramparts to watch a fireworks display over Montmorency Falls, and shopped till we dropped.

After six days of sunshine, we said “au revoir” to La Belle Province. I suppose it was only fitting that it was pouring rain as we headed for Vermont. Plans for our next group ride include a trip in a different direction, and we’ll have to once again learn a completely different language along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I wonder how you say “y’all” in French?


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