Journey To The End of The Road
Route 138, Tadoussac to Natasquan
The end of the road has become a mythical place in our modern collective imagination; the place where a person runs out of options and must turn back or begin anew. The objective truth is that most highways don’t simply stop, they merge or junction so the traveler can roll on to their next destination. Yet here I am. The official highway sign reads “FIN” and behind it is wilderness. I’ve been told that Quebec intends to extend the road all the way to Labrador in the future, but for now Route 138 ends at the Natashquan River.
It’s my father’s fault. At a very early age he instilled in me an insatiable curiosity about where a road might lead. On Sunday rides he’d spy a road and ask, “Where does this go,” and our family would be off on a minor journey of discovery for the remainder of the day. Route 138 is a familiar highway. It crosses the Mercier Bridge and becomes Rue Sherbrooke, an intimate part of Montreal, while the Chemin du Roy to Quebec City and even through the Charlevoix Region to the Saguenay River is well-known territory. Thirteen hundred and eighty-nine kilometers long, this provincial highway stretches from the New York border at Elgin to Natashquan on the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and more than half of that—808 km—is east of Tadoussac. But what lies beyond Tadoussac? What will be found at the end of the road? I had to know.
Tadoussac is a charming little village with narrow winding streets that’s perched on a hillside along what is recognized as one of the most beautiful bays in the world. As a tourist destination it’s known as a departure point for cruises up the stunning Saguenay fjord and offers some of the best whale-watching opportunities in the world.
From here to Natashquan the highway is known as La Route des Baleines, The Whale Route. The great cetaceans actually have their own highway, the Laurentian Channel, a submarine canyon in the St. Lawrence River that runs from the continental shelf of the Atlantic Ocean to the mouth of the Saguenay River. In many places this canyon is so close to the northern shore of the St. Lawrence that whales can be easily seen from vantage points on terra firma. With whales, tides, sand beaches, and mountains on the opposite shore barely visible on a clear day, it’s no wonder that early explorers were certain that this was the fabled Northwest Passage to China.
I had an itinerary, however, after numerous excursions down side roads to interpretation centers that were closed or whale-watching vantage points that turned out to be nonexistent during low tide, all but my lodging reservations were discarded.
I’m getting used to being one of the attractions on Côte Nord as “The Beast,” a bumblebee-yellow T-Rex made by Quebec’s Boucherville-based Campagna Motors, attracts a small crowd wherever I park. There are no Disneylands or other tacky tourism venues along this route, but there are sights to see. A needle-like monolith marks the entrance to the Manicouagan Peninsula in Ragueneau and while it’s worthy of note my preference is for quirky things. In the shadow of this plinth on this beautiful rocky peninsular someone has created a full-size sculpture of a brontosaurus and her baby. Why? No reason, just someone’s creative project that was placed where the public could enjoy it.
In Baie-Comeau the award-winning Les Jardins des Glaciers focuses on effects of the last glacial epoch and current climate change. Look out IMAX! Their 3-D multi-media presentation is the best I’ve ever seen, while the computer center is satellite linked to researchers around the globe and could double as a sci-fi movie stage set. Zip lines, including the longest in Canada, are an adrenalin rush while providing access to glacial gouged cliffs. The Valley of Shells is the most important post-glacial marine fossil deposit on the planet and the recreations of ancient Innu lodgings use real whalebone and caribou hide. This place blows me away.
The home of Christian Bouchard, director of Les Jardin des Glaciers becomes an un expected stop after he invites me to join friends and family who are celebrating Victoria Day on the beach. Christening the new Cuban-inspired driftwood beach bar (erected for the occasion), discussing issues around a campfire on the sand, and watching waves rolling in from a St. Lawrence is that is now more sea than river make me reluctant to leave, but the road is calling.
Just east of Sept-Îles I discover the summer encampment at the mouth of the Moisie River. Camper trailers that will never move again sprawl across this grassy point of land that has a raw sort of intimacy reminiscent of a 19th-century mining camp. Owners return year after year and they come for one reason: to fish the famous Moisie for Atlantic salmon.
The road has been rather mundane since leaving Franqueiln, but it now becomes a rollercoaster with sweeping corners and hills while presenting great views of the coastline. I say coastline because the St. Lawrence has now taken the appearance of an ocean as it approaches the Détroit de Jacques-Cartier between the north shore and Anticosti Island. To soon the highway becomes long and straight, with only a few undulating hills thrown in. There are almost no vehicles on this highway, but it is patrolled – as I soon discover. The two officers had never seen a T-Rex and this, plus a clean license, saves my day. “Keep it down to 115 (km/h) and you’ll have no trouble,” I’m advised.
A well-worn path leads from the parking area of a provincial information/rest stop through an exquisite boulder-strewn forest that’s covered in a thick blanket of moss. It’s a boreal cloud forest, something exceedingly rare and a wonder to behold. Wooden stairs lead down to the 33-meter high Manitou Falls where, slick with mist from the raging torrent, the pink granite bedrock is covered with day-glow green, orange, and red lichen in such profusion that it appears to be the work of a 60’s surrealism painter. I’ve never seen anything like it before. The river is in full spate and I don’t even attempt to approach the maelstrom of the main channel: these rapids would be fatal even for a world-champion kayaker.
Blink and you miss it. Some place names on the map, like Pictou and Manitou Falls, actually don’t exist as villages. Others, like Magpie, are quite small. This one has a rest area near the harbor pier where a trail leads to a rock formation that is a lookout for whales. The economy of this town, like so many others on the Côte Nord, was built on cod fishing, which no longer exists. Some villages are rough and ragged, others prim and neat, but all are clean--there is no graffiti, no random trash. With boardwalks along the beaches, hand-painted signs identifying local businesses, and small roadside food stands it feels as if I’ve returned to the 1960’s.
East of Mingan the land changes and the highway cuts through a vast plain dotted with countless small pools of dark water that reflect a big sky. This is where tundra intrudes upon the boreal forest and the few trees in existence are dwarf tamarack and spruce. It’s rather surreal and some would even call it bleak, but this landscape is a new experience for me and it has a unique beauty.
Natashquan turns out to be a pretty little town on the Petite Riviére Natashquan with a number of small hotels and a restaurant. It has miles of beautiful sand beach and the warmest water on the Côte Nord, although I suspect “warm” is relative. A boardwalk runs from the new tourism center to the old general store that is now an interpretation center. Between the two sits a small café and ice cream stand that faces the water and offers the best views in town. The old schoolhouse is found behind the church and new school. It’s dedicated to a native son, song-writer/musician Gilles Vigneault and this interpretation center displays artifacts that relate to those persons about whom twelve of his famous songs were composed.
The pavement ends in Pointe-Parent, but Route 138 continues as a well-maintained gravel road for another 18 kilometers into First Nation lands. It’s late in the day and raining, but this last stretch won’t wait until morning. I’ve come too far to stop just short of my goal.
Others have made this journey and their names, inked and scratched into the green and white sign that marks the end of the road, bears testimony to those pilgrimages. I manage to find a blank space and add my moniker, a small gesture disproportionate to the sense of accomplishment by my simple arrival at this spot.I turn the “The Beast” around and ride west, but haven’t turned back: this now a new journey.