The Manicouagan and Les Monts Groulx
Sunday, June 19
We awoke on Sunday morning to more overcast. Not raining, but still solidly gray. Apart from seeing what sights there were to see along the highway, I had planned today to be the start of a short overnight backpack in the Monts Groulx / Uapishka plateau area - accessible from a trailhead directly along our route.
With our camping gear packed up and stowed away, we resumed our drive north on highway 389. Still paved and still twisty, we made good time, passing by lakes, trees, lakes, and hills. Never far from sight were the large transmission towers from the region's hydro-electric projects. We passed a highway sign marking the 50th parallel of latitude - another sign that we were making our way into the true north.
Highway 389 - Gateway to the north
By mid-morning, we had arrived at the Motel de l'Energie - the motel and service area just below the Manic 5 dam. We chose to do a gas fillup here.
A few minutes north of the rest stop, we reached the Daniel Johnson Dam - a.k.a. Manic 5. It appears as a colossal gray wall spanning for nearly a mile between two low hills. The curves of the arches supporting the wall add to its feeling of immensity. The Manic 5 dam, the largest 'multiple-arch-and-buttress' dam in the world, is quite impressive!
I had hoped to include a tour of this wonder in our trip itinerary. The tours are free, and given four times a day in the summer. Unfortunately, though, tours only started the weekend of June 24 - and today was June 19 - one week too early!
So, instead of a tour, we stopped a few times on the short, winding section of highway as it ascended the right-hand slope under the dam, and at a viewpoint over the beginning of the vast Manicouagan Reservoir at its top. This is one big reservoir - the fifth largest in the world. It is this dam that allows the reservoir to fill up an ancient impact crater to create the so-called 'Eye of Quebec' - a reservoir that is a essentially a massive ring with an island in the middle - over 70 kilometres across.
The top of Manic 5
Once level with the top of the Manic 5 dam, highway 389's asphalt ended, and the road was gravel. Still hilly, we continued north, parallelling the Manicouagan Reservoir. There was then a ten-ish kilometre section of uneven pavement, and then it was back to gravel.
We were approaching the higher, more mountainous country to the east of the reservoir, and we began to encounter more expansive viewpoints, giving us beautiful glimpses to the huge wilderness around us, and of the distant waters of the reservoir. The vegetation had definitely become solidly coniferous, signalling that we were leaving the realm of the deciduous behind in the south. We saw a fair bit of wildlife, including several porcupines and a mother bear and her two cubs.
Reservoir in the distance
After just over an hour or so of driving up and down many hills, we arrived at a small cluster of orange-topped buildings. This was the Relais Gabriel - a sort of outfitter / motel / restaurant that also has gas pumps. Since it was now close to noon, we decided to stop for lunch here. The clientele was a mixture of Quebecers and folks from Labrador - not surprising, I suppose.
Approaching Relais Gabriel
The weather had started to become drizzly again. This didn't bode well for our backpack, but the packaging of our time was fairly tight on this trip, so it was either do the backpack and endure the wet, or skip it entirely. We thought about it for a bit and figured that it was still worth the chance that we'd get some sort of weather break at some point during the 24 hours we'd be up there.
After finishing lunch, another 20 or so minutes of driving on the 389's gravel surface northward brought us to the southern trailhead to the Monts Groulx - the beginning point of our backpack.
Les Monts Groulx
The Monts Groulx are a range of low mountains to the east of the Manicouagan Reservoir. Also known as the Uapishka Plateau, the mountains are low by most standards, averaging around 3,300 feet and reaching only around 3,600 at their highest. However, being this far north, treeline is only around 3,000 feet. There is a lot of terrain in the Monts Groulx that is above this point, and as a result, there is a very extensive area of truly alpine terrain here.
We quickly re-arranged our gear and packed our backpacks, then headed off on the access trail (once you get above treeline, the trail eventually peters out). Our aim was to hike the 6km or so up to treeline, then camp in the open alpine. Early the next morning, we'd climb the closest of the nearby peaks, then return down back to the car and the highway. The plan was tidy: it was short, it got us into the alpine and on top of a peak, and still allowed us to be rolling on the highway towards Labrador by afternoon of the following day. There was no time to lose, so off we went.
We had a rather wet and viewless ascent. The trail was easy enough to follow, just unpleasantly wet and mucky in the mid-section. We arrived at treeline about three hours after starting out and quickly pitched our tent.