The ride from the Langlais cottage at 700 m of elevation to the Saint Lawrence River (elevation almost zero) was a blistering series of terrifying downhills and challenging climbs. Jack, Hilda and Emily were paying for the three weeks spent without their loaded panniers. Still, they stopped at particularly breathtaking overlooks to admire the view (and to slow down their heart rates).
“Mom had some news last night,” said Emily as they looked at the river from a cliff.
“Is everything OK?” asked Hilda.
“Fine. Greg Sprouse is being transferred, and guess who’s coming in to replace him.” Hilda and Jack shrugged. “Frank Daglio!”
“Now that really is a coincidence.”
“According to Mom, Frank asked for Charlottesville after meeting us. Something about being closer to an international airport without having to serve in Headquarters itself.”
“A man after my heart,” said Jack. “I hated Washington duty.”
“It sounds like he’s thinking of racking up frequent flyer miles to and from Amsterdam,” said Emily. “We’ll see how that shapes up.”
They mounted their bicycles and flew down the next ten-kilometre stretch. They stopped just beyond Sainte-Brigitte-de-Laval to eat the picnic lunch that Louise Langlais had packed. Then they rode down to the right bank of the Montmorency River. From there, it was a steady downhill along the Boulevards Raymond and Lloyd Welch to Courville, which was where the built-up suburbs downstream from Québec City ended.
They rode to Montmorency Falls by riding through Villeneuve and along the Route Verte by the Saint Lawrence River. They could see the bridge to the Île d’Orléans and a cable car ride. The island itself was a vast expanse of farmland. Mud flats made the shore unapproachable by boat.
“It’s beautiful,” said Emily, looking at the Falls from the bike path, “but I think I like the Laurentians better.”
“Me, too,” said Hilda. “That was so quiet and clean, wasn’t it?”
“Well, I, for one, am not complaining about a well-paved bike path along a big river,” said Jack. As expected, they rolled into Beaupré about 3 p.m., pausing to take pictures at the Church of the Blessed Virgin, a major pilgrimage site in Canada.
The directions from Jean-Paul Langlais were excellent, but the road was a surprise. They rode the highway north out of Beaupré exactly 900 metres, then stopped in a wide bend in the highway. Woods shaded both sides of the road. They could see a development beyond the woods to the left. The woods on the right were taller and denser.
“That must be it,” said Emily, pointing to the woods on the right.
“What?” said Jack.
“There’s a dirt track between those two trees.”
“So there is. Let’s check it out. There’s nothing else here.”
“Jean-Paul said it was a long, dirt driveway,” said Hilda.
They turned down the dirt track, which was only one vehicle wide. Occasionally they dodged branches that showed signs of having been beat up by passing cars or trucks. About 100 metres into the dark woods, the road became very steep with occasional ruts from rain. Suddenly, it levelled into a clearing right by the bank of the river. Jack caught himself just in time to keep from spilling over, but the two women stopped smoothly and dismounted normally.
“Welcome! I’m glad you made it.” A deep voice with a British public-school accent reached them from the back porch, and a trim man with short grey hair came smiling down the steps. “You must be Jean-Paul’s friends.” He approached them with his hand out. “Jerome Gordon-Smythe. Call me Jerry.”
They shook hands and introduced themselves.
“Jean-Paul’s directions were excellent,” said Jack, “but he didn’t explain the driveway very well.”
“Frightfully sorry about that,” said Jerry. “I hardly ever use it, so it has fallen into disrepair.”
“How do you get in and out?” asked Emily.
“On the river. We hardly ever need to drive anywhere. When we do, we rent a car in Villeneuve and leave the boat there.”
“Makes sense to me,” said Hilda. “None of us has a car.”
Jerry grinned. “Come, let’s get you settled. I want to hear all about your adventures. What little Jean-Paul told me has me as excited as a six-year-old at Christmas!” He led them to the upstairs, where he had three bedrooms, one of which was obviously his home office.
“I hope this will suit you, young lady.” He pointed to the twin bed across from the desk. “The washroom is big, but we have only the one.”
“That will be fine, sir,” said Emily.
“Jerry. You don’t work for me.”
Emily blushed. “Jerry.”
Jerry showed Hilda and Jack to the guest bedroom. Like the office, it had a view of the woods beyond the river.
“I’ll be out on the verandah keeping an eye out for her ladyship. You can take your showers now or later. No need to change clothes for us.”
They opted to clean up, so they took turns using the shower and changed into street clothes.
Jerry was sitting on a verandah looking downriver when Jack came into the living room. Jerry put his book cover down and turned around.
“Did I make that much noise?” Jack asked.
“Not at all. Just that sixth sense. You know.” Jack nodded. “What’ll you have?”
“A beer would be nice.”
“I forgot to chill it.”
“If it’s a good beer, that’s fine.”
Jerry smiled. “A civilized man.” He crossed to the bar and got out two bottles of Ind Coope Long Life. “Have to leave Québec to get this one, but it’s worth it.” They clinked glasses and sat down. “I hope the ladies aren’t powdering too much.”
“They’re not the powder type,” Jack grinned. “But their hair does take longer to dry.”
“Had enough powder on me before the shower.” Both men jumped up to find Hilda pausing at the entrance to the living room. She had her trekking clothes on, shirt and shorts.
“Now, that’s silent,” said Jerry with an admiring smile.
“Are those bottles of Long Life I see on the bar?”
Jerry was already crossing the room. As he poured a mug for Hilda, Emily walked in, also wearing a short trekking outfit.
“Beer for you, too?” Jerry asked.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like something cold, maybe an orange juice.”
“That we have.” Jerry reached into the refrigerator under the bar. Soon everyone was seated on the balcony. The river ran swiftly past the house.
“What’s that roar?” asked Emily.
“The rapids and the Saint Anne Canyon. The white-water rafting ends just around the bend upstream.” He pointed with his mug. “Ah – there’s milady herself.”
A Boston Whaler was coming upstream, the bow waves crashing into the trees and river bank on either side. At the wheel, an athletic-looking woman with a blond ponytail waved to Jerry. She did not slow down as she turned toward the house but went into full reverse to bring the boat to a gentle halt somewhere beneath them. They heard the engine stop. Moments later, she came into the living room from a door next to the stairs from the bedrooms. She was taller than Emily, fair, well-tanned, and the lines on her face spoke of much time on the water, in the wind and sun. Also of much laughter and smiling. Jerry gave her a kiss and turned to the guests.
“Margaret, may I present Major Hilda Paisley, Major Jack Rathburn and you-know-who?”
Emily laughed. Jack rolled his eyes. Margaret Gordon-Smythe reached out to Emily first.
“Emily, so pleased to meet you.” She shook hands with the others. “Please call me Maggie.” Jerry appeared with a glass of white wine. “Thank you, dear. Would you mind bringing up the shopping?”
Jack hastened to accompany Jerry to the boat. The others went to the verandah and sat down. The shadows were already long, and the temperature was dropping, a combination of the tall woods, the steep hills to the west of them and the water rushing by the house.
“This is quite the hideaway,” said Hilda. “I take it you two don’t care for big cities and crowds.”
“This suits us perfectly,” said Maggie. “We have friends everywhere, but we like to be able to reach out on our own terms.”
“We also like not being easy to find,” added Jerry, coming in with Jack from the kitchen. “It allows us to live in something resembling a real retirement.”
Jack and Hilda exchanged glances. “I could use a place like this right now,” she said.
“Me, too,” said Emily.
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like. Jean-Paul only described the barest outlines of your adventures, and I don’t dare trust what I see on the telly. Tell us about it. ”
They spent the next hour recounting their stories, much to the delight of their hosts.
“But what about you?” asked Hilda.
“Some time in the Army and here we are,” said Jerry.
Emily was staring at them. “Jean-Paul said that you were SAS.” Jerry nodded. “That sounds like more than ‘some time in the Army’.”
“Well, most of the good stories haven’t been declassified yet, so I have to hold on a while longer.”
“Jean-Pierre is going into the Canadian Special Forces.”
“That’s partly my fault, you know. I love that boy, and we got along so well. Maryse may never forgive me.”
“Speaking of Maryse – and others I’ve seen,” Emily said, looking at Jack and Hilda, “how did you two meet?”
Maggie laughed. “That story is mostly declassified.”
“The embarrassing parts anyway,” said Jerry with a smile at his wife. “We were in the Falklands – miserable cold operation that. I was leading my first team on a raid on the other side of the hill from Port Howard. We put ashore and did what we came to do, then ran into an irate farmer on the way back to the boat. Our orders were not to engage civilians. We got away from him, but he put a load of buckshot in my derrière as we reached the beach.” He looked at Maggie.
“I had the honour of plucking the little beads out on the way back to their ship.” She winked. “Nice arse, so I decided to keep him.” Emily blushed and giggled.
After the laughter died down, Emily asked, “what were you doing there?”
“Well, it was my boat! The SAS didn’t have anything that could cross the rough water at the time.”
“Maggie already had a reputation throughout the Falklands. She was a one-woman SAR team with that boat. Our commander asked her to lend a hand.” Jerry smiled warmly at his wife.
“Search and Rescue,” said Jerry. “There’s a memorial plaque in the sea rescue station with a list of all the people she brought ashore. And she’s not even dead yet!”
Jack looked at Maggie. “That explains the dramatic approach this afternoon.”
“I had to be careful today,” said Maggie. “Two dozen eggs in the load.”
The banter continued for another half-hour. Then they all moved to the kitchen to continue chatting while the Gordon-Smyths put supper together.
“The nice thing about living here is you can have good English food with the freshest ingredients. The fish and the produce are unbeatable here.” Jerry heated up the deep fryer. “You’ve probably been drowning in wonderful French cuisine, haven’t you?” They nodded. “Tonight, it’s fish and chips and more warm beer.”
The Americans learned that Maggie was born and raised in the Falklands. Jerry came back on leave six months after the war and proposed. They lived all over the world together, but when he had a long deployment, she would fly back to the Falklands until his unit came home.
“The Army was a good life, but you can understand why we like the water and a certain isolation,” she explained.
The yawning started at ten p.m. It had been a long day on the road. In their rooms, the three Americans fell deeply asleep with the background noise of the river.
The next morning over breakfast, Jerry showed them where they would be going.
“There’s no hurry,” said Jerry. “We can get to Rivière Ouelle in less than five hours—”
“Less than three,” Maggie gave them a wicked grin.
“I thought we would let them enjoy the view. Take pictures. That sort of thing.”
“You’re trying to save on fuel again.”
“Not a bad idea, love.”
After breakfast, Jack helped load the dishwasher while Emily scrubbed the pans. Jerry checked out the big boat. Emily, Hilda and Jack double-checked their rooms, then loaded their panniers below to the boat. The mooring area occupied the vast space among the stilts beneath the house, with two slips and a generous dock area around each boat. They carried their bikes down to the boat. Jerry lashed them together and to the life rails on the fantail with bungee cords.
Maggie climbed up to the bridge, fired up the engine and let it purr for a moment. Then she threw the boat into full reverse on the port engine and put a twist on the two screws, churning up the river. Emily and her friends grabbed the rail in surprise as the boat pulled out with its stern pointing neatly upstream. Maggie put the engines ahead slow and let the river carry them to the Saint Lawrence.
“Why not the dramatic show we saw yesterday?” Jack asked Jerry.
“It’s very shallow all the way past the mud flats on the North Shore of the Saint Lawrence. This boat draws more water than the Boston Whaler, so going fast could suck mud into the engines.”
Jack nodded and joined the others.
They came to the channel of the Saint Lawrence River. Maggie increased speed and turned downstream. Emily used her phone to take pictures of the farms on the Île d’Orléans and of Beaupré on the other side. The boat moved nimbly, passing the outbound freighters and keeping to the other side of the river from the inbound ships.
“Is there always this much traffic on the river?” Emily asked.
“There is unless the river or Lake Ontario freezes over,” said Jerry. “We’ve seen that a couple of times.”
They enjoyed a picnic lunch about noon, with Jerry taking a turn at the wheel while Maggie ate. By mid-afternoon, Maggie was bringing the boat alongside the one pier in Rivière Ouelle. It belonged to a friend of theirs, who was visiting relatives in Manitoba.
“Stay in touch,” said Jerry. “You’re welcome together or separately.”
“Anytime,” said Maggie. “It was wonderful to meet you and hear your stories.”
After hugs, the Americans mounted their bicycles and rode up to Highway 132, where the Route Verte led to the end of the Gaspé Peninsula. On the other side of the Ouelle River, they turned left back toward the Saint Lawrence and soon were checking into the Municipal Campground. They bought food for supper and set up their camp half-way back from the shore.
They ate an early supper. With the sun still well above the horizon, Hilda suggested a walk on the beach.
“The sunsets here are unique, and to die for,” she said.
“Swimming?” asked Emily.
“It’s allowed, but I don’t feel like sharing the water with all those ships.”
As the sun came closer to the horizon, campers and neighbours gathered on the beach. A group was singing around a guitar, and a half-dozen campfires were going as the sun slowly fell below the Saint Lawrence.
“That is truly spectacular,” said Jack. “Almost as beautiful as you are.”
Hilda smiled and gave him a hug. “I don’t light up the place.”
“Oh, yes, you do.”
Emily sat immobile on the sand, soaking in the beauty of the moment, enjoying the music nearby, and feeling intensely happy to be on the road with her friends.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,