“You see that yellow sign up there?”
We stood at the Baie-Éternité visitor’s centre deep within Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay, a mess of harnesses and helmets at our feet, as I squinted my eyes and tried to follow our guide’s finger up some 300 metres of granite.
“Yes,” I lied.
“That’s where we’re climbing.”
Our guide was a pocket-sized spitfire named Katherine. She struck me as the type of girl who wore carabiners instead of bracelets and helmets instead of curls. She distributed harnesses and helmets and I looked over at Dan, who shifted from foot to foot with his hands in his pockets, still looking up the cliff. It was the quietest he’d been all week.
From the ground, it hardly looked like humans touched the granite walls at all—at a glance, scaling them seemed impossible. Camouflaged against the rock, the iron path we would be using suddenly appeared, and we were led to mountainside rungs known as via ferrata.
In Italian, via ferrata means iron road, and it’s typically comprised of a set of iron ladders permanently fixed into the side of cliffs. Dating back to 19th-century Germany, farmers in the Alps would embed iron handles into cliffs to reach higher—perhaps greener—pastures. Now, the activity has transformed from pasture to pastime.
Non-climbers can clip carabiners in and out of ladders up the vertical wall to get the incredible view the via ferrata offers without having to have technical climbing skills and with significantly less risk.
Placing my hands around the first rungs, I expected them to feel cold. Though they weren’t remarkable in temperature they were in strength. Dan clipped in and tried pulling back just to test his weight, and Katherine remarked that the handles were rooted so deeply in the rock they could likely support a tank. (Ironic, given that the via ferrata in the Alps were used by troops in the First World War for reconnaissance work.)
But we were not soldiers. Rung by rung, ladder by ladder we clipped in and out, traversing higher and higher until the treetops looked like brush below us. Dan moved faster than I thought he would, given his fear of heights. As I passed under a ladder, my back to the wall, I wondered if seven years of bad luck counted on the side of a cliff; but looking out at the fjords I had all the luck I needed, and I hoped Dan had found the courage to look out.
The slack line in the sky seemed dormant from a distance, but as I stepped onto the thick cord and made my way to the centre it came alive with a force that bucked and bulled against me. I bent my knees, trying to centre my weight over the coarse cable that snaked under my arches, and while one hand gripped the support wire the other outstretched into the abyss.
I might as well have been tight roping across a sound wave!
It was then that the thought of falling was no longer a thought at all; it was a momentary dizziness that made my hand go suddenly weak and cast my vision sideways. For a moment, I wondered if like Charles Robitaille before me, I too should ask for help from God; but the Virgin Mary was out of sight and I found myself across.
Finally, around the bend and just before a suspension bridge, I could see the yellow sign. Katherine skipped merrily ahead, the carabiners jingling like sleigh bells with every step she took on the narrow, foot-wide bridge. It teeter-tottered from side to side as one by one we walked the plank.
From the centre, we paused. There was no ladder left to scale or tightrope to cross. The only thing left to do was admire the view. I was sure we had started climbing in Quebec and ended up in Norway. At 300 metres up, we were eye to eye with the fjords. They sat like sleeping giants in the distance, their thick sweater of trees bathed in the sun’s receding light, their balding faces seemed so much fuller from here.
“We made it!” I said, as Dan braced himself against the handrail, double checking his clips. “How do you feel?” I expected elation, revelation!
“Hungry,” he said.
I should have known.
• • •
Our story ended where we started: all four of us at Will’s farm back in the Eastern Townships, leaning against a tractor, looking at the sky, while a cow mooed in the distance.
“Will, you really need to fix that cow,” Dan said, and we assumed our usual positions.
Will shook his head and Andrew cocked his, looking questioningly at me as I crumpled into a fit of laughter. A blood moon rose, positioned perfectly for an eclipse as a camera clicked, capturing the lunar light that worked so hard to get to us.
We reminisced about our favourite hills, the observatory under the Milky Way, the granite cliffs on the fjords, and how Yolande said Mother Nature would always be there for us when we returned to the earth.
As the eclipse’s receding tide of light revealed a shoreline of stars, we fell into the comfortable silence of travellers who’ve wandered together too long. The Moon fell in line with the Earth’s shadow, in that moment joining our souls to the essential things: to the view and to each other. Yo.