Quebec’s Forillon National Park is perfect for a spell of wildlife spotting. But as EMILY COLSTON discovers, it’s not for the faint of heart.

“Ohmygodabear!” We stopped dead in our tracks, as the hulking black furball, which had just emerged from the bushes about 10 metres in front of us, swung its head around and eyed us up. “What do we do now?”

Ever since we’d arrived in Canada two weeks earlier, we’d been joking about running into bears while hiking. In reality, we thought it would never happen so hadn’t the first clue what to do if it did. So when we got to Forillon National Park and saw the ‘Bear in area’ signs, and our guidebooks lacked a section on ‘what to do when a vicious bear attacks you’, we sought the advice of a local hostel proprietor.

“What should we do if we see a bear?” I asked as he advised us on which trail to take through the park. I still considered it pretty unlikely that this would ever happen, but I thought it best to be prepared.

“Oh no, you won’t see a bear,” he said. Phew. He went on to say that the trail we were taking was pretty popular, and as bears don’t like to be around people too much, they tend to steer well clear. As long as we made enough noise as we went along, the bears would stay away.

No advice on what to do should the unthinkable actually happen. Hence, when the bear (whom I shall refer to as Boris, though in Canada wild bears are known only by numbers, eg ‘Bear 73’) popped out on the trail in front of us, we hadn’t a clue what to do.

First we froze. Then Boris looked at us and made a kind of low growling noise. So we decided it might be a good idea to back away slowly. It kept staring at us as we took one, two, three slow paces backwards up the trail. I stopped. I needed a picture of this. Slowly I reached into my backpack for my camera. My partner Dave kept backing away. Boris emerged from the bushes and lumbered into the middle of the track. He was a North American black bear, which we later discovered from our guidebook are “dangerous and unpredictable”, and by the look of him I figured he was a young adult – not yet fully grown but plenty big enough to take a chunk out of you if he so desired. I lined up a fantastic shot.

Then my batteries died. I stopped worrying about this potentially deadly animal and started fretting about what my editor would say when I told her I’d missed the perfect shot for the story. I looked back at the (rightly so) cautious Dave, who by this stage had backed a good three or four metres further away from Boris than I had. Boris was still in the middle of the trail, and still giving us concerned looks. He growled again.

“What are you doing?” Dave said. “Forget the picture and back up some more. You’re too close.” I took a few steps back. Boris eyed me warily, and I backed up some more. Dave and I held our breath as Boris decided we weren’t worth his worry and went on his merry way, manoeuvring his bulk up the embankment to forage for something else. It looked like we weren’t going to be on the menu this afternoon.

We stood back and watched him combing through the grass for about five minutes, contemplating our brush with possible death and/or mauling. My legs were shaking, from excitement and fear, and my pulse was racing faster than a greyhound on steroids.

A bear. We’d actually seen a bear. And so close. As Boris disappeared again into the undergrowth, we continued on our way, exhilarated by our brush with Ursus Americanus. We saw a bear. It didn’t eat us. And that’s pretty damn cool.

The Gaspesie

Protruding into the Gulf of St Lawrence, the Gaspé Peninsula, or Gaspésie as it’s known to the locals, seems to be a secret that few besides the Québecois have uncovered, but in my mind it’s one of the best parts of the French province. With the towering Appalachians, thick forests, cliff-hugging coastal roads, wildlife to spare and a super-friendly attitude, what’s not to like?

The eastern side of Canada may not be as ‘spectacular’ as the Rockies in the west, but this unspoiled part of Québec sure comes close. Driving along the winding coast road, the views are simply stunning, punctuated by lighthouses and little towns every 10km or so, each inhabited by Québec’s most friendly denizens.

The peninsula is also protected by many parks, including the rugged Parc de la Gaspésie, home to the Chic Choc mountains (a favourite with hikers), and the easily accessible Forillon National Park, located right at the tip of the Gaspésie. We took the none-too-strenuous hike out to the marvellous Vieux Cap Gaspésie which takes you to the very tip of the peninsula, a lighthouse atop 150m cliffs and the sea stretching out on three sides. It’s a haven for wildlife enthusiasts – if you want to follow in our footsteps and encounter a black bear, this is one of the best places in Canada to do it.

Off-shore, there are whales galore, or if you want to snack on the wildlife too, there’s sumptuous seafood to be had – you can even go out to catch your own criminally scrumptious crabs in the morning and they’ll cook ’em up for you at the hostel for dinner. If you’re looking for a gorgeous, chilled-out place to explore, you can’t go past the Gaspé’s great outdoors.

• Emily Colston travelled courtesy of Destination Quebec UK. She stayed at the Auberge International Ste-Anne-des-Monts (+1 418-763 7123), booking through Rates start at C$24 per night for bed and breakfast.