A walk in the park: Parc de Plaisance

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Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

PARC DE PLAISANCE, Que.— I’ve spent a good part of my Canadian life putting nickels in vending machines and parking meters and things, but Saturday was the first time I’d seen beavers in the wild. If we hadn’t gotten lost, it wouldn’t have happened.

When I checked in for a pontoon ride to the waterfall at Parc de Plaisance near Gatineau, the lady told me we had enough time to visit the boardwalk and observation tower before the boat left. Instead, we sat by the river and ate strawberries and cherry tomatoes and soaked in the pretty. This little strip of Earth is so breathtaking. In my mind it’s what foreigners must picture when someone says “Canada.”

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After the ride to the misty, roiling waterfalls, we chose an easy trail that snaked along the river. It was a little more than two people wide, but shared with bicyclists. There were many smaller trails that disappeared into woods and closer to the water, but they hadn’t opened yet for the season.

Now, we’re pretty good at this. We’ve been trekking woods and parks together for a quarter of a century and 17 of those years have been with a child in tow. We pack extra diapers and water, food and toys, cameras and notebooks and sometimes a map. But excepting our brief outing last month, when it was barely not winter, this was our first hike of the season. I guess that’s why we forgot bug spray.

Please imagine that each sentence from here on is punctuated not with periods, commas and dashes but with an awkward slapping Dance of Mosquito Death.

We took a right-hand fork into swampland to the soundtrack of a hundred birdcalls. We recognized a few by sound or feather: robins, sapsuckers, woodpeckers, ducks, red-winged blackbirds. The bumblebees were giant and loud, leaving us to the mosquitoes while they went about their business. Brief pauses in birdsong left us in complete silence.

trilliumOh! And the trilliums! Ontario’s provincial flower is notorious for stubbornly not growing when you want them to, but left to their own devices in the woods of Quebec, they patiently line paths and create little patchwork blankets of white and yellow on the sides of hills. When I was 12, a friend’s dad yelled at me (I hadn’t met him before and was never yelled at—I was devastated) because I was standing on his trillium bed while we tried to climb the fence.

We curved around the tip of the park and came to another crossroads. There was no boardwalk. No observation tower, which you might think would be visible over the trees. We pulled out the map. Turned it upside down. I pointed at where I thought we were. Pointed at the tower, which was nowhere near where I thought we were. Melani pointed down the trail. “It must be that way.”

“That’s east.”

“Yes, I know.” She wasn’t talking to me like I was a child. Almost. But not quite. “The sun rises in the east, sets in the west.”

I quoted a little Shakespeare. The sun was over our shoulders. The baby was asleep.

“Well, we can go that way if it’s what you really want.” I was also not talking to her like she was a child. “Or we can go back, like the map suggests, and find the path we missed.”

We did it my way, but she retaliated by making my calorie-watching self dig the Crunchie bars out of the backpack.

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And that’s when we saw the beaver, cutting a water trail from one shore to the other, his nose just visible. He was too fast and too far away for me to snap a picture, which was good because it meant I was able to watch him clearly on the crisp water, not through a viewfinder. When he reached our shore he poked his head up for a moment, like a gopher in its hole might, and disappeared into the underbrush. We waited for more, but he’d given us all the show we were going to get.

So we went back, like the map suggested, and found the road not travelled. Except Melani thought that wasn’t right, either. “The one we want is near the main road.”

“But the main road is right there! Look! Cars!”

She shrugged. “I’m telling you it’s not right.”

We had about 45 minutes till our next boat ride. “We can try it, or we can keep going back.”

She shrugged. Again. “Okay, we’ll take it.”

strollerWe didn’t take it far before we were stopped by a chain. Not sure whether it was too keep us in or others out, we lifted the stroller over it. Because we’re rebels like that. While walking along the grassy shoulder of the main road, my phone rang (I’ve never had a phone ring while on a hike—I’m not sure I like it). The lady from the visitor’s centre let us know that our cruise was cancelled because we were the only ones who’d signed up.

When we got our refund, we did the unthinkable and asked for directions. The boardwalk was—you guessed it—farther east. But we’d been on our feet adventuring for more than four hours so … we drove. After five minutes of sitting, I wasn’t inclined to get out of the car. Melani promised me tadpoles and more pretty and since getting my own way hadn’t gone so well an hour before, I hauled my sorry self out. I’m ever so glad I did.

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The floating, zigzagging boardwalk over the lake is clearly the jewel in Plaisance’s crown. It’s a swaying, gentle walk on water. A beaver dam—condos?—abutted the wooden structure. We saw two of its occupants blazing a trail through the water. Quietly I kept my eyes out for more as I climbed the tower.

I didn’t see any more, but the observatory offered a great view of the boardwalk, and a grand sense of accomplishment.

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Parc de Plaisance gets three stroller wheels (out of five). It’s positively lovely and the boat tours are relaxing and fun (the park made an exception for us early in the season, but be warned that children under 3 are not generally allowed on the pontoons).

There was no playground for kids to run off their last bit of steam. The trails could be more clearly marked, and having pedestrians and cyclists share a narrow path is just a bad idea.

The park is about 150 kilometres northwest of Montreal and 65 kilometres northeast of Ottawa. Entrance to the park is $6.50 per adult, $3 for children 6 and up. Or get a yearly pass to all of Quebec’s parks for $58.50 ($117 for a family). Activities, boat rides, bike rentals and camping are extra. Check the Sepaq website for details.

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