Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.
From my last year in high school through my failed career as a college student, Île Ste. Hélène was my refuge as much as it was a breeding ground for youthful melodrama. I’m not a native Montrealer, so the little island-just-off-the-island, home to Expo 67, wasn’t on my radar until my mid-teens, when I met a freckled, gap-toothed redhead who taught me the finer points of playing hooky. (I’d eventually marry that girl, of course.)
We spent an entire spring forgoing Friday classes. Those Fridays found us at the Westmount tree or greenhouse, or wandering the myriad tangled paths of Île Ste. Hélène, being silly and talking about important things like boys and V. We climbed trees and rocks and swam in water so cold I’m still chilled, 27 years later.
When we left high school, we shared our special island to our next generation of friends, instituting (using the power of Dawson Sci-Fi and BBSes) Fireworks GTs. These drama-filled get-togethers were fraught with romance, comedy and other theatrics: The Summer I Prayed He’d Notice Me. The Summer He Did. The Summer It All Fell Apart.
An afternoon in the park stretched into nighttime on the Jacques Cartier Bridge watching the International Fireworks Competition, then the long slow stroll back to the métro. Too-loud giggles. Frantic whispers. Stolen kisses. Aching hearts.
Île Ste. Hélène had a hand in raising me, in shaping my history and awkwardly directing my future. There’s a little bit of me in every particle of soil here.
Nostalgia aside, Parc Jean Drapeau gets two stroller wheels. My instinct was to give it only one, but there are a ton of family-friendly things to do here, like the Biosphere, La Ronde, a spectacular playground and seasonal favourites like the Shriner’s Circus and Féte des Neiges. There is always some sort of activity or event going on on the island.
But because of those many things and because it’s just a small island, it’s impossible to lose yourself here as you might on the mountain or even Angrignon Park. The buzz of the city is always there and walking trails bump into roads at nearly every turn.
Thanks to big events like Piknic Electronik, Heavy Montreal and Osheaga, it’s also dirty and litter-filled. I took a shortcut through the brush in a couple of places and stepped over beer bottles, empty energy drink containers, red disposable cups and all sorts of other detritus. This is not the sort of place you can safely wander off the path.
I hope it finds a way to clean up its act, so maybe my daughter can live out a few dramas here one day.