A walk in the park: Fort Chambly

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

I don’t know, maybe Parks Canada employees train alongside the Disney people or something. Because these folks are happy.

In our travels, we come into contact with service providers ranging from gas station attendants to hotel clerks to small businesspeople making a go of it to regular Janes working for big corporations. Most make a true effort to be kind even when their heart isn’t in it.

But people who work in parks, we have found, are consistently friendly and helpful.

And of those people who work within the parks systems here and in the U.S., the kindest, the ones with the biggest smiles, and those who clearly love their jobs more than most people on earth, work for Parks Canada.

And they should be proud. From the Parks Canada website, here’s their job description:

We are guardians of the national parks, the national historic sites and the national marine conservation areas of Canada.
We are guides to visitors from around the world, opening doors to places of discovery and learning, reflection and recreation.
We are partners building on the rich traditions of our Aboriginal people, the strength of our diverse cultures and our commitments to the international community.
We are storytellers recounting the history of our land and our people – the stories of Canada.

I recently wrote an article about Fort Chambly in Quebec, to which I will be awarding stroller wheels in a moment. A note from the heritage presenter I interviewed was sure to include not only himself, but “all my fellow guides.” That sense of community is a powerful thing — how great it must feel to look forward to getting to work every day.

Tap here to read the story: Fort Chambly: Bring your family to war in the 17th century, via the Montreal Gazette.

We are awarding four strollers wheels (out of an arbitrary five) to Fort Chambly. It might look like little more than four stone walls, but we swear it’s bigger on the inside.

Children can wear French soldier uniforms throughout their tour, play a scavenger hunting game and are engaged in a hundred other ways, alone or alongside guides.

Beyond the fortification, the grounds are immaculate, and seem to be a meeting ground for the entire community. There are picnic tables, trails, bike paths, and a nearby cemetery that is crumbling and rich in history. The Chambly Rapids roll past, filled with fish and birds and providing water to small creatures that will poke their heads out if you’re very very still.

There were two men practicing sword fighting when we were there, and a squirrel trying to hone in on a picnic, and there was a wedding, and a quiet boy fishing where he wasn’t supposed to be.

The park is completely free throughout 2017 with the Parks Canada Discovery Pass that celebrates Canada’s 150th birthday. Want to work or volunteer for Parks Canada? Go here and hunt around.

A walk in the the park: La Mauricie National Park

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

Some trails in La Mauricie National Park are perfect for Ski-Dooing.
Some trails in La Mauricie National Park are perfect for Ski-Dooing.
Ski-Dooing on a mountainside in La Mauricie National Park.
Ski-Dooing on a mountainside in La Mauricie National Park.

The first time I drove to La Mauricie National Park, I was all alone and I thought I knew what sort of adventure I was setting myself up for.

I wanted to write about the free-for-2017 Discovery Pass, and La Mauricie was the national park near me that was open in winter, so I dropped my family in Otterburn Park for winter camping with their Beaver and Cub troupes and headed (later than I meant), north toward the park.

After several hilarious-in-retrospect adventures with an ancient GPS, I found myself alone with Joe the Truck on mountain roads that were sheer ice with packed snow over them. Plows had spent the winter clearing the road and building great snowbanks on either side, meaning there was almost no way I’d find myself ditched if I slid too exuberantly. It was like bowling with the kiddie bumpers up.

We had so much fun on the road, up and down, side to side, around curves and past a covered bridge, that I was barely disappointed when the GPS lead me directly to the wrong entrance to the park — an entrance that was closed for the winter. Hey, y’all, sometimes it’s just about the drive.

Nope. There's more road and forest out there, but Joe the Truck and I weren't allowed to check it out.

Nope. There’s more road and forest out there, but Joe the Truck and I weren’t allowed to check it out.You can click through here to find out what happened when I went back the next weekend with most of my family to try my hand at winter camping.

I give La Mauricie National Park three (completely arbitrary, out of five) stroller wheels. The trails were great and we loved the way station where we could start a fire and share our marshmallows with other travellers. More than half the park was closed for winter, and trail maps weren’t super easy to follow. We hope to bring it up to four or more stroller wheels when we go back during the summer.

Find out how to get your Parks Canada 2017 Discovery pass (it’s free this year).

Inside La Mauricie National Park, several trails were open for the season.
Inside La Mauricie National Park, several trails were open for the season.

On the banks of Lake Champlain, the scars of floods and fires

lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-nyPLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
Lakeside Apartments was already drowning. Hurricane Irene just held it under a minute to finish the job.

The brown, concrete complex on the edge of Plattsburgh was built in 1960 and has the open, geometric elements that are a hallmark of that time. One corner points toward Lake Champlain, looking for all the world like the nose of a ship at the edge of the beach. Only it has run aground.

I don’t know what it was like in the 1960s. No one talks about its heyday, if it had one, in which perhaps families arrived in slick, metal cars full of beach umbrellas and archaic societal attitudes.

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The units were occupied by low-income, mostly short-term tenants when Lake Champlain flooded in May 2011, washing away the beach and flooding the property. Lakeside Apartments was evacuated of about 200 people who were told they’d be able to move back later that summer. But that wasn’t to happen.

First there was a fire, in the weeks following the flood, that damaged several units when a squatter is alleged to have left incense burning in a shrine.lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-ny8Then, in August, Hurricane Irene. 

The Category 3 storm tore up the Caribbean, and eastern United States, killing at least 53 along the way. She flooded Long Island and devastated the Catskills. In the Adirondacks, she caused landslides on her way to Canada, where power lines and buildings were damaged as far inland as Montreal.

And, of course, the Lakeside Apartments would never recover.

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“Right now it really is a distressed property,” Mayor James Calnon told the Press Republican last year. “We  want to get it out of distress, and we hope that will happen.”

“That” is a development project proposed when the land was sold in 2014 by Montreal businessman Collin Nieme, according to the Press Republican. If all goes well (though “goes well” is a matter of perspective), the land will be gentrified, with long-term leases and fancy hair salons.

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The Lakeside, at last, might be out of distress. For now, it is broken and smells of ash and worse things. Though police are said to drive by when they think of it, no one stopped me from wandering around the property, though I had to avert my eyes when I turned the corner to the lake side and made eye contact with a woman carrying out some delicate business in the back seat of a car.

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Through the blinds: Once-removed from motel theatre

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
The drama played out in muffled sounds across the smooth black parking lot of the motel.

Knocking first. Insistent. Hollow. Without echo, although the long low brick was mirrored on our side.

We lifted our second-storey blinds enough to spy on a blond woman pacing on the asphalt, phone in hand, periodically banging on the door, circling a car that was black but for the orange “city taxi” sign on top. The other side of the motel was mostly low-income housing, monthly rentals in front of which were colourful plastic chairs and swept-clean walkways. The curtains were drawn on all but two: through those windows we could see a large TV flickering; another had a fox skin on one wall and at least three taxidermied heads on the opposite wall. 

We didn’t want to get involved in the theatre downstairs, but I was in the midst of an allergy attack and my meds were in the car. Melani took her time and reported back, Benadryl in hand.

“I think the person inside called her, and she’s worried about whatever she heard.” The idea gave the flat thumping a more ominous tone, made this feel like something other than a lovers’ tiff.

There were words exchanged between the woman and the cab-driver, and the woman and a man who was sitting nearby, in front of his own motel unit. We couldn’t make out individual words.

A pattern emerged, more frantic with each repetition: knock, say a few words to the man, or the cabbie, pace, knock again. Melani was dying to help, because she’s like that. I was dying for her to, because I can’t stand not knowing the story. It seemed impossible that this one could have a positive ending. We hunkered down and hoped it wouldn’t escalate dangerously, peeking out the blinds less and less often.

“There’s an ambulance there now,” Melani hissed some time later, and my stomach flipped. The cab was gone, and the paramedics were pulling on gloves, leaving their doors open as they spoke briefly with the woman. The man who had been sitting on his front stoop got up, stood closer to her. There were people on the upper balcony — but not on our side, which was made up more of transient weekend visitors, not long-term residents as across the lot.

A paramedic banged on the door and waited. From across the way and through the dark, we could see the woman’s panic rising. The paramedic looked over his shoulder at his partner, but we couldn’t read his expression. A police car pulled up and parked behind the ambulance with its lights off. The cop got out of the car slowly, and he seemed perfectly relaxed. He hung back, staying out of the paramedics’ way, but within sight of the other players in the drama.

The paramedic put a hand on the window, looked back at his partner again. He did the one thing the woman, in her fear and excitement, hadn’t thought of: He pushed the window open. He leaned his head inside and yelled something — a name we couldn’t make out. He yelled again, then stepped back.

The entire complex was still but for the carnival lights of the ambulance.

The door cracked open and then, a breath later, was pulled all the way open by an elderly woman with a cane. The paramedic said something to her, and she must have answered him, because he poked his head into the room, then turned away and shrugged at his partner. They each stripped off their white gloves and returned the ambulance.

We put the blinds down for a few minutes — spying was fully indecent now that we knew there was no danger. Still, the next time we peeked, there was a pile of things on the walkway in front of the woman’s room. Residents were in motion, too — the blond woman with the phone, the man who had been sitting to watch, someone else from an upper floor. They rushed up and down the central stairs, heads together, into and out of a different room. The taxi was back. The driver didn’t get out this time, though he popped open the trunk. The blond and the man had a brief, intense conversation that ended with a hug.

When the taxi pulled away with the blond inside, every door closed and most lights flipped off.

The motel was silent, as though nothing had happened at all.

The not-quite ghost town of Venosta, Quebec

VENOSTA, Que.
We were inspired to spend a weekend in the municipality of Low when an opinion piece on the importance of saving Quebec’s ghost towns came across my desk. We have gone ghost-town hunting in Pennsylvania and in Texas, but searching in our own back yard had never occurred to us.

Venosta, the ancestral town of the writer, isn’t strictly a ghost town, as many homes are obviously lived in and the lush land is still farmed. Settled primarily by Irish immigrants in the 1800s, this region in the Gatineau Hills about 50 kilometres north of Ottawa is an agricultural and logging area, and so has benefited and suffered from the historic highs and lows of those industries.

We got more than we bargained for with our rented cottage in Low, and a little less than we expected in the ghost town, a collection of picturesque falling-down buildings surrounded by high grass, and fields and trees beyond.

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No rest for the wicked in this cabin in the woods

GATINEAU HILLS, Que.
I’m pretty sure that Airbnb was haunted.

I didn’t realize it right away. We pulled in just before midnight, parking to the side of the white bungalow. A stone’s throw away, across the drizzled grass, was a white church, its windows dark.

The wet fog and mist turned to heavy rain as I cut the engine and we dashed onto the wooden porch, trying not to make too much noise, though we couldn’t see our closest neighbours. A lone streetlight a hundred metres away highlighted the outline of barren road twisting away from us.

barren dark night road streetlight

The front door had art-deco stained glass that vibrated as Melani worked at the lock. The sounds were swallowed by the rain and our giggles as we burst into the cottage.

Directly in front of us, a vaguely glowing rectangle, when lit, morphed into a giant painting of an owl holding a ball of fire, or the earth, or sitting on a shining egg-soul or somesuch. Opposite this horned monster was an ancient off-white and rose piano intricately carved and lovingly propped on its one good leg.

owl painting

This discordant music and art room was separated from the rest of the house by sweeping black curtains. I pulled them apart to step through, thinking of the owner, “she’s pagan,” as one might realize “she’s Irish” or “she likes owls.” There was a collage of pagan flourishes on the wall over a dozen crystals placed carefully and exactly in a cross pattern on a round altar. The collage said: “Life deeply loves you.”

Yet as we explored the house, lighting corners, we turned up more spiritual imagery: there were votive candles and angels, Native American wards, Cinco de Mayo and vodoun pieces, burnt sage. A Buddhist shrine. Tibetan prayer cloths. There were candles and incense and crystals on every flat surface.

art and protection

“She’s covering all her bases,” I thought, trying to ignore the foreign creaks and gurgles coming from the dim kitchen. “What is she protecting herself from?”

I was following four-year-old Jilly to the second storey when she said, in her way, “I like the stairs in this haunted house, Mum.” I stopped dead.

haunted airbnb piano 2“Why on earth would you say that it’s haunted?” I asked, my voice an octave higher than I’d intended. She was already on the landing, so talked down to me: “The floorboards creak. Floorboards only creak in haunted houses.” She demonstrated on a loose section of hardwood in front of a darkly stained door labeled “Private.”

The rain had slowed to an unnervingly rhythmic staccato on the tin roof and we could hear the splashing of the creek behind the house, and the fertile cries of frogs and bugs. With no moon or stars and the streetlight faded into the mist, the world was black outside the windows. I decided I would not be afraid in this old wooden house that was trying so hard to be welcoming and to fend off things that might scare us.

I opened a downstairs door expecting the promised third bedroom and instead found a large mudroom hung with man-shaped coats and rubber-soled shoes and there, against the inky window, was a strange shape with broken curlicues. I leaned in closer and found myself staring hard into brown eyes that were judging or longing, framed by a sepia-toned face and hair that hinted at romance. The woman in the picture wore puffed sleeves and ribbon and a pearl choker. I looked at her, and she was looking right back at me.

photo in the closet

A room away, Jilly had sat at the piano and was playing something tuneful. Yet no one has ever taught her how to play.

I tripped over my ankles backing out of the closet and shut the door. I don’t remember what I said to Melani, but I know I told her she wasn’t to open the door again. Searching for a wine glass I found the stash of extra votive candles, incense and tarot cards. The owner was on a mission to keep this home safe and grounded. Who were we to doubt her?

Yet I sat for a long time with my back to the wall, and I would not look at the closet door.

low quebec united church