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.

A walk in the park: Amherst Shore Provincial Park

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

Probably the water doesn’t always smell like sewage. And maybe it wasn’t sewage after all. Maybe the sheet of oil that made brown bubbles on the surface of the otherwise clear water was caused by all the speedboats taking advantage of a perfect summer day.

If I sound grouchy, it’s because all I wanted was to swim in the warm, warm ocean waters that flow through the Northumberland Strait.

Our sweet little cottage is three kilometres west, but the long, flat, slippery rocks there make it nearly impossible to get out far enough to swim. Beatons Bluff is smack between two provincial parks: Tidnish Dock, which we visited briefly two years ago, and Amherst Shore.

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Split in two by the Sunrise Trail, the inland half of Amherst Shore park is reserved for camping — No Picnicking! it declares at the entrance — and the beach is a 10-minute walk away, through a wide rocky rail through the woods.

The beach is about 100 metres long at high tide, tucked into a shallow bay created by treed, 40-foot bluffs. High tide made the beach seem smaller and more private, and we played in the sand and relaxed in beach chairs and wandered waist-deep into the clear water.

Trevor, who is 20 and can in theory wander about without my panicking, walked the shoreline and reported back that the water on the other side of the bluffs was wild and choppy and that ours was comparatively peaceful.

That it was. We traced the paths of butterflies and dragonflies and watched in awe as seabirds danced in formation over the waves. We built sandcastles with uncooperative red sand and decorated them with shells. We waded waist-deep into the water and, eventually, got used to the smell.

two wheelsWe give Amherst Shore Provincial Park two stroller wheels out of a completely arbitrary five. The path to the beach is wide and, though rocky, smooth enough to use a stroller to shuttle all the things one needs at the beach. We didn’t have time to wander the trails, but they appear to be wide mown grass and rocky earth. And even if it isn’t the best park in the world, it is a byproduct of the best ocean in the world, and it’s an honour to spend a few hours sitting quietly near it.

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A walk in the park: Sentier Inter-Centre and Liberator Harry crash site

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

The Montreal Gazette of Oct. 22, 1943.
The Montreal Gazette of Oct. 22, 1943.

We know for sure it was a Tuesday in 1943. What’s less clear is whether the plane went down in the morning, sometime in the early afternoon, or in the dark of night.

We know for sure the weather was terrible and that the good people of St. Donat heard a large plane fly low over their town. It was wartime and they might have been afraid to look outside, and those who weren’t afraid wouldn’t have known which way to look — sound is tricky in the mountains and muffled by heavy fog. Though reports were made, no one in authority appears to have paid them much mind. It was just a little village with a lot of loggers, after all, and there was important war stuff going on, like the loss of a giant Liberator B-24 somewhere near Mont-Joli.

The Liberator was a U.S.-built monster designed to take out U-boats. It became a popular part of the Allies’ arsenal, though some reports say pilots and crew didn’t love it — it was harder to fly than others of its class, and they felt there was a smaller chance of survival in the case of a crash.

Liberator Harry was a training vehicle that flew out of Gander early that October morning, headed for the darling town of Mont-Joli on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. On board was the pilot and 23 soldiers. The weather was terrible, though, as we’ve said, and the flight was diverted to Montreal, 550 kilometres southwest of their destination.

But they got lost in the fog and rain, and sometime — morning, afternoon, evening? — the giant plane roared low over St. Donat and hit the hard rock of la Montagne Noire.

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As the 24 soldiers lay dead on the frozen mountaintop, confusion reigned below. It is clear from a report in the Montreal Gazette two days later that “the most intensive air search ever carried out in eastern Canada” was focused in the wrong place, in the river near Malbaie, 500 kilometres away.

“Every available plane of both the RCAF and the Royal Air Force Transport Command battled ‘diabolical’ flying conditions in a vain search of the missing Liberator.”

The Malbaie police chief told the Gazette travellers told him a big passenger plane had plunged into the river near his town. Dozens of reports came in saying the same thing, but it made no sense. The area had been well searched, and Transport Command figured the plane had crashed in the morning, not afternoon or evening. “A most thorough search of this area has been made and we have found nothing to indicate they are true.”

It would be more than two years till Liberator Harry and its men were found. June 26, 1946, search crews looking for another crash caught a glint on the mountainside and soon spotted Liberator Harry’s unique tail. The mission to the top of the mountain determined that the men had died on impact, and that the plane had caught fire. Only three of the soldiers have been identified.

It remains the greatest military aviation accident on Canadian soil.

A wing of the Liberator B-24 that crashed near St. Donat in 1943 still bears the American star — it was new enough that the Canadians hadn't had time to repaint it.
A wing of the Liberator B-24 that crashed near St. Donat in 1943 still bears the American star — it was new enough that the Canadians hadn’t had time to repaint it.

four wheels

Sentier Inter-Centre, the trail that leads to the crash site, gets four stroller wheels for story, on the understanding that this is a hike not well suited for younger kids who might not be able to walk uphill for six kilometres and absolutely not for people who need to bring their stroller with them.

We went in the middle of spring, but experienced three seasons on our way uphill. The lower two kilometres were an easy walk on wide trails covered in last fall’s leaves and woven through with green shoots. The middle two were a good combination of thick mud and some snow, forgiven because of the beautiful way the sunlight, unobstructed by leaves, glinted off golden birches and kept our backs warm even as our feet got colder. The last two kilometres were a serious slog through knee-deep snow, but well worth the time and effort, especially if you’ve packed food, water, and dry socks.

The crash site is in two sections about 100 feet apart, the second featuring a monument and interpretive plaques. We picnicked at the summit — 2,925 feet — overlooking a wing and landing gear in the sunlight and were not bothered by ghostly chills.

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A walk in the park: Cathedral Grove & Little Qualicum Falls

cathedral grove101Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

You can almost taste the green. There is the nearly yellow of new growth and the nearly black of the moss, and every shade between those. It’s inside your nose, sweet but wet. Heavy.

It is raining, but the forest canopy keeps you drier than you expected. It is made of shadows and it is muffled, like there’s loose cotton in your ears. Like you’re in church.

This is Cathedral Grove.

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This is our nation’s ancient architecture: 800-year-old Douglas firs and the red cedars that were once used to carve totem poles and hollow out canoes.

These trees are alive. I mean really alive — they watch you and I think they laugh a little behind your back. Be still and you’ll see their faces in your peripheral vision. Rounded trunks become laughing bellies, moss-covered branches are arms, knots are eyes and noses, eyebrows are carved by nature into the bark.

“Cathedral” is a European invention, but the godliness you feel here is older. So much older.

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Just down the road from Cathedral Grove is Little Qualicum Falls. It is just as powerful, but it is not quiet and it is not peaceful. You can hear the angry cascade as you approach the forest, like static on a radio turned up too high.

We are still in rainforest here, and it’s dark under the canopy, so the white water shines as it bubbles and races down the mountain, eroding rock and devouring plants that have the misfortune to fall in.

It’s not safe here. That water is hungry, and some of the paths are steep and marked with tangled roots that can trip a careless traveller. The thick black mud under your feet is slippery and makes a threatening sucking sound every time you lift your shoes.

four wheels
I’m awarding MacMillan Provincial Park (Cathedral Grove) and Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park four stroller wheels (out of a completely arbitrary five), with the caveat that I went alone, without children or strollers, and walked only a small part of Qualicum Falls at the tail end of a rainy day.

There are kilometres of trails at the Falls, and although I spent my time in the dangerous portion right by the falls, there are apparently lovely swimming holes and wider, family-friendly paths throughout the park. There is also a campsite. The parks are midway between Parksville and Port Alberni on Highway 4.

If you do both parks, as I did, save Cathedral Grove for the end. Its quiet beauty will offset all that raging water and close the day on a spiritual note.

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A walk in the park: Wanuskewin Heritage Park

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

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I watched the sun rise over an ancient Medicine Wheel, and I wept.

I had lost my way twice while stumbling toward this sacred space, first when following the predawn blush in the otherwise black western sky, and again as the horizon pinked in the east.

Later I would find patches of ice on the valley floor, but I wasn’t shivering because of the cold. Sometimes you step into a place or a time that feels like home, and it shivers through you so hard you have to just stand there, or walk the circle, and wonder whether it’s disrespectful to speak a word to the ancestors.

Blackfoot, Chipewyan, Sioux, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Sarcee, Cree, Saulteaux, Shoshoni, Nez Perce, Métis, and countless before them whose names we will never know gathered here, worshipped and hunted here. They had for 6,000 years — some of the archeological dig sites at Wanuskewin are older than the pyramids.

I’m not sure how long I spent at the Medicine Wheel, and even if I could remember everything I said there, in a low whisper, I would not record it here. I stayed until the sky had changed from black to orange and grey to blue and white. When geese broke the morning silence, I said a final, inadequate prayer and stepped back onto the trail that leads into the valley.

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The prairies are not as flat as people think. The plains at Wanuskewin harbour a bowl-shaped valley that dips suddenly from behind a magnificent interpretive centre. What looks like a flat expanse of land from the roadway collapses into buffalo jumps and toward the river.

Here, generations of First Nations gathered not just for the rich bounty of game and plant life but to be protected from freezing winds. It was a wintering and meeting place for nomadic tribes and continues to be an important space to bring together aboriginal peoples and their allies.

With my back to the Medicine Wheel, I walked slowly back to the interpretive centre. The birds were waking in earnest — geese again, and two brown songbirds in the long grass, a call from by the river. There was a fast knocking — a woodpecker, maybe? A beaver? The barking again.

Sound works strangely in this valley, which is marked by ancient tipi rings, an impressive buffalo pound, and a gently curving portion of Opimihaw Creeak, which branches off from the great Saskatchewan River. A bubbling brook flows under and above ground so that one can hear it just over there, but not at all right here. Imagine, a sign urges, what it was like to hear a hundred buffalo come stampeding from the land above. Think of it too hard and your throat will tighten in awe.

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A stand of trees stood out against the grey and brown because there were strips of material wrapped round them. These sacred cloths, some bright, some starting to fade, had been tied in memory of loved ones, as one might light a candle or lay a flower.

As I approached the mouth of the little valley, a herd of something — antelope, I think — went before me. They knew I was there. One kept stopping in her tracks, watching me while she stood still as the medicine boulders.

“It’s okay, lady,” I whispered. “I’m on my way out.”

She lowered her head, seemed to meet my gaze again, and bolted off over the mouth of the valley, after her family. It took a full minute for my breath to return.

four wheels

Wanuskewin Heritage Park6Wanuskewin Heritage Park gets four stroller wheels (out of a completely arbitrary five). It is awesome in the purest sense of the word.

It is one of the longest-running archaeological digs in Canada, with sites representing each important archaeological age for the past 6,000 years. Interpretive signs are useful but not intrusive, and written to engage a hiker and encourage them to imagine themselves in another time. Trails are narrow and blend in with the land, which has gentle hills and sweeps down toward the river. Wildlife are curious but keep to themselves.

I wasn’t able to spend much time in the interpretive centre because I was on my way out of town, but everyone I talked to spoke passionately about it. This space, whose name is Cree for “being at peace with oneself,” is clearly a treasure for Saskatonians.

It’s a 15-minute drive from the centre of Saskatoon, just a touch north of airport. It is open year-round and admission is just $4-$8.50. It also boasts events and education programs.

A walk in the park: Mount Lee in Griffith Park

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

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LOS ANGELES — I don’t understand the sky in L.A. It’s that shade of unbelievable blue you see in movies — maybe only Hollywood believes in that blue.

It is cloudless and lustrous and optimistic. Yet if your eyes wander toward the horizon, to the mountains that are the only thing hampering the sprawl of this ridiculous city, a choking haze softens their edges and blurs their lines. Look straight up and it’s blue as day, look sideways and it’s grey with pollution.

And the heat. How can one live here and think blue indicates cool? It’s the scorching colour at the base of a flame.

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We — two fellow Montrealers and I, visiting L.A. for a conference — thought we would avoid the worst of that heat by starting our hike to the Hollywood sign early in the day. Even then, we checked and double-checked with each other that attempting this walk was something we all wanted to do.

“You’re both okay with it?” one of the party asked, not for the first time (nor for the third).

“Of course she is,” her husband said, somewhere between a chuckle and a guffaw, gesturing toward me. “She’s —“

“Stubborn?” I finished for him, chuckling myself. My tale of getting lost and not asking for help was hours fresh. But it wasn’t about being stubborn. It was about the story (it’s always about the story).

* * *

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It was the fastest divorce granted in L.A., back in 1903. He had shot her in the head, after all.

Let’s back up a minute, to 20 years earlier, when a rough, uneducated Welsh immigrant arrived in North America determined to find his fortune.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith became a reporter, then a mining correspondent. Eventually he began consulting for mining companies, and that under-the-table side job was very lucrative.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith began to dress flamboyantly, strut about town and generally spread pompousness wherever he went. He became known for his arrogance, for being a bit of a shit, and because he couldn’t stop making money. He had a bevy of unwed socialites to choose from, and he chose poor Christina Mesmer, or Tina, who was as rich as she was elegant.

Puffed up with pride with his lovely bride and his situation in general, Griffith Jenkins Griffith bestowed gifts onto his adopted city of Los Angeles, including the 3,000 acres that would become Griffith Park.

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And then he started to crumble. He secretly drank and was said to be paranoid, claiming while on holiday in Santa Monica that people were trying to poison him.

According to the Griffith Park History Project, “Christina Griffith was addressing a few last postcards and beginning to gather her things. Her husband (who was certain she had been conspiring against him with the pope), entered the room with a prayer book in one hand and a revolver in the other. Unfortunately, he handed her the prayer book.”

She was shot in the head, but Tina, later called “the socialite who would not die,” survived when she fell or jumped through a window and landed on the roof below, though she was disfigured and half-blind.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith was sentenced to just two years in prison, thanks in part to his unique plea: “alcohol insanity.” Tina was granted a divorce in a legal proceeding that lasted four and a half minutes.

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As part of his penance after leaving San Quentin in 1912, Griffith Jenkins Griffith tried to give Los Angeles $100,000 to build an observatory on Mount Griffith, claiming he wanted to repay his debt to society by “opening the heavens to the common people.” While he’d been put away, the city had renamed the hill Mount Hollywood, and they turned their noses up at his scandal-tainted money.

But Griffith Jenkins Griffith had the last word, leaving the money and explicit instructions in his will to build the observatory. It was completed in 1935, 16 years after his death.

two wheels

I’m giving Griffith Park 2½ stroller wheels out of a completely arbitrary five, with these caveats: I only did the Hollywood Sign Trail and spent some time getting lost after dark. On a personal level, the sign trail rates much higher because I was with fun people hiking to the kitschiest of the kitsch.

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Public transit to the park is kind of crappy, especially since it’s in the middle of the city (but parking is free if you drive there). The scenery is spectacular, but there are no trail makers whatsoever, making one wonder whether the city of Los Angeles is just trying to pick off tourists.

We hiked Mount Lee (from which you can see the observatory) on a trail that was clean and smooth. It took us about two hours, though we stopped just short of the sign itself. At 521 metres, the hill is nearly twice as high as Mount Royal. We also took some time to check out Bronson Caves, a filming location for the Batcave and one of the most beautiful places in North America.

I wouldn’t attempt this hike with young children, though I did see (very fit) people with strollers and carriers. Bring lots of sunscreen and water and keep going till you hit those rare spaces where the mountain itself provides a foot and a half of shade. Have a snack at the top and marvel at how beautiful brown and blue can be, whether you understand the sky or not.

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