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.

amherst shore provincial park


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.

Little Qualicum Falls1

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.

The truth about glamping

oka huttopiaOKA PROVINCIAL PARK — I hate camping. It’s a thing with me.

Sometimes friends give me reasons that I should love camping and the undertone sometimes feels like, “oh, you hate nature,” or “oh, so you’re a princess.”

Truth is, I can spend all day out in the bush gathering dirt under my fingernails, getting sunburned and climbing the odd tree despite arthritic knees.

Truth is, I fail as a princess, what with my $25 haircut and my “screw you I’ll wear yoga pants shopping if I damn well please.”

Truth is, I’m 43 years old and I have the beginnings of arthritis. Truth is, I like comfort. Truth is, I work hard and I like to relax hard.

I do love cabins, though, so with a few midweek days off at the edge of summer, I compromised with a huttopia rental at Oka provincial park. Huttopias are neat little prospector tents on wooden platforms. The beds have quality, thicker-than-cots mattresses, in a tent-inside-a-tent, and are raised, so you won’t get soaked in a rainstorm. Trust me, I know.

The front half of the tent has a little wood-slat dining set and kitchen area with a fridge. A canvass overlay creates a sheltered porch, with a propane stove and just enough room to watch your campfire without getting soaked. You know, just in case there’s a storm.

oka provincial parkThe little plot has a picnic area with a firepit and a set of comfy chairs to put around the fire. Unless there’s a downpour. Because sometimes that happens.

We went “glamping” for one night. Our car was packed with food and bathing suits and toys and other gear I’m not even sure we used.

A boxload (but not, of course, in a box) of condiments had to be hauled piece by piece out to the picnic table while the burgers cooked over the fire. Then everything had to be hauled back inside and dishes carried to the dish-washing station 100 metres away. By the time all that work was done it was finally—at last!—time to enjoy the bonfire. One marshmallow later the rain broke through the umbrella of trees.

Thus began the precious one hour of relaxation I was to have throughout the camping experience—a precious hour before a nighttime of broken sleep and a morning scrambling to finish washing dishes and get packed up. We sat under the short awning and let the rain mostly drown out our voices. We watched frogs play hopscotch on the rocks in front of us and scared off—several times, so not very effectively, I guess—a raccoon who thought we might invite him over for leftovers. Trevor named all the animals (H names for the frogs, like Hubert and Humphrey, and Samuel for the raccoon who kept peeking around the corner of our tent and making Melani giggle).

The fire was hot enough that it burned smokily through the storm. It was loud and peaceful.

Popcorn in the rain? Certainly one of the highlights of my glamping experience.
Popcorn in the rain? Certainly one of the highlights of my glamping experience.

Will I go glamping again? I’ll try it one more time, because I love that my family loves it and being anywhere with them is better than being anywhere without, but honestly I’m a little offended at the price I have to pay to cook, wash dishes (a block away), make beds, set and clear a table, wash more dishes—that 100-metre hike uphill each time—just for the privilege of sleeping on a hard mattress a city block from the nearest toilet.

So, yeah, I’ll try it one more time, with a positive attitude, and in the meantime I’m going to make you this promise: the next time you tell me about your camping trip, I’m not going to say—even once—“but have you tried staying in a hotel?”

And maybe you can do the same for me.

A walk in the park: Oka provincial park

Oka dragonfly's shadowOKA PROVINCIAL PARK — It’s not Oka’s fault. In a neighbourhood of supermodel parks, it’s the girl next door. It’s perfectly lovely—it’s just that because its sisters are so extraordinary, Oka’s easy to forget.

The provincial park was also put in the unenviable position of being the testing ground for my foray into the camping lifestyle. But more of that next time. The point is: this lovely section of Quebec just 60 kilometres west of Montreal had a lot of strikes against it going in, so it did not bad considering.

Oka has what the others parks have: trails through forests and long strips of sandy beach. There is marshland and rolling hills and shy wildlife (spotted: frogs, raccoon, chipmunks, a heron, a vole). It has a crisp lake and a painted-tree skyline and rocks to rest on that are older than history. But it’s missing just one little thing: personality.

Oka park marshland pathThe trails are brown and green with just a spark of yellow here or flutter of blue there. The stroll to the heron nesting area is comfortable and shaded but the observation tower, camouflaged by dozens of ancient trees, offers a view that is partially obscured by those trees.

Our favourite part of a quick hike on the Grande Baie trail was the rest area at the end of a floating path into the marshland. We had the dock to ourselves; the soundtrack was provided by frogs and blackbirds. Lilypads floated in the still water, host to the bluest of dragonflies. That, there, was our moment of perfection, our supermodel moment with the girl next door.

two wheels

Oka provincial park gets two stroller wheels (out of a possible five), but we feel kind of bad about it. Probably subsequent visits including a tour of the Calvaire historical site will bring the score up.

The trails and campground were pristine, but lacked personality. There was little to be awed by, besides the general wonder that is Quebec herself.

The beach—also pristine—was crowded during the day with school groups and guys who 18-year-old Trevor generously described as “douchebags.” We were witness to an arrest by the Sûreté du Québec provincial police force—I’m sure that’s not an everyday occurrence, but it set the mood.

For a better Oka beach experience, show up after suppertime on a drizzly day. The water’s frigid, but hey, we’re in Canada, so what did you expect? The Sepaq staff are, as always, an extreme pleasure to be around. They always have a smile, and answer and a general friendliness about them.

A walk in the park: Mont St. Bruno park

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MONT ST. BRUNO PARK — The sweet, fermenting smell of ground apples stays in your nose for days. You side-step the fallen fruit while peering through branches for the perfect, round apple that you twist, gently, till it comes away in your hand, heavy like apple pie in the your palm.

This is autumn in Quebec.

Apple-picking is traditionally the first family and school outing of the season and since we skipped it last year, we were eager to get going this September.

We chose Mont St. Bruno because it is part of the SEPAQ system of parks and because, at 20 kilometres from downtown Montreal, our guests for the adventure wouldn’t have to be squeezed in the back seat with the car seat for too long. Drew and Jason are the other half of Jilly’s quadrangle of parents. They’re good sports when she gets cranky in the car, and having an extra four eyes on her in an orchard is pretty priceless.

Showing Jason where the apples are.
Showing Jason where the apples are.
Mont St Bruno angel
Don’t blink.

We also chose Mont St. Bruno because of its history—more than protected land, this park was once home to the Brothers of St. Gabriel, who tended the orchard we played in and who brought hydraulic energy to the area to power their mills. While most Quebec seigneuries were agricultural, flour, saw, tanning and carding mills were built by the brothers, according to the park’s website.

They quietly bought a sizable chunk of the mountain with several lakes and thousands of ancient maples and oaks, living alongside dozens of species of God’s creatures. They lived, worked taught and died on these 1,200 acres until finally selling the last piece of mountain to Quebec in 1975.

Mont St. Bruno park is the final resting place for many of the brothers who lived here.
Mont St. Bruno park is the final resting place for many of the brothers who lived here.

In a blog post reminiscing about a summer spent at the seigneurie, one Montrealer recalls this beautiful peice of advice from one of the brothers: “Learn to love the forest – this is where you can take your soul for a long walk, slowly, very slowly.”

three wheels

We give Mont-Saint-Bruno three stroller wheels (out of a possible five). The orchard was among the best we have ever picked at, and the trails, cemetery and grotto are heaven for history buffs. However, with no playground or barbecue pits and a relatively small interpretation centre, it’s not the most family-friendly for an entire day’s stay. The trails are wide and well-groomed with small treasures along the way: tiny statues and other hints that this was once someone’s home and faith centre.

Miss Jilly apple-picking with the daddies, Drew (left) and Jason.
Miss Jilly apple-picking with the daddies, Drew (left) and Jason.