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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venosta quebec ghost town10venosta quebec ghost town7

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venosta quebec ghost town

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

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.

ST. DONAT, Que.
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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Ormstown’s demolition derby marks the start of my summer

ORMSTOWN, QC. — My birthday weekend includes the Ormstown Fair. It’s been a family tradition for years and years.

We don’t just love the carnival rides and cotton candy and funky chickens. We also love a good old-fashioned demolition derby. Sometimes it’s the only one I get to all year and sometimes, when it’s a really good year, it takes me three vigorous shampoos to get the smell of burnt oil out of my hair. I live for those years.

A Walk in the Park: Gatineau Park — Luskville Falls Trail

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

LUSKVILLE, Qc. — I was sitting in the mist, at the foot of a 1940s fire tower, 1,300 feet up, on 4-billion-year-old Canadian Shield rock. Across from me was a blue jay who wouldn’t pose for photos but was otherwise genial.

The sweet scent of new growth just beginning to overpower the savory, dark smell of last fall’s decay made the climb up this little mountain worth it, despite a poor night’s sleep, terrible driving directions, a downpour, and heavy fog that curtained the path on my approach.

The cloud cover had changed, though, as I reached the trailhead. Rather than solid gray, it broke up into several shades, striated and drifting. The sky had mostly rained herself out.

Crossing the falls.
Crossing the falls.

Parks Canada calls Luskville Falls Trail challenging, and they are not kidding around. The path is marked with arrows painted on rock and small blue signs that are so good at not interfering with nature that it’s sometimes hard to find them.

For the first half of the climb up the Eardley Escarpment, one must use boulders and tree roots as footholds and haul oneself forward using thin trees that shower their leftover raindrops on one’s head and shoulders.

It feels as though the climb might not end, even after the pause on the first rocky lookout, which offers a beautiful yet typical view of Southern Ontario. And then it is up yet more, to the second lookout, named Pontiac for the chief of the Ottawa nation. The Ottawa River Valley was Algonquin land generations before it was overrun with Lusks in the 1820s and then us, daytrippers who just want a good climb and a great view.

Thanks to the chill and rain, I didn’t have to share the trail; nor did I have to share the view from the fire tower, except with that blue jay, who probably returned to his mate and laughed about hiding from my camera.

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three wheels

The Luskville Falls Trail gets three stroller wheels, but seriously qualified: I enjoyed my two hours heading up and down the mountain, but that’s because I was alone. This is no trail for a preschooler, and I’d hesitate before bring most grade-schoolers along for the hike. It’s wickedly steep and the rocks are slick after a rain. Falling up will get you skinned knees, but falling down could get you a broken neck.

Wear your most comfortable shoes and don’t forget to bring water. If you’ve read any of my parks series, you won’t be shocked to hear that I forgot (since it was my first serious hike of the season) to wear bug spray: Guys, the mosquitoes will kill you.

There are dry toilets at the base of the trail. That’s also where you’ll find garbage cans — there are no trash facilities on Gatineau Park trails, so please carry out whatever you carry in.

The ups and downs of a walk in the park.
The ups and downs of a walk in the park.

Skinny dipping in a national park: My birthright?

GATINEAU PARK — I got (nearly) naked in a national park yesterday. As a citizen, that land and this lake is part mine, is the way I see it, so there shouldn’t any problem just jumping on in.

Plus, the lake was glittering and once the geese stopped yelling at me, it was that loud near-silence you only get in the middle of nowhere.

The water was only a few degrees cooler than the shore and the lake bottom was mossy and soft. I walked out till I was chest deep in the blue with sunlight sparkles all around me. I held my breath.

Birdsong, dragonflies and water. There is nothing more perfect on Earth.

Lake Fortune Gatineau Park1