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

mont st bruno

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.

A walk in the park: Mont Orford

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

Mont Orford Stukely Lake

MONT ORFORD, Que.—Fresh air cures everything. I truly believe this, so we packed a gourmet picnic supper and set the GPS for Mont Orford provincial park despite my raging sinus infection.

We parked at Stukely Lake’s beach, where we had the thin strip of sand mostly to ourselves on the last Friday before school let out for summer. Melani’s mom, Verna, set up the picnic while Mel rushed Jilly off to the water and I grabbed my camera.

My first shot—perfectly framed with jade evergreens against a backdrop of perfectly blue sky reflected in crystal water toward which Jilly stretched one sweet baby toe—didn’t fire. The camera’s SD card was safely at home in my laptop.

Thank god for the iPhone.

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Photo by Melani Litwack

The trail we’d chosen for our after-dinner hike was marked as easy—but then, it was also marked on the map as being quite close to the beach. I guess it’s a stone’s throw, if you’re a professional stone-thrower hopped up on ‘roids. It was also, of course, not clearly marked. We found it by going on faith and frustration and keeping the lake at our backs. We had to park the stroller at the trailhead because it was immediately evident that this path wasn’t made for wheels of any kind.

Melani put a sweater on Jilly. I took it off. She huffed at me and put it back on. “It’s not as warm as you think it is. Mom and I are wearing jackets.”

But standing there in my little tank top, I had sweat leaking down my back and beading at my hairline.

“It’s possible you have a fever,” she muttered, and I responded by heading up the path.

This was our first adventure on the side of a mountain. The twisty paths were veined with tree roots and many of the steeper portions had little wooden stairs built into them. In most places we couldn’t walk two deep, which made conversation slightly more difficult, but since the forest was silent but for a few birdcalls, we were content with that. Plus those of us who were either a grandparent or fevered had to concentrate a little more on where our feet were going.

Mont OrfordThe cool thing about a mountain path is that you never know what it’s going to do next. You reach a small plateau only to see the path fall away to the right then shinny up again through a muddy patch and across a stream heading toward toward a lake. You think you can’t go up any more and a wooden staircase appears that takes you down, down, down into a valley with sheer rock walls and maple trees canopied above it and you think, “Dear god, I’m tired, but this is almost worth it.”

Verna picked up a branch near the midway point that nature had fashioned into a perfect, mostly smooth walking stick. Jilly found a similar stick and hobbled along behind her. I swiped my hand across my brow, splashing sweat onto the moss at the side of the trail. No one asked, “Are we there yet?” and yet suddenly we were there, at the wooden lookout that was our reward for climbing partway up a mountain.

L’Étang-Fer-de-Lance.

Mont Orford

The small lake was so clear we could see every stone through the water and watch giant turtles lazily push their way onto rocks and into the shade. It was completely silent. My fever broke and the wind sent a chill along my damp spine. It was, right then, completely worth it.

three wheels

Mont Orford gets three stroller wheels (out of a possible five). It was stunningly beautiful and though we found the categorization of the trails a little sketchy, if we’d been young and healthy the 2.5-kilometre trail would have been a breeze. It took us a while to find the trail, though, and as always we encourage better signage. We saw more wildlife here than at previous parks—several deer (including two that crossed the road right in front of the truck) and turtles as well as ducks and dozens of other birds I can’t name. There were already a lot of campers setting up in mid-June, so it might be quite busy later in the summer.

Mont Orford Park is about 150 kilometres southeast of Montreal. Entrance is $6.50 per adult, $3 for children 6 and up. Or get a yearly pass to all of Quebec’s parks for $58.50 ($117 for a family). Activities, boat rides, bike rentals and camping are extra. Check the Sepaq website for details.

A walk in the park: Parc Yamaska

Yamaska Park

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

YAMASKA PARK, Que.— Sometime between our visit to Plaisance Park and our visit to Yamaska, Miss Jilly’s love-hate relationship with her stroller became a full-on hate relationship.

While we celebrate her independence and boast about her scientific curiosity (“rock!” “tree!” “cloud!”), having her toddle rather than roll means we cover far less ground. No matter; we intend to return to Yamaska.

We knew the moment we pulled onto the grounds that we’d found what we were looking for. Let me say this: never judge a park by its parking lot. Yamaska’s was nearly full on the lazy day we visited, smack in the middle of a holiday weekend. But once we were off the asphalt, we did not feel crowded.

With Baby at Yamaska Park in southern Quebec.
With Baby at Yamaska Park in southern Quebec.

On our hour and a half stroll through the bush we only saw one other couple (and to that couple, who walked quietly and carried big binoculars, we want to extend our thanks for your understanding that it’s more important for a baby to yell “birds!” than to silently watch them).

Yamaska Park QuebecHere in the Appalachian Lowlands, the trails aren’t wild and overgrown, but they wind through old growth and the trees press in on you. It didn’t matter that the afternoon was overcast because the sky made only brief appearances through holes where birch and maples had collapsed in recent storms.

Little Miss Independence had an apple in one hand and her doll in the other for the first part of the walk. She wouldn’t go back in her stroller and she was furious when we put the doll in her place—Baby wasn’t to be strapped in, either. Thing is, our little mother soon discovered why we choose not to carry her. Having a baby on your hip is hard work.

That’s when she started putting Baby in the stroller, then on the ground and saying: “Walk!” When I took Baby’s hand for a while and danced her plastic feet along the ground, Jilly was alarmed. She eventually allowed us to let the doll ride on top of the stroller.

four wheels

Yamaska easily gets four stroller wheels (out of five). The trails are well marked but not so manicured that you forget you’re in the woods—and foot and bike trails are separate, so there’s no squeezing or dodging out of the way. The grassy area and beach on the shores of the Réservoir Choinière are pristine. The playground is a fantastic design that incorporates trees and animals and offers challenges for toddlers through grade schoolers.

The park is about 90 kilometres east of Montreal, near Granby. Entrance is $6.50 per adult, $3 for children 6 and up. Or get a yearly pass to all of Quebec’s parks for $58.50 ($117 for a family). Activities, boat rides, bike rentals and camping are extra. Check the Sepaq website for details.

A last word. Our parks are beautiful – let’s keep it that way. Carry in, carry out, so we don’t end up surrounded by this:

Yamaska Park Quebec

A walk in the park: Parc de Plaisance

aDSC_4189

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

PARC DE PLAISANCE, Que.— I’ve spent a good part of my Canadian life putting nickels in vending machines and parking meters and things, but Saturday was the first time I’d seen beavers in the wild. If we hadn’t gotten lost, it wouldn’t have happened.

When I checked in for a pontoon ride to the waterfall at Parc de Plaisance near Gatineau, the lady told me we had enough time to visit the boardwalk and observation tower before the boat left. Instead, we sat by the river and ate strawberries and cherry tomatoes and soaked in the pretty. This little strip of Earth is so breathtaking. In my mind it’s what foreigners must picture when someone says “Canada.”

parc de plaisance

After the ride to the misty, roiling waterfalls, we chose an easy trail that snaked along the river. It was a little more than two people wide, but shared with bicyclists. There were many smaller trails that disappeared into woods and closer to the water, but they hadn’t opened yet for the season.

Now, we’re pretty good at this. We’ve been trekking woods and parks together for a quarter of a century and 17 of those years have been with a child in tow. We pack extra diapers and water, food and toys, cameras and notebooks and sometimes a map. But excepting our brief outing last month, when it was barely not winter, this was our first hike of the season. I guess that’s why we forgot bug spray.

Please imagine that each sentence from here on is punctuated not with periods, commas and dashes but with an awkward slapping Dance of Mosquito Death.

We took a right-hand fork into swampland to the soundtrack of a hundred birdcalls. We recognized a few by sound or feather: robins, sapsuckers, woodpeckers, ducks, red-winged blackbirds. The bumblebees were giant and loud, leaving us to the mosquitoes while they went about their business. Brief pauses in birdsong left us in complete silence.

trilliumOh! And the trilliums! Ontario’s provincial flower is notorious for stubbornly not growing when you want them to, but left to their own devices in the woods of Quebec, they patiently line paths and create little patchwork blankets of white and yellow on the sides of hills. When I was 12, a friend’s dad yelled at me (I hadn’t met him before and was never yelled at—I was devastated) because I was standing on his trillium bed while we tried to climb the fence.

We curved around the tip of the park and came to another crossroads. There was no boardwalk. No observation tower, which you might think would be visible over the trees. We pulled out the map. Turned it upside down. I pointed at where I thought we were. Pointed at the tower, which was nowhere near where I thought we were. Melani pointed down the trail. “It must be that way.”

“That’s east.”

“Yes, I know.” She wasn’t talking to me like I was a child. Almost. But not quite. “The sun rises in the east, sets in the west.”

I quoted a little Shakespeare. The sun was over our shoulders. The baby was asleep.

“Well, we can go that way if it’s what you really want.” I was also not talking to her like she was a child. “Or we can go back, like the map suggests, and find the path we missed.”

We did it my way, but she retaliated by making my calorie-watching self dig the Crunchie bars out of the backpack.

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And that’s when we saw the beaver, cutting a water trail from one shore to the other, his nose just visible. He was too fast and too far away for me to snap a picture, which was good because it meant I was able to watch him clearly on the crisp water, not through a viewfinder. When he reached our shore he poked his head up for a moment, like a gopher in its hole might, and disappeared into the underbrush. We waited for more, but he’d given us all the show we were going to get.

So we went back, like the map suggested, and found the road not travelled. Except Melani thought that wasn’t right, either. “The one we want is near the main road.”

“But the main road is right there! Look! Cars!”

She shrugged. “I’m telling you it’s not right.”

We had about 45 minutes till our next boat ride. “We can try it, or we can keep going back.”

She shrugged. Again. “Okay, we’ll take it.”

strollerWe didn’t take it far before we were stopped by a chain. Not sure whether it was too keep us in or others out, we lifted the stroller over it. Because we’re rebels like that. While walking along the grassy shoulder of the main road, my phone rang (I’ve never had a phone ring while on a hike—I’m not sure I like it). The lady from the visitor’s centre let us know that our cruise was cancelled because we were the only ones who’d signed up.

When we got our refund, we did the unthinkable and asked for directions. The boardwalk was—you guessed it—farther east. But we’d been on our feet adventuring for more than four hours so … we drove. After five minutes of sitting, I wasn’t inclined to get out of the car. Melani promised me tadpoles and more pretty and since getting my own way hadn’t gone so well an hour before, I hauled my sorry self out. I’m ever so glad I did.

parc de plaisance boardwalk

The floating, zigzagging boardwalk over the lake is clearly the jewel in Plaisance’s crown. It’s a swaying, gentle walk on water. A beaver dam—condos?—abutted the wooden structure. We saw two of its occupants blazing a trail through the water. Quietly I kept my eyes out for more as I climbed the tower.

I didn’t see any more, but the observatory offered a great view of the boardwalk, and a grand sense of accomplishment.

three wheels

Parc de Plaisance gets three stroller wheels (out of five). It’s positively lovely and the boat tours are relaxing and fun (the park made an exception for us early in the season, but be warned that children under 3 are not generally allowed on the pontoons).

There was no playground for kids to run off their last bit of steam. The trails could be more clearly marked, and having pedestrians and cyclists share a narrow path is just a bad idea.

The park is about 150 kilometres northwest of Montreal and 65 kilometres northeast of Ottawa. Entrance to the park is $6.50 per adult, $3 for children 6 and up. Or get a yearly pass to all of Quebec’s parks for $58.50 ($117 for a family). Activities, boat rides, bike rentals and camping are extra. Check the Sepaq website for details.

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A walk in the park: Îles de Boucherville

The first in an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

tree on iles de boucherville

ÎLES DES BOUCHERVILLES, Que.—Days later, I found a burr in my shoelaces, which touched the little girl inside me who was forever picking burrs out of clothes and hair.

It was late April and though the landscape was still mostly brown and gray, the grass was beginning to remember it’s supposed to be green, so we drove the 15 kilometres from downtown Montreal (excluding the bits where we got lost) to the provincial park at Îles des Boucherville.

The park is in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, close enough to the city that you get sweet views of the skyline, including my favourite piece of architecture, the Big O.

There are more than 25 kilometres of hiking and biking trails on the island—we did about five of them over an hour and a half. The trails we chose ranged from tame to moderately tame—even away from the packed-gravel bike paths we had little trouble manoeuvring the stroller over dirt and grass trails.

Path at Iles de Boucherville

There’s tons of wildlife, including deer, but of course we didn’t see much, what with our Jeep of Strollers and a toddler finding her voice. A couple of kayakers had braved the chill water and we came across a few birders. We had hoped for more bush and less-travelled trails, but we had fun enough that there were burrs in my shoelaces.

Îles de Boucherville is like that cute dude you meet a couple of drinks into a night out: So much fun at the time, mostly forgotten the next morning.

two wheelsWe give Îles de Boucherville 2 stroller wheels out of 5 (my new rating system—nifty, huh?). It’s $6.50 per person to enter the park (bike rentals, camping, etc. are extra — see the website) or buy a Quebec parks pass for $58.50.