Today seemed like one of the least inspiring days of walking we've had so far this year, but perhaps it was simply the exhaustion and cold rain catching up with us at last. We have chosen to walk out of season, which means we have been experiencing nearly perfect temperatures for hiking, enjoying the fall colours, and mostly avoiding becoming a nuisance to fast moving cyclists when the trails are at their busiest. The trade-off is that the campgrounds are all closed now, as are many auberges and gites, and wild camping isn't permitted. In addition many restaurants and cafés are also closed or offering greatly reduced hours, but these closures aren't always accurately reflected online. In each section of trail we hike we have to adapt to different challenges, and while our current situation really can't be classified as difficult by any stretch of the imagination, it is time consuming and energy intensive to navigate, especially given our very limited ability to speak French.
To complain about a trail that is maintained to the highest standards, and that regularly offers up rest stops, bakeries, and amenities would be sacrilege, especially given the extreme kindness of the people we've met along the way. In addition to which we both realize that the emptiness of the trail – typically utilized by masses of cyclists – is a rare and beautiful luxury.
These days we are simply exhausted, and seemingly simple tasks and minor setbacks now seem overwhelming and nearly insurmountable. Today this was made more difficult by the knowledge that we walked 30 km of trail to ultimately advance exactly 5.3 km west of where we began this morning. As we enter into the final race with winter, walk during pouring rain, and we watch the slush pelt down outside our window tonight, this incredibly slow pace feels almost painful.
It was a clear, cold morning when we headed out to breakfast at Tim Horton's. We enjoyed watching a very small girl and her father sharing time and breakfast together, which clearly involved toast and jam and then an elicit chocolate covered donut as a special treat, which was selected with a great deal of thought and care. For me it brought back memories of coffees and treats with my own father. It was a bit of sunshine to begin the day.
After crossing a busy intersection, we picked up a short section of trail through a treed area, which then led to a large dog park and a baseball diamond that were at the bottom of a steep gravel drive. Here we encountered a man installing snowmobile signage on orange posts. When he noticed us he quickly got upset and excitedly informed us that the trails were closed until April for snowmobile usage. As his dramatic explanation went on and on and on, he would randomly stop to smile and wave at cyclists riding past on the trail – which he clearly had no problem with. And so amid 12 degree weather on a paved pathway surrounded by lush green grass, a worker installing snowmobile route signs in a huge down jacket, wearing a thick wool cap and sweating a great deal did his best to convince us to go home and come back in April in the spring when the Sentier was not Ferme to hikers because of the season. Needless to stay we eventually thanked him for his advice and walked on, following a number of regional residents who were out also enjoying the trails this morning and who had simply walked on.
After huffing and puffing our way up the hill we found ourselves on a beautiful stretch of trail under a canopy of mature maples and oaks, interspersed with hemlock. A carpet of colourful leaves crunched under our feet as we watched White-breasted Nuthatches foraging along the maple trunks and Blue Jays flying purposefully among the branches. It was a gorgeous walk, only marred by the fact that we were heading steadily north east - decidedly in the 'wrong' direction.
Eventually our trail brought us to a picturesque footbridge spanning the Rivière Saint François, which had a square metal cage that created interesting geometrical patterns on its wooden base. A small Halte Velo with a picnic table was located at the foot of the bridge, offering a view that resembled a Group of Seven painting. In the middle of the slowly flowing waters of the river was a rocky island topped by three white pines. Their feathery green foliage was reflected in the dark waters, along with the reds, yellows, and coppery oranges of other trees along the rocky river banks. It was an iconic scene typical of the Canadian Shield.
After crossing the river things took a turn for the worse. The trail became very rough, rocky, and uneven as we skirted around the main Kruger factory in Sherbrooke. Kruger is a diversified company which among other things is one of Canada's largest manufacturers of tissue products. As we walked around the large plant, we came to yet another 'Rue Barrée' sign, and a chain link fence which definitively blocked our way forward. Undeterred we followed a well-worn track around the edge of the factory which local residents had trekked, detoured onto the road, and then cut across a very wet, marshy area to regain the trail on the far side of the factory, where it was again barred with a fence behind us. It felt like we'd been let down by the incredibly high standards we've come to expect from the Route Verte.
After detouring around the factory we spent the next few kilometers crossing through suburbs on the side of quiet roads, then passed through an urban park, and then another industrial area before crossing another very busy road and heading out into the countryside. When we turned onto the paved bike lane on the side of the highway we passed a private drive with a large and very interesting looking Little Free Library, which provided a nice point of interest to brighten our walk.
For the next 3 km we followed the hilly, winding Rue de la Saint François as it undulated up and down, and then climbed up to give us a magnificent view back down the river valley below us. The road was bordered with small fields and farms, interspersed with small woodlots and homes set back on well-landscaped properties.
While it is easy to see how this would have been an enjoyable to route to
cycle, we found it unnerving to walk on the narrow shoulder of the winding
road. There was a lot of traffic, it was moving very fast, and very few
drivers pulled over into the other lane when they passed us. In fact,
many of them cut the winding corners, partially driving in the cycling lane and
repeatedly scaring us in the process. It made us extra grateful for the
drivers in the prairies, and especially Saskatchewan, who always pulled way
over to give us space. A firm reminder that you don't know the blessings you have until they are gone.
As we've crossed the country, and lived in various parts of it, we've experienced many differences in local driving cultures. In some places people tailgate each other at high speed, while in others they tend to accelerate to run yellow lights, and in still others they seem to pause at stop signs for nearly 30 seconds before proceeding, even when no other cars are within sight. Here it seems that people are loath to stop at stop signs, preferring to gently tap their brakes before continuing on unhindered. Sometimes four cars will approach an intersection simultaneously, none of them appear to stop, and yet somehow they don't collide with each other. It is a mystery to us how this is accomplished, and we still hesitate to cross busy intersections, because we aren't sure what local custom expects us to do.
In any event, the views we had of the pastoral landscape, rolling hills, and river valley were beautiful. The smell of wood smoke from the chimneys of the farm houses we passed filled the air, and over head v's of Canada Geese seemed to be hurrying across the sky, racing the patches of dark cloud that were collecting in ever more ominous banks around us.
As we trekked along we passed the turnoff for the Sanctuary of the Sacred Heart of Beauvoir. This shrine is over a century old, and receives around 1,500 pilgrims a year. The site is at the top of a hill overlooking Sherbrooke, and it consists of a chapel, a stone church, an outdoor devotional area, wooded pathways bordered with statues, and a small shop. We were a little surprised that the Trans Canada Trail missed an opportunity to take us up a steep hill on a circuitous route to an historical spot, but we resisted the temptation to check it out as it is currently closed due to Covid.
Eventually we diverted off the busy highway and into a neighborhood of large modern homes on tidy, landscaped properties. We wove up and down the well manicured streets until we came to a small urban parkette with a playground and an outdoor hockey rink patiently waiting for winter. We took a welcome break at one of the picnic tables and enjoyed a couple chocolatines before carrying on.
We continued weaving through the neighborhood, eventually crossed under a very busy highway, and then began a lovely 5 km stretch of trail that followed a wooded corridor beside the river. Unfortunately, at this point it began to rain. At first it was a few gentle drops, but soon the drops began to fall in earnest, and they were joined by small bits of hail. Very fortunately for us there was a lovely covered gazebo on the water's edge where we took shelter until the worst of the storm passed. Once again the trail provides when help is most needed.
As we continued along the paved bicycle path, under a canopy of tall mature trees we were passed by a few other people out walking, despite the lousy weather. We spotted a large Great Black-backed Gull floating in mid-river, a small group of Canada Geese huddling near the shore, and three Hooded Mergansers casually swimming in the rain, concerned only with themselves.
The trail next took us underneath another busy highway, through a concrete tunnel that was decorated with amazing street art showing scenes from the history of Sherbrooke. We then wove through the busy streets of Sherbrooke for a short distance, where we spotted a tough looking man in a leather jacket carrying a large wooden giraffe down the sidewalk. Once again we picked up the paved cycling trail and followed the river. From there we had a magnificent view of the town of Sherbrooke, which climbed the side of a steep hill and was dominated by a large stone cathedral.
Sherbrooke is situated at the confluence of the Saint François and Magog rivers at the heart of the Estrie administrative region. With just under 200,000 residents, it is the sixth largest city in the province, and it is the primary economic center of the region. There are eight institutions educating 40,000 students and employing 11,000 people, 3,700 of whom are professors, teachers, or researchers. In addition to the extremely high proportion of students in the town, there is also an industrial and manufacturing based segment to the economy, giving the community an interesting dynamic.
After weaving through an industrial area, crossing the train tracks, and skirting around several box stores we found ourselves walking a highly developed waterfront trail. We passed the Marché de la Gare de Sherbrook, which is a farmers market that sells local produce and is located in an historical train station on the edge of the river. Outside in a green space a group of people we were doing Tai Chi in the rain. We crossed a graceful metal footbridge and continued along the waterway on a landscaped brick walkway. Sculptures of fish which were half metal and half living plants seemed to emerge form the grassy hillside beside the trail. Even though it was pouring rain, the walkway was full of people, reminding us of the west coast, where pedestrians are also undeterred by the elements.
We followed the trail along the river for around 7 km, enjoying treed parks and grassy green spaces. Across the water we could see the Sherbrooke University campus, and the forested hills rising up behind them. The last of the fall colours were reflected in the steely grey waters that were pricked with raindrops, creating beautiful and interesting images. Along the way we also enjoyed seeing a variety of murals, many depicting faces of women from different cultural backgrounds. There are many beautiful and intriguing aspects to Sherbrooke, which make us wish it hadn't been raining so hard when we walked through, and that we had more time to explore. However, winter is coming, and we cannot afford to delay any further.
At one point we made a detour up off the trail to get a coffee and snack to warm up, and to visit a local Atmosphere store to buy new pairs of hiking shoes. Rapidly deteriorating gear is one of the challenges we've been facing in the past few weeks, as literally everything we have on us falling to pieces after a hard year of hiking. While being threadbare and held together with duct tape is less of a big deal while in the prairies or forests of Quebec, our current situation is one of hiking urban trails through populated areas and having no choice but to stay in motels or auberges every night. In this context our appearance has rapidly become socially unacceptable. This afternoon, as it began to rain harder we stepped into a local café to order a lunch and coffee only to watch as one local customer who was watching us quickly talked to the manager waving his finger at us continually. Ultimately we were asked by the manager to take it to go because as “homeless people we upset their clients”. As I packed up our meal the well dressed gentleman who had gotten us expelled sat watching with a smirk on his face. While I was frustrated by this situation I still had to feel sad for this individual who looked as though the crowning achievement of his week was to have to paying customers removed so that he could be more comfortable.
And so we walked back out into the rain and trudged a few doors down the street to the Atmosphere store intent on at least getting new footwear. Here thankfully, in contrast to our last experience we would like
to send out a HUGE thank you to Atmosphere for their patience and kindness in
helping two dirty, tired, and wet hikers replace very essential gear – without
a single negative comment and with complete graciousness ! In fact most of the staff wanted to know what we were doing, how long we had been hiking and what our goal was! Here we purchased our third pairs of hiking
shoes for the season and were able to dispose of our former footwear! Thank you all at Atmosphere once again for your extreme kindness and help in re-shodding us!
After putting on our new luxuriously clean, cozy and warm boots we walked for another hour along the paved cycling path in the rain to our motel. I had chosen it specifically because it claimed to offer laundry facilities. This 'fact' was confirmed by the online app, Booking.com, the hotel’s own website and an email to the front desk – yet when we arrived this turned out to be an empty promise. When we walked in the young hotel clerk dramatically sighed as we sought to check in - clearly bothered that he had to stop watching a show on his phone. Similarly our questions about laundry only brought more sighs and we were abruptly told to talk to "someone tomorrow" before he walked away, sat down, pulled down his mask, began pulling on his scraggly goatee while he resumed watching his show.
To put this in perspective we haven't found
a place with laundry, or been in the vicinity of a laundromat for nearly a
week, and with only two sets of clothes, things were getting a bit
desperate. Especially after being asked to leave from our lunch stop an hour ago. Feeling rather sorry for ourselves we washed our ‘dirtier set
of’ clothes in the washroom sink, hung them to dry, took long warm showers, I spent some time alone crying, ate some chocolate, and then we went in search of dinner. Luckily we found a huge and
excellent meal at somewhat unfortunately named Le Ranch Spaghetti, which was
presented by a very kind server, and which did much to restore our
spirits. When we went to leave it turned out that another patron had paid for our meal for us - a simple act of kindness that restored out energy after a draining day.
As darkness fell the rain turned to sleet. We recognize how incredibly fortunate we are, and we deeply appreciate the kindness of everyone we've met. It seems like the people of Quebec, and the trail itself are doing everything they can to help us move forward. The simple fact is we have very little energy left. We are doing to best to navigate the small daily challenges, while at the same time spending our nights creating and ordering calendars, note cards, and additional items to sell in our online store to replace our gear for next year, and trying to get the paperwork done to begin full-time work once again in less than a month. In this state of sleeplessness small things like being told to leave a cafe or the inability to do laundry seem like nearly insurmountable hurdles. It feels like with each kilometer we walk we're crossing a mountain. Ironically, in the next two days we'll cross Mont Orford, potentially in the snow. As we make the final push towards Montreal, we have nothing left now except the will to go on and get this section of trail of done.
As the night settles in around us, the first snowflakes of the season have begun to fall – the race with winter has now begun in earnest.