Monday, May 30, 2022

Blackflies and Birding : Sainte-Marguerite Station to Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts

The past few days we've been pushing pretty hard, and we aren't yet used to our full pack weights, so we decided to do a short day today.  As a result we had a late start and maintained a much more leisurely pace throughout the morning.  

To top it all off, we began the day with a fabulous breakfast of fruit and yogurt, waffles with fresh strawberries and bananas, coffee, and fresh orange juice at the Auberge de la Gare.  We certainly felt very spoiled today, and are grateful for the many blessings we enjoyed! 

We made our way back to the trail around 8:00 am which continued to lead us up a gentle climb through a corridor of dense green sugar maple and American beech forest.  The warm, muggy, overcast morning was still and quiet apart from the loud 'teacher, teacher, teacher!' call of an Ovenbird, the rising, buzzy 'Zurr-zurr-zee' of a Black-throated Blue Warbler, the melodious trill of a Wood Thrush, and the loud buzzing of a large swarm of mosquitoes. 

For the first half hour we were alone on the trail, enjoying the sounds of the fast-flowing Rivière du Nord somewhere downhill from the us, and the babbling and gurgling of small streams that were running down the hill above us to join the waterway below.  The loud alarm calls of a small Red Squirrel disturbed the peace, and we spotted fresh moose tracks on the trail.  It felt wild and peaceful, and like we were far from civilization. 

As we progressed, the roar of the rapids grew louder, and at the same time we found ourselves walking between two vertical walls of exposed rock.  Small trickles of water were turning the rock a shiny black, and cracks in the huge stones were occupied by small cedars and delicate ferns. Fluffy looking tufts of crunchy light green lichen adorned some of the ledges in the rock cliff like rows of curly hair. 

The forest in this section was dominated by spicy smelling Balsam fir, Eastern White Cedar, feathery Tamarack, and tall, dense Spruce.  Song Sparrows hunted for insects in the wet ditches along the path, and the haunting 'O Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada!' call of White-throated Sparrow rang out through the forest.  I have always loved how you can tell when a landscape changes by the sounds of the birds around you. 

The river gradually began to get wider and shallower, with several small treed islands sitting out in the middle. Several Mallards and a pair of Black Ducks were standing in the vegetation at the edges, looking like they were hesitating to enter the strong current.  

As we approached Val Morin the river widened into Lac Raymond, which was lined with well-spaced out cottages.  With the forested mountains rising up in the background, and the colourful homes, cottages, and tall pines reflected almost perfectly in the dark waters of the lake, the scene resembled an architypcal Canadian landscape that could have appeared in a Group of Seven painting or fit into the landscapes of Northern Ontario.   

We walked around the lake reminiscing about childhood trips to summer camp and visiting friend's cottages in the Muskoka Lakes region of Ontario.  Suddenly we were distracted by a large wetland that not only featured gorgeous, mirror-like reflections, but was also teeming with bird life!  

A pair of Eastern Kingbirds were collecting grasses and sticks to finish their nest in a small snag. Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats were searching the trailside shrubs for juicy and nutritious insects, while a small flock of American Goldfinches bounced and dipped as they flew across the open water.  The rowdy calls of Red-winged Blackbirds rang out across the wetland, mixing with the rubber-band calls of huge Green Frogs.  Great Crested Flycatchers kept watch from among the dead snags in the middle of the pond.  A disagreement between Mallards somewhere in the distance resulted in a pair of ducks making a loud and splashy take-off. 

Behind all of this the tall rocky cliffs of the escarpment rose up, and we spotted two patches of white-wash, which potentially marked the locations of active raptor nests. We spent quite some time fending off the mosquitoes and enjoying the abundance, diversity, and exuberance of life all around us. 

When we finally rounded the end of Lac Raymond we came to the tiny municipal beach.  There was a lifeguard tower, a couple picnic benches, a uniquely shaped and railway themed wooden bench, and several information signs squeezed into the tiny area. On the overcast weekday morning there was no one enjoying the small beach, but it looked like an inviting spot to spend a sunny afternoon. 

We crossed the road and kept going down the trail, which was bordered by cottages sheltered under tall white pines.  We had been hoping to find an open bakery to take a break in Val Morin, but sadly it was closed, so we continued onward. 

The next two kilometers were a relatively straight run down the paved cycling trail, which was bordered by forest on both sides.  Quite a few trees had fallen in the storm here too, but like yesterday, trail crews had done an amazing job of clearing a path through the debris. 

A highlight was seeing a male Mallard having a nap on the gravel edge of the path.  It couldn't even be bothered to move as we passed by. 

When we came to the edge of Val-David we quickly realized this would have been a nice spot to stop for the night.  This village of just over 5,000 people is famous for its delicious and diverse food scene and its artistic character.  Many artists, authors, musicians, and dancers have lived in Val-David, including Quebec's poet Gaston Miron, jazz artist Charlie Biddle, and singer-songwriter Alan Gerber.  Val David is also a major center for outdoor recreation, not just because of the cyclists, hikers, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers brought in by Le P'tit Train du Nord, but also because it is located at the entrance to the Parc Dufresne, which is one of the most popular rock-climbing destinations in eastern Canada. 

 We followed the winding footpath beside the paved cycling lanes through town, stopping to admire a wooden sculpture of a river driver built into a bench, and several stone carvings placed along the tree lined path.  There was definitely a nice vibe to the place.

Best of all, we soon came to the General Café, which was located in a charming, virginia creeper covered yellow house with a large covered porch and an outdoor patio.  We enjoyed coffees and two delicious chocolate raspberry muffins while sitting outside at a picnic table in the sunny afternoon.  We could have happily remained there for the rest of the day. 

As we headed out of town we passed several very nice looking gites and auberges, some of which backed onto the river.  We also passed the beautifully restored train station, which now seems to serve as a tourist information center.  We followed the trail out of town, and right at the edge we spotted a magnificent looking White-tailed Deer grazing beside the river, its reddish coat seeming to glow in the sunshine. 

For the next 5 km or so we continued our trek beside the Rivière du Nord.  The forested hills rose up around us, and large pieces of granite shield stuck up out of the forest floor and made small islands in the river beside us.  The trail was markedly less busy than it was the past two days, likely because it was Monday and no longer a weekend.  However, we were still never alone for more than a minute or two.  Even with the quieter trail conditions we still received several thumbs ups from passing cyclists, as well as friendly words of encouragement while venturing along the Sentier Transcanadien.  

Shortly after noon we came to the town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, a larger community with a population of just over 10,000 people located on the shores of Lac des Sables.  Like so many communities in the region, it was founded by Augustin-Norbert Morin around 1850.  The colonists that arrived shortly afterwards were primarily of French Catholic background, and the community is centered around a large, impressive Catholic Church which stands on the main street at the top of a small hill.  

When the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts in 1892 the town experienced a huge increase in population.  Between 1892 and 1911 a number of Victorian spas and hospitals were established in the region, including a tuberculosis hospital that was founded in 1899 by Dr. Arthur Richer.  At the time it was believed that fresh mountain air would provide a cure for tuberculosis and other pulmonary diseases. 

As the town developed many wealthy families from Montreal, Ontario, and New York built cottages around Lac des Sables.  Today the town is still a major tourist destination in the area, offering boating, fishing, swimming, horse-back riding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog-sled racing, skating and ice hockey, among other things.  

We walked down the main street to the lake, and sat in the lovely shady green park at the water's edge for a few moments.  There were even shaded lawn chairs out on the wooden pier, but they were all occupied.  Since our feet are still badly blistered from the day we walked out of Montreal in the rain, and the next day when our shoes were still soaked, we stopped here for the night to recover.  Hopefully our bodies will repair themselves during the brief respite, and we will be ready to continue our trek towards Mont Tremblant, one of Canada's most famous ski resorts which is also located along the stunning P’tit Train du Nord.

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