Friday, June 3, 2022

Camping at the Castle : Village de Labelle to Rivière Rouge

Last night it rained heavily on and off from about 1:00 am onward.  Each time it rained both the river and the little waterfall we were camped beside seemed to increase in volume exponentially, making us wonder if the little sandy spit where our campsite was located would remain above the water line or not. Luckily it did, but we had a pretty sleepless night. 

To add to our challenges this morning, we had decided to bring our older but rarely used 2-person MSR tent for this relatively short stretch in Quebec instead of our new, much heavier, 3-person Expedition Big Agnes tent.  We hadn't realized that our MSR tent was becoming de-laminated until we got it out onto the trail, and we learned last night that while the fly is still waterproof (thankfully!), the bottom isn't at all anymore.  This was very disappointing, and also meant that all our gear was sitting in a puddle when we got up this morning.  Once again, the fact that Sean meticulously wraps all the electronics and camera gear in dry sacs every night was a saving grace. Sadly we were not also wrapped in dry sacks as well. 

Thankfully the rain stopped and the sky began to clear around 6:30, so we took our time packing everything up, hoping some of our gear would dry (it didn't).  While we waited we watched the morning light shift and change on the river beside us, and we found a whole host of tiny Snapping Turtles when we walked over to the waterfall.

When we rejoined the trail at the little park in front of the restored train station we were surprised to find it completely full of bicycles. A large group of youth were just getting ready to begin some kind of event, and it looked like excitement was high.  At first we were worried we might be in the way, but luckily the cyclists were headed in the opposite direction.

As we set off down the now familiar corridor of green trees and shrubs it was already turning into a very hot and humid morning. Almost right away we spotted our first rabbit, meaning we've seen at least one every single day that we've been on Le P'tit Train du Nord.  Shortly afterwards we found ourselves walking in the wake of a small family of Canada Geese - the youngsters waddling straight down the middle of the path, while the adults flanked them on either side, looking very serious.

In the next section of trail we passed a small patch of deciduous sugar maple forest which had been affected by a forest fire.  Almost all of the undergrowth had been burned away, and the smell of smoke and wet leaves was still strong in the air.  A Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker made its way through the burned trunks and disappeared over a hill.

Around 10 am we came to a small rest stop with a wooden shelter in the shape of a train car.  It was the first of several we would pass by today, and we took the opportunity to take a break at the picnic tables and dry out the tent a little in the hot sunshine. 

A short while later we arrived in Macaza Station, which was little more than a collection of homes.  In 1922, when the train station first opened it was an important spot for welcoming visitors from the city, for receiving mail and goods for the hotels and general store, and for transporting lumber from the local sawmills and coal down south. 

For most of the morning the trail had been running parallel with the Rivière Rouge, on the other side of which was the highway.  The Red River is a 161 km long river that begins at Lac de la Fougère, and flows south through the Laurentian mountains to empty into the Ottawa River near Point-au-Chêne.  It gets its name from the reddish tint of its sandbanks.  It is a popular destination for white-water rafting, kayaking and canoeing, and tubing.

When we reached Macaza we came to the Halte Bélanger-Miljour, another little park with some interesting railway related sculptures, a model of a railway engine covered in black-painted pressed tin, and several picnic tables.  It was located on the banks of the river, just at the base of a long wooden pedestrian and cycling bridge over the water.  Just downstream was a beautiful, red, wooden covered bridge which brought to mind the ones we saw when walking the Trans Canada Trail in New Brunswick, particularly those around Fundy National Park.

After crossing the pedestrian bridge we walked a long, arrow-straight section of pathway with the river on one side and the highway on the other.  For a short time we pulled away from the road and the roar of the traffic receded, which was a very welcome respite.  We passed a small pond where we spotted several frogs basking on a log.  This section was also thick with large yellow and black swallowtail butterflies that flitted and danced along the trail. 

Beside us the river suddenly became very lively and active, tumbling and splashing over large rocks and pieces of exposed Canadian Shield.  Not too long after this we passed a small lookout platform and a sign indicating these were the Italian rapids.  As we walked along the forested pathway under the tall pines and spruce, the noise of the river was almost deafening.

One of the interesting geographical features in this region are eskers.  An esker is a longitudinal morainic (or glacier) deposit, and they look like long, low hills that can be several hundred meters long and are often covered in sandy soil,  lichen, and jack pine forests.  In many places rivers ran through the channels and tunnels between the eskers, transporting material from the melting glaciers, including rocks, stones, and fine particulates that accumulated along the waterway.  Today, the remains of some of these are glacial rivers are still flowing.

Surprisingly, all of a sudden the rocky section of rapids beside us ended, and the river grew silent. The dark brown waters were still slipping by alongside the trail at high speed, but it was like someone had thrown a switch, and they were now a silent companion.

In a way, sudden changes characterized the section of trail we walked today.  We passed through tunnels of lush, light green deciduous forest.  We walked through open areas with large sand dunes that were topped by jack pines and a crunchy layer of light green lichen.  Then, without warning the tall, wet rocks of the Canadian shield would form walls on either side of the trail, leaving us in a cool rock tunnel admiring the young saplings that found a way to survive and grow in the cracks.  Several times we passed under hydro corridors below which were open shrubby areas that looked like good places to spot a black bear or moose.

Much of the afternoon was spent walking another long, straight section of trail that was divided from the highway by a thin layer of spruce and other trees.  We were grateful for the screen of greenery, and very happy not to be walking on the road with the traffic, but it was a long, hot, shade-less stretch, and the sound of the traffic was so loud we couldn't hear each other speak. 

At the edge of the town of Rivière-Rouge we stopped at Tim Hortons for a break and an iced coffee.  Although we had reached the edge of town, and this was our goal for the night, we still had another 7 km of walking to do to get to the Fou du Roi Campground.

When we got back onto the trail we were in for a real treat.  We unexpectedly came across a sign for the Observatoire Sentiers Ornithologiques et Forestiers.  It turned out to be a lovely birding and forestry trail!  Of course, we had to divert down to walk the loop, and it was well worth it! 

We began on a brand new boardwalk through a stand of deciduous trees with lush ferns underneath.  A short distance later we came to a wooden observation tower that looked out over a marsh with several Wood Duck nesting boxes.  In the hot sunny afternoon there wasn't too much bird activity apart from Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, a Common Yellowthroat, a pair of Mallards, and a couple of turtles basking on a log, but I'd love to return in the morning! 

After visiting the marsh the short trail looped through a spruce stand and a plantation of huge, tall pines which were letting off thick clouds of yellow pollen. In this section we spotted an American Robin, a Blue Jay, and a Wood Thrush bringing food back to the young in its nest. Although we didn't see anything rare or unusual, the variety of habitats, and the gorgeous trail conditions made us want to return at a better time of day. 

Today was another short day (only 20 km), because we couldn't find anywhere to stop at a more reasonable distance.  Although the P'tit Train du Nord offers a nearly unprecedented number of amenities along its entire length, I think they are spaced so as to be convenient stopping points for cyclists.  This makes sense, and also seems to coincide with the distance between the locations of the old stations along the railway line.  However, it often means that places to camp or find lodgings are either 20-25 km apart (a very short day) or 40-50 km apart (an uncomfortably long day with full packs).  Wild camping is prohibited, and we always try to respect local rules, so we've found ourselves walking what we find to be somewhat awkward distances.  Despite the short day, it was still afternoon when we arrived at the campsite, and those last kilometres seemed to stretch on forever. 

Happily the Fou du Roi Campground is located right on the trail.  The kind owners gave us a nice treed site right on the river, which has a large sandy beach.  We were also able to have showers and do laundry, which was very much appreciated.  In the evening we walked the 2 km back to town to get Subway sandwiches for dinner, and then returned to watch the sun set on the river.  The campground has gradually filled up with other campers for weekend, and we are happy to have a family with a very nice spotted dog for our neighbours.  

Lately we have been questioning why we are out here, but as we watched the sun set and turn the sky and the river pink we remembered at least some of the reasons. When we slow down enough to enjoy all that the trail has to offer, we realize anew what a privilege it is to be out here, and today we certainly got to see and experience a lot of beauty.

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