Saturday, June 11, 2022

Deerflies, Deadends and Refuge with Mon Petit Chum : Gracefield to Wakefield

This morning began with the very loud, repeated song of a Veery above our tent. Soon it was joined by the roar of traffic on the highway, signalling it was time to get up.  When we opened the tent we discovered a thick mist blanketing the campground and turning to gold in the morning sunshine.  Despite the challenges of a noisy Friday night we slept well, disturbed only by the calls of an Eastern Whip-poor-will in the night. 

When we packed up our sodden gear and headed down to the Picanoc River it looked magical with golden mist rising from the dark surface of the water between the steep forested banks.  We walked back down the road to the trail, and a few minutes later we found ourselves crossing the same river on a new pedestrian and cycling bridge. 

We set off this morning feeling a bit apprehensive about trail conditions between Gracefield and Low, having read several accounts which described bushwacking and impassable washouts in this section.  We were very grateful to find a well-maintained gravel track which looked like it was in good repair, and we never encountered any serious problems throughout the day.  It looked like a lot of work had been done recently, and we certainly appreciated it! 

We made our way through the now familiar corridor of green trees.  The loud calls of Ovenbirds, Wood Thrush, and Black-capped Chickadees echoed throughout the forest.  We caught the flash of blue and white as two Blue Jays moved rapidly through the canopy ahead of us.  The honks of a Red-breasted Nuthatch sounded nearby.  A small flock of bright yellow American Goldfinches bounced along the edge of the trail, and the whiny calls of a nest full of hungry Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nestlings reached our ears. 

Soon we emerged from the trees and the trail began paralleling the gravel road through a peaceful pastoral landscape. Lush, rolling hay fields interspersed with small forested hills surrounded us. We passed a small group of cows clustered around a hay feeder.  The dew in the fields glistened in the morning sun, and wet spider webs hung like jewels from the tall grasses and shrubs at the edge of the trail. 


About an hour into our hike we came to the first of several rest stops for the day - the Halte Vélo Ruisseau des Cerises.  Since it was still early we didn't stop at the shaded picnic table in the small red wooden cabin, but instead continued down the grassy track. 

Our route continued to weave us through another section of lush, green, peaceful, rolling fields.  Old farms with beautiful, textured wooden barns dotted the quiet landscape.  Overhead we heard the unmistakable winnowing of two Wilson Snipes circling in the clear blue sky. A Brown Thrasher belted out an impressive medley of songs from a nearby shrub, and a small group of elegant Cedar Waxwings was foraging in the treetops. 

About 10 km into our hike we took our first break at the Halte du 8e Rang, which was a picnic table under a canopy of spruce.  We were enjoying the sunshine today after so many days of rain, but the morning was rapidly warming up, and we appreciated the shade. 

After this the trail passed through a very marshy forested area.  Lush green ferns bordered the trail, some of them nearly as tall as me, and there was standing water on both sides of the dirt path.  Unfortunately the mosquitos and blackflies were extremely plentiful in this stretch, causing us to set and maintain a very fast pace through the warm, humid, sauna-like morning. 

As we rounded a bend in the trail we had a huge surprise - another hiker on the trail, carrying a good sized pack and trekking poles!  This is a pretty rare sight on the Trans Canada Trail.  She was moving very fast, but stopped to warn us that the trail ahead was flooded, and a bit slippery, but that she had made it safely across.  We thanked her, and before we could ask what adventure she was on, she had turned and headed off down the trail again.  It felt like a story missed. 

The obstruction turned out to be a small section of flooding caused by an over enthusiastic beaver.  We took our shoes and socks off and waded across, quite enjoying the feeling of the cold water on our feet. We wouldn't mind having a few more of these cooling off stations on hot days!  


On the far side we took a short break, and took the opportunity to dry off the soaking wet tent in the hot sunshine at the same time. Although it defied explanation there were almost no biting insects in this particular spot, and we enjoyed the peaceful break.  As we sat there a Northern Crescent butterfly flitted from our packs to our arms and legs, presumably licking the salt.  We also heard the telltale glug-a-glug call of an American Bittern among the dried cattails of the beaver pond, but try as we might, we couldn't spot it. 

When we eventually headed off we found ourselves in another stretch of rolling green hay fields. We spotted the bright red coat of a White-tailed Deer in a field, standing quietly watching us.  In a meadow filled with golden flowers another dark wood barn stood like a reminder of times past.  As we moved through the peaceful and pastoral landscape we were reminded of the landscape we walked through west of Ottawa, on the  Cataraqui and Kawartha Trans Canada Trails.  It was interesting to see from a new perspective how this huge and diverse country fits together.



About 1.5 km before we reached Kazabazua Station we saw a second person on the trail carrying a backpack.  As we got closer we realized it was another birder!  When we asked if he had seen anything interesting in the marsh, which seemed to be full of bird life, he said he was looking for a Golden-winged Warbler which had been reported on eBird.  This is a rare bird to see so far north. We wished him luck, but he admitted he might have had a better chance if he'd been out earlier in the day.

We took another break at Kazabazua Station where there was a bench in the grassy area beside the parking lot.  We were both getting low on water, but sadly all the amenities were in Kazabazua itself, which was about 3.5 km off the trail.  Although we are enjoying the beautiful trail, we are missing the frequent opportunities to resupply and refuel on the P'tit Train du Nord.  We really have been spoiled here in Quebec!  


The first settlers arrived in the Kazabazua area around 1835, and in 1862 the township of Aylwin was created.  The name was changed in 1932 to reflect the local topography.  The word Kazabazua comes from an Algonquin word meaning 'water current passing under the rocks.'  Apparently, from the bridge that passes over the river an expert observer can see the water flowing under the rocks. 

After crossing the highway we walked over a wooden pedestrian bridge high above the tree-lined Kazabazua River below us.  We watched the dark water flowing swiftly by far below, but sadly we weren't able to see where it flowed below the rocks.  

The next few kilometers went by in a bit of a blur.  We were being chased by a very large and aggressive swarm of deer flies that seemed to bite the very moment they landed.  The trail was covered in very white crushed stone, and it reflected the bright, hot sunshine, magnifying the heat.  We were chased through a section of beautiful deciduous trees, through an open, sandy area with a plantation of pines, and past small lakes and marshes.  It seemed that there was no habitat the bloodthirsty beasts didn't like.

When we reached the Halte des Canneberges we were very hot, tired, and ready for a break.  Unfortunately the picnic table was perched on top of a large pile of sand in the full sun.  Admittedly it would have provided a great view out over the marsh, but we would have been eaten alive up there! 



Reluctantly we continued on, keeping up an uncomfortably fast pace in the warm afternoon.  As we approached Ventosa, which was another village in name only, the insect swarm finally began to diminish slightly, and we took a few minutes to watch a large garter snake who was sunbathing on the trail.  A short distance away a truly impressive black, white, and orange Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly was also sunning itself on the trail.



We finally managed to take another break in the shade of a large tree just before we again crossed the highway in Ventosa. The next 10 km of trail to Low were similar to what we'd been enjoying all day - a mix of fields, farms, small forested hills, and small lakes.  We passed a sheep farm, and paused to watch several Bobolinks and an Eastern Meadowlark singing from trees in nearby fields.  We again sped up as we approached Low, not because of insects, but because now we were being chased by a very large black thunder cloud. 

We reached Low around 5:00 pm and took shelter in the covered gazebo in the park just moments before the first raindrops began to fall.  We were very grateful for the roofed shelter during the next half hour as a very heavy rain fell and a stiff wind bent the trees around us. 

Finally the rain stopped, and we followed the trail, which ran parallel to the highway in a corridor of dense trees through town.  A row of homes, several businesses, a small community center where a wedding reception was being held, and a closed restaurant lined the highway. At the far end of town we stopped at the Depanneur to refill our water bottles at long last and get an ice cream.  

After this we seem to have made a bit of a mistake.  The Trans Canada Trail signs (or rather Grand Sentier signs) directed us across the highway and down the next section of trail, which took the form of a narrow dirt footpath at this point.  We followed this trail through the countryside for about 5 km before it simply ended back on the side of the highway just past Brennan's Hill.  What to do? The Trans Canada Trail app wasn't working, and our cell service wasn't strong enough to fully load Google maps, so we could only guess that we went wrong somewhere.

Later we learned that we should have crossed the river back in Low and followed a second TCT pathway across a power dam and south along a riverside road, but there was no signage anywhere on the ground to indicate this.  The result being that we had followed a spur of the trail for 4-5 km which deadened into the local highway.  

With only a few hours of daylight left and having already hiked 37 km our options were to backtrack 5 km (and hope to re-find the trail) and continue for 20 km more or find our own way south to Wakefield.  Tired we ultimately decided to follow the highway for the remaining kilometers to Wakefield instead of backtracking, because we weren't entirely sure at that point where we lost the main trail.  As we navigated the busy highway beside the Gatineau River we didn't see anywhere that would be a likely place to camp.  It was late when we arrived in Wakefield, having survived a very long and at times seemingly endless day. 

As always seems to happen at the toughest of times the trail provides and we were extremely grateful to be hosted by Dawn at the stunning and cozy Auberge de Mon Petit Chum B&B.  She was incredibly kind, offering to give us a lift if we needed it, volunteering to do our laundry (that may have been out of self preservation), making sure we knew where everything in town was, warning us that the grocery store was closing soon,  and feeding us a huge homemade breakfast.  Dawn's stunning kindness and warmth as a host transformed a tough afternoon into a wonderful day on the trail.  As the rain is falling once again outside we are grateful to be indoors and dry for the first time in a few days.  It was a good end to a tough day, and we look forward to exploring Wakefield and its historic covered bridge tomorrow.

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