Monday, June 6, 2022

The Final Train Station : Val Barrette to Mont-Laurier

One way to look at this morning was that we heard screeching in the night, two men yelling outside our tent at first light, mad hammering going on half an hour later, and then there was a murder in the campground.  Put another way, we heard the soft, repeated calls of an Eastern Screech-owl during the night.  A few hours later we were woken by the loud, enthusiastic song of a Chipping Sparrow, who was soon joined by an American Robin that was giving a full-throated welcome to the day. This was followed by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drumming a tattoo on a nearby birch, and the toy-horn honking of a White-breasted Nuthatch. Finally, a large and extremely noisy group of American Crows descended onto the campground, proceeding to call back and forth as loudly as possible.  It was time to get up. 

A fine mist was rising from the still and peaceful waters of Lac François, turning a delicate silver in the morning sunlight.  We walked down to the boat launch and sat in two Adirondack chairs, admiring the mirror like reflections of the water, which were broken by a solo canoeist, silently paddling from one side of the lake to the other.  The treed shoreline was dotted by cottages, and we spotted a Common Loon diving for fish in front of one of them.  As we enjoyed the still and silent morning a couple of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds involved in a high-speed chase narrowly missed us!

We again took our time packing everything up and clearing our tent of the moths which had gathered under the fly to stay dry.  As we have another very short day to reach Mont-Laurier and the end of  Le Parc Lineare Le P'tit Train du Nord we were in no rush to set off. At the beginning of the day the climb back up the winding, paved road seemed much shorter and less steep than the descent to the lake had yesterday afternoon after more than 30 km of hiking.

When we rejoined the treed tunnel of the cycling trail it was already a warm, partially sunny day.  Having done a very short stretch of road walking, we had a renewed and heartfelt appreciation for the level, shady corridor of the beautiful cycling path that we've been enjoying this past week. While every trail section presents some kind of challenge, it really has been a joy to walk here! 

A short stretch of forested trail brought us to the edge of Val-Barrette. This community was settled in 1894 by Thomas Brunet, with other families following soon after.  Hard work with minimal resources was required to clear the land, build homes, and start the community, which was centred around the railway and the local sawmill. The first school opened in 1911, and the church was built in 1915, when it was estimated that around 60 families inhabited the region.  The town is named after Zéphirin Barrette who was the first mayor of the town, president of the school board, owner of the first hotel, post master, general merchant, and churchwarden among other things. 

The trail crossed the main street, and a few meters farther along we saw the Restaurant de la Vallee, with a nice outdoor patio out back that was occupied by several cyclists.  We decided to stop for a coffee, and ended up with coffee plus delicious omelettes with home fries and warm, buttery, toast.  It left us feeling full and content, and rather more inclined to have a nice nap than to strap on our packs and resume walking. 

We eventually continued on through an open, grassy central park with a very colourful Little Free Library, and then followed the treed corridor out of town.  For a short distance we were surrounded by deciduous forest, where the calls of Ovenbirds, Black-throated Green Warblers, American Redstarts, and Red-eyed Vireos could be heard.  

Shortly afterwards we came to the shores of Lac Gauvin, which we caught glimpses of through a screen of spruce and cedar trees.  We crossed a small gravel road and learned from the interpretive signage that the Lac-des-Écorces fish farm was beside us.  This facility is fed by water from Lac des Écorces, which helps maintain appropriate water temperatures and levels of oxygenation.  The facility is open to the public, and has the capacity to breed 700,000 to 800,000 trout fry, and to incubate 1.5 million eggs in 40 troughs and 20 basins.  An additional 48 outdoor ponds provide space to fatten up the trout before they are released in fall. 

After passing the trout farm we continued along the trail, crossing a wooden footbridge over a small stream at the end of Lac des Écorces (Bark Lake). Here we found information signs indicating that in 1908 there used to be a wooden dam located at this place, which was used to power a wool mill.  The wool was woven into thick blankets and pants, and during WWII it was exported to Montreal, where it was used to make uniforms for the Canadian Army. 

The dam was also used to power a sawmill, which was in operation until 1973.  The operator of the mill, Meilleur, also installed a generator that produced electricity for personal use.  It worked with a turbine driven by water from the Kiamika River, and eventually he expanded it to provide electricity to the villages of Val-Barrette, Lac-des-Écorces, and Kiamika.  In 1974 Hydro-Quebec acquired the business. We did not see any evidence of the dam that once was so important to regional development. 

We continued walking around the lakeshore on the shady path bordered by trees.  We enjoyed the views out over the lake, as well as the cool breezes.  Eventually we came to a rest stop with a couple picnic tables and a covered shelter.  We decided to stop and take a break to enjoy the peaceful, sunny, morning. 

A sign alongside the rest area indicated that the lake was home to a population of spring cisco, which is an Endangered species in Quebec, and has been listed as Vulnerable by COSEWIC.  The introduction of rainbow smelt, degradation of water quality in the lake, and shoreline erosion from development are potential causes of the decline in this species. 

As we sat at the picnic tables we watched a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker climbing up the trunks of the trees along the shoreline in front of us.  A Veery was moving stealthily among the same stand of the trees, and we could hear the exuberant, bubbly song of a Winter Wren in the trees behind us.  Above us a hawk circled in the bright sky, giving plaintive cries as it moved, but it was too high up and too backlit to identify with any accuracy. 

We continued around the edge of the lake in the late morning sunshine until we finally pulled away, and found ourselves in an open, shrubby landscape.  As we approached Mont-Laurier we were impressed to see that the trail kept us in a natural feeling corridor of trees and green spaces.  It was a pleasant walk, and as we approached the town we were passed by several cyclists, all of whom gave us a friendly 'Bon Journée!' or a thumbs up in passing. 

Eventually we came to a large lumber yard.  We could hear the sawmill in action nearby, and it felt in many ways like we'd come full circle.  We've been reading on the historic plaques how the railway was instrumental in settling the region, and how it was essential for moving logs, lumber, and other natural resources to the ports down south in Montreal.  Now here we were, at the end of the P'tit Train du Nord, outside a lumber mill, which must still be an important economic driver of the region.  

Unexpectedly, the marsh just opposite the noisy and busy lumber yard seemed to be a refuge for local wildlife. We spotted two Painted Turtles basking on a rock in the water.  For a few short moments a White-tailed Deer posed in a gap in the trees on the far shore of the marsh.  Overhead a pair of Ring-billed Gulls soared - the first gulls we've noticed along the P'tit Train de Nord.

Just a few feet away we also spotted a groundhog.  It stood up on its hind legs to get a better view, and proceeded to tilt so far backwards that we feared it would topple over.  As Sean approached it to take photos it gave him a haughty stare, refusing to move until Sean was quite close. When we continued on and passed it, we could hear it ripping and noisily chewing the sharp raspberry bushes it was hiding among. It was amazing how much wildlife was packed into a wetland right beside a lumber mill! 

When we reached the edge of Mont-Laurier we came to the 200 km marker for the P'tit Train du Nord.  We crossed the busy Trans Canada Highway, and continued for about another kilometer to the restored train station, where we found markers for both kilometer 200 and 201.  We had officially completed the P'tit Train du Nord! 

Sadly, the train station was closed when we arrived, and workers were in the process of painting the deck a point they emphasized by telling us not to come near the station.  

We have since learned that this was being done in preparation for the arrival of the torch for the Summer Games. The torch is being run by relay from Ottawa to Montreal on the Trans Canada Trail in the next few days.  Maybe we will be lucky enough to see it en route! 

Finishing the P'tit Train du Nord was a bitter-sweet feeling.  It felt good to have finished it, but it was a wonderful trail to hike, and we are sad to leave it behind.  As we made our way back into the city of Mont-Laurier, we can't help but wonder what comes next, as we leave the beautiful and well-maintained Route Verte and P'tit Train du Nord behind.  We will just have to wait and see what comes next!

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