Monday, June 13, 2022

Tranquil Times in Nature : Wakefield to Chelsea

Since we arrived late into Wakefield yesterday, we took a bit of time this morning to explore the charming riverside town.  The Trans Canada Trail enters the community on a picturesque, red, wooden covered bridge. It was built in 1915, and was one of the first bridges to span the Gatineau River.  Unfortunately, the bridge was completely destroyed by fire in 1984, but the community decided to raise money to rebuild it, and in 1998 the Gendron bridge was inaugurated.  A few of the parts from the original bridge were used to create the new one, including the supports. 

There were several families exploring and taking photos and in the covered bridge when we went back through.  It was impressively long, and we were amazed by the force and power of the rapids flowing through underneath.  It also offered beautiful views down the Gatineau River. 

On the far side of the bridge the Trans Canada Trail passes in front of the 160-year-old Fairburn Farmhouse, which is now located in Hendrick Park.  This home is one of the oldest dwellings in Wakefield, having been built in 1838 by Scottish settler William Fairburn.  He also erected the area's first grist mill, which is still located on the other side of the village on the river.  The Fariburn house has been relocated several times, and it now serves as a cultural center, offering school programming and various community events, such as Musical Mondays. 

Sadly, the Fairburn House was closed when we visited, so we headed back into town.  We passed a very creative and active looking elementary school, which had garden plots out front and was decorated with various natured themed art.  With its square architecture and large glass windows it looked like it could have been the visitor's center for a provincial park. 

As we headed towards town we passed a White-tailed Deer about 10 ft off the trail, happily munching on shrubs and grasses and completely unconcerned by our presence.  We had noticed that many of the beautifully landscaped English-style flower gardens in the neighborhoods around the Auberge were surrounded by elegantly done wire and wood fences, and this cute looking deer was likely one of the reasons why. 

We followed the trail through a beautifully landscaped park along the river, which was shaded by tall white pines.  The rails from the Gatineau Valley Rail Line were still intact, bordering the crushed stone-dust pathway, and along the way we passed the blue-painted train station at the edge of town. 

The railway reached Wakefield in 1892, and by 1902 there four CPR passenger trains every weekday in and out of Ottawa. A second railway station was built in 1930 to handle freight.  Despite the popularity of the train in its heyday, improved highway conditions and the prevalence of motor vehicles led to all rail service being discontinued in 1980. 

We followed the trail through the charming downtown, past boutique shops, sports rental stores, pubs, bistros, and cafés.  Just past a sports complex and playing fields we turned onto a forested trail that snaked up a large hill.  The canopy of American beech, sugar maple, and yellow birch was glowing green in the early morning light.  Although it was still early the forest was relatively quiet, with only the dogged call of a Red-eyed Vireo filling the warm, humid, air. 

When we began to descend on the far side of the small hill we could hear the sounds of the traffic from the highway once again.  We emerged onto a quiet road beside the old, field-stone Wakefield Mill, which now houses an upscale hotel, and is perched on the banks of the Gatineau River.  A very short walk on a wide gravel pathway took us under the three bridges of the very busy Quebec Rte 105, and then just like that, we were in Gatineau Park. 

Gatineau Park is a 361 km² area of protected forest and lakes, which borders Wakefield and extends into urban Gatineau.  It was created in 1938, and it is managed by the National Capital Commission of Canada, making it the only federal park that is not managed by Parks Canada.  It receives roughly 3 million visitors per year, and claims to be the second most visited park in Canada. The park offers over 165 km of hiking and mountain bicycling paths in summer, and over 200 km of snowshoe and cross-country skiing trails in winter. 

As soon as we entered the park we found ourselves walking on a wide, level, crushed-stone dust trail under a canopy of huge, old sugar maple trees.  The rough call of a Scarlet Tanager sounded from the canopy far above our heads, and the bubbly and happy song of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak welcomed us into the forest.  As we made our way deeper into the trees the songs of a Wood Thrush and an Ovenbird joined the chorus. 

We soon discovered that the park contained a dense and complex network of trails, but luckily the Trans Canada Trail route was clearly marked (as the Great Trail / Grand Sentier or the National Trail).  We began by following our route which traced first along Trail 53 and eventually turned onto Trail 51.  One thing we noticed in the first few kilometers was an incredibly high density of bold and seemingly fearless Eastern Chipmunks.  They were so plentiful and unconcerned by our presence that we nearly stepped on a few of them!

The park supports a wide diversity of wildlife, including thousands of invertebrates, about 10 species of reptiles, 15 species of amphibians, 50 species of mammals, including white-tailed deer, beaver, black bears, wolves, and fishers, and nearly 230 species of birds. 

The morning was already pretty warm and humid, and sadly there was a sizable swarm of mosquitoes pursuing us through the beautifully forested rolling hills.  The result being that there were entire stretches were we literally jogged while swatting around our heads like mad people as we moved down the pathway.  When we arrived at a tiny wetland we slowed our pace, and were surprised to find considerably fewer biting insects buzzing around us.  

We could hear the rubber band like calls of Green Frogs out in the marsh, the raucous squawks of Red-winged Blackbirds, and the descending calls of a Veery.  The dark, still waters of the tiny wetland provided mirror-like reflections of the surrounding trees and the fluffy white clouds in the blue sky above.  Dew and raindrops hung from the tall grasses at the edge of the pond and clung to the purple irises blossoms at the edge of the trail.  

Around 9:00 am we arrived at the P19 parking lot and took a break, enjoying the delicious breakfast sandwiches that Dawn had given us this morning at Auburge de Mon Petit Chum.  As we sat there an NCC Parks truck drove past, marking the first people we'd seen in the park so far. An American Redstart also kept us company, along with a male Chestnut-sided Warbler, both of whom were quietly foraging at the edge of the parking lot.  

As we got up to go we walked past the wooden outhouse, and just as we realized there was a small swallow nest tucked up under its overhang, four tiny birds fledged in a rush of energy and movement.  They must have been ready to go because instead of tumbling and flapping to the ground in a panic as some fledglings do, these ones flew in a tight group up into a nearby sugar maple and landed together on a branch.  They looked like they were old pros, and not like it was their inaugural flight.  We quietly wished them all good luck! 

From the parking lot we followed the Chemin de Lac-Phillipe, which was a winding paved road.  At first we wondered why we were walking a road when there were clearly so many hiking trails available, but a look at the map revealed that this was likely the best option to get to Lac-Phillipe, which is an important ecological feature in the park.  Lac Phillipe is one in a chain of medium-sized lakes located on the north side of Gatineau park.  Along with Lac Mouseau and Meech Lake it drains into the Gatineau River through Meech Creek. 

The trail wove us through the Lac-Phillipe campground.  It's beautiful treed campsites stretched out along the lake, and about a quarter of them were occupied by campers. At the far end of the Lac Phillipe campground the trail brought us to the shore of the lake, where  we were surprised to see a small flock of six Wild Turkeys foraging along the sandy trail, right on the water's edge.  I'm used to seeing turkeys foraging in clearings, fields, and along roadsides in agricultural landscapes, but I often forget they also live in forested areas, particularly those with nut-bearing trees such as oak and hickory.

We walked the length of the lake under a corridor of trees.  To one side the light green canopy of American beech, sugar maple, and yellow birch continued up the side of a steep slope where ferns and wildlflowers covered the ground, and mossy chunks of Canadian Shield poked up through the leaf litter.  On the other side a darker canopy of hemlock covered the trail from a band of cedar and hemlock that grew on the water's edge. 

At the far end of Lac Phillipe we came to an open area which gave us a clear view down the ruffled grey waters of its length.  Its rocky shores were bordered by hemlocks, cedars, and very tall white pines, and as we watched as an Osprey took flight from a nearby pine, grasping a small fish in its talons. Storm clouds had been gathering behind us as well, and a breeze had sprung up, seeming to promise rain. 

We continued on, now walking on the northern side of Lac Mousseau, the next lake in the chain.  As we climbed up and down the forested hills of the typical Canadian Sheild landscape we didn't actually see too much of the lake, but a highlight was passing the Herridge Shelter. 

This beautiful log farmhouse was built in 1880, and inhabited for 26 years by the Caffertys.  It now serves as a day shelter within the park, and is named after its last occupant, William Duncan Herridge.  William was a lawyer from Ottawa, ambassador to Washington, and the son-in-law of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.  

As we approached Meech Lake we noticed that quite a few very large trees had been recently knocked down in the storm, and we were grateful that they had been cleared off the trail.  In this section we began to see quite a few more hikers, including a larger group of retired folks on a very vigorous and fast-paced group hike who seemed to be tackling the steep hills with great energy and determination.

Eventually we came to the shores of Meech Lake, which had a selection of historic homes, cottages, and other buildings tucked into the trees along its shores.  This waterbody is named after Asa Meech (1775 - 1849), an Anglican pastor who settled on the lake with his family in 1821. He was married three times, had 21 children, and his former home is believed to be the oldest building in Gatineau. 

One of the historic buildings on this lake is Wilson House, which is where the premiers and the Prime Minister met to discuss the ill-fated Meech Lake Accord in 1987.  The Meech Lake Accord was a series of proposed amendments to the Constitution of Canada that was negotiated in 1987 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 Canadian provincial premiers. Its goal was to persuade Quebec to symbolically endorse the 1982 constitutional amendments by providing some decentralization of the federal government.  Although the amendments were initially popular, ultimately they failed to pass. Quebec viewed the outcome of the accords as a rejection by English-speaking Canada, which led to the second Quebec referendum in 1995 during which voters were asked to decide whether Quebec should declare sovereignty and become a separate nation or not.

A very steep hill brought us out onto the road at the O'Brien Parking lot east of Meech Lake. At this point things began to unravel a little leading us to navigate a maze of trail closures amid a network of pathways.  We walked down the road to Trail #32, which was the next section of Trans Canada Trail.  

To our dismay it was closed, and the beginning was a sea of soft, thick, deep mud.  To make matters worse, fallen trees blocked the trail farther up the slope.  We decided we could continue to the next trail head down the road and perhaps get back onto the TCT from that point.  It too was closed. 

Cell service in that part of the park wasn't strong enough for us to fully load Google maps, or the park website, so we had no way of knowing which trails were closed and which weren't.  We'd added almost 10 extra kilometers of hiking through the hilly landscape in the hot afternoon by trying to guess, so we decided to simply follow the road over to the Visitor's Center, where we figured we could ask for help and/or obtain a paper map.  

No longer on the TCT or any trail, we followed the very busy Chemin de Lac Meech for about 5 km out to the Visitor's Center, only to learn that it closed about 15 minutes before we arrived there.  While this was a bit frustrating, the small village of Chelsea where we found ourselves looked very inviting and it was bustling with people.  We decided to get an ice cream while we decided what to do.  As we sat at a picnic table in the shade outside the Visitor's Center we decided to spend our last night in Quebec in the charming village of Cheslea and figure out how to navigate the trail closures in the morning. 

I think this was a good decision.  Later that evening we decided to celebrate finishing the 5th province we began and the 8th province we finished on our #hike4birds across Canada.  We were taken out by a local supporter to Le Petit Bar a Vin, which offered a lovely shaded patio.  The owner was extremely friendly and knowledgeable, spending time with each customer and taking great care to customize everyone's meals to their own preferences and tastes.  All foods were produced entirely from local ingredients and lovingly paired with an appropriate beverage. 

We had a charcuterie plate, and for the first time ever I learned to appreciate how jams, marmalade's, pickled veggies, cranberries, dates, figs, and nuts can pair with cheese and wine. Each bite tasted different and delicious. The meal was finished with a fantastic chocolate cake, and a tiny glass of fortified wine that was aged for 6 years outside in the sunlight in a glass barrel.  La Part des Anges tasted like Portugal, and when we said this, we learned the owner had walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  As we enjoyed our small celebration a lady walked past on the sidewalk with a backpack that had a Canadian Company of Pilgrims patch on it.   

Suddenly it felt like we'd come full circle.  The Camino put us on this path, and here it is tonight, with us here in spirit as we bid farewell to Quebec.  We will certainly miss the beautiful trails, gorgeous scenery, excellent food, friendly people, and wonderful culture.   It has been a joy to walk through La Belle Province! Tomorrow we trek out of Quebec and into Ontario.

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