17 Sep 2010

Parking

In a way, it was just a bit too early. The leaves have not quite started turning, only the odd dash of color is already out here and there. But the timing of my former flat mate's visit had to suit his and my rather busy schedules, and not just that of Mother Nature. So we opted for a time span that involved both a long weekend for me (Labour Day) and one for him (Knabenschiessen, which translates into boys' shooting but is not quite as brutal an event as you'd think). This allowed us to plan two getaways, with my friend spending the few workdays between them strolling around Montréal and supporting the local retailers.

Having brought not just fresh chocolate supplies for me to squirrel away to winter stockpiles, but also his hiking boots, my friend was ready and willing to join me in discovering some of the great outdoors. An invitation to a chalet in the Outaouais, and recommendations for a Bed & Breakfast as well as a trail in the Cantons de l'Est were our fixtures for the two weekends, so we planned accordingly and I happily found myself piloting a rental car monstrosity out of town. After a stop in Canada's capital, it was time for our first easy outdoor adventure. We picked the nearby Parc de la Gatineau, which is managed by the National Capital Commission as a quick gettaway destination for - presumably overworked - government employees. At the visitor center, a park ranger suggested a hiking loop of about 3 hours, covering slightly hilly terrain and offering views on the Ottawa river valley. Soon after we headed on to the path, we found ourselves surrounded by wildlife. Unfortunately, it was of the buzz buzz sting sting kind. And while we were of course both equipped with Swiss army knives, none of their countless functions worked against these blood suckers. They only relented when another natural hazard struck: Rain! Luckily, despite having only been under way for roughly 90 minutes, we had just about arrived back at the starting point - the 3 hours indicated may have been adjusted to the speeds of the local demographic. ;-)

Scratching, if not licking, our wounds the following week, we made sure not to leave urban Canada without proper insect repellent again: I bought a product suspiciously reminiscent of Priest Off, hoping that it would protect slightly older boys as well. But we never found out if it does, for on our next hikes, insects were absent (which obviously led us to the conclusion that evil Federalists had sent them over the nearby border into Parc de la Gatineau the last time!). Instead, we encountered differently dressed park rangers and started noticing the competing players in the park scene: The Parc national du Mont-Orford and the Parc national du Mont-Mégantic are run by the Québec provincial government, and their Fleur de Lys-clad rangers charged us $3.50 a head for access to nature. That's still a bargain compared to the $7.80 due in the federally-run Parc national de la Mauricie. But then again, the rangers over there sport a far more varied and attractive range of Canada-themed outdoor gear!

In any case, the investments were definitely worthwhile, for we enjoyed beautiful vistas, verdant flora, delicous rucksack-catered lunches and hours of inspiring conversation on our hikes. The only thing missing was that moose casually emerging from a refreshing bath in a pond, or that family of bears frolicking on the meadow in the - safe - distance. Maybe we should have lured them with our almond-and-honey granola bars after all?

One last question remains: Why did we do all our hiking in parks? The answer lies the different concept of "nature" on the two sides of the Atlantic: Switzerland is interwoven with some 60'000km of hiking trails through meticulously managed countryside, with the sole national park being the one spot where nature is allowed to remain wild, unmanaged and mostly inaccessible. The opposite is true in Canada. National parks are the few places where nature is actually controlled, paths are maintained and the outdoors are within easy reach. Leave them and head a few hundered kilometers north, and you'll find yourself at the end of all infrastructure. There is, as the old pun has it, kana da.

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