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…And Back Again: Mont Saint-Hilaire

August 11, 2009

While it’s very interesting to talk about places I’ve been (and I’m dredging my memories for things to put up there), it dawned on me at some point recently that if I was going to talk about curious and (un?)interesting places of North America, I may want to, at some point, not only cover the “There”, but also the “Back Again” – the part of the world I call home. This won’t be a single narrative of a visit around my home (for obvious reasons) – more a collection of stories and anecdotes about things and events here.

This won’t be about all of Québec, either. Québec City, for example, definitely is not home. Magog, much as I love it, isn’t. Les Bergeronnes isn’t. Amos isn’t. Home is a rather smallish region of south-western Québec, largely along the Richelieu river; home is the land surrounding Mont Saint-Hilaire. In fact, it wouldn’t be far off to say that home is the land you can see from Mont Saint-Hilaire (and reversedly, places you can see Mont Saint-Hilaire from).

Unsurprisingly, this entry is about Mont Saint-Hilaire.

Mont Saint-Hilaire really is at the center of my home region. Not because it’s very high: it’s about thirteen hundred feet above the sea level, so really more of a hill. However, what’s around it isn’t called “Saint Lawrence Lowlands” or “Monteregian Plains” for no reason: it’s very flat, and very low. And so, the mountain rise out, all steep slopes and outright cliffs, to tower over everything else around it, down to and including Mount Royal and the skyscrappers of Montreal, less than half Saint-Hilaire’s height for most of them.

When I say it stands out, I mean it.

Mont Saint-Hilaire, busily being...VERY there.

As the bird fly, from my home in Beloeil to the Pain de Sucre, the highest summit of Mont Saint-Hilaire is maybe a two or three miles journey due east. As the Guillaume walks, it’s not so quick a trip: the only trail to the summit (the only legal one anyway, and the only one I could consider with my ankle as it is in any event) begins a mile and a half to the south-east of the summit, and to get there I have to cross the Richelieu, with its only bridge about a mile and a half to the north.

(I still say it’s a shame there is no public walkway/bike way attached to the railway bridge across the Richelieu  river, which would basically cut in half the distance between this part of Beloeil and the entrance of the mountain).

In any event, the trail first takes me through Beloeil, my hometown. It’s largely a commuter town (or, to translate directly from the french, dorm town. And it’s boring enough for the name.), which translates to a city council that’s pretty good at providing services for the town, but not very good at all about such things as vision, or giving the town a soul. Fine and good for the commuters, perhaps, but annoying for people (like me) who have fairly deep ties to the region, and not so deep ones to Montreal.

There aren’t many things along the way: there used to be a cute little church (my parish church, actually, where I was baptized, had my first communion, confirmation, etc), unassuming, just little stone walls, a sloping tiled roof that went almost all the way down to the ground, yellow and blue tinted glass that let in the sunlight, and a cute green belfry. Of course, these days, it’s not so much a cute church anymore (burned by a lightning strike around the time I twisted my ankle).

In Memoriam, Ste-Maria-Goreti Church, 1960-2009.

In Memory, Sainte-Maria-Goretti Church, Consecrated 06/10/56 - Burned 06/26/09

There is, honestly, very little else along the way. Shops, malls, a golf course (which I really wish would be turned into the magnificent public park it could be. Beloeil needs a great public park, and the region has ): just uninspired services. The more interesting parts of Beloeil (such as they are) are the riverside, south of here, where wealthy Montrealers built week-end homes back in the mid-nineteenth century, and the old town, further north, around the gaudy Saint-Mathieu church.

On the other hand, one has to admit Beloeil has the best view on the mountain. Not the most impressive, perhaps (Saint-Hilaire, on the other side of the Richelieu, right at the foot of the mountain, gets that), but definitely the most beautiful.

This is, more or less, the Beloeil town flag. Actual Beloeil content: the foreground trees.

This is, more or less, the Beloeil town flag. Actual Beloeil content: the foreground flora.

The bridge over the Richelieu is the Jordi-Bonet bridge, named after a Spanish artist who fled Franco’s spain and came to live and die in Saint-Hilaire. He was not the only artist with ties to Saint-Hilaire: Ozias Leduc and Paul-Émile Borduas, two of Quebec’s very greatest, were both Saint-Hilaire born. I believe a few fairly popular (in Québec) novelists also live around Saint-Hilaire nowaday.

The Richelieu itself is a fairly wide river, and (as I already mentioned) one of the two defining features of my homeland. It used to be a major road (the road, really), both for commerce and war: it has its source in Lake Champlain, from where one can easily portage to the Hudson (via lake George) and the Connecticut (via the Winooski and White River). These days, of course, little remain of that: just the fact that most churches in the region are built directly besides the river (and facing it). Mostly, the river is used for pleasure boating.

The Richelieu river as it flows between Beloeil and Saint-Hilaire

The Richelieu today. Note the churches by the river. Beloeil is to the left.

Saint-Hilaire, on the other side, is a bit more interesting than Beloeil, to be honest. Their church, despite being rather unassuming (compared to the one in Beloeil) on the outside, is a provincial historical landmark, due to the entire interior decoration having been planned out by Ozias Leduc (whom I already mentioned), including immense wall paintings depicting biblical scenes (in landscapes somewhat reminiscent of Mont Saint-Hilaire). Nearby, there’s the old mansions of the local seigneurs (see Wikipedia.), a Tudor-style mansion that once housed British royalty.

What’s most impressive about Saint-Hilaire, though, is of course the mountain. One of its summits, the Dieppe, dominates the landscape completely, rising out above trees and houses to tower, all sheer cliffs over the town, to an almost flat summit. It’s reminiscent, from many angles, of a very famous Australian landscape, and I’ve heard the name “Canada’s Ayer’s Rock” (aka Canada’s Uluru) a few times.

A typical view of the mountain from Saint-Hilaire.

A typical view of the mountain from Saint-Hilaire.

Getting closer to the mountain, the road becomes harder. There are some pretty steep climbs in Saint-Hilaire (particularly compared to Beloeil, which is almost perfectly flat). The worst, or at least the most famous, of those climbs is the Côte Fortier, not so much because it’s that steep (30% at most, perhaps even less), but because it’s long. As far as bicycles go, that one slope is a long-standing nemesis of mine. In fact, I don’t think I ever succesfully managed it until this year. This time, though, I got through it (although I had to stop and rest at the top, because my legs muscles were burning).

Biking up that slope used to be just about my worst nightmare as a kid.

You can just about see the Cote Fortier in the distance.

Around the summit of that slope, the landscape slowly begin to change. I’m higher up already, and the very rare breaks in the trees and building reveal the Richelieu spread out below, and Mount Royal and Saint-Bruno (like Mount Royal, only even smaller) further off.

Slowly, the suburban houses begin to give way to more rural buildings; there are still stores, but they’re less of the town variety, and more what you could expect to see out in the countryside. Which stands to reason, as I’m pretty much in the countryside. And, around Saint-Hilaire, the countryside means one thing: apples.

Gaudy, but it get the point home:  Saint-Hilaire is apples country.

Gaudy, but it gets the point home: Saint-Hilaire is apples country.

A little further south, around the southern slopes of the mountain, apple trees are practically everywhere. Wherever you look, it’s orchards…apple-themed restaurants…apple-themed food kiosks by the road. Every autumn, tourists comes to Saint-Hilaire from all over Québec to pick their own apples (and the road are clogged). An old legend has it the apples were not brought here from France, but instead given to the early settlers by the queen of the Fair Folk herself, after one of them shared what little food he had with her, while she was in the form of a widow.

Breaks in the trees are much more common now: apple trees are usually fairly low, and buildings are much less common in the countryside. There’s still a long way to go for the summit, but the view already goes quite far: to the mont Rougemont (a somewhat lower and slightly more remote sister of Saint-Hilaire), and the blue-gray ghosts of the Appalachians range beyond.

The view from along the way. Note the apple trees closer to the foreground.

The view from along the way. Note the apple trees, and the lower slopes of Rougemont (left)

It’s not long- maybe two miles biking – on that road to the entrance of Mont Saint-Hilaire (or, to be precise, the Gault Natural reserve). Three enormous wood panels by the street announces (in French, English and Spanish) just what we’re about to enter. Above the panels, with pine trees in the backdrop, fly two flags: that of McGill University (which owns the mountain and reserve half of it as a closed-to-the-public research station).

The other flag is that of the United Nations, to underline the fact that the mountain is one of the UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves, as the last, best remnant of the great pre-colonial forests of southern Québec. What forests remains elsewhere in southern Québec has been largely tamed and cleaned (and turned into sugar bushes), even on the other Monteregian hills (Saint-Hilaire’s sisters and cousins, all formed by lava pockets that solidified deep underground then were dug out by the glaciers during successive ice ages),.

St-Hilaire: cool in three different languages (yes, that's the UN flag to the left. They're that cool.)

When bilinguism just isn't enough, there's always Spanish.

Entering the mountain proper is a step in another world. Very quickly, the sounds of the streets and roads dim away, replaced by the scurrying of small animals, the whispering wind in the leaves, and your own footsteps on the dirt or gravel path (gravel for the central path between the entrance of the park and the lake in the middle of the mountain, dirt and earth for the rest.

Light also becomes dimmer. The sun, which shone bright only moments ago, is now dimmed. What little light reaches me comes reflect off the leaves of tree, and acquire a green tinge in so doing. The trunk of trees line the path, like the pillars of some great cathedral.

A cathedral of trees: the main path from the welcome area to the lake.

A cathedral of trees: the main path from the welcome area to the lake.

The woods soon grow even denser. The forest here is old, and so are the individual trees; as far as I know, some of the trees on the mountain are three, four centuries old, if not more. They were here before the first settlers in Beloeil and Saint-Hilaire, perhaps even before any European laid eye on Mont Saint-Hilaire. It’s not altogether impossible one or two forgotten trees, deep in the mountain, were there when the Santa Maria set sail for Asia only to find the Americas.

The trail up is broken, here by a boulder, there by a fallen tree that it must make its way around. Often, the obstacles are small cascading streams, so shallow that I could put my foot at the deepest point without even wetting my shoelaces. The soft call of the falling water can be heard from hundreds of meters away, over the ambient calm. Sometimes, when the shadows grow deep and the sky his hidden by the foliage, the cascades begin to sound like falling rain.

So tempting to cool my feet (and my ankle) in the water...

So tempting to cool my feet (and my ankle) in the water...

Slowly, the trail become steeper. Saint-Hilaire has many summits, that forms a circle around a central lake (yes, it has been mistaken for a volcano; no, it’s not). Until now, the trail remained in the valleys between those summits, or the central depression of the lake; but now it actually begin to climb up the Pain-de-Sucre, and though the lakeside (eastern) slope is much less steep than the western slope, it’s still a fairly steep climb.

In many places, the stones of the trail sometimes looks like they were arranged into a makeshift stairway up the mountain; if so, the stairs were designed for someone taller than I (and I’m of pretty average height). More than once, I have to grip the trunk of a small tree with my hands to help myself up.

This is the challenging part of the climb.

A stairway up the mountain.

But the higher the trail goes, the smaller the trees get. Shrub is more common; great big trees less so (though there are still many). Here and there, in the direction of the lake, there are breaks in the tree that give glimpses of the land below. It’s not so much yet, though a lot more than it was earlier; it’s also a promise of what the summit will be like, once I finally get there.

Atop one of the stairs is the greatest of those bays. It stars, almost straight to the east, toward lake Hertel. Behind the lake, through a valley between two of the lower summits, the world opens up, revealing the plains of Montérégie, spreading toward Mont Yamaska (the closest thing to a twin Saint-Hilaire has, although Yamaska is much more remote).

A gap in the trees reveal a promise of what is to come.

Lake Hertel, "The Eye of the Mountain", with Mont Yamaska behind.

The climb continues, through increasingly thin trees, past a great erratic block, cloven in two by God-knows-what force (perhaps the ice of Quebec winter), and now covered in moss, The trees become thinner, shorter, the trail more rocky, and even steeper.

Then, ahead, the trees all but vanish, giving way to a great blazing light. All that’s left is one great slab of bare, exposed rock: this is the summit, the Pain-de-Sucre. It’s also the steepest, most difficult part of the climb, bar none: even the stones couldn’t quite be arranged in a stairway here. In fact, walking the very last part is all but impossible: it can’t be done without using hands, either to find holds in the rock, or (more likely) to take advantage in the rope that has been bolted to the boulder.the sugar loaf itself, the highest summit of the mountain.

The steepest part of the climb.

The last challenge.

And then…the summit is there, and so is the world, spread out thirteen hundred feet below. In every direction (but the north, where another summit of Saint-Hilaire partly bock the view), the great plains of Montérégie spread out for dozens of miles. Here and there, another mountain, carved out by the glaciers like Saint-Hilaire: Rougemont and Yamaska to the east; half-sized Royal and Saint-Bruno to the west, and tiny Saint-Grégoire, shaped like an inverted V, almost dead to the south.

The view don’t quite go to the horizon: at the far edge of sight, in most directly, gray-blue ridges rise out, the mountains at the edge of the Saint Lawrence lowlands. Closest to Saint-Hilaire are the Appalachians, stretching across the south-eastern horizon. Almost due east, half-hidden by the Yamaska, is Mt. Orford. Further south, behind rougemont, there’s the long line of the Sutton Mountains. Further south, the triple jagged peaks of Jay Peak mark the end of Québec and the beginning of Vermont and the Green Mountains. And, finally, at the edge of sight almost due south, there’s Mansfield itself, the tallest of the green mountains.

Between Saint-Hilaire and the Appalachians, great fields stretch out, marked only by the occasional farm building and patch of woodland. There aren’t many towns in that direction; small as they are, only the closest one can be seen, Saint-Jean-Baptiste at the foot of the mountain.

The view to the South-East, from Mt. Yamaska (and Orford behind) to Mount Mansfield.

The view to the South-East, from Mt. Yamaska (and Orford behind) left to Mount Mansfield right.

To the south, the Richelieu river stretches out, widening into a great basin near Chambly: along the northern shore of that basin is Saint-Mathias, where my sister now lives. Then, the river narrows again, and vanishes between its bordering trees. Beyond the Basin, another mountainous ridge rise out against the horizon: the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, nearly as far to the south-west as Mount Mansfield is to the South-South-East, and nearly as faint.

Chambly is not a much larger town than Beloeil; but it’s prettier and has more of a soul (beat Saint-Hilaire, too). I’ve been there a few times, to bike along the old canal, or to visit the colonial fort and the park around it. I’m not sure whether I’d consider it part of home, though; it doesn’t have the sort of strong association with my childhood I usually associate with home.

Chambly basin, with the Adirondacks in the background.

Chambly basin, with the Adirondacks in the background.

Much further south, the Richelieu reappears, wider. Or perhaps, this far off, it’s not so much the Richelieu as lake Champlain – perhaps the Missisquoi bay. It becomes hard to tell, barely a blur on the horizon that, even knowing it’s there, I can’t always make out. Somewhere in that direction is Saint-Jean, the birthplace of the very first USS Enterprise. Even though it’s further than Chambly, even though I’ve probably been to Chambly more often on the whole, Saint-Jean has stronger “home” associations to me: I used to go there every summer as a kid with my maternal grandparents and parents, to see their hot air balloon festival.

To the west, at the very foot of the mountain, Beloeil and Saint-Hilaire (and the smaller towns of Otterburn Park and McMasterville, once mostly English but now thanks to French flight from Montreal to the suburbs, largely French) stretch out, covered in great trees. Beyond them, Mt. Saint-Bruno rises out of the plain; in the distance, the Saint-Lawrence river stretch out, and, beyond it, across the entire north-western horizon, the Laurentian mountains rise out. I couldn’t name them: I don’t know them in the first place, and I can barely make them out anyway.

North of Saint-Bruno, a large piece of woodland (sugar bushes, actually) stretch out: the Verchères Wood.Somewhere among all those trees is a narrow strip of land that belong to my father and godfather (though they let a relative handle the maple syrup production). That, too, is part of home; my cousins and I spent many long days there. There’s a little wood cabin, which we always talk of repairing and refitting, but somehow never touch; it still has (or had until recently, I lost track) an outhouse.

The view to the west. No, I don't know how it wound up curved like that, okay?

The view to the west. No, I don't know how it wound up curved like that, okay?

Occasionally, an helicopter pass by the mountain, flying not much higher than I am; but more interesting than the helicopters is the wildlife. Black and white butterflies fly around the summit. A little chipmunk scurries across the bare rock then vanishes back into the tree coverage. Small birds fly from trees to trees not far below.

But they’re not what command attention. What command attention are the great winged shapes that glide effortlessly about the summits of the mountain, immense wings spread out wide as they soar. What sort of raptors these are, I don’t know: Saint-Hilaire hosts many species, some regularly, others as occasional visitors, from falcons to buzzards to osprey to even the rare sightings of bald eagles. These are probably a little too small for eagles: judging by the shape of wings and tails, they are probably peregrine falcons.

Hazy, but given my camera, the size of the bird, and how quick they are...I'm still proud.

Hazy, but given my camera, the size of the bird, and how quick they are...I'm still proud.

And here, two of the raptors in flight together.

And here, two of the raptors in flight above the rows of house.

There are other summits to Saint-Hilaire besides the Pain-de-Sucre, though.  There’s the Dieppe, atop all those cliffs I may have mentioned earlier; the Rocky, near the Dieppe, not so high as the Pain-de-Sucre, but perhaps more central to the mountain, and (to me, at least) more deeply tied to its legends.

The walk from the Pain-de-Sucre to the Dieppe summit isn’t too long: maybe two miles, down in a valley between the two, then up slopes that aren’t quite as steep, or as demanding as those of the Pain-de-Sucre. Much as the Dieppe has impressive cliff on its western and northern faces, the south-eastern approach is pretty gentle, on the whole.

This part of the trail isn’t as frequently used as that leading to the Pain-de-Sucre, and large pools of still water remains, the result of all the rain that has fallen on Quebec this summer.Where, lower in the mountain, there is relatively little undergrowth, and the forest floor is largely covered in the last autumn’s fallen leaves, here great green ferns are everywhere, giving a certain primeval air to the whole thing.

It's been raining a lot this summer. Unfortunately.

It's been raining a lot this summer.

From the Dieppe, the view changes: nothing more to be seen south (where the Pain de Sucre now bars the view), or east (where the Rocky stands), but on the other hand, the northern horizon is bare, revealing the Saint-Lawrence as it stretches toward the lake Saint-Pierre and its confluence with the Richelieu at Sorel (definitely not part of home), the Laurentians far on the horizon, and the immense field spread out in every direction.

But what really occupies the view to the north is the Richelieu itself, stretchin gon and on, slowly worming its way between the great farmlands. Not far to the north, the river bends in a great westward curve, before resuming its northward course: there, two islands lie in the middle of the channel.

That…now that is a place I know well. That is home, more so than any other places that can be seen from the mountain, except Beloeil itself. It’s in that curve, part of the village of Saint-Charles, that my mother’s parents lived for nearly all of my childhood, and, outside Beloeil (and places where I went to school), by far the place I spent the most time at in my life.It’s the one place that come to mind as readily as Beloeil when I think of home – the house (which no longer exists, sadly) with all its antique furnishings, the immense yard where we played soccer and baseball, the river (and all the canoeing we did there), the islands, the farms just across the road where my siblings and I often went to see the cows and horses…

In many ways, that house in Saint-Charles remain my idea of the perfect house to this day (and yes, odds are I’ll have a story about Saint-Charles on this blog some day).

The Richelieu, in all its spendor - and childhood memories.

The Richelieu,toward Saint-Charles and its memories. Note the St Lawrence on the horizon.

There’s wildlife besides the bird of preys here (although they’re still around) : birds, mostly. A woodpecker can be heard (though that one proves frustratingly good at avoiding my camera), a little junco hops across the rocky summit in search of its diner. Overhead, the clouds twist and shifts. Another chipmunks run around.

A little visitor.

A little visitor.

The shifting clouds now reveal something that was hard to make out earlier due to the clouds and gray skies: beyond the low-lying summits of Mont Saint-Bruno, clustered about the low-lying form of Mount Royal, the skyscrapers of Montreal can be seen against the rose sky.

Mt. Royal and Montreal, beyond Mt. Saint-Bruno in the late afternoon.

Mt. Royal and Montreal, beyond Mt. Saint-Bruno in the late afternoon.

The clouds keep shifting and turning, sometime very dramatically. A plane fly by the mountain, really not much higher than me (I manage to take a picture, though I shan’t bore you with it); somehow it amuses me to think of how much it costs me to be here today, and how much they paid to be not much higher than me.

Then, the shifting cloud parts just enough to let blazing light falls straight on eastern Montreal, outlining the Laurentian mountains behind, and making Montreal’s rather infamous Olympic Stadium burn bright white.

A little tempting to hum "The Saints are coming" here (and you don't see all the clouds)

A little tempting to hum "The Saints are coming" here (and you don't see all the clouds)

Maybe a few thousand feet from the Dieppe: is the Rocky summit. As I said, this one is the most remote of the summits open to the public, the least known one (and, therefore, the most mysterious). Is it really the summit that legends associated with the fairies of the mountain? I tend to believe it, but I don’t know.

One legend mentions that there were once three fairies at Saint-Hilaire, and that, in turn, each of them married a mortal – but that the one rock where they had first found love retained some of their magic, and that unions made there, or children conceived there, are blessed. I’m not sure this rock below is that rock (I’m not even sure anyone knows). What I do know is that it fits in perfectly for novel writing.

Just a random rock. Or, with a writer's imagination, a weathered-down stone altar.

Just a random rock. Or, with a writer's imagination, a weathered-down stone altar.

The trail down from the Rocky (as I must go down at some point) lead directly back to the lake. It’s by far the worst-kept of the trails so far, with deep mud pits long the way, and slippery rocks that got me plentiful scratches. The world grows grayer as I head down: it’s past seven already, and the mountain will be closing in less than an hour.

A cliff overlooks the road. Note how gray things have gotten.

A cliff overlooks the road. Note how gray things have gotten.

In this case, it’s gray because the sun is far to the west, and this trail is on the eastern slopes of the mountain. This means that, by the lake, the light is hitting the opposite summits almost straight from the west, bathing the whole scenery in golden light.

Lake Hertel, with the most perfect of timings.

Lake Hertel, with the most perfect of timings.

And that picture, I think, will stand as the perfect conclusion to this visit.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Pieter Sijpkes permalink
    April 4, 2011 6:24 am

    Thank you for your lovely story. I visit Mont St. Hilaire once in a while, and love climbing it. But I am a visitor from Montreal. You live within its shadow..

  2. February 27, 2012 1:49 am

    I loved the pics and commentary. I like to cycle. Is it easy to cycle from Lachine Canal to Mt st Bruno and Mt. St Hilaire in one day and back to Montreal on the same day? Can I avoid busy roads and are there qieit pretty small roads/ Thnaks for your reply. I could not find any trails online….Erik

  3. Guillaume permalink*
    February 27, 2012 1:52 am

    I’m afraid I don’t know anything about how cycle-able the road between the two is. Sorry.

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