Park is on the migration path of ducks and geese with tens of thousands alighting in spring and fall
The sheltered bays and floating gardens of Plaisance National Park may be off the beaten path for many people, but they play host to hordes of high-flying geese and ducks at migration time.
They alight by the tens of thousands in the spring and fall protected by three peninsulas curving out like fingers into the Ottawa River between Montreal and Ottawa.
The park is the permanent home of many other species of wildlife including painted and snapping turtles, the latter bigger than frying pans with the females digging holes for eggs when we visited in early June. We happened on to the turtles while riding on one of the bike paths, a favourite spot for them to bury their eggs.
Plaisance is a newcomer on the park scene, created in 2002 where the Petite Nation River meets the Ottawa and, as we discovered, is a gem in the vast network of Quebec’s superb nature reserves.
It is a major staging area for migratory birds and is designated an Important Bird Area with an estimated 100,000 Canada geese and other species pausing for a rest as they head to their breeding areas farther north. Up to 35,000 of the waterfowl can congregate in the park at any one time when the spring migration is in full swing.
I went with nine friends from Ottawa/Gatineau and all but one had not heard of the park, barely an hour east by car and an hour and a half west of Montreal.
I hadn’t either until I spotted it adjacent to Highway 148 just west of Montebello in a book of cycling maps published by Vélo-Québec, the provincial cycling organization.
It seems that the park has escaped the notice of many people as there was plenty of summer availability for the array of yurts, tents and trailers even in mid-June.
We settled into three yurts nestled in a wooded area at the far east end of the Little Peninsula (La Petite Presqu’ile). Each yurt is equipped with a fridge, and stove (both running on propane) and four beds. You will also find most of what you would expect in a well-equipped kitchen, including crockery, flatware and utensils (corkscrew included). There is also a table and four chairs.
This is a turnkey operation, much like going to a cottage and all very civilized. You drive up, unload your food, sleeping bags and (in our case) bikes and that’s it. This is comfy camping. There is no need to set up a tent. That is so last century in the camping world.
In fact, Quebec’s parks have been in the forefront of a trend to make camping much more accessible and comfortable with yurts (a round shelter originating in Mongolia), large tents (already erected) and cabins.
There are two kinds of tents imported from France and modified (with a screen door) for Quebec needs in the parks.
Plaisance has 15 tents while Mont Tremblant Park has 41 and they seem to be very popular. The parks are taking reservations into 2016 already.
Some parks have cabins available including Mont Tremblant and Lac Simon with 31 each.
But if you still want to rough it, the parks have acres of sites where you can erect your own tent. There are also sites for recreation vehicles (not really roughing it).
We arrived at Plaisance on a Monday in early June and set off on our bikes. Some guys hit the road travelling east on Highway 148 (No. 1 on the Route Verte network) and then turned north toward St. André Avellin. They put in 85 kilometres tooling around in the hills of the Outaouais before calling it a day.
Some of us jumped on mountain bikes, testing the winding and gentle paths of the park.
That led us to the Zizanie, a floating boardwalk zigzagging a kilometre over a marsh beside Baie Parisien. It comes complete with an observation tower allowing visitors to get a good look at the migrating species, which had come and gone before we got there. Riding on the boardwalk is like riding on water.
The park is a paradise for birdwatchers with almost 250 species having been spotted including 100 which nest locally.
Meals were easy to prepare at the yurts. For supper, we dined on grilled shish taouk chicken thighs, hummus, pita and salad from Adonis in Dollard des Ormeaux. I cooked the chicken on the grill at home and we warmed it in the oven in the yurt. We congregated in a common building with picnic tables at the yurt zone. Our second supper was a sublime moose chili whipped up by Dru Allen.
The next day, we got an even better look at the park, which is mostly bays and marshy areas, perfect for aquatic life and water birds, by cycling along the paths from the east (near Papineauville) to the western end near Thurso.
As we came alongside a large marsh, we crossed paths with a large snapping turtle digging a pit to deposit eggs. There were other pits dug in the bike paths made of stone dust with the remains of eggs nearby.
A park employee said raccoons scavenge the tasty eggs as part of their diet.
We pushed on in the drizzle and arrived at a former quarry where large rocks have been placed in the form of a huge Canada goose about 70 by 50 metres.
While the sky was overcast creating a dark day, the yellow wild irises did stand out. We came across large swaths of them.
Arriving in Thurso after pedaling more than 20 kilometres, we headed to a restaurant pedaling past the town hall with a huge statue of favorite son Guy Lafleur who helped the Montreal Canadiens win five Stanley Cups in the 1970s.
My friends, being mainly fans of the Ottawa Senators, did not take any notice of the statue, making a beeline to the restaurant. I wonder whether they would recognize the Stanley Cup.
Lafleur is not the only celebrity from this area. The manor house of Louis-Joseph Papineau stands on the grounds of the nearby Chateau Montebello. He was one of the foremost intellects in Lower Canada (as Quebec was known at the time) and a patriot during the rebellion of 1837. It played a major role in bringing responsible government to Britain’s North American colonies and putting Canada on the road to becoming an independent country 30 years later.
As interesting as the human footprint is locally, the geese and ducks and other birds remain the star attraction.
Good to Go
Plaisance National Park has a beach, picnic areas and a swimming pool. Information on facilities is available here: http://www.sepaq.com/pq/pla/index.dot?language_id=1
The park has a boat launch and stacks of canoes and kayaks to rent. Rides in a rabaska (freighter) canoe are also on offer.
You can take a ride by boat to the Plaisance Falls, five kilometres away up the Petite Nation River.
There are restaurants in nearby towns with a supermarket in Papineauville.
In winter the Canadian Ski Marathon, which attracts up to 2,000 participants, runs nearby and stops at Montebello for the night.
Plaisance also boasts a western festival June 24-28 https://sites.google.com/site/festivalcountrydeplaisance/