Too many Canadians have unfounded fears about travelling through French speaking Quebec. They get on the Trans-Canada Highway and motor through La Belle Province end to end without stopping. By blasting past the rural beauty of the rolling landscape in the Eastern Townships, they are much poorer for it.
We “shunpiked” meaning stayed off express highways, through the whole province in our motorhome using secondary roads from Ontario to New Brunswick and did not have one negative experience with our Francophone countrymen. Most switched to English right away when we talked to them or found someone who could.
During the greatest difficulty of our entire east coast tour, it was a French speaker who spoke no English who helped us the most. This occurred on our trip around the Gaspe Peninsula where powerful wind gusts coming off the Atlantic were buffeting the motorhome.
I heard a clunk as I was driving and looked in the right side rear-view mirror to see that our awning had come loose and rolled out. Whether I forgot to secure it properly or a combination of wind and bumps knocked it off the locks, I still don’t know, but we were driving with the awning out on a two lane high way with narrow shoulders. At the first place I could get off the pavement I pulled over. The wind grabbed the awning like a sail and was in danger of tearing it off. My wife and I together could not get control of it to get it back in. A powerful gust of wind grabbed the awning and lifted us off our feet before the awning tore out of our hands and blew up over the roof of our motorhome.
Now we were really in a fix with the awning whipping around above us. The two of us could not pull it down with the strap. A pickup truck pulled in behind. The driver had seen our problem and got out immediately to help us. The three of us could barely control it, but by timing our efforts with a lull between gusts we got it down, reconnected the sliding braces and got it rolled up. It was a twenty-minute ordeal and we were all breathless and sweating when it was over.
Our rescuer did not speak a word of English. I have only rusty high school French, but somehow we communicated enough to coordinate our efforts on a challenging task. I offered him my thanks and twenty dollars for stopping to help us when we really needed it. All he took was my thanks and a handshake. After that experience we had no apprehension about travelling in Quebec.
Just prior to the Gaspe Peninsula we had toured La Route Des Sommets (Summit Drive) in the Eastern Townships. Summit Drive is 193 kilometres of good blacktop through the Appalachian Mountains. It crests summit after summit of the highest mountains in Southern Quebec with ever-changing and visually rich vistas of scenic landscape, lakes and picturesque villages. There are 21 towns along the route each with a unique charm to enjoy and an interpretive panel for history and geology buffs who want to learn about the area.
We wanted to stop for break so the Pavillon de la Faune near the village of Stratford peaked our interest. It is a tremendous display of North American wildlife expertly mounted and set in 33 hand painted dioramas. The backgrounds are professionally painted and detailed to accurately represent the landscape where each species lives. The centre uses light to dramatically enhance the effect of a truly wild setting with wildlife mounts that look like they could just lift a leg and run off.
Across the road from the wildlife pavilion there is also a wildlife rescue centre where living wild animals can be seen for a donation toward their care. Our visit coordinated with feeding time, so my wife’s maternal instinct revved up by bottle feeding an orphaned white tail deer fawn.
A scenic drive of less than two hours from there brought us to the town of Lac Megantic which I think of as the Phoenix of the Eastern Townships; because, out of the rubble, ash and twisted molten metal of a horrific train wreck a new downtown core is rising.
On July 6, 2013, at 1:15a.m, a runaway train with 72 cars carrying crude oil roared out of the darkness into town at 65 miles an hour. 63 cars derailed near the downtown core. Most of those split open spewing 7.7 million litres of oil on the ground. The oil flowed through the downtown core down toward the lake engulfing all the buildings in its path. It flowed into the storm sewers as well. The locomotive’s turbo charger overheated and it ignited the oil. Lac Megantic was set ablaze in the night with flames taller than the three story buildings. Explosions rocked the town like earthquakes. 47 people died, 2,000 people were forced out of their homes and 30 buildings, half the downtown core, burned that night. 39 remaining buildings had to be demolished because of oil contamination.
According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s Railway Investigation Report, the train, belonging to US company based in Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, was parked overnight on the main track in Nantes, awaiting a replacement engineer. Nantes is 11 km. west of Lac Megantic with a 1.2 % downgrade toward Lac Megantic.
The engineer who parked the train set the hand brakes on the five locomotives and two rail cars and left the air brakes activated on the lead locomotive. He left the lead locomotive running which supplied air to the air braking system. The locomotive reportedly had been spewing oil and smoking excessively from the exhaust all day. Around midnight the locomotive was seen to be on fire. The fire department responded and shut the locomotive down by shutting off the engines fuel supply. They extinguished the fire and called the rail company. MMA sent a track foreman to the scene rather than the engineer who was in a hotel for the night in Lac Megantic.
The track foreman, who had little experience with locomotives, told the fire department the train was secure and they all left. Soon after, the air pressure bled down because the engine was not running and the powerful air brakes on the locomotive released. The seven hand brakes which had been set were not enough to hold the train on the grade and away it went down the hill to Lac Megantic. The Transportation Safety Board investigation indicated that a minimum of seventeen hand brakes should have been set to hold a train of that weight.
At the time of our visit we were moved deeply by seeing the extent of the destruction. While all of the rubble, wreckage and contaminated soil had been removed there was still a vast barren landscape where there had once been a thriving town centre and busy main street called Rue Frontenac. Rising from the weed strewn wasteland is new construction, both commercial and residential as strong testimony to the hope and resilience of the people of Lac Megantic. The old train station, which somehow survived the inferno, is a farmers market and interpretive display of the town’s history including details of the disaster.
A group of Quebec sculptors were commissioned to produce 47 sculptures, one for each victim, which are set up on a sculpture path along the waterfront park and in other public places. The theme of the sculptures is “Hope and Dreams of a Better Future”. The sculptures are wonders of creativity in all different mediums in a lovely lakeside setting. The sculpture path merits a leisurely and thoughtful walk.
Nearby Mont-Megantic National Park is a must for hikers and star gazers. It is in the centre of the world’s first international dark sky preserve. The Astro Lab there has a display hall dedicated to the stars and the night sky. There are also two observatories and numerous telescopes for night time viewing.
It is a premier hiking destination with 60 kilometres of trails at all levels of difficulty. The trails access three Appalachian summits of over a thousand metres within a stone’s throw of the Vermont border and under the gaze of an imposing stone massif.
In the Franceville campground, 21 one of the 37 sites are serviced with water and electricity. This campground is close to hiking trails, a playground and a convenience store.
Tent camping, huts, yurts and cabins are also available in other more remote sectors of the park if you want a wilder experience.
There are several other RV campgrounds in the area and the Walmart allows overnight stays in its parking lot. A campground called Camping Adventure Megantic impressed us the most. It has a five-star rating from Camping Quebec for its excellent camping experience and full amenities including a great swimming pool and impressive water slide.
In spite of a horrendous trauma, Lac Megantic is still a warm and accepting town. While picking up groceries in the local supermarket there, my wife expressed her compassion and sympathy to the check-out gal for those the townsfolk had lost. She thanked us warmly and reflected sadly that they lost a lot of good people that night. Now, seven years after the train wreck, it’s possible to visit the town, in support of its hurting citizenry, without feeling like gawking spectacle seekers.