Fall Foliage in the Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier

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The Jacques-Cartier National Park has been one of our favourites ever since we first went there on our way from Halifax back home to Montreal in the summer.  The park is 3.5 hours from Montreal towards the north-east, not far from Quebec City, and its steep wooded canyons were so impressive, even on the rainy summer day back then, that we were absolutely determined to return for fall foliage.

In the centre d’accueil of the park, Mike had asked the ranger for a recommendation about when to return to see fall foliage at its best, and what the weather would typically be like during this time of the year.  Of course, the ranger wouldn’t dare forecasting the weather that far in advance, that far north you never know, but yes, fall foliage is always a big show in his park, reaching its peak usually in late September.

So, once more to the park?  Katharina is absolutely keen on that, remembering that when they hiked the “Les Loups” trail the last time, she spotted a cute little chipmunk that she could lure all the way to nibble at her hands just by clicking her tongue as chipmunk-like as she could and pretending to have some yummy chipmunk-food in her hand.

“You and your chipmunks” says Felix “are getting on my nerves.”

But Katharina doesn’t get disturbed by her brother.  “I named her Thekla” she says with a romantic glance in her eyes, “and guess what?  Thekla will be waiting for me in the park.”

Felix, too, is enthusiastic.  Not so much for Thekla, though, but he loves the park.  Last time he spotted the coolest of animals there:  a moose from really close.  That was at night when he was brushing his teeth at the creek that ran past the campground.  Felix definitely wants to return to the park, and please, Mum and Dad, could we go to the same “campground” as last time, this backcountry site without washrooms or running water, where you may have a wash in the river and brush your teeth by the creek.  Franziska, as usually, always likes camping, especially when she shares a tent with Mecki.  For some reason life seems to be far less stressful in the ladies’ tent than in a tent with her brother and sister.

So the decision is easy, and Mecki and Mike book a second weekend in the park, although not on Felix’ preferred wilderness campground.  Admitted, getting a wash in the creek can be kind of fun, but having real washrooms, and real flush lavatories, is kind a nice, too.  And these wilderness camps just don’t have that.  But at least, one of Felix’ biggest wishes is met: They leave for the park late on Friday, after basketball practice.  Basketball practice is important.  Felix is on his school’s team, and the competition to be in the starting five at next month’s tournament in Trois-Rivières is hard.

That, of course, means arriving after sunset, and pitching a tent in the dark can be quite something.

“Where did you put our pegs?”

“Tell me first where my flashlight is.”

“Not before you helped me finding the tent.”

And on and on and on … But eventually, the tents are pitched, and five tired Heinzelmanns crawl into their sleeping bags.

Early next morning, Mike starts the day with a walk.  He loves doing so, everything is so nice and quiet.  Sure, it is chilly on early fall mornings, but he enjoys watching the sun slowly rise over the mountains, when the morning mist still is in the valley – what a beautiful time of the day that is.  And this morning, he even surprises a fox roaming the campground on his search for an easy meal.

After a while, typically when the breakfast table is set, the others slowly emerge from their tents.  First Felix, who wants to see the fox, too, then Mecki, who feels that Mike might need some company now, and Katharina after cuddling herself awake with her favourite stuffy Uni (the unicorn), and then ……. well, then they all wait for Franziska.  For Franziska prefers to have it nice and comfortable in the morning, and the only place she can have it that way is deep in her sleeping bag, which she tries to leave as late as possible, never without a lot of urging from the rest of the family, and only when she sees no other way.

But eventually, Franziska makes it out of her tent, too, which is good, because this Saturday is rafting day on the Rivière du Jacques-Cartier.  After some brief instructions by the ranger, they hit the water, all five in one raft.  A raft is a great craft for fast running water.  It lies stably in the water with hardly any danger of capsizing, not even in the rapids of the Jacques-Cartier.  And if you feel like relaxing rather than paddling, no problem, the current will keep the raft moving.  Everything is fine as long as Mike keeps on steering the raft through the rocks that every now and then block the straight way down the river.  This, however, Mike manages to do sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, and sometimes he just doesn’t steer at all, because taking advantage of his position in the stern of the raft and therefore out of the sight of everyone else, he all too often takes photos instead of properly steering the raft.  And then, unfortunately, the raft would hit one of the rocks that extend to just below the surface of the river and come to a sudden stop on top of this annoying rock, and everyone would turn to look at Mike.

“What did you do, Dad?  Taking pictures, dreaming, doing something else but steering?”  Katharina wants to know.

“I, … I don’t really know” says Mike while he quickly puts his camera into its bag, because now they have to rock the raft from side to side and back and forth in order to get it afloat again.  That mostly does the job, except when it doesn’t, and then someone has to jump into the water to pull the raft from the rock.  This is usually the kids’ job, who usually enjoy being in the river, but if they don’t, it’s Mike’s job, who screwed it all up.

For dinner, Felix makes his favourite burgers on the campfire: the works with fried eggs, bacon, cheese, cucumber, and tomato.  After a tiring day on the river you just need something decent to eat.  Besides, they need a strengthening meal to hike the “Les Loups” trail up to the canyon rim the next day.  Katharina is already looking forward to meeting Thekla.  And sure enough, after a mere five minutes in the forest, there is a telltale rustling in the leaves on the ground – a chipmunk.  And a few hundred feet further on more rustling, and still more …

“Wow, there are so many chipmunks on the move today” says Franziska.

“Not at all”, corrects her Katharina “that’s always one single chipmunk, “that’s always my friend Thekla.  She likes me, and she’ll stay with us all the way.”

This time, however, despite all of Katharina’s efforts, Thekla doesn’t come to nibble at Katharina’s hands.  But eventually, at the second look-out into the canyon, Katharina accomplishes something similar with the grey jays.  These cute birds know exactly where to find food easily:  Where all the tourists are.  And they find out pretty soon that Katharina’s hand, where she eagerly shares her sandwich with the jays, is an excellent feeding place.

The Indian summer – “For the last time, Daddy”, Franziska interrupts him, “here at us, it’s the été indien!” – okay, okay, the été indien lived up to its colourful promises.  Of course, with all the jay feeding and the spectacular views it has gotten late for the trip back home to Montreal, but there’s still some time for a short stop at the ranger station.  Mike quickly asks the ranger if he could recommend another national park to visit next weekend, one with colourful fall foliage, too, and the promise of sunshine.  Of course, the ranger said, you never know with the weather in Quebec, but as for fall foliage, the eastern townships should be a safe bet, they usually lag a week behind his park.  And according to what he hears from his colleagues down there, the parc national du Mont Orford must be a very colourful place, although, he adds with a smile, no other park will of course ever be able to match the beauty of “his” canyon.

Still his recommendation sounds pretty promising; we might have to check it out.

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