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Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

Discovering the Gatineau

Volume 19, page 1

Gunda Lambton

In the summer of 1944 Ruth, Florence and I were discussing plans for a summer vacation. I had met Florence, born in China to Canadian missionaries, when we both taught at a girls’ boarding school in Barrie, Ontario where I'd come from England. When she came to Toronto to teach I started doing war work there and met Ruth, the only one of us who was Toronto born and bred. Ruth and I worked at Victory Aircraft.

A fellow inspector there came from Quebec and recommended the Saguenay area; she suggested taking a steamboat up that beautiful river from Tadoussac. But that was further than Montreal, further even than our dream city, Quebec, which I recalled only as a blacked-out silhouette seen late in the evening when I arrived in Canada on a boat filled with evacuees from the blitz. We'd also heard about the beauty of the Laurentians. People went skiing there, even people from Toronto, where there were no mountains.

None of us owned a car and, anyway, gas was rationed. I had suggested hiking, but the Quebec map, on which we had marked all youth hostels, soon convinced me that the distances between them could not be covered, even by strenuous hiking. Ruth and Florence, who owned bikes, got on the phone and arranged to borrow an extra one for me. A bicycling holiday was nothing new to me; in my teens in Europe, all our high-school holidays had been cycling trips. Youth hostels there were spaced in such a way that you could cover the distance between them in one day, either hiking or cycling.

We looked at the map again. “It looks like fifty miles up to the Laurentians from Montreal.“ Ruth, the practical one, pointed out. She looked after the budget.

“And the Montreal hostel is in the Y. They're always booked. And more expensive." Florence sighed. As a teacher, she had more time than Ruth and I, and had been charged with writing to hostels that looked promising. “Anyway, we can't do fifty miles a day in the July heat. Let's just try to do, say, twenty-five or thirty. Cycling morning and evening, and resting at mid-day. Don't forget, it's all uphill into the Laurentians." But the Laurentians would not let us go. Again, we studied the map. “Look at that," Ruth said. "The Laurentians are only ten miles north of Ottawa. And look at all the hostels in that area."

We looked. There was a hostel in Kingsmere, another in Luskville, and another in Ste. Cecile de Masham. To the east there was a hostel in Lochaber, on the Ottawa River, another in Stoneyfield, half-way to Montreal, and another at St. Andre Est. These were from 12 to 25 miles apart. After that, it was a long haul, forty miles, to Montreal.

“Do we have to go to Montreal at all?" I wondered.

“Oh yes," the others insisted. “Montreal is the glitter city of Canada. Night clubs. like New York. It's cosmopolitan, it's larger than Toronto."

"The Laurentians north of Ottawa are not called Laurentians." Florence pointed out. “They're named after the Gatineau River.”

"But Florence, you've studied geology. You know they're part of the Laurentian shield." Ruth's tone was convincing, when she continued, "and we can afford them. It's only thirteen dollars return fare by train from Toronto to Ottawa."

"Who wants to go to Ottawa?" Florence asked. “It's in Ontario."

“It has a hostel." Ruth persisted. “it's a starting point."

We compromised. The cluster of hostels in the Gatineau looked so promising. And, cycling from hostel to hostel along the Ottawa River, we might make it as far as Montreal.

Ruth and I had only two weeks‘ holidays. Florence had all summer, but none of us had much money. We'd have to pay our own fares from Toronto to Ottawa, but bikes could accompany us free on the train. Florence was charged with writing to the respective hostel ‘parents’ to announce our coming.1 Overnight charges at youth hostels were twenty-five cents a night, and the hostels had cooking facilities for breakfast and supper.

We planned to take supplies that were light, such as dried fruit, crisp-bread and soup packages, and buy fresh supplies at grocery stores on the way. We would make sandwich lunches and eat them wherever we took our rest at noon. As I spoke French, I would handle the shopping.

Florence had satisfactory answers from all hostels we'd chosen. Our knapsacks packed with the absolute minimum of clothes and supplies, we loaded our bikes into the baggage car of the Ottawa-bound train. We were off on our great adventure; we would discover Quebec or, at any rate, the Gatineau part of it.

Our first surprise when we arrived was the heat. Ottawa had looked to us as far north as Algonquin Park, but it was as hot as Toronto. After retrieving our bikes from the baggage car, we emerged from a grand downtown station to face an even grander building, the Chateau Laurier hotel. A cool-looking underground passage led there, but instead of taking that tempting direction, we had to cycle west to the Ottawa hostel.

As we stared up at the Parliament Buildings, the tires of my bike got stuck in a streetcar track; luckily there was no streetcar bearing down on us. The Ottawa hostel was located in the attic of an ordinary house, but our hostel parents were far from ordinary. Mr. Campbell was a librarian. Mrs. Campbell was related to J. S. Woodsworth of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) political party, and several members of this family had been involved in missionary work. Florence, who had a background similar to hers, had an interesting conversation with our hostel mother. The attic was boiling hot; blankets would not be needed that night. Fortunately, we were the only overnight guests, so we cooked supper and then sat around in our underwear.

Route of the bicycle trip.
Route of the bicycle trip.

Early the next day we rode across the Interprovincial Bridge, carefully avoiding streetcar tracks; we cheered when a sign welcomed us to Quebec. We tried to get through industrial Hull as quickly as possible. This was not easy; a road called St. Joseph went on and on and, when it became Highway 11. It was a long, long hill. At the top, we came to a place called Chelsea. I had lived in an artists‘ cooperative in Chelsea, London, England; I never thought I'd find another Chelsea in Quebec.

Florence and Ruth, accustomed to Canadian summers, had the sense to wear peaked caps and dark glasses. Used to European summers, I'd scorned such apparel. Now I welcomed the sight of the general store in Chelsea, and marched in to do our shopping. It was nice and cool in the store, and I rattled off my order in my best French. I was answered in English; I should have noticed the Irish name over the door.

From Chelsea the road wound uphill again, but soon we came to wild woodland and great shade-trees. The road became more and more beautiful; when we reached Kingsmere we were overcome by the loveliness of the lake. No wonder the Prime Minister had his summer house here. How clever of us to choose to visit the Gatineau hills.

The hostel was in a white house at the east end of the lake. The hostel parents had an Irish name - Ryan, I think. We had a swim, ate our lunch, and rested all afternoon to prepare for a long ride the next day. Florence stretched out in the sun to get a tan. She was the only one of us brave enough to wear a two-piece bathing suit. We had been told that in Quebec even shorts were not acceptable.

The next day, we reached the Luskville hostel in an unbelievably short time, down a road so steep that I still don't know how we got down in one piece, each of us, on our bikes. The road to Luskville descended abruptly from the west end of the lake. It was really more of a logging chute, down an escarpment below which stretched a fertile plain. We had been told by our Kingsmere hostel parents that Irish immigrants first settled the hills, and when the great pine forests covering them had been cleared — and burned in a devastating fire — the settlers descended from the hills to better farmland. We followed their trail at breakneck speed.

Our hostel was at the Lusk farm, a prosperous place with barns, stables, and a house shaded by great trees. Haying was in full progress, and by rights we should have followed the hints in the hostel handbook and offered to help the Lusks out there on the hayfield. But we were so exhausted from our precipitous ride down the escarpment that we had to rest. Then we crept away to the village of Luskville, named for this family, to shop for supplies. Here again, we found that the shop-keepers were Eng1ish-speaking.

The hostel mother was a vigorous woman with bright eyes, whose white hair might have been red in her youth. Her unmarried sons came back late from their haying, washed at the pump, and looked over the hostel's new arrivals.

“Could it be that they're looking for wives?" Ruth wondered. Florence remarked that Ruth, sturdier than Florence or me, would make a perfect farm wife. She was not thanked for this remark.

We set out for a walk in the cool of the evening, after an early supper which we'd prepared in the Lusk's summer kitchen. There was a meeting at the tiny Luskville community hall, and we could see a dozen or so dusty Ford cars gathered around the building like a congregation of black beatles around an unusual rosy fruit. A warm evening light glowed on the steep escarpment behind the building. All around us was the smell of hay, sweet and strong. I'd taken my sketching things along; I made a quick sketch.

Luskville Community Hall
Luskville Community Hall, 1940s (G. Lambton, painting)

We got off to an early start the next morning; the men had already gone off to the fields long before us. It was the hottest day we'd had so far. Longingly we looked for shade, but we had to push our bikes up a steep, dusty gravel road before we came to trees. It took some time before we reached a summit. There, we stretched out on rocks beneath great pine trees. From here we could look down onto the immense plain of the Ottawa River, a great blue misty plain through which the river wound its silver ribbon. Florence took a sunbath while Ruth and I stood guard (in case the Lusk sons were looking for wives).

Reluctantly, we left our look-out and climbed up an even steeper and dustier gravel road before we reached a small lake. After hours of climbing, at times cycling, at times pushing our bikes, we finally reached a sign which indicated that we were on the Eardley Road, and that we were entering St. François de Masham. We still had to cycle a few more weary miles before we came to the hostel at Ste. Cécile de Masham. Around the large church with its silvery steeple were frame houses; many, like the hostel, had a "galerie" wrapped right around them. Here the name of the hostel parents was Brazeau. The little river behind the building was the Lapéche, and the song sung by the young men who walked briskly along the road towards the hostel was “Auprès de ma blonde." We were, at last, in French Quebec.

The students who helped us wash our dishes spoke French. The dormitory for girls was filled with high school and university students brimming over with stories and laughter. They assured us that it would not take another whole day to get back to Ottawa, but we didn't believe them. It had taken us three days to get to Ste. Cécile de Masham. And first thing the next morning we meant to inspect a covered bridge in Wakefield; that too would take time.

We set out around eight in the morning, and inspected the reddish barn-like bridge at Wakefield which spanned the Gatineau River just above the place where the Lapéche River entered its turbulent waters. The river teemed with logs. Wakefield, like its name, seemed to be mostly English-speaking. Then, as we sailed on our bikes through the fresh morning air, the river to our left, pine and spruce forests to our right and holiday cottages on both sides of the road, we rejoiced at the ease of a paved road after all that gravel. Not only paved, but downhill all the way to Ottawa. We crossed the Interprovincial Bridge to the tune of church bells. It was Sunday, and only eleven in the morning.

Intoxicated with our swift descent, we threw caution to the winds and had our first and only restaurant meal; pancakes with sausages and maple syrup. In the afternoon, we visited Hull again, to wickedly see a movie ("Music for Millions", I think) because in Ontario one could not see movies on Sundays.

The last leg of our trip was less eventful because the country was flat. In Lochaber we stayed in an old stone farm house. We then took the ferry from Thurso across the Ottawa River to the Ontario side and cycled east in order to take a ferry to Montebello which would give us, we hoped, a glimpse of the Seigniory Club.2 then inaccessible to any but its members. But all we saw was the country house adjacent to it, built by Louis-Joseph Papineau. Florence held forth about his role in the 1837 rebellion, but she could not explain how he'd managed to build a house in so English a style.

At the next hostel in Stoneyfield we met a young woman who invited us to stay at her Montreal apartment on Durocher Street. This solved our problem of accommodation in Montreal, and we did not have to rely on the Y. Years later, when I tried again to find the village of Stoneyfield, I realized that it had been completely submerged when the Carillon Dam was built.

We visited the Carillon museum, a stone building which had housed British troops during the 1837 rebellion. At the St. Andre hostel, a dairy farm, we again enjoyed the lively company of students. Then we proceeded on the back-breaking forty-mile ride to Montreal, and Edith Frenkell‘s apartment. But she would not let us enjoy our stay with her without qualms; she took us to Jacques Cartier, one of the poorest quarters of Montreal, to a political meeting which, she said, might be closed by the police.3 She wanted to show us another side of Quebec

The meeting was held in an old union hall, and a speaker had come from Toronto. The police were there, sitting at the back of the room. But as the speaker spoke neither English nor French, they could not understand a word of what he said. He spoke in Yiddish. Edith and I could understand it fairly well, so we could interpret the speech to our friends. The meeting passed without an arrest.

Later, Edith took us to a nightclub, and then, because we'd spent so little, we allowed ourselves a visit to the Laurentians, where Edith's parents had a cottage. Then, we took the train back to Toronto. But those Laurentians did not impress me as much as the intimate beauty of the Gatineau region. That summer of 1944 started my long love affair with the Gatineau hills, where, many years later, I returned to settle permanently.

  1. Canadian Youth Hostels are affiliated with the International Youth Hostel movement. Organized to make it possible for young people to travel cheaply, a membership could be obtained at a local centre or the national one in Toronto. You then received a handbook which contained addresses and maps showing the locations of the hostels.
    In the 1940s most of the hostels in rural areas were located in farm houses or their outbuildings, such as former dairies; sometimes they were even in sturdy tents. Those in cities were in private homes unless the demand for space made this impossible, when they might be located in the YM/YWCA, as in Montreal. The farmers or householders were “hostel parents" who looked after finances and regulated the hours and good behaviour of the hostellers. You brought your own sheet-sleeping bag, and had to hike or arrive on a bike to qualify.
    The Canadian youth hostels now accept a much broader age range, even taking families with small children, and participants are allowed to come by car.
  2. Now called the Chateau Montebello and run as a resort hotel by Canadian Pacific Hotels.
  3. A 1937 Quebec statute, the Padlock Act empowered the attorney general to close, for one year, any building used for "propagating communism or bolshevism" (undefined). In 1957 the Supreme Court of Canada declared the Act unconstitutional. (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1988)

List of articles - Volume 19