The Sentier national au Québec, part of the projected National Hiking Trail of Canada, could be completed by 2016
By DAVID JOHNSTON, The Montreal Gazette
After 22 years of work, a trans-Quebec hiking trail spanning the entire breadth of the province is nearing completion.
Once finished, the 1,645-kilometre Sentier national au Québec will connect the Outaouais region in the west to the Gaspé region in the east. From the Gatineau Hills north of the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan region, the SNQ will run east through the Laurentian, Lanaudière, Mauricie, Portneuf, Quebec City, Charlevoix and Manicouagan regions on the north side of the St. Lawrence River, and then continue on the south shore through the Lower St. Lawrence and Gaspé regions to Amqui.
Amqui is a key terminus because it lies at the northern end the Appalachian International Trail, which runs down to Maine, where it becomes the U.S. Appalachian Trail and continues for another 3,500 kilometres to northern Georgia.
Since work began in 1990 to take existing hiking trails in Quebec and join them up with new segments to create a truly trans-Quebec network, 924 kilometres of trails have been completed. With new trails opening now at a rate of 150 kilometres per year, work on the SNQ could be complete as early as 2016.
The most recent trail segment that was officially inaugurated last autumn before the snow started falling was the Route des Zingues, in the Outaouais region.
I went up there on the first Saturday of May, in advance of the black flies. And, just as I had hoped, I was rewarded along the way with one of the nicest panoramic views of scenery I have ever seen in Quebec: the view over-looking Lac Gagnon from a newly constructed hilltop observation deck where last fall's inauguration ceremony took place.
Quebec isn't the only province in Canada with a fledgling trans-provincial hiking trail. The SNQ, to put it in a broader context, is part of the emerging trans-continental National Hiking Trail of Canada. However, the national link won't be ready until well into the next decade at the earliest.
The NHT is often confused with the Trans Canada Trail, but they are two different things. The Trans Canada Trail is much better known among ordinary Canadians. Although also still far from completion, it is taking shape as a multi-use recreational trail running through Canada's largest cities as well as rural regions. It is open to walkers, cyclists, roller bladders and in some rural areas horseback riders, too.
The NHT, on the other hand, like the SNQ in Quebec, is being developed as a pure hiking trail in the traditional sense, at some distance from large cities.
In Quebec, work on the SNQ is being overseen by the Fédération québécoise de la marche, which liaises with local governments and regional tourism associations. Actual trail-clearing and trail-marking work is being carried out by volunteers, under the auspices of region-al SNQ subcommittees.
From Montreal, the two closest places to catch up with the SNQ are near Duhamel, in the Outaouais region, and St. Côme, in the Lanaudière region.
I had chosen the Duhamel option, because I wanted to see that view overlooking Lac Gagnon.
Although it was hard to see the footpath because of fallen leaves from the previous autumn, the trail was very well marked by red-and-white signs and pink ribbons hammered into tree trunks along the way. And so I just followed those indicators very closely. Twenty minutes on, I got to an intersection where one sign directed me left 0.3 km up a side path to the hilltop observation deck overlooking Lac Gagnon, and another sign directed me right to continue on the main Route des Zingues.
I took a left up to the look-out and was not disappoint-ed. It was a sunny and warm day without a cloud in the sky and the view of Lac Gagnon on the edge of Papineau-Labelle provincial park was magnificent. Down to my left, there was a large sandy beach in a bay. Up to my right, stretching out onto the horizon, were the gently rolling Laurentian hills.
Coming back down to the intersection and continuing for a stretch along the main Route des Zingues, I saw - and heard - a Downy woodpecker pounding its beak into a tree trunk. It was the only sound in the forest except for that of my feet crunching the dry brown leaves.
Less than an hour later, I was back down to where I had started, in a small parking lot beside a dirt road, wondering who will be the first Quebecer to walk the entire length of the SNQ when it finally opens.
IF YOU GO
To get to the Route des Zingues, take Autoroute 50 on the north shore of the Ottawa River toward Ottawa. At Montebello, take Highway 148 west to Papineauville, then Route 321 north to Duhamel. On the north side of Duhamel, turn right on Chemin du Lac Gagnon E. and continue for 10 minutes on this dirt road until you see a small parking lot marked with a sign saying Route des Zingues. The drive from downtown Montreal without traffic takes about 2½ hours.
For more information about the Route des Zingues and the Sentier national au Québec, visit fqmarche.qc.ca/sentier_national.asp