Quebec conservation areas balance nature preservation and public access

MONTREAL — Minutes after scaling the snowy wooden staircase that leads into the Alfred-Kelly nature reserve, the air grows fresh and still as the sounds of the city give way to those of chirping birds. The trail is lined with birch and maple trees, as snowshoers and hikers wind their way up the path that soon turns down again, towards snowed-covered Lake Paradis.

The conservation area, located at the base of the Laurentians some 60 kilometres north of Montreal, is one of several more-or-less-undisturbed nature reserves in the province that offer little in the way of cellphone service, facilities or organized activities, but plenty for those who want to hike, snowshoe, or simply spend time in nature.

“They’re not commercial, there’s not that many people on them, they’re kind of secluded,” said Jessica Panetta, national media manager for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which runs the site.

“You’re in this forest, and there’s so many trails,” Panetta said. “Sometimes there’s cell phone service, sometimes there’s not, so it really is a nice escape to really immerse yourself in nature.”

Opening conservation areas to the public means working to find a balance between allowing people to enjoy nature without compromising sensitive plant and animal habitat. At the Afred-Kelley reserve, visitors are asked to follow some rules, such as sticking to the trails and leaving their pets and bicycles at home in order to avoid disturbing the wildlife.

Other destinations suggested by the group include the Appalachian forests of the Green Mountains Nature Reserve in the Eastern Townships, cross-country skiing in the Tourbiere-de-Venise-Ouest Nature Reserve south of Montreal, and wildlife sighting at the Jean-Paul-Riopelle Nature Reserve just outside Quebec City.

Named after a renowned ornithologist who donated the first parcel of land in the area, the Alfred-Kelley site is home to mink, beaver and moose, as well as the vast majority of Quebec’s birds of prey species, which nest and hunt along the cliffs that offer panoramic views to birds and humans alike.

On a mild day in early January, there were no large animal species in sight, only the occasional squirrel and a regular stream of hikers and snowshoers out enjoying the end of the holiday period.

But Jean-Francois Pomerleau, a resident of nearby Laval, said he regularly spots wildlife, including deer, wild turkeys and falcons, and has seen evidence of beavers at work.

“It’s a good place for nature lovers,” said Pomerleau, who paused from a run up the trail in a pair of racing snowshoes.

On his third visit that week to the mountain, Pomerleau said he liked the combination of varied terrain, proximity to the city, and the chance to explore nature.

A little further up the trail, Valerie Turcot and her partner were enjoying a more low-key snowshoe experience. They laughed as their children, ages six and four, darted a few feet off the trail to run around a tree making fresh tracks.

Turcot noted the mountain is free to access, not too hard for children, and among the closest Laurentian destinations from Montreal or Laval.

“It’s one of the first accessible mountains leaving the city,” she said.

Sepaq, the provincial agency that manages Quebec’s national parks and nature reserves, also has a list of ideal locations for fatbike, snowshoeing, winter hiking, cross-country skiing or wildlife watching.

That list includes the Iles-de-Boucherville park, a small series of islands in the St. Lawrence River only a few minutes from Montreal that offer gentle nature walks and wildlife watching only a few minutes from Montreal. Closer to Quebec City, there’s Camp Mercier in the Laurentides wildlife reserve, whose impressive snowfall amounts make it ideal for winter sports.

Panetta says not all protected areas can be opened to the public, and the organizations that run them have to make careful choices to ensure the habitats remain undisturbed. However, she feels it’s worthwhile to allow visitors, especially given recent studies that show spending just a couple of hours out in nature can have physical and mental-health benefits, such as reduced stress.

“The more people have a connection to (natural areas) and the outdoors, the more likely they are to want to protect it,” she said.

If you go: or

This report by the Canadian Press was first published on Jan. 06, 2020.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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