Gravitating Toward Gault: Letting Go of Expectations

Michelle Parry is a participant in Group 5 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

I adore the ocean yet here I’ve found myself, time and time again, on a mountain.  The wilderness portion of my training weeks was spent in the Canadian Rockies just outside of Cochrane, Alta.  Now I am to call the mountain that is Gault Nature Reserve my home for the next three months. When did I fall in love with the mountains? Over our time here my roommates and I will come to have many feelings regarding this place.

The Nature Reserve

The entirety of Mont-Saint-Hilaire was gifted by Brigadier Gault to McGill University in 1958 and is divided into two halves, one public and one private. The line runs straight through the small lake nestled in the large dip between the hills. Yes, the “mountain” is actually comprised of an elevated lake surrounded by rocky hills. My first impression of our accommodation was that the cabin was dark, sparse and located in the middle of nowhere. Luckily this middle of nowhere is a beautiful one. We can see the lake from our front door and have full access to the public network of trails that runs right past our cabin as well as the private overgrown side of the mountain. At all hours we can hear the honking of migrating Canadian geese resting on the lake. In addition to the unruly reserve side of the mountain, the private side has developed spaces: Gault house, two science labs, chalets and one of the largest outdoor experiment sites in the area. Needless to say, I was excited to discover what kind of experiments were going on and how we could jump in and learn about the technical side of conservation and fieldwork.

The Grind

Over a week later we had not touched any science equipment save for shovels and pickaxes. Yes, pick axes are totally cool when you use them to break two-inch lake ice to install mesocosm bags to monitor rising global temperatures. One feels like a modern Viking while doing this but, dear reader, you will have to skip to my next blog to read about the awesome winter science stuff. The first week, nay almost two weeks, was spent moving rocks and shoveling earth. I learned two new French words that are seared into my brain from over use:

  • La Chaudière (a large farm bucket or pail)
  • Des fougères (some ferns)

I found the actual work on the trails quite rewarding – many people even stopped and thanked us. However, it was not mentally stimulating. While happy to help landscape the new hiking trail I was concerned that that was all we were going to be doing. I was so focused on how slow the progress was with manual labour that I forgot to look around and appreciate the beauty of the fall. It was not until later that I discovered the hidden opportunities that are liberally scattered throughout this placement.

The People: cookies and coffee

From day one, the people here at Gault have been absolutely amazing. Sonya, who looks after the Gault House, stocks the staff kitchen with cookies every day. Charles, who works with us on the trails, bought us refreshments to welcome and thank us for our work. Everyone stopped and talk to us even though it was a busy time. They also had great patience with those of us who weren’t very fluent in French. The people made the placement a success. Their warmth and positive attitudes towards work made me realize how magical this place is. The pace and treatment of time is so different when you have to work with the seasons. There is a time to rush and there is a time to wait. When it rains, we find indoor things to do, but if it looks dry outside, we ditch any well-planned indoor activities and do what we can outside.

We worked hard on the trails at the start of our placement because they needed to be done before the snows. Once we were able to meet with the assistant director, we were immediately presented with other possible things we could help with: species list, inventory, bat monitoring research, collecting data from temperature loggers in the field, building a weather station.  We were also offered continued support and freedom to come up with our own projects.  I have really started to enjoy myself here.

The opinions expressed are those of the participant and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

A Cake Worth Climbing

Michelle Parry is a participant in Group 5 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

My CCC wilderness journey is a memory I will hold close to my heart for a long time. I am oddly fond of each section of our trip, from the grimy details of how much dirty foot water I wrung out from my socks each evening, to the surreal expanse of mist and sunshine in the valley far below our goat trail. The hardships were made not only bearable but a cherished badge of honour because it was shared with such a resilient and wonderful group.

As the brutal cold assault continued the snack crazy began. We had a full bartering system going on. We started to see the cliffs and towering crags as a glorious bakery. There were varieties from layered chiffon mountain cake to Mt. Galatea, a lightly dusted back forest gateau. I am certain that, as we scaled the sides of those rocky “gateau” and traversed the hefty layers of icing, we pushed through many personal challenges and finally solidified as a team.

The second to last day will always stick in my mind, a testament to the groups’ fortitude, our guide’s wisdom/trust and the hardships and rewards that being in nature can give us. It was on this day that we broke trail through knee deep snow until the light began to fade (remember it was mid-September and 28 degrees in Montreal). What was supposed to be a moderate two-hour hike turned into a full day affair, but ah, the reward! As we trudged into the clearing there was a break in the clouds, enough to see the setting sun nestled in the far pass above the lake. I’m sure all of us relaxed just a little bit at the sight, even with our wet feet and broken hiking poles. The small valley of Lost Lake was the perfect place to do our solos and spend the last day building forts and looking at bear tracks.

That day I hiked up to the far pass with Madeleine (one of our guides) and we just sat and stared at the giants around us. The Kananaskis Mountains are a class unto themselves, they are wide, wide and tall enough to convey the expansiveness of history and time on their surface. We are insignificant blips of life to the bedrock of nature yet we have the potential to cause so much change. A sobering thought. It was comforting to be able to let go of city life and to know that nature provides solace even after the storms of yesterday.

There are no regrets to the trails we walked. I feel like our group was forged in snow and rain. We not only persevered but prospered during and from the experience. Much like our hike, the fight to preserve these spaces is not easy but I feel that it is worth it, for many, many reasons.

The opinions expressed are those of the participant and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Canadian Wildlife Federation.