We’re perched in our snowshoes atop Mount Royal, gathered around Montreal’s iconic illuminated cross, which stands sentry over Plateau Mont Royal, the downtown core and the eastern end of the island. Our guide, Antoné, is an affable, bearded fellow in his mid-twenties. Clad in a lumberjack coat and a traditional arrowhead sash knotted around his skinny waist, he could easily be mistaken for French-Canadian fur trapper of Old. He’s assembled our 20-strong group for a short history lesson:
“In 1642, I think it was, there was a big flood in Montreal. The river rose so high, Montreal’s first “mayor”, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, was afraid for the people and the crops, so he prayed to the Virgin Mary. He promised to erect a cross if she ended the flood. So, when the flood stopped, he harangued someone to drag a wooden cross up to the top of the mountain and planted it up here.”
Antoné works for Les amis de la montagne, a non-profit organization that endeavors to protect and preserve the ecosystem of Parc Mont Royal through educational programs and nature conservation projects. They also run a museum, café and boutique from Maison Smith, an old stone farmhouse once owned by a farmer named — you guessed it! Smith. The 494-acre park has been a year-round urban escape for Montrealers since 1876, but in a city where the growing lack of green space is a growing sore point, the work of Antoné and the rest of the staff at Les amis de la montagne becomes increasingly important.
18 years ago the group revived the tradition of the now-defunct Montreal Snow Shoe Club, founded in 1840. Garbed in white hooded coats, arrowhead sashes at their waist and blue toques on their heads, the club’s members would gather at McGill University’s Roddick Gates to undertake 12-mile snowshoe traipses up and around Montreal’s little mountain, lighting their way with lanterns or by the light of the moon.
There is no moon tonight, but it’s hardly necessary given the white opalescence of the overcast sky reflecting off the whiteness of the snow. The air, a “balmy – 10°C” (14 °F), as our guide Antoné puts it, has that quality I most love about winter: that fresh, crisp purity, the kind that might break into shards of broken icicles if you could touch it.
As we shuffle single file along the wooded back trails of the park, I can’t help but notice that, behind me, some young people seem to be having a harder time than most on this walk. No surprise, really, since they’re woefully underdressed for the occasion. One young man is wearing a short, thin jacket and nothing but a pair of jeans to cover his legs. Strapped into his snowshoes is what looks like a pair of shoes. As we strike up a conversation, I learn that he and his friends are from France. They moved to Montreal a few months ago, he says.“It’s a lot colder than I expected. I’m going to have to buy some winter boots.”
“Yes, you really need them here,” I agree. “And you might want to consider getting a pair of ski pants and a good winter jacket, too. Especially if you’re going to be doing stuff like this!”
Still following our trusty guide through the squeaky, well-packed snow, Antoné pauses to point out various sites of interest, such as the gigantic twisted pine that was felled after an electric storm, but was still growing, and deep holes in the snow where squirrels had dug tunnels to get at their hidden provisions. We also learn that they are other wild animals besides squirrels and birds living here. “There are hares, raccoons, groundhogs and foxes,” he says. “It’s a good little eco-system.”
Later, as we sip hot chocolate in the shelter of an oak grove, before heading back to our starting point at Maison Smith, I ask Antoné if he knows the story of Hans Marotte, who, in 1988, scaled the cross, wrapping a Bill 101 (Quebec’s pro-French language bill) banner around it and camping out overnight in -13°F temperatures. Marotte got frostbitten feet and had to be carried down, earning him notoriety across Canada and hero status amongst Quebec separatists.
No, young Antoné had never heard that one.