Spica is the brightest object in the constellation of Virgo located about 260 light years away. This binary star is 2,200 times more powerful than our Sun making it one of the 20 most prominent objects in the night sky. Spica was also the name of our cabin at Parc national du Mont-Mégantic where we spent the last few days of 2018 and greeted the New Year.
Spica is the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo; it was also the name of our cabin at Parc national du Mont-Mégantic
Parc national du Mont-Mégantic: From the Earth to the sky
We first started exploring Sépaq parks a year ago with a magnificent New Year’s celebration trip to Parc national d’Aiguebelle in western Quebec. This time, we headed east ending up at Mont Mégantic in the Estrie region just north of the U.S. border. The mountain, known as Namesokanjik – a place where the fish are held – in the Algonquian language of Abenaki, rises in the middle of a large park and is also home to the most important observatory in Eastern Canada featuring a 1.6 metre Ritchey–Chrétien telescope.
Mont Mégantic houses the most important observatory in Eastern Canada
Close to the scientific observatory is the Observatoire populaire du Mont-Mégantic, one of the largest in the world built for public viewing. The park also runs the ASTROlab museum and activity centre. And if that is not enough, its location in the middle of the first designated Dark Skies preserve makes Parc national du Mont-Mégantic a great place for star-gazing. (Not that we got to see many because the Observatory was closed and the skies were mostly overcast at night but there is always the next time.)
Observatoire populaire du Mont-Mégantic is one of the world’s largest public observatories
The park offers lots to do on the ground as well. With an extensive network of hiking and mountain biking trails in the summer and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, Parc national du Mont-Mégantic is truly deserving of its “from the Earth to the sky” motto. And as evidenced by the name of our cabin, it takes the theme quite seriously. Most of the park’s accommodations bear the names of celestial objects. When you look at the park’s map, you will find a whole string of stars scattered throughout, the solar system planets orbiting around the Franceville region, La Petite-Ourse and La Grande-Ourse constellations (the Little and Big Dippers), and La Voie Lactée (Milky Way) in the middle. (Giving names to their roofed accommodations seems like a common practice at Sépaq parks. At d’Aiguebelle, for instance, all the cabins were named after bugs. Ours was called La Cigale or cicada in French. I think Ontario Parks should adopt this tradition because staying at Spica sounds way more fun than Yurt #6.)
At Parc national du Mont-Mégantic, the Big and Little Dippers, Sirius and Saturn can be found not only in the sky but also on the ground in the form of cabins and shelters
Our rustic shelter was located in a cluster of stars near La Petite-Ourse hut about 1.4 kilometres away from the parking lot. A kilometre and a half doesn’t seem like much when you look at the map but feels much longer once you have to transport your own gear and supplies. Since the distance was shorter than the four kilometres we had to travel last year, we decided to forgo the transportation service. (If you are interested in getting your stuff delivered, you can order the transportation service at the registration centre as long as you do it before 2 p.m. The cost is $13 per bag, and each bag should be no more than 45 pounds.)
All set for our 1.4 kilometre track to the cabin
Our hike to the cabin was pretty uneventful, until we hit a slope
Even though our load was lighter, going back was harder – we weren’t ready to leave our star
With New Year approaching, we indulged in some luxuries and brought things like salmon, cheesecake and, of course, champagne. But between two sleds and three backpacks, we managed just fine, except for one steep climb. And even that part wasn’t long enough for us to regret all these excesses, and we definitely didn’t regret them as we consumed all this yummy food over the next four days. And yes, maybe we could do away with a few board games but all the fun on long winter nights and leisurely mornings was definitely worth it. Plus, who could ever complain about an hour-and-a-half walk if you get to celebrate New Year’s arrival on a star.
Who would complain about bringing too much food when you have burritos on the menu
Stacks of board games provided hours of entertainment
Spica inside and out
Our star cabin was comfortable and quite spacious as far as rustic shelters go. Compared to our accommodations at d’Aiguebelle last year where we could practically reach the table from our bed, Spica with its three rooms was definitely palatial.
Spica is a spacious rustic shelter with three rooms
The living/dining/board game playing/hanging around (pick your own) room had a wood stove, a shelving unit along each wall, a large table with two benches and four chairs, and even a sofa-bed – a great spot for morning coffee, reading or napping. Each bedroom featured a double bunk bed.
Inside there is lots of space to eat, play, sleep, prepare meals and even dance if you feel like it
The cabin features a couch, shelving units, a huge table with two benches and four chairs; each bedroom has two double bunk beds
The couch is a great spot for reading, napping and, of course, morning coffee
With lots of windows and wood panelling, the rooms felt airy and light. The only downside was the wood stove that didn’t really work for cooking this time. We managed to make tea, heat up soup and even brew coffee in the morning but that was a time-consuming process.
The wood stove didn’t work well for cooking but was great for drying our clothes and gear – we obviously needed that after our rainy hike to the cabin
Good thing we brought our camp stove, which we would set up on top of the garbage bins on the porch and make breakfast while enjoying our coffee with the view of Mont Mégantic. Cooking in the evening was a bit more complicated as there was no electricity but hey, it’s all part of the fun.
Making breakfast – good thing we brought our camp stove
Enjoying morning coffee with a view
What a great view to wake up to every morning
Our site also featured a shed generously stocked with fire wood and an outhouse, impeccably clean with the usual refreshing breeze, a sure companion of any winter washroom break.
A wood shed near our cabin and, of course, the most important structure – an outhouse
There were five other identical rustic shelters nearby but we hardly saw or heard our neighbours. It was so quiet that sometimes we did feel like we were hundreds of light years away.
Four more rustic shelters are located close to La Grande-Ourse about two kilometres away from the parking lot. La Grande-Ourse itself, just like La Petite-Ourse and a few other cabins, is what the park refers to as a hut. These can be used by anyone during the day to warm up and take a break but are available for overnight private stays between the hours of 4 p.m. and 9 a.m. The Franceville section of the park also features fancier EXP (as in experience) cabins with kitchenettes, electricity, washrooms and running water.
So what do you do when you are stuck among the stars? I wish I could say “zoom around at the speed of light” but it was more like crawl up trails gasping for air.
Mont Mégantic offers both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter. Even though I like skiing, the park’s terrain looked a bit too much for me, and with the weather going from rain to below 20°C to back up to zero again, the conditions weren’t ideal. Plus, snowshoeing provided enough of a challenge: where there are mountains there are uphill trails. They all lead to magnificent views so no complaints there but boy, they make you work for them.
Parc national du Mont-Mégantic offers 30 kilometres of snowshoe trails to explore
Enjoying a view on our way to Mont Mégantic; in case you are wonder how much snow there was, that’s a picnic table peeking out
One of our expeditions took us to the top of Mont Mégantic. The walk was a little over four kilometres from our cabin, which, again, doesn’t sound like much. But add to that snow, ice patches, clunky snowshoes and more than 400 metres of elevation change and all of a sudden the trail feels double that distance. The higher we climbed, though, the more captivating became the views. The forest got whiter with every twist of the trail; with branches and tree trunks encased in snow it felt like we stepped into a postcard. I was mesmerized by this sight wishing we could come back later in the season when winter, an ever whimsical artist, transforms this forest into unrecognizable snow sculptures.
Lots of upward sections on our way to Mont Mégantic
With views like this one from Col-des-Trois-Sommets, I don’t mind a bit of sweat
The forest became more and more magical the higher we got
A true winter wonderland was awaiting us at the top of Mont Mégantic
Trees sleeping encased in snow
Winter is a masterful sculptor
When the Observatory finally emerged through the opening in the tree line, we were definitely ready for a snack but first things first: views from the mountain and group selfies. A cheeky gray jay attempted to photo bomb our selfie and then graciously posed for photos.
Mont Mégantic Observatory, our final destination for the day
Views from Mont Mégantic are worth all the work it took to get to the top
Experimenting with selfies
And here is a more traditional selfie take
This gray jay attempted to photo bomb our selfie but then settled for a portrait
We then trudged down to La Voie Lactée Hut for a break. The hut had all the same amenities: a table, chairs, a couch, a wood stove, two bedrooms. It also had some additional luxuries, like an indoor washroom and electric light, not to mention a large balcony with an amazing view. It was pretty packed when we came in with people huddling around a wood stove, snacking on nuts and conversing in French. Since we couldn’t take part in the conversation, we took out hummus and crackers and started refueling before our trip down, occasionally exchanging a phrase or two in Ukrainian.
Taking a break in the Milky Way, a.k.a. La Voie Lactée Refuge
By the time we got back to Spica, it was already dark.
The setting sun paints the forest golden
Catching a sunset at Col-des-Trois-Sommets on our way back to Spica
If we thought the Mont Mégantic trail was challenging, our trip to Mont Saint Joseph proved us wrong. While the trail was shorter, most of the elevation change happened over a span of one kilometre. And when we finally got to the top of the ridge looking forward to a more level terrain, the trail started going down and up at regular intervals, just for the fun of it, I guess.
Another day, another hike – this time to Mont Saint Joseph
Lots of see along the way
Gray jays seemed to follow us everywhere we went
Some sections were hard to climb and even harder to get down
Enjoying the view from L’Ascension lookout and a well-deserved break
All that twisting and turning didn’t defeat us though. As we slid down slopes and scrambled up hills, we devised a plan to come back and do some hut hopping – staying at a different cabin each night. Yes, that means tackling these trails with a backpack but a sunrise from Refuge des Pélerins or the view of Milky Way from La Voie Lactée cabin will be worth it.
At the elevation of almost a thousand metres, Refuge des Pélerins offers incredible views
Once we got to the top of Mont Saint Joseph, there was another cabin waiting for us. This one was much smaller with only one room but it provided warmth and a place to rest and have a snack.
Chapel at the top of Mont Saint Joseph
Views from Mont Saint Joseph are nothing short of breathtaking
Small and cozy Mont Saint Joseph cabin (one of the few exceptions to the celestial objects naming rule) is a great place for a rest
Our trip back involved lots of scooching on our bottoms. Our younger son slid most of the way down. I stopped at the Belvédère du Soleil to watch the last day of the year fade away. 2018 was leaving behind a lot of great memories but it also brought its share of challenges so I wasn’t sad to see it go.
2018 fading away
After that, it was time to return to our cabin and prepare for the arrival of 2019. We still had time to play a round of Catan and a few rounds of 7 Wonders, our new favourite game. We then made and ate dinner, and headed outside to herald the New Year. As we shouted “Happy New Year,” we didn’t hear anything back, not even in French, so we started doubting whether it was the right time and if 2019 had indeed arrived. But then our older son pointed out that our understanding of time was a man-made construct so it hardly mattered if we said Happy New Year at exactly 12.
Plus, for us new year doesn’t truly arrive until we create our traditional light painting. The first attempt was a complete disaster because I forgot to set the camera timer. By the time I fixed it, the sparklers burned out. Good thing we had another pack. The final result turned out pretty good. Hope that is a sign of exciting things coming our way, even if the first attempt isn’t always a success.
2019 has officially arrived
Happy 2019 everyone! Hope this year brings lots of opportunities to wonder and wander.
Time to leave our star and return back to Earth – 2019 bring it on!