Go wild in Montebello

Toronto Star Jan 13, 2017, MONTEBELLO, QUE. It’s a remarkable feeling watching a pack of wolves just chillin’ in their hood. A couple are roughhousing — wolf wrestling — a third yawns and yet another walks up into the trees to get away from the shenanigans.

Or perhaps the wandering wolf is just bored of the humans on the other side of the fence at the new wolf observation deck at Parc Omega, an 890-hectare wildlife park between Montreal and Ottawa. No fear of boredom on our side of the fence as we take pictures of the grey timber wolves, one of three different wolf packs in the park.

“Wolves are legendary. It is our role to protect them and talk about them and showcase how beautiful they are,” says park zoologist Serge Lussier of the Arctic, black and timber wolves at Parc Omega. “We have to keep the doors closed or else they would chase the deer and the elk. There would be a buffet.”

Seems sensible. The coyotes, caribou, musk ox, fox and black bears are also in large pens of natural habitat. A black bear runs the length of a chain-link fence as we roll by in the park’s old school bus that’s been painted blue.

The moose are also fenced in, because they tend to scrap with the elk during mating season. They can be nasty to each other, too, which is why one of them lives with a little black goat called Copain — a French word for friend. “The moose is never alone,” says Lussier. “He has a buddy.” The bus stops so we can take pictures of the odd couple before driving on, past strange looking mountain goats from Europe, Alpine ibex, and our more familiar looking elk.

Unlike other parks in Canada, you’re encouraged to feed the elk at Parc Omega, sticking your arm out of the windowless bus (or your car) to give them carrots. The wildlife are calm about it all, and after the first couple of carrots you calm down, too, getting the hang of letting the big animals eat the carrot out of your hand instead of just throwing them to the ground. In couple of “walking areas” in the park, you get out and feed the deer that are wandering around like old dogs in a dog park.

You’re more likely to hunt the deer than hand them snacks a 10-minute drive down the road at Kenauk Nature. The 25,899-hectare private fish and game reserve has hundreds of moose, wolves and coyotes. If you’re lucky you may spot one of the 80 or so black bears coming down for a drink at Whitefish Lake as you paddle across in a red canoe.

“It really is a special spot,” says general manager Bill Nowell. “It’s not just a big piece of land with animals on it.” The private estate was established in the 1800s to conserve and protect a massive swath of wildlife habitat, including dozens of lakes and rivers with trout, bass and northern pike. A select few wealthy individuals would come to Kenauk to hike, hunt and fish.

 

These days you can rent cabins powered by solar panels that follow the light like sunflowers. For decades, those who hunted moose or deer during the day would stay at the Fairmont Le Château Montebello at night. “Montebello was the clubhouse and this was the big backyard,” says Nowell of the world’s largest log cabin just down the road.

Montebello was founded in 1930 as the private Seigniory Club, with a massive open central area, stone fireplace reaching 20 metres into the air and three storeys of hallways heading out like the points of a star. Canadian Pacific Hotels bought it in 1970 and it became the Fairmont Le Château Montebello in 1999, welcoming the public and powerful alike to the banks of the Ottawa River.

Over its nearly 90-year history, the log cabin has hosted presidents, prime ministers, Hollywood stars and captains of industry. These days, as you enjoy a cocktail in front of one of the fires burning in the six-sided stone fireplace, you’re more likely to join the tipsy group around the piano belting out Bohemian Rhapsody than overhear any state secrets.

After a day in the Quebec sunshine you head up the wide wooden staircase to your room, wondering what the squeaky wooden floors could tell you about who else has walked here, and happy to have met a few of the powerful creatures around Montebello — the four-legged ones.

When you go

Walk under the Thunderbird at Parc Omega: As you enter the First Nations Area, a special park showcasing art and information about Quebec’s 11 First Nations, you’ll walk through a gorgeous sculpture of a thunderbird. If you ‘make a reasonable wish’ as you walk under the wing, it will be granted, according to First Nations lore. Details: parcomega.ca

Go for a drive at Kenauk Nature: If hunting, canoeing or kayaking aren’t your thing, you can enjoy the wilderness at Kenauk Nature behind the wheel of a Land Rover. You can bring your own, rent one and/or take lessons to try your hand driving a technical off-road course. Details: kenauk.com

Visit Louis-Joseph Papineau National Historic Site: Learn about the life and political career of Louis-Joseph Papineau in the manor he built and died in (surrounded by 14 of his favourite books). You can take an immersive tour of the site or collect some friends for Feasting with the Papineaus, a special dinner in the house next to the Montebello. Details: pc.gc.ca/papineau

Go for a swim at Fairmont Le Château Montebello: Walk through the tunnel from the hotel to enjoy a swim in the 23-metre long pool. Do the backstroke so you can enjoy the hand-painted ceiling and giant skylight. Details: Fairmont.com

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