A mountain of history
By Violaine Ballivy – La Presse
More than 70 years ago, a bomber with 24 young Canadian soldiers crashed on the slopes of the Montagne Noire, in Lanaudière – one of the worst tragedies of its kind in Canada. The wreck mysteriously remained hidden in the forest for three years before it was finally discovered. It now attracts hikers – and eager history buffs – on newly redesigned trails.
The inhabitants of Saint-Donat will never forget the month of June 1946, when they discovered that Montagne Noire which they thought they knew so well hid a dark secret: the wreckage of a bomber of the Canadian Army and the corpses of 24 young passengers mysteriously missing three years earlier in a snowstorm…
It all started on June 20, 1946 when a search was launched by authorities to find a small plane that was reported as having disappeared between Roberval and Rockcliffe. A pilot was certain to have found it when he flew over Montagne Noire and saw the remains of a cabin from the air. The call to the control tower mystified him: the plane had just landed, unscathed. So what had he discovered in Lanaudière?
Air registries all pointed in the same direction, that of the Liberator, a bomber of the Canadian army which in 1943, had crashed in the wild while it was bringing a score of young soldiers Gander to Ottawa. The weather had been foggy. For three years, it was thought to have crashed into the St. Lawrence River while in actual fact it was miles from there, in Lanaudière, unbeknown to all.
A crash that went unnoticed
“Afterwards, my father always told me that he had heard it crashing, or at least that he had heard something,” says André Gaudet, fascinated by this story. “But the next day, when he went around Lac Archambault, he saw nothing so he concluded that the weather had played a trick on him. ”
Pierre Bertrand, age 84, perfectly remembers the frenzy that followed the discovery of the Liberator. “We opened the first path with axes, guided by a plane above the wreck telling us where to go.”
For a week, the village was topsy-turvy invaded by rescue workers and bereaved families. Three ceremonies were celebrated – a Protestant, Catholic and Jewish – in the mountains, where the bones of soldiers were first buried under so many small wooden crosses painted white.
“People were crying, it was hot. Some suffered discomfort attacks, because the walk was too hard for them,’’ recalls Mr. Bertrand. The wreckage of the plane will never be brought down the mountain, although looters had stolen pieces here and there for resale for profit.
An open-air museum
The trail, opened painfully, will never be closed; it is still roughly the one that hikers follow today. Marked more formally in the 1980s, it, however, underwent major development work – at times challenged – in 2010 to limit erosion. A wide trail now leads to the wreck in some 2-3 hours walking distance without difficulty. Children can be brought there and will be impressed by discovering parts of the fuselage crushed by the impact, and the wing fragments decorated with a military star, and 24 white crosses for the victims: it’s a rare open-air museum.
From there, some people feel they have seen enough and prefer to descend the same path, while it takes only 20 minutes to reach the peak, 1 km away.
The view is not the most open, but it deserves the extra effort. In the distance, you can see the Kaikoops Mountains, Garceau and splendid Lac Archambault. “Even the Olympic Stadium at times” we were promised en route, but you then need very, very good eyes and be able to search through especially clear skies…
Since last fall, a narrow path has lead straight towards the Mésangeai shelter. This is one of the most beautiful legs of the journey: the vegetation is dense, the soil is supple, and is covered with humus. It runs along the aptly named Lac Crystal before climbing back to a clear-cut area where only stark stumps exist. Le Mésangeai is a great lookout and was built three years ago by volunteers of the Club Plein Air Saint-Donat on which they founded their “Grande boucle” project, a trail that would take six days to trek through the region either on foot or cross-country skis.
‘’Montagne Noire is almost as high as Mont Tremblant,’’ boasts Pierre Bertrand, who still climbs it easily in summer and winter – to then descend via telemark! It’s also less touristy, for the time being…
Points of interest
(1) A first lookout allows visitors to view Lac Archambault, which is 12 km long and covers an area of 14 km2.
(2) Lac Lézard. Halfway up the climb to the summit, a lookout is located to view Lac lizard and its tranquil shores.
(3) Site of the Liberator crash. The scene is very impressive. Educational sheets tell the main points of this little-known tragedy, and a memorial was erected at an official ceremony in 1996 with the name of each victim for the 50th anniversary of the discovery of its cabin. Although the bones were transferred to the Saint-Donat cemetery in 1985, there still remain 24 white crosses, one for each victim.
(4) Montagne Noire summit: 892 m. The view is not perfectly clear, but visitors can, nevertheless, recognize several peaks of the Laurentians and the Lanaudière region.
(5) The Mésangeai shelter: Built in wood, including the window frames and the front door, in mahogany, repaired here and there through the resourcefulness of volunteers of the Centre Plein Air de Saint-Donat, it has everything needed to accommodate hikers in winter and summer alike. Rental includes firewood delivery.
Level of difficulty: intermediate
Distance: 12.8 km for the proposed loop or 9.4 km return-trip to the airplane carcass.
Vertical drop: 485 meters
Length: from a 5 to 6 hours trek on footDeparture location: from Saint-Donat, follow the route 329 south 329 for 8 km and turn right onto Chemin Régimbald. Public parking is 1.5 km further. The Arrival is located at the same place.
Dogs allowed: yes
Entry fee: free
Services: dry toilets at the start of the trail. No water outlets. Directions are clear. Maps are provided free-of-charge at the Saint-Donat Tourist Information Office (536, rue Principale).
Shelter reservations: (819) 424-2833
Our engaging addresses
To energize before the hikes: Café Ohana
The Ohana cafe isn’t even a year old, but we’d think that it has always been in the heart of the village, adopted by many regulars who come every week, if not every day, to meet up with each other: small pleasures and great disappointments. The two Genevièves – Mercier and Cloutier – have found a winning recipe: a warm atmosphere, excellent breakfasts, and healthy and original salads and sandwiches. Local products and supply are a priority, they say: the coffee is roasted by Couleur Café, Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts.
361, rue Principale, Saint-Donat
To bring home: La boulangerie de Saint-Donat
A veritable institution in Lanaudière, Saint-Donat bakery is not quite what it was: the downtown shop was bought recently by a baker of Alsatian origin, Luc Audéoude, who introduced – since his arrival in the company – a wider variety of breads, cooked on the spot. There is so much more than the famous sugar pies which made the reputation of the family business founded in 1924. Regional products and sandwiches are also sold for takeout.
413, rue Principale, Saint-Donat
To rest up
Nestled in a former residence for the elderly, the Auberge près du lac offers five fully equipped studios – a full kitchen, lounge, free Wi – Fi – and two one-and two-bedroom apartments recently renovated with taste. It is clean, modern, quiet and very convenient. We very much regret that there are not more establishments that offer such good value and quality north of Montréal. Payment by cheque or cash only. From $90 per night.
22, avenue du Lac, Saint-Donat