Though it was around 6pm in the evening, the sun was still shining brightly when we came up out of the depths of Jean-Drapeau metro. It’s that glorious time in winter where we start noticing the days getting a little longer and the hope for an eventually spring becomes less dreaming, more reality. We were on the island for a special Cabane à sucre night out at the parc Jean-Drapeau beach chalet when we took it upon ourselves to walk there through the snowy woods instead of taking a lift with the shuttle service provided.
Even though the sun had about an hour left in the sky, the winter chill was setting back in after a much welcomed, mild March day. With the exception of a few clouds drifting slowly towards the east, the sky over Montreal was bright and clear. Our breath was as crisp as the snow on the ground and lines of freshly forming ice were beginning to creep across the puddles of water that had formed during the day. It’s not everyday I find myself at parc Jean-Drapeau, especially in the winter but that night was special.
March is maple syrup month in Quebec and we were off to our first cabane à sucre (sugar shack) of the year, Cabane chez Jean. From March 20th to April 12th, every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Cabane chez Jean will welcome guests at this traditional, pop-up restaurant experience held at the popular beach chalet. Though teeming with people all summer long, seeing the chalet under the full moon and the sprawling beaches covered in a blanket of snow casts the scene in a very different, albeit ambient light. Cabane chez Jean offers Montrealers and visitors to our city an authentic cabane à sucre experience, right in our back yard.
A short drive from Montreal and (technically) a short walk from Jean-Drapeau metro, the chalet is propped up in a setting you’d expect to find in movies. The night we went, a bright big moon hovered over the glistening, snow covered landscape. Warm lighted was emitting from the large windows of the chalet like a beacon welcoming weary travelers. That’s what we saw when we arrived. The journey to get to the chalet was a story all to itself. Thank God it was still daylight when we arrived on the island. Coming of the metro we saw a blue car parked near a giant sign that read NAVETTE (shuttle). This was our speedy chariot and had we taken it, we’d have arrived in no time and be slurping up maple syrup and cocktails with the rest of the media. The air outside the metro was fresh and my photographer suggested that we walk to the chalet. I thought it was a wonderful idea. The map I had on my phone showed that the walk wouldn’t last longer than ten to fifteen minutes and a short jaunt in the open air would do us some good.
We walked away from the shuttle parking area and while I was busy trying to read the map, he started walking in the opposite direction. He assured me that he knew where he was going (even though my map said differently) so I decided to follow. We trudged through the snow; up a hill and despite the fact that my instincts were telling me we were way off the beaten path I kept following. As we kept climbing I was reassured by the fact that I still had about 90% battery power in my phone so I would make it out alive; him, not so much. As we cut through the forest the wind whispered through the bare trees and a sudden calm fell over the park. There were no sirens, no angry car horns blowing or music blaring out of stores. It was a perfect moment of tranquility, away from the bustle of the city.
When we finally reached a clearing and a plowed road we followed it west towards the chalet. The snow crunched under our feet and through the barren trees we could see the lights of Montreal’s skyline glowing in the distance. We stopped to take a couple of photos, even though this wasn’t part of our mission. Every minute we stopped was a minute of daylight lost. Soon enough we passed the casino (and the path we should have been on from the beginning) and the few remaining pavilions of the ‘67 expo. Each pavilion was lit up and made the area look like a small community in the darkness. At that moment I was brought back to the winters of my childhood. Growing up in a small fishing community where houses and lights were sometimes so far apart that the moonlight was the only light to guide us along our way. The quiet of the moment was wonderful and felt straight out of a Robert Frost poem. For us, however, we didn’t have time to stop and watch the woods fill up with snow. Darkness was closing in fast and we were still far from our destination.
Eventually we came out of the woods and arrived at the heavily travelled bridge that connects the Île Notre-Dame islands to Montreal. We walked along the ice covered pedestrian path and went back down under the bridge on the other side. By now it was fully dark and the last place you want to be in the dark is under a bridge, in the middle of nowhere. We hastened our pace and came to a checkpoint with a map that reassured us were still generally going towards the right place.
We walked further still (just like in a JRR Tolkien novel) until we came to a gated, snow covered bridge. Somewhere in the poetry of the snow and the woods, we veered off course and right in front of a ‘No Trespassing’ sign. I’m surprised we hadn’t come upon something like this earlier but that would have been too convenient, we could have turned around if we hadn’t invested all this time and energy already. There was nowhere to go but ahead because at this point, turning around was not an option. I decided that we would ignore the ‘No Trespassing’ sign (can you really be trespassing on public property?) and move forward. I was getting hungry and there was no way I was missing out on my dinner. From the gate we could see light emanating from the chalet and I moved to jump the fence. My photographer wasn’t so sure we should be jumping fences but while he was questioning himself, I was already knee deep in snow and hoisting myself over the fence and onto the bridge.
Having brushed ourselves off we were once again on a plowed path. Three minutes later, this path led us to yet another gate and a much higher fence. After an expletive fueled rant about fences and never following anyone into the woods again, I pulled myself together. I was not going back from where I came from so I threw my bag over the fence and got my best grip on the dead vines that were covering it. I hauled myself out of the waist deep snow and prayed that I wouldn’t loose my footing and slip. With all the determination I had left, I threw myself over the fence, getting my coat caught in a vine. I stayed there hanging for a second before using a little more force to shake myself free. I may have ripped a hole in the sleeve of my coat but at that point, I didn’t care. While I was already on the other side, the photographer wasn’t doing so well. He was still at the top and not making it over as quickly as I did. While at the top, he slipped just enough to send his “danglies” to a place they should never go. With a yelp he jumped down and in a very different way from me, shook himself free. Brushing ourselves off once again, we hadn’t yet seen that the worst wasn’t over. We took a few steps and walked out into a heavily lit area. More fencing surrounded us and we realized that we had gotten ourselves onto the Giles-Villeneuve raceway. Using my keen tracking skills (developed while watching Daryl on the Walking Dead) I saw fresh footprints in the snow going in the direction of the chalet. We started walking in the same direction and soon enough we reached the chalet from the raceway. The briny scent of bacon and the sweet smell of maple welcomed us warmly. Not worse for wear, we joined our friends who had been there for 25 minutes already and had arrived by shuttle. After a glass of wine we were all set to get the meal under way. Having survived our Farley Mowat inspired adventure to the chalet made the meal that much more delicious.
For details on la Cabane chez Jean, click your way over here! The food was delicious and worth every step.