Here’s the article I wrote about the falaise for The Gazette:
Gazette reporter takes a walk on the wild side – in the long-lost park of legendary mayor Jean Drapeau
Friday, June 29, 2007
It was an inauspicious start to a hike through a jungle in Notre Dame de Grace.
As I lost my balance and my sandalled feet slipped down the hill, I grabbed for a branch, any branch – the wrong branch, it turned out. It was covered in thorns, one of which remained wedged in my right thumb.
The good news: The searing pain – plus the scratches, bruises, mosquito swarms and fallen-tree obstacle courses to come – helped me block out the roar of Highway 20, a few hundred metres away.
My mind could focus on the mission: exploring remnants of the long-lost park of legendary Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau.
– – –
Every day, tens of thousands of Montreal motorists absently speed past a 20-hectare area some call the “green lungs” of Highway 20, its more than 8,500 trees emitting oxygen and absorbing some of the pollution created by all that traffic.
It’s known as the falaise St. Jacques, a four-kilometre escarpment between Montreal West and Westmount. At the top of the cliff: St. Jacques St. in N.D.G.; about 75 metres below, the sprawling, now-empty former Turcot rail yards.
The escarpment is thought to be a geological formation dating back to the Champlain Sea, which covered much of the Montreal area 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age.
Until at least the 1800s, those looking over the cliff’s edge would have seen the St. Pierre River. At one point, a body of water – Otter Lake – is thought to have graced the location of the Turcot Interchange.
Today, the St. Jacques cliff, which straddles the border of N.D.G. and the Southwest borough, overlooks the Lachine Canal, the St. Lawrence River and the South Shore. Seeing the view isn’t easy. St. Jacques St. is lined with nondescript buildings – car washes, garages, stores and other businesses.
For years, Montrealers have used the cliff as a trash heap, a problem compounded by business owners who charged construction companies to dump waste over the edge; it was cheaper than the dump.
– – –
One day in the early 1980s, the story goes, Jean Drapeau was heading downtown along Highway 20 when he got an idea.
It wasn’t one of his trademark grandiose ideas; this one seemed simple – the escarpment would be turned into a linear park: a hiking-and-biking trail that could be used for cross-country skiing in winter.
In the ensuing 25 years, Montreal spent more than $2 million on the falaise.
There’s still no sign of a park.
During Drapeau’s reign, the city acquired some sections it did not already own.
It cleaned up, planted bushes to stop erosion, cleared swaths of vegetation and flattened parts to set the stage for paths.
The city also brushed off an entrepreneur who wanted to plaster advertisements along the cliff, similar to Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, which is lined with corporate logos sculpted out of shrubbery.
But Drapeau never completed the park. The area became a dumping ground again.
Drapeau’s plan was taken up in the early 1990s by his successor, Jean Dore. The city cleaned out truckloads of garbage, including abandoned cars, dozens of oil barrels and hundreds of tires. Some property owners were fined for illegal dumping.
The city also planted 140,000 bushes and saplings to stabilize the hillside, though many of those plants were surreptitiously dug up by passers-by for use in private yards, a problem that persists. A two-metre-high chain-link fence was erected at the top of the escarpment.
But by 1994, enthusiasm for the project had waned again.
It wasn’t until 2003 that the cliff would make headlines again. Montreal took legal action against a new car dealership for cutting down 50 trees during construction.
A year later, the city described the falaise and Mount Royal as a “defining characteristic of the island’s landscape.” It designated the escarpment an “ecoterritory,” one of 10 green spaces “slated for priority protection and enhancement.” But there is no plan yet.
– – –
A confluence of events is reviving interest in the falaise.
On its eastern tip, in the former Glen rail yard, the McGill University Health Centre is to build its superhospital on a stretch of the upper part of the cliff. The hospital site may also feature a bike path linking existing Montreal and Westmount paths on de Maisonneuve Blvd.
Down below, Transport Quebec owns the former Turcot yards and plans to replace the interchange and sell the remaining land to private interests. The property borders the Lachine Canal and its popular bike path.
Why not, the thinking goes, connect the dots? First, create a foot-and-bike path on at least part of the escarpment. Then link it to the hospital and de Maisonneuve to the north. On the south, connect it to a new path that snakes through Turcot to the Lachine Canal, crossing Highway 20 in St. Henri or Ville St. Pierre The resulting network would link several neighbourhoods, allow Montrealers to enjoy a rare urban green space and encourage cycling.
One problem is that the underlying projects are years away. The much-delayed superhospital’s latest due date is 2013. Transport Quebec, which bought the Turcot yards in 2003, is to announce its $1-billion plan today, but the work will take 10 years.
Path advocates, including environmentalists, cycling activists and community groups in N.D.G. and the Southwest borough, see no reason to wait.
The latest detailed falaise proposal came in 2004. Southwest borough councillors suggested the city buy the few remaining privately owned bits, clean up the entire area, then create a path dotted with benches, lookouts, rest areas, water fountains and interpretation panels.
The area is secluded, leading some to worry about attacks, drug peddling and street-gang loitering. Path proponents suggest lighting, security phones and surveillance cameras could be installed. Fences could protect flora and fauna.
Nobody has ventured a price tag for the falaise project.
– – –
To hike the cliff, you must trespass.
I started my trek at de Carillon Ave. and Pullman St., under the Turcot Interchange.
Concrete blocks stop cars from driving down the now-closed Pullman; a Transport Quebec sign warns passers-by not to proceed. Police warn those who wander around the Turcot yards they risk $142 fines.
About 300 metres after slipping between concrete blocks, I walked onto the escarpment forest and was immediately enveloped by its lush green trees, bushes, vines and ground cover, the smell of earth intense after the previous night’s rain.
Until my unfortunate accident, my soundtrack was the rumble of traffic – Highway 20 to the south, the Turcot Interchange above – and the occasional horn blast from freight trains on the rail line that runs parallel to Highway 20.
It didn’t take long to find the beginnings of a narrow path. It appeared to be well trodden. People had been there recently. Dog walkers? Cyclists? Hikers? I wouldn’t come across another soul in my two-hour hike.
At times, it was eerie. Was I about to stumble into an episode of Law and Order – either discovering a body or ending up a corpse myself, found later by a startled hiker? Within minutes, the path, parts of which feature gravel, was overwhelmed by bushes and giant weeds, the sky covered by a mesh of leaves and branches of tall trees.
After a few hundred metres, the trail stopped suddenly.
It would disappear several times before I reached the other end, often abruptly, sometimes with thick trees impeding the way. Most had fallen after dying; others had apparently been uprooted due to soil erosion. How do adventurous cross-country skiers get past in the winter? Bypassing trees was tricky at times, their multiple tangled branches making slipping across treacherous. Often, there is no other way, unless you want to brave thick underbrush on one side or the prospect of slipping down the steep hill or into a ditch on the other.
Though not nearly as bad as it used to be, garbage is still common on the escarpment – piles of old electrical wires, cinder blocks, rotting floorboards, a rusting bike, a car’s steering column.
In some spots, there have been garbage deluges, the trash having tumbled down from atop the falaise – shopping carts, plastic bottles, box springs.
There’s evidence people have spent time in some clearings.
In one, wood pallets and plastic bread delivery trays have been assembled to create a bridge over fallen trees. At another spot, two lines of logs have been lined up to create a makeshift pathway.
About two kilometres in, as I was about to give up and turn around, I found civilization of sorts. For a short stretch there is a paved asphalt path, part of early city efforts to develop the falaise into a park.
Following it, I walked up to St. Jacques St. I heard it before I could see it, the hum of traffic competing with a loose sewer cover that clanged every time a car or truck zoomed over.
The St. Jacques St. entrance to the escarpment is overgrown with trees and weeds; you would not know it’s there. A locked gate blocks access. City signs warn against trespassing, dumping garbage or biking, motorcycling or driving down the path.
I turned around and headed back to the wilderness. The path runs almost all the way down to Pullman, so it could serve as an easy link between St. Jacques and the Turcot yards.
There were more signs of life.
Using paving stones, someone had created a firepit on the paved path; a fire had recently been burning. Homeless people? Teenagers? The path petered out, and I was back in the bush.
I found a big patch of wild daisy plants, one of several along the falaise. Cottonwood trees and other poplars are also abundant.
The city says the escarpment is a resting place for migratory waterfowl and some hikers have spotted garter snakes, but I saw no signs of this.
In fact, I didn’t meet much wildlife, apart from snails, dragonflies, monarch butterflies, spiders on webs, too many ravenous mosquitoes, as well as woodpeckers and a desperately chirping robin concerned that I was a danger to her nest.
In dense parts of the falaise, I saw holes in the ground, apparently burrowed by small animals. Skunks? Groundhogs? My adventure ended as it began, unceremoniously.
Having almost reached the western end, I struggled up the escarpment’s steep slope and found myself behind a Canadian Tire store on St. Jacques.
I was on the wrong side of a two-metre-high fence.
I jumped over it, landing in the store’s parking lot, dishevelled. My short-sleeved shirt was untucked, ripped and stained, my arms, face and feet scratched from trees and bushes. I realized I was panting, dehydrated. I needed water, not to mention nursing for my various wounds.
In the parking lot, a woman sitting on her car bumper smoking a cigarette seemed startled by my sudden emergence from the normally deserted forest.
I wanted to stop and tell her I had just visited an interesting place few Montrealers have enjoyed, an escape from urban life right there in the middle of the city. But I didn’t. Instead, I made my way home to recover and to look at the pictures I’d taken to document my hike for my blog.
I knew I’d be back, next time wearing a long-sleeved shirt and shoes with traction, and carrying bug spray and a water bottle, and accompanied, hopefully, by a fellow hiker.