I had to go to the south of Montreal this weekend and I took the opportunity to stop at the Marguerite-D’Youville Wildlife Sanctuary (refuge faunique Marguerite-D’Youville) in Châteauguay. It was the first time since returning from Copenhagen last March that I was venturing outside of Ontario and I have to say it felt almost strange to be greeted on the trails in French, my mother tongue.
The Marguerite-D’Youville Wildlife Sanctuary is located on Saint-Bernard Island, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. I knew that there were about eight kilometres of trails there, but since the wildlife refuge is located near Montreal, in the suburbs of this big city, I admit that I was a little worried the sanctuary would feel like a large urban park. But as soon as I arrived, I knew it wouldn’t be the case; rather, the wildlife sanctuary gave the impression of being miles from the city.
It must be said that Saint-Bernard Island has been protected for more than two centuries since it used to belong to the Gray Nuns (a Catholic religious community). Marguerite D’Youville, founder of the Gray Nuns of Montreal, acquired the seigneury of Chateauguay and Île Saint-Bernard in 1765 (at a time when seigneuries still existed in Quebec). On the island itself, the nuns planted an orchard, established a small dairy farm, grew wheat and vegetables, and used the old windmill to produce food for their hospital. They also protected an important natural part of the island, which has today become a wildlife sanctuary.
Covering an area of 223 hectares, the Marguerite-D’Youville Wildlife Sanctuary is particularly recognized for the richness of its ecosystems and its numerous species of birds (over 240 different species have been seen there). It also offers pretty views of the St. Lawrence River (at this point, it is so wide that it becomes Lake Saint-Louis).
I had planned to follow a long loop of trails that circled the island. From the parking lot, I first headed north. But like everywhere else, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some trails and areas are closed to prevent gatherings. This was the case for the trail leading to the northern tip of the island, where I had planned to go (from this lookout, it is apparently possible to see downtown Montreal on the other side of the river). I was a little disappointed, but now I just have a good excuse to come back.
I couldn’t go to the northern tip of the island, but I could continue my hike on the pretty wooden boardwalk. The island has several wetlands, and maple and oak groves, so the landscape varies greatly along the trails. And I understood why this place is popular for bird watchers: there were lots and lots of birds, ducks, woodpeckers and herons.
Maybe because I wasted a little too much time watching the birds and enjoying the view on the St. Lawrence River, but I realized that I was going to run out of time to complete the loop that goes around the island (I was already late on my schedule). So I decided to take the Grand Digue trail which would bring me back to the parking lot more quickly. Nearly one kilometer long, the Grande Digue trail crosses the island across its width, through the wide marsh that occupies the center of the island. I think it was only then that I really understood how big the island was. The marshy landscape, which stretches as far as the eye can see, is truly beautiful.
I visited the wildlife sanctuary very early in the morning and only met a few groups of bird watchers on the trails. But by the time I returned to the parking lot, it had become quite full and many families were getting ready to hit the trails. That’s when I remembered that the city was not very far …
Note that there is an entrance fee to access the wildlife sanctuary. There is also a café, a restaurant, and a hotel on site (located in the old ancestral buildings that belonged to the Gray Nuns). It’s definitely a great place to spend a few hours!