I’m standing in a mixed forest of deciduous trees and conifers, listening to the trilling song of a nearby winter wren and the croaks of frogs while I assess an architectural feat that is blocking my path: A calm lake appears to be suspended at eye level. It’s not some kind of David Blaine–turned–naturalist illusion; the water is held up by a sturdy beaver dam, its still surface supported by tree branches and mud. The dam has altered this section of forest ecosystem by turning it into a complex wetland that attracts ducks, herons and kingfishers that would otherwise fly on by. However, the rodent builders who engineered it are nowhere in sight.
As you “leave no trace” on the mountain and forest trails that crisscross Quebec’s Eastern Townships, look out for traces of the wildlife that increasingly call this region home.
This region of Quebec, which begins about 100 kilometres southeast of Montreal, is one of the most biodiverse in the province. The Eastern Townships – a verdant 13,000–square–kilometre patchwork of rolling green mountains, hiking trails, scenic towns and vineyards – also happens to be where I grew up, and I recently bought a house in West Brome, near its southwestern edge. After more than three decades of loving and exploring my home’s wild spaces, I decided to turn my appreciation into skills that can help protect them long–term. Contacting Appalachian Corridor, an organization that works to protect the portion of the Appalachians that stretches from Vermont’s Green Mountains to the Eastern Township’s Sutton Mountains, seemed like a natural place to start, which is how I ended up at this wooded wetland with Clément Robidoux, its director of conservation. The private 125–hectare section of land we’re on was newly acquired by Appalachian Corridor and will now be protected from development into perpetuity, joining the organization’s more than 15,000 hectares, including the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s 8,000–hectare Green Mountains Nature Reserve – altogether, it’s the largest private natural protected area east of Saskatchewan.
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Robidoux barely breaks our conversational pace to point out droppings from a ruffed grouse – a medium–size bird with a stylish mohawk – explaining how they survive the cold winter months in temporary burrows in the snow. On these grounds, he’s also seen evidence of mammals with large home ranges, including lynx, bears, moose and fishers. Much of what he and his team know about what lives in the territories they work to protect is based on signs of species’ presence rather than actual sightings, he says. They record tracks, dens, markings on trees and, as in this case, excrement.
The biodiversity of the Eastern Townships is in constant flux as species of mammals, reptiles and birds gradually extend their range northward at a pace of 30 to 45 kilometres a decade due to climate change. Appalachian Corridor brings together 17 regional conservation organizations both here and south of the border to preserve the mountain chain’s natural corridor, from central Vermont to Orford, Quebec. The thing with animals is they don’t share our concept of national borders – even though there’s a six–metre–wide no–touching zone cleared of trees that runs along the Canada–U.S. boundary. As a result, this type of borderless conservation, in which areas are connected by large swaths of green space unoccupied by humans, acts like an insurance policy so that ecosystems, and the species that call them home, can adapt to the climate crisis. Because animals need to skirt the Great Lakes during their northward journey, Quebec and New England could become a kind of animal highway, and there needs to be enough connectivity between regions for them to migrate safely. It’s not just a somewhere–down–the–road reality: Species commonly found in the southern U.S., like the opossum, have already started showing their snouts here in recent years. These shifts mean it’s helpful for the organization when citizens – whether residents or visitors – pay attention to, and share, sightings.
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Though Appalachian Corridor makes its own assessments of biodiversity before acquiring land, the organization uses citizen information submitted via nature mapping apps like iNaturalist, as well as collected by volunteer animal–tracker groups, to add to its information networks. It’s a key way people can pitch in here, by learning how to spot the signs of wildlife while out on the area’s approximately 1,000 kilometres of hiking trails. Appalachian Corridor maintains and operates a network of trails on Mount Singer, in the Green Mountains Nature Reserve – and, in 2019, after nearly a decade challenging a real estate development project on Mount Foster in West Bolton, Appalachian Corridor acquired that mountain, too. Its walking trails will open to the public next summer, after being judiciously designed to limit the number of trees cut and avoid ecologically sensitive areas, allowing hikers to see clear into Vermont from the 713–metre peak.
In preparation for this excursion in my old/new stomping ground, I took an online tracking workshop hosted by Isabelle Grégoire and Louise Gratton from the Ruiter Valley Land Trust, one of Appalachian Corridor’s partners. Over Zoom, Grégoire explained the importance of avoiding contact with animals. She compared seeing wildlife in their natural habitats to us crossing paths with a stranger on the way to the fridge – an experience that could scare them away from important food and water sources. During our three–hour session, we learned to identify different types of tracks and to interpret the stories their patterns tell.
I now know how to spot teeth and claw marks on trees, keep an eye out for excrement, look for tufts of fur caught on branches, and differentiate the four main types of tracks. Walkers are the animals that place one paw or hoof in front of the other, as a deer or fox would (Grégoire asks us to visualize the latter’s narrow runway model–like gait). Waddlers, like skunks, make side–to–side sets of double tracks, while bounders, including ermines, leave two parallel markings as their back paws land in the imprints left by their front paws. And agile gallopers create two long front imprints and two small back ones as they hop along, rabbit–style.
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Keen to put my new skills to use, I check into Au Diable Vert, an outdoor mountain resort nestled on the south side of the Sutton Mountains, about 25 kilometres from my hometown of Frelighsburg. Since the resort opened 22 years ago, its aim has been to limit human impact on the environment, living harmoniously alongside the flora and fauna that call the area home. As I cross the property toward my hobbit house–like pod cabin – one of Au Diable Vert’s 32 year–round dwellings – the panorama of Vermont’s Green Mountains stops me in my tracks. I’ve known these hills and valleys my whole life, yet I’ve never seen the clear–cut corridor between Canada and the U.S. so clearly.
After unpacking my sleeping bag and camp stove, I join co–owner Jeremy Fontana in one of the all–terrain carts used to bring guests up to their cabins or campsites from the parking lot (there are no cars or RVs on the premises). Driving down the path toward the Missisquoi River, he tells me people often ask where they can find animals on the 565–acre property. But, like Robidoux, he says it’s better for them to go unnoticed: “Like with any healthy area, the animals are here but you rarely see them.” Tracks, however, abound: Imprints from at least 20 different species, including coyote, lynx and deer, have been spotted on the grounds and visitors are encouraged to keep an eye out for tracks as they trek the 22 kilometres of private trails, which also link up to the 212 kilometres of trails maintained by the hiking–focused organization Les Sentiers de l’Estrie.
When we reach the riverbank, Fontana points to where guests float along the quiet current on kayaks, paddleboards and inflatable tubes. But what we’re really here to see is where, every spring, he releases between 2,000 and 3,000 brown trout into the river to support the native population (they’re more selective in their feeding than their popular rainbow trout cousins and therefore less damaging to the ecosystem). Over the next year, Fontana is also set to plant milkweed and 12 other species of flowering plants along the banks to feed migrating monarch butterfly populations that have declined in the last decade. “The business is based on nature, so we have some social responsibility to make sure we’re conserving and giving back as well.”
That evening, as the sky turns pink behind North Jay Peak across the border, I light a fire in the outdoor pit in front of my pod, crack open a beer and log in to iNaturalist on my phone to peruse local sightings in preparation for a day of hiking and tracking tomorrow. I look out at the landscapes of my childhood and feel like I’m rediscovering them with an eye for the unseen, thinking about what is here but just out of sight. In the distance, I spot that line of cleared trees, a thin cut across the wooded mountain’s rounded top. I wonder how many creatures are milling around it, walking over unknowingly, guided by instinct toward lands increasingly connected and protected. I wonder how many more are yet to come.
Step by Step: How to Identify Four Main Types of Tracks
When you go
Eastern Townships, Quebec
Au Diable Vert
People–powered activities, like the tree–to–tree VéloVolant suspended bicycle ride, are front and centre here – except when it comes to the stars. In 2018, the all–season resort opened the world’s first augmented reality planetarium in collaboration with National Geographic, so you can attend shows narrated by astronomers while seated in the outdoor amphitheater.
Les Sentiers de l'Estrie
With 212 kilometres of trails snaking around the Eastern Townships, this non–profit provides hike–hungry visitors with vistas galore at mounts Sutton, Echo and Singer, just to name a few. Remember to keep your pup at home – dogs aren’t allowed – and be mindful of leaving no trace when exploring the region’s diverse forests.
Sip on a British– or American–style ale on this Sutton microbrewery’s sunny patio post fall hike or inside the nautical inspired taproom after a ski day. A grilled cheese sandwich or a poutine with local duck from Brome Lake are a match for a pint of fruity IPA or a toasted brown ale alike.