Bonjour, Montreal

18 October — A five-day break in Montreal, happy us. Lucky us, too, because some dear friends loaned us the use of their pied-à-terre in the east end of the city.

But first we have to get there, and we opt to make it a leisurely two-day trip from Toronto, driving east first along Lake Ontario, then along the St. Lawrence River, breaking the trip overnight with those same generous friends in their primary home in the countryside near-ish to Kingston.

So here we are, trundling down Highway 2, enjoying the warmth and sunshine of this Indian Summer day, the Sunday of the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday weekend. We are ready for stop-offs at tempting locations both known & unknown.

This first location — the Rutherford family market near Colborne — is known to us, a small-but-great place for local produce.

The unknown element is Jenny. I am studying jam labels in this tall display case when I happen to look up — and see that I, in turn, am also being studied.

Jenny a-top the jams, Rutherford’s market e. of Colbourne

Later we watch her slide down from her perch with that feline-waterfall motion we would all love to be able to emulate. No chance of that, so I console myself with two wonderful Ontario jams: Wild Blueberry (chosen for content) and Middle-Aged Spread (chosen for name). The latter is fully justified by name alone, but turns out to be tasty as well.

Our lunch target is Picton, a favourite cottaging destination of ours. It’s the major community in Prince Edward County, the almost-island sprawl of land poking into the north-east curve of Lake Ontario where the lake empties into the St. Lawrence River. (Why am I saying all this? Just ask your browser…)

“The County” is a splendid world onto itself, full of good food production, good wineries, good arts & crafts. It was given its initial boost of non-aboriginal population by United Empire Loyalists streaming north after the American Revolution; the latest boost comes from both eager new vintners, and early retirees shaping themselves a next stage of life. Plus, in all addition to all categories of full-time residents, visitors like us.

There’s a strong cat connection for the café where we eat lunch, Miss Lily’s Café.  Unlike Jenny-cat, however, the eponymous Miss Lily is now present only in an oil portrait, still prominently displayed in her honour.

So I can’t show you another cat, but, instead, how about a cat’s traditional favourite toy?

yarn shop decor main street Picton

Yes, wool. I agree it’s not much use to cats when wound ’round notice poles & parking meters on the Picton main drag. It would seem attractive but pointless to passing humans as well, except for the fact that these poles are right outside the doors of a well-stocked yarn shop.

We  could leave “The County” (its fans feel no need to specify which county) by one of several bridges, but choose instead to cross via the ferry service from Glenora.

It’s a free trip, an integral part of Highway 33 (aka The Loyalist Trail), and the latest version of a service that has been offered at this spot since 1815. There is a cluster of old stone buildings on the County side, once mills & early industry, now converted into a Fisheries Research Station and some handsome apartments.

It’s no longer High Season, but because of the holiday there is High Season traffic demand, and boats are operating simultaneously from each side.

on boad M.V. Quinte Loyalist

Next stop is our overnight stay with our friends, farther east & somewhat north. I am delighted to see that the aged, very rusty old truck is still guarding one corner of the rambling gardens. Our friends found it here when they bought the land all those years ago, and have cultivated the vines that almost (only ever “almost”) cover it. No blooms at the moment, too late into fall, but I still gurgle with joy at the sight.

rusty truck vine support...

And then, because it is not yet dark, and the weather is so extraordinarily mild for the season, we bundle on one extra layer of clothing and sit out in these chairs, sipping a drink, catching up, letting go of the day. (And yes, I did take this photo the next day — it shines with morning light, doesn’t it, not the soft haze of evening.)

chairs, conversation, friends

Monday, we continue east, on down the St. Lawrence River toward the sea, but stopping short at Montreal.

Stopping short in the east end, where these distinctive outdoor staircases still curve from 2nd-floor levels (even 3rd) down to the sidewalk. No staircases like this are being built now, but these old ones are significant vernacular architecture of their time and place.

distinctive east-end Montreal staircases

Our flat is up a similar flight of stairs, though not one of these.

I don’t know the east end well, as a child I lived in various city neighbourhoods slightly to the west (and also in the Laurentian mountains, a whole other story). This will be my opportunity to connect with some parts of the city I never knew in my own years here.

But, first, it is my chance to reconnect with the great continuing theme of my young childhood: our family summers in a rented cottage on Dorval Island. Lots of life-long Montrealers don’t even know the island exists, though they know the mainland community of Dorval. Childhood memories don’t give you stats; I am endebted to online sources for my ability to tell you that D.I. is Canada’s smallest municipality, both in size (1 km X 0.5 km) and population (zero year-round, being summer only, with some 59 dwellings in total), & that the ferry ride over takes just 4 minutes.

It is many decades since I have been there; 60 years since I spent my summers there; I am full of anticipation, and not a little dread.

I remember a quiet place, very unassuming: no shops, no cars, lots of woodland, relatively few cottages & all of them simple, and a few narrow gravel roads. I know they’ve added electricity since my day and a swimming pool (we swam in the river, more precisely Lac St-Louis, a bulge within the river). I fear that the woods & the simple cottages will be gone, replaced with glossy, luxurious summer homes, close-packed cheek by jowl.

This sight at the mainland dock gives me my first reassurance, & first prickle of nostalgic tears. It is the black & white signal board.

signal board mainland dock

The ferry has a schedule, but waits on the island side. If no-one wants to cross from either side, it has no reason to make that particular trip. The ferry man knows if there is a passenger on the island side — but how to tell about the mainland? Easy: the first would-be passenger hauls up the white square from its hiding place behind the black, and secures it in place. It can be read from the island side.

I am the first arrival on the mainland side; I haul up the white square; I can’t believe I am doing this once again, after all these years.

Then I sit on the bench, protected over-top but largely open sides & front, to wait for the ferry. (It could be our same old waiting shed, perhaps it is.) I look out the open end toward the island, and slip-slide through time.

view from waiting shed to Dorval Island

The ferry arrives on schedule; islanders disembark; I present myself to the ferry man. To my delight, he quizzes me — very politely, but at length and with care. It is a process I know well. In my day, nobody was allowed to cross unless they were cottagers, thus already known to the ferry man, or could name the specific family they were visiting.

I can’t name a current family, but I can give lots of names of that era, describe the location of our cottage, tell stories, point out my familiarity with the signalling system…

And so, finally, I am aboard, and I pay my non-resident fee for the ride.

Four minutes later, we dock.

Dorval Island dock, island side

And my pilgrimage begins. The time is today, it is now, but it is also then.

I see the same (or largely same, or near-replica) dock; the same gravel roads beyond; even the same cut-off path through the same woods to the road for our cottage. I start walking and I am beginning to think — for the very first time — that there is some possibility our old cottage will still be here.

The cut-off path joins the road; I am facing a large expanse of woodland on the other side, just as I remember it. If things really haven’t changed, ours will be the first cottage after the woods.

And it is.

our cottage

I can see a partial upstairs addition at the back but, otherwise, it is the old cottage. (1930s, I believe, but that’s guess-work from family history, not fact from a documented source.)

I can also see that nobody is home. Had they been, I would have knocked at the door. Since they are not, for mingled reasons of respect and awe, I do not even walk inside the gate. I stare a long moment, take more photos for my family, and walk around the rest of the island.

Still no shops. Still, overwhelmingly, the same cottages — all well cared-for but, at least on the outside, still the same old modest structures.

I find myself chanting some old names as I go; I walk down a lane at the far end, leading to what was once our tiny beach, where each summer the raft would be put out for the season. I even look with fond nostalgia at the gravel road — the road where I spent two summers, & a gazillion tumbles, learning to ride a bicycle. (Oh, my patient father.)

And then I go back to the dock, thank the ferry man for my pilgrimage, and return to the mainland.

And to 2014.

Leave a comment


  1. Montreal looks really nice. I’ve never read anything as weird as the name of this jam. It’s hard to believe that it tasted good 😀 Thanks for the nice blogpost 🙂

  2. Lovely to start with a cat, and end with some beautiful reminiscences. Your description brought a tear to my eye, childhood memories always seem sweet but somehow melancholic to me. I hope you have a great holiday.

  3. jmcguin7

     /  19 October 2014

    I grew up in Montreal from 1960 to 1990. We were there in September and went down to Le Vieux Port for the first time in 12 years.

  4. What a great tour through some lovely spots but your return to your childhood cottage was a delightful surprise at the end of this blog. I too held my breath when you emerged from the woods to discover it was still there!

    • Thank you for this. I’m really touched that you entered into my emotions as I walked that familiar path & hoped to see a familiar sight.

  5. Wonderful places

  6. June

     /  10 July 2015

    I came across this post as I was googling Dorval Island. I too spent my summers there as a young girl many many years ago. It is in all the family movies and photos. I loved the article and remember what you say so fondly. Perhaps we even know each other….such a small world!


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    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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