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With its rural landscapes, picturesque villages and landmark monastery, the Abbey Circuit, inaugurated in the spring of 2018, has already become a popular pilgrim trail in the province of Quebec.
By Simon Diotte
Many long-distance hikers are already veterans of the famous Santiago de Compostela route in Spain (known as the “Way of Saint James” in English) and they want to reenact that unique experience in Quebec – precisely the reason that the Abbey Circuit, a pilgrimage walk, was created.
This 152-km circuit, which starts and ends at the iconic monastery of Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, crosses eight villages, meandering between mountains and valleys. The route takes hikers through inhabited communities but sticks, as closely as possible, to quiet, secondary roads. Along the way and travelling at a walking pace (giving ample time for quiet reflection) hikers are led along the western sector of Lake Memphremagog.
To experience this « made in Quebec » pilgrimage trail for myself, I walked a section around Mansonville in Potton Township, along with a friend, Jean-Philippe. We parked our car on Miltimore Road, at the 95-km point, where the trail makes a loop of around 15 kilometres. That way we could return to the car via route 243, without retracing our steps.
Along this stretch, you enter a bucolic universe of forest and field, most of it on gravel roads (easier on the joints than asphalt) that offer scenic views, stretching to the horizon. I particularly liked Fitzsimmons Road, with its panoramic outlooks over Owl’s head and Ruiter Brook Road, which skirts the Ruiter waterfall.
Walking on a road, rather than through a forest path, does have certain advantages. Freed from the need to look out for obstacles such as rocks and roots, this type of walk gives you free rein to enter into a state of introspection and contemplation.
“It’s inevitable that walking like this, covering 20-25 kilometres per day, will prompt a meditative mood,” says Michel O’Neill, a Compostela veteran and one of the first people we encountered on the Abbey Circuit. Like half of the pilgrims, this retired Laval University professor was exploring the route on his own. “That way, you don’t need to get into long discussions with other people,” he notes wryly.
This Quebec mini version of Compostela was created by Action Memphré-Ouest, a rural development organization, whose mandate is to showcase the heritage, history, culture and natural attractions of the region. Its executive director, Marie Beaupré, employed social media to survey hikers on what they were looking for on a route like this. She explained to me that she asked questions such as how long they liked to walk each day, the tools that they needed to help them, the services that ought to be available and so on. The outcome was the creation of the Abbey Circuit!
Already, 200 people – 80% of whom are female – have requested the Trousse du marcheur (“The Hiking Kit”), which comprises a map and useful addresses (of accommodations, grocery stores, restaurants etc.) along the route.
“That may seem like a modest number of hikers, but we’re looking at the Abbey Circuit as a long-term project,” explains Marie Beaupré. “Each individual hiker brings benefits to the region, especially to the communities whose economies are not as robust as they might be.”
As well as the stunning landscapes, one of the things that impressed me most was the friendly welcome from the locals. All the residents we met in the region greeted us warmly, long before we’d even thought of doing so. Are they proud of their corner of the country? You bet!
Starting in 2019, Action Memphré-Ouest wants to introduce a program called Amis du Circuit de l’abbaye (“Friends of the Abbey Circuit”) to encourage merchants and local residents to help hikers (on a voluntary basis) with such things as providing a rest stop on their property.
After four hours of walking (including a lunch break beside a stream), we got back to our car and we were almost disappointed to find it was still where we’d left it….I was so blissed out, I really wanted to keep on walking for many more days, because the section of the Circuit that lay ahead offered more spectacular scenery. (We knew that because we saw it from the car as we regretfully drove away.)
Even though this was an all too brief taste of the Abbey Circuit, the walk did me the world of good. I envy those lucky souls who have a week to discover the entire route. Happy hiking!