If you’re looking to explore the beautiful and expansive Gatineau Park, but you aren’t sure where to start, you should give Tours Expédition Ottawa a call.
This locally-owned two-person company launched just this July, offering custom, VIP-style visits of Gatineau Park, which provides 361-square kilometres (90,000 acres) of open Canadian wilderness. Whether you’re looking to go hiking, canoeing, cycling or cross-country skiing, Tours Expédition’s expert guide Paul Proulx can help you find your way.
A native of the Ottawa-Gatineau region, Proulx adores Gatineau Park and has always dreamed of starting an outdoor tour company, so that he can share the park’s greatest assets with visitors from around the world. “I retired 20 years ago and I thought about this for 10 years. Now, it’s finally happened, so it’s really something,” Proulx said.
Though Gatineau Park attracts more than two million visitors per year, it is not the most accessible site if you do not have access to a car, as public transportation is limited and most trails and scenic lookout points are far away from each other.
Proulx’s tours fix this transportation problem, as he picks up his guests from whichever hotel they’re staying at in a car complete with a designer dragon fly embroidered pillow.
As I went on a hiking tour with Tours Expédition in October, I can say that the entire experience makes you feel like a VIP every step of the way.
From downtown Ottawa, Proulx drove through Gatineau Park, bringing our small three-person group to the park’s most iconic Champlain, Étienne Brûlé and Huron lookouts. At each site, we admired the rhapsody of glowing fall colours below, as Proulx told us interesting facts about how the region’s mountains and valleys came to be. And as Proulx’s tours are completely tailored to his guests, you can spend as much time as you’d like taking pictures or exploring the land!
Proulx says his tours are always adapted to exactly what his guests want. “It’s unique from the start,” he said. “Out of the 16 tours that I propose, these are only a base. They can always be adapted.”
Lasting between four and six hours, Proulx’s tours can accommodate up to four people at a time. He says his new business is focused on providing a more “personal” tour experience. “For now, we’re happy being small,” he said. “When you get into larger groups and busses, you lose that personal feeling.”
From the lookouts, our group proceeded out onto a cross-country skiing trail to explore one of Gatineau Park’s cozy warm-up cabins.
Throughout the year, park visitors can take advantage of several quaint, candlelit and wood heated log cabins that provide warm shelter from the cold Canadian climate.
After a brief hike, we visited a tiny cabin affectionately known as the “Shilly-Shally,” which comes from an old English expression meaning “unsure.” Though it has been renovated several times, the Shilly-Shally has been a favourite rest stop for skiers in Gatineau Park since the early 1900s and for those who are unsure about continuing their trek into the cold. Cozy and charming, this cabin fits about 12 people.
Proulx explained that as the Shilly-Shally is adored by locals and tourists alike, it cannot be reserved. “Whether you get in really depends on luck,” he said.
After a few photos of the tiny cabin and a brief rest, Proulx drove our group to the beginning of the park’s well-known King Mountain Trail. And as the autumn wind began to blow and cut through our jackets, we debated on undertaking the 1.9-kilometre (1.2 mile) hike.
But seeing that we were cold, Proulx produced a pair of fleece mittens for each of us, noting that for every excursion he always packs mittens, a raincoat and extra layers for each of his guests. “I’m always prepared,” he said. “If you’re going to do this, you have to be prepared.”
Now armed with cozy mittens, we followed our expert guide up the mountain while he provided interesting facts about the Ottawa-Gatineau region and the park all along the way. Before this tour, I didn’t know that Canadian maple trees lived to be 250-years-old!
Once we got to the top of the King Mountain trail, Proulx took us to his “top secret picnic spot,” which overlooks a majestic cliff, providing amazing views of the rolling Gatineau Hills and of Ottawa’s busy downtown core.
Here, Proulx explained that during the warmer months, he sets up chairs as well as a gourmet picnic lunch for his guests. “Here, I leave them alone for a little while to enjoy their lunch and the beautiful view,” he said.
Since we were hiking with Proulx during the fall, we trekked back down the mountain to enjoy our lunch –complete with hot apple cinnamon tea, brie cheese and chocolate, in the park’s Huron log cabin. And after warming up by a small wood-burning stove, we headed back to the car and back to Ottawa’s downtown core.
Currently, Tours Expédition Ottawa is the only company offering active outdoor tours that venture outside of Ottawa’s core. “There [are] a lot of walking tours and biking tours in Ottawa, but to go [out] into the regions like this, there’s nothing else,” Proulx said.
Proulx noted that what makes his tours unique is the one-on-one experience guests get with a guide, who takes them to see things that are off the city’s main tourist attraction path.
“Usually a guide will take you to places that you wouldn’t find yourself,” he said. “Like at the Champlain Lookout, you wouldn’t know there are a few other trails, shacks and lakes that you can go see. I think it’s a combination of a guide and things that are outside of the main tourist circuit.”
Since July, Proulx has taken visitors from France, Australia, India and Guatemala on various tours as well as a few Ottawa residents. He added that people don’t have to worry about booking a tour with him well in advance. “You could call me an hour before and I could turn around and be ready,” he said.
And you can bet that no matter what tour you book, Proulx will have all the necessities. For his canoeing, cycling and cross-country skiing tours, all of the equipment is provided. The only thing you need to bring is your own water bottle!