Quebec’s Tomifobia Trail a Recreational Gem

  • A spruce grove in Ayer’s Cliff, Quebec, along the Tomifobia Nature Trail makes for fine cycling. The 12-mile-long trail stretches between Ayer’s Cliff and Stanstead north of the Vermont border. (Marty Basch photograph)

Special to the Valley News
Published: 9/22/2018 11:55:39 PM

The large boulder that caused the death of two unsuspecting souls nearly 125 years ago sits alongside the railway where it happened. Now a nature trail in southeastern Quebec’s Eastern Townships, that rock somehow fell onto the Massawippi Valley Railway tracks and derailed a southbound Boston and Maine passenger train traveling from Sherbrooke, Quebec, to Newport, Vt., on the night of April 8, 1895.

The engineer and fireman became trapped in the cab. Passengers freed them. Both were severely scalded by steam and died the next day.

Today, a memorial stands by the site along the Tomifobia Nature Trail, which runs 12 miles by the winding Tomifobia River between the Beebe section of Stanstead and Ayer’s Cliff, on the shores of Lake Massawippi.

The wide trail is a quiet, rich mix of rural life, nature and railroad history. Spruce groves, marshes, cow passageways, stone culverts and the curving Tomifobia, with its swimming holes, share the landscape with railroad bridges, copious one-wheeled gates, hospitable benches and picnic tables.

The trail passes through a delightful tunnel. There’s also another shaded memorial honoring a longtime trail member and volunteer who died last year. Ayer’s Cliff has restrooms, and there’s a seasonal one along the way.

Wildlife is abundant. On a recent visit, with passports in hands, my wife, Jan, and I spotted four white-tailed deer prancing about as we did the full trail both ways. Turtles sunned themselves on downed trees. Overhead, Canadian geese honked in V-formation as they started their journey south to warmer climes. Herons took flight and fished the river, a marsh the perfect spot to watch them at work.

The multi-use trail, under the auspices of the nonprofit Sentiers Massawippi (, was once a railroad that opened in 1870 and was later abandoned in 1990. Three years after that, Sentiers Massawippi created the trail, a 147-acre natural parkland.

“It’s a nature trail,” says Sentiers Massawippi president Ray Banham. “We encourage people to stop and have a good look around. There are bird watchers and walkers. People have to respect each other on the trail.”

They’re also asked to stay off during hunting season and the spring thaw.

There are many ways to access the rail trail north of the sleepy Beebe Plain, Vt., border crossing. Ayer’s Cliff is considered the start, with its restaurants, shops and lodging. But closer to the border in the village of Beebe, there’s an entrance by Kilometer 16 with parking at the corner of Chemin de Beebe and Chemin Stanstead. It’s also possible to link the trail with Newport’s 4-mile-long scenic Beebe Spur Rail Trail along Lake Memphremagog with some pavement to get to the southernmost access point (no parking there) at the junction of Rue Principale and Woodside Street.

From Beebe, the trail quickly passes a scrap yard through thick forest to a teepee shelter before opening up to tranquil farms and meadows dotted with cows. Markers are evident each kilometer, with canopies of trees trading places with open sky along the way. Another type of shelter with picnic tables is planned in the near future, according to Banham.

The meandering river was a constant companion, steel and wooden bridges allowing us to pass over the water. Old utility poles stood or leaned along the way.

That memorial to the volunteer had welcome shade and neatly placed large stones donated by several local contractors. Called SteenHemel, Dutch for Stone Haven, it honored Harry Isbrucker, who worked the trail for many years. He was Dutch. There’s also something that looks like a xylophone, but it’s a collection of rail splices that once bolted the railroad tracks to each other.

A glorious spruce grove led to Ayer’s Cliff, the northern terminus of the trail, with its welcoming picnic tables in the summer cottage-heavy community. It’s also the gateway to many more cycling opportunities. The Townships are home to La Route Verte, a collection of more than 5,000 kilometers of cycling roadways, lanes and trails throughout the province. In Ayer’s Cliff, it’s possible to reach the Green Route in Magog along Route 141. This past summer, a seasonal bicycle ferry called Le Wippi took cyclists to North Hatley to connect with the Les Grandes-Fourches Bike Trail which goes to Lenoxville.

All are destinations to consider for future rides in the bicycle-friendly Eastern Townships with its appealing Tomifobia Nature Trail.

Marty Basch can be reached at

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