Dog Sledding, Snowshoeing & Ice Driving: Why You Don't Have To Go Skiing To Discover Canada's Mountain Spirit
Temperatures drop to - 45°C in Quebec during winter, but the French Canadians don't just hibernate until spring. Here's why...
Snow was thick beneath us as we crunched through the trees. Blue sky peeked through the icy branches overhead. Our snowshoes made deep beaver-tail shaped dents as we marched uphill. There was total silence as we continued our steady march. Panting and sweating, we finally made it to the top of the mountain.
Emerging from the trees, we were greeted by the most spectacular view we had seen in Quebec. It wasn’t wilderness or snow-capped peaks that lay before us, but rather the skyscrapers of downtown Montreal glittering in the sunlight.
As every local will tell you, Montreal is arguably the only city in Canada to have a ‘mountain’ right in the middle of it - or at least that’s what they call the 233m high hill at the heart of the financial district. It's just a 40 minute walk to the summit.
The people of Montreal might be city dwellers, but their pursuits outside office hours are firmly rooted in the outdoors. You’ll spot many city workers cross-country skiing or snowshoeing during their lunch break here before heading back to the office.
Quebec is the largest province in Canada with a tiny population of just over 8 million people (roughly the same as London) spread over an area as large as France, Germany and Spain put together. In winter, temperatures can dip to -45°C with wind chill. Unlike Londoners, the people of Quebec don’t moan about winter. They embrace it.
Even when it’s -30°C outside and your scarf is frozen to your face, they are still making the most of the five coldest months of the year. As Chris Stevens from my favourite Alaskan-based TV sitcom Northern Exposure says, “The best way out of winter is through it." I think that also sums up the feelings of the people of Quebec.
On weekends, they are out snowshoeing, skiing, ice fishing and snowmobiling. They even have a world-famous Winter Carnaval in Quebec City and Lumière Festival in Montreal to keep spirits high. Water parks like Valcartier are turned into snow tubing parks and they even create the biggest ice hotel in North America during the winter months, Hôtel de Glace. By the time spring rolls around, they emerge saying, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?"
Most people live between the main urban hubs of Montreal and Quebec City. Head north and you’ll find yourself right into the thick of the snowy wilderness, stretching for thousands of miles. Here black bears, wolves and moose are in charge.
"Step outside and you truly experience what it’s like to be in the Canadian wild. There is nothing but snow-covered trees, blue skies, frozen lakes and total silence"
We found ourselves just on the brink of civilisation at Hotel Sacacomie in the Mastigouche Wildlife Reserve. Step outside the hotel and you truly experience what it’s like to be in the wild. There is nothing but snow-covered trees, blue skies, frozen lakes and total silence. Occasionally you will hear the howl of huskies and blue jays having a conversation in the pine trees.
When it snows and the temperature dips well below freezing, the roads up to Lake Sacacomie are treacherous. Everyone is warned to avoid driving. One evening the internet connection cut completely after an ice storm battered the region.
But inside Hotel Sacacomie, there are log fires, hot caribou (mulled wine laced with whisky and, of course, maple syrup), fluffy duvets and the most delicious desserts you’ve ever seen. There are no TVs in the rooms at Hotel Sacacomie because they want you to interact with each other and spend time outdoors rather than inside watching reruns of Ice Road Truckers.
We were greeted with a local liqueur, Sortilege, a maple-flavoured whisky served in an ice glass. Everything in Quebec is maple-flavoured - from biscuits to sweets to mustard. We lost count after our 25th encounter with maple syrup.
FIRST-TIME MUSHERS: DOG SLEDDING
The next morning we met our sled guide Simon by the lake for our dog sledding expedition. As we approached the dog kennels, all I could hear was a cacophony of barking. At least 100 huskies were all roped up to wooden sleds, ready to run. They refused to stop barking until we got on the move.
Each sled had six dogs in total. The front two dogs are leaders, while the back two dogs are younger and stronger than the front pair. The middle dogs are often older and more well-behaved. They keep the younger dogs in check.
One person was in charge of steering the sled by standing on the two runners at the back. Simon made us promise to keep our feet on the brakes when stopped. Clearly he’s no stranger to runaway sleds. The other person huddles inside the sled wrapped in a wool blanket. After a rocky start involving a near collision with a tree, we were off, gliding fast in single-file across the frozen Lake Sacacomie.
Snow was falling around us. All we could hear was the swish of the sled as it cut across the ice and shouts of “Allez! Allez! Allez!" from the guides in front. The dogs didn’t seem fazed by how heavy we are. They trotted along the ice, barely breaking into a run. Their icy blue eyes gazing straight ahead.
"There is nothing modern about gliding across a frozen lake in a wooden sled pulled by huskies. You are moving purely using animal power..."
“How thick is the ice?" I asked Simon, cautiously looking at the ground. “Oh don’t worry, I took a 20 inch chainsaw to cut through it yesterday and I still couldn’t see the bottom," he said. Lakes in Quebec are frozen solid enough to hold dog sleds, snowmobiles and Porsche Boxsters as we discovered later.
There is nothing mechanised or modern about gliding across a frozen lake in a wooden sled pulled by huskies. You are moving purely using animal power. That’s the beauty of dog-sledding. You are totally in sync with the dogs, the snow and the surroundings - and of course, the dog poop. When you are at the back of a train of 20 dogs, you encounter a lot of poop on the snow below you.
SLIPPIN' AND SLIDIN': ICE DRIVING
Next we were lead to a rather out-of-place looking Porsche Boxster parked on the frozen lake. It was time for our driving session with Ice Driving Canada. I clambered clumsily into the sports car as former racing car driver Jean-Sebastien Sauriol whizzed me around the racing track at breakneck speed.
“Do you know how many people die in car accidents in Canada each year?" he asked me. I shook my head. “12,000 people. Imagine if 12,000 people died in plane crashes each year. The government would do something about it, right? Quebec drivers don’t even have to do 10 minutes of mandatory driving on an icy surface."
Jean-Sebastien not only thrills people by driving them around in a very fast car on ice, but he also teaches them how to drive defensively on Quebec’s icy roads. The aim is ultimately to save more lives by teaching drivers where to direct their eyes when they skid on ice and how to bring the car back on the road without losing control.
We finished off the day back at the Hotel Sacacomie’s Geos Spa, soaking in the illuminated hot tub surrounded by snow-laden trees under the stars. Another beauty of the Canadian wilderness is the lack of light pollution, you can see every constellation in the night sky.
MAPLE DELIGHT: CANADA'S CULINARY TRADITIONS
Food is a big deal in Canada. Most days at Hotel Sacacomie we were offered every single type of meat you could image from bison to deer to rabbit. You won’t find plain old chicken on the menu here.
Even their poutine (a Canadian dish of chips, cheese and gravy) comes in fancy variations - topped with confit duck and mature cheddar. All of this was served to us on a big wooden table in front of a roaring open fireplace.
A trip to Quebec isn’t complete without a trip to a sugar shack. This is where they make maple syrup. Visiting the sugar shack marks the end of winter for the people of Quebec. As we already discovered, the Canadian love of maple syrup is truly embedded in their culture.
Chez Dany’s is one of the most famous sugar shacks in Quebec. It’s a huge wooden barn filled with red checked tablecloths, giant taxidermy moose heads on the wall and live music from a Quebec folk singer playing the violin.
A traditional French Canadian meal of beans, ham, fried potatoes, eggs, pancakes and coffee are all served up in big family-style bowls from which you help yourself. They cover everything in maple syrup here - including eggs and potatoes. Everyone told us not to eat breakfast before you have lunch at a sugar shack. They weren’t wrong.
Soon it was time to head back to the city, leaving the wilderness behind us. I only wished we could have stayed longer. Visiting Quebec is a very different experience to your usual snowy winter holiday. While you can head off to the ski resorts of Tremblant or Stoneham, there’s a different experience to be had beyond chairlift queues and busy mountain restaurants.
You can go dog sledding or cross-country skiing through forests, eyes peeled for beavers and moose. You can hire a pair of snowshoes and trek through Ghost Valley where the trees are so heavy with snow, they look like apparitions.
You can even go on a winter adventure inside the old quaint city of Quebec or metropolis of Montreal and hide in a cosy pub afterwards, watching the ice glide silently down the misty St. Lawrence River. It just goes to show winter isn’t just about skiing or snowboarding, the spirit of mountain life can be found everywhere.
Air Canada offers more daily flights from the UK to Canada than any other airline, with up to 77 non-stop flights per week this summer to seven major Canadian cities. From London Heathrow, the airline operates daily services to Montréal, with onward connections to Quebec City. Return Economy flights from London Heathrow to Quebec City start from £504.45 (incl. taxes, October 2016). Find out more at www.aircanada.com or call Reservations on 0871 220 1111.
A standard double room at Hôtel Sacacomie in the Mauricie region starts from $221 + tax per person per night (based on two sharing) including breakfast, www.sacacomie.com. Access to the GEOS Spa costs $40 + tax per guest. Price includes complimentary ice skating, snow shoe hire, snow tubing and cross country ski hire (excluding tax). For information on activities available see: www.sacacomie.com/hotel-sacacomie-quebec-winter-individual-activities-en.html