Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the au­then­tic win­ter heart of Que­bec, where the snow sets the pace

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Alexan­dra Pope

Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the au­then­tic win­ter heart of Que­bec, where the snow sets the pace

THE SNOWMOBILE is stuck in the snow. I’ve ar­rived at the Pour­voirie du Lac Blanc, a rus­tic re­sort vil­lage in Que­bec’s Mauricie re­gion, about two hours north­east of Mon­treal, dur­ing one of those Jekyll-and-hyde weeks of late win­ter — 5 C and rain one day, -11 C and blue­bird skies the next — and the weight of the 12-seat Bom­bardier snowmobile I’m a pas­sen­ger on has proven too much for the in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble snow­pack. Built in 1942 to haul mil­i­tary per­son­nel and equip­ment, it doesn’t ex­actly turn on a dime, and the right ski is firmly em­bed­ded in a soft rut of snow at the side of the winding wooded trail. Guide Pierre Thibault shifts be­tween drive and re­verse in a fu­tile at­tempt to re­gain trac­tion, but the rut only deep­ens. Fi­nally, he ra­dios back to the chalet for help, and as we wait for res­cue, I can’t help but think that in a re­gion that bills it­self as “au­then­tic” Que­bec, it doesn’t get more real than this. Af­ter all, it was the va­garies of Que­bec’s win­ter weather that mo­ti­vated Joseph-ar­mand Bom­bardier to per­fect his in­ven­tion. His young son died of an acute in­fec­tion in the win­ter of 1934 be­cause the fam­ily could not reach the hos­pi­tal in time. When he brought his seven-seat snowmobile to mar­ket three years later, the first buy­ers were doc­tors, am­bu­lance driv­ers and priests serv­ing ru­ral ar­eas. The Pour­voirie’s later model, a B12, is more of a cu­rios­ity than a prac­ti­cal means of win­ter trans­porta­tion these days. Guests can book a half-hour in­ter­pre­tive tour in the snowmobile, which moves with all the grace of an Abrams tank, with Thibault, who is well versed in the his­tory of the lo­cal fur trade and Franco-indige­nous re­la­tions. But parked on the frozen shore of Lac Blanc in front of the chalet are dozens of the B12’s mod­ern de­scen­dants. Some of the snow­mo­biles are rentals be­long­ing to the re­sort, but many be­long to guests. And not all of those guests are out-of-town­ers stay­ing overnight in the Pour­voirie’s pri­vate lake­side cot­tages; some are lo­cals from nearby Saint-alexis-des-monts, warm­ing up with a bowl of chow­der af­ter a day’s ride — or a meal of fresh-caught speck­led trout. Here, it’s com­pletely ac­cept­able to wear your snow pants and boots to dine. The tele­vi­sion in the bar plays ex­treme snow­mo­bil­ing videos on a loop. The Wi-fi is un­re­li­able (per­haps by de­sign). Ev­ery­thing is geared to­ward in­spir­ing visitors to take full ad­van­tage of the few short weeks from Jan­uary to March when Mauricie’s 17,500 lakes be­come nav­i­ga­ble by ski, snow­shoe, sled and snowmobile.

THIS SPARSELY POP­U­LATED, 35,000-square-kilo­me­tre area of forested hills dot­ted with lakes and bi­sected by the Sain­tMau­rice River was once prime pulp and pa­per ter­ri­tory. As I sit in the bar sip­ping blonde ale brewed lo­cally in Saint-alexis, Gas­ton Pel­lerin, owner of the Pour­voirie du Lac Blanc, tells me of his un­likely ca­reer tra­jec­tory from lum­ber­jack to bro­ker of au­then­tic Québé­cois ex­pe­ri­ences.

Like his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther be­fore him, Pel­lerin started work­ing in the forestry sec­tor as a teenager, but when an in­dus­try down­turn in the early 1990s left him out of work at the age of 37, he went to his fa­ther with an am­bi­tious plan to trans­form the fam­ily’s 2,000-hectare lake­side prop­erty into an all-sea­son va­ca­tion re­sort. It was a rad­i­cal propo­si­tion at the time. Mauricie was not ex­actly known as a tourism mag­net, al­though it did have a cer­tain ca­chet among wealthy Amer­i­cans who came north in the sum­mer to fish and hunt. In fact, pour­voirie means out­fit­ter; to­day there are 51 in the Mauricie re­gion alone, of­fer­ing wildlife en­coun­ters in vary­ing de­grees of lux­ury. “When we started, it was dif­fi­cult,” Pel­lerin ad­mits. In­vestors were skep­ti­cal; a wilder­ness ex­pe­ri­ence in deep Que­bec in the win­ter can be a hard sell at home given the num­ber of Cana­di­ans who would like to see Turks and Caicos be­come the 11th prov­ince. But Pel­lerin soon re­al­ized there was a mar­ket that had per­haps read Voltaire’s snide eval­u­a­tion of Canada as “a few acres of snow” and thought that ac­tu­ally sounded quite lovely. To­day, group tourism from Europe, in par­tic­u­lar France and Bel­gium, is such a pil­lar of his busi­ness that Pel­lerin rec­om­mends book­ing a win­ter stay at the Pour­voirie up to four months in ad­vance. Amer­i­cans, too, have con­tin­ued to come north for win­ter fun, along with week­enders from Mon­treal and the odd celebrity. (“The Cana­di­ens’ Carey Price was here last week to fish!” Pel­lerin says ex­cit­edly.) In­fra­struc­ture in the area has since caught up to de­mand; Mauricie and neigh­bour­ing Lanaudière re­gion boast some 4,800 kilo­me­tres of groomed trails for snow­mo­bil­ing, and most inns and pour­voiries in the re­gion of­fer snowmobile rentals and guided ex­pe­ri­ences.

THE LOG BUILD­INGS of the Au­berge du Lac Tau­reau glow invit­ingly in the dusk, and the epony­mous lake’s snow-cov­ered sur­face is criss-crossed by snowmobile tracks. Like the Pour­voirie du Lac Blanc, the Au­berge du Lac Tau­reau is both a snow­mo­bil­ing hot spot and an en­tre­pre­neur­ial suc­cess story. Owner Stéphane Lord pur­chased the prop­erty with its rus­tic inn at the south­west­ern end of the lake at Saint-michel-desSaints in 2015. At the time, it was bank­rupt, and had been for sale for nearly three years. Un­der the ste­ward­ship of Lord and busi­ness part­ner Bernard Hamel, it’s been trans­formed into a so­phis­ti­cated, fam­ily-friendly re­treat. It of­fers fine din­ing, a pool and spa, and a com­mon room with a jaw-drop­ping tim­bered cathe­dral ceil­ing, con­ve­niently lo­cated next to the bar so you can curl up by the wood stove with a cof­fee spiked with maple whisky and play a board game, read or just watch the snow fall out­side the floor-to­ceil­ing win­dows. The au­berge also of­fers a full ros­ter of out­door ac­tiv­i­ties in­clud­ing snow­shoe­ing, dogsled­ding, in­ter­pre­tive walks, ice fish­ing, and, of course, snow­mo­bil­ing.

So it is that a cou­ple of days af­ter the mis­ad­ven­ture in the 12-seat B12, it’s time for me to try driv­ing a snowmobile my­self. My ride is a two-seater Ski-doo Grand Tour­ing 600 ACE, which, if you’re not well versed in snowmobile makes and mod­els, loosely trans­lates to “sporty but com­fort­able for long dis­tances.” As I pre­pare to set out, the sky is var­i­ous shades of laven­der, threat­en­ing rain or snow, or most likely both. I feel stiff and over­dressed in my heavy rented cov­er­alls and padded vinyl wind­breaker, but my guide as­sures me that once we’re mov­ing, I’ll be glad for the pro­tec­tion. Af­ter a quick over­view of the con­trols — ig­ni­tion, brake, ac­cel­er­a­tor, kill switch — it’s time to head out. At first, I’m so fo­cused on con­trol­ling the ma­chine, the beauty of the sur­round­ing win­ter land­scape barely reg­is­ters. Mem­o­ries of teenage driv­ing lessons sur­face as I first ac­cel­er­ate too hard, then panic-brake when I feel the skis wob­ble on the un­even sur­face. The speedome­ter says I’m trav­el­ling at a se­date 30 kilo­me­tres per hour, but my senses, un­ac­cus­tomed to this roof­less, win­dow­less an­ar­chy, in­sist I must be do­ing at least 90. Af­ter about half a kilo­me­tre, we dou­ble back to the re­sort and join up with a groomed trail that takes us along the west­ern shore of the lake, through a mono­chrome land­scape of snow and drip­ping trees and the oc­ca­sional rock face dan­gling ici­cles. The ride is smoother here, and I start to re­lax, fol­low­ing the yel­low sweep of my head­lights through the late af­ter­noon gloom. I push up the vi­sor on my hel­met and breathe the mild air, which tonight con­tains just a hint of spring. I know that all too soon, the guide will pull over and in­struct me to turn around, but while the day­light lasts, I see no rea­son not to keep go­ing.

Snow­mo­bil­ing ( op­po­site top) is a pop­u­lar ac­tiv­ity in Mauricie and neigh­bour­ing Lanaudiere, where ac­com­mo­da­tions in­clude the Au­berge du Lac Tau­reau ( above).

Snow­mo­bil­ers make the most of fresh pow­der on trails near the Pour­voirie du Lac Blanc re­sort in Que­bec’s Mauricie re­gion.

Clock­wise from bot­tom left: Kids play hockey on the frozen pond in front of Au­berge du Lac Tau­reau; an ice-fish­ing guide at Pour­voirie du Lac Blanc pre­pares a fresh catch; the Pour­voirie du Lac Blanc au­berge.

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