MAKING TRACKS IN MAURICIE
Experiencing the authentic winter heart of Quebec, where the snow sets the pace
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.
Snowmobilers make the most of fresh powder on trails near the Pourvoirie du Lac Blanc resort in Quebec’s Mauricie region.
Snowmobiling ( opposite top) is a popular activity in Mauricie and neighbouring Lanaudiere, where accommodations include the Auberge du Lac Taureau ( above).
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.