Skat­ing Que­bec

Icy for­est mazes and long, wind­ing paths through win­ter land­scapes beckon all skaters

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - By Elaine Glusac

The wait for my rental car at Mon­treal-Pierre El­liott Trudeau In­ter­na­tional Air­port last Fe­bru­ary was slow, but the talk was break­away fast. I joined the line with a Na­tional

Hockey League scout for the New Jersey Devils on his way to a tour­na­ment to look at promis­ing teenage skaters.

“Skat­ing is a way of life up here,” the na­tive Que­be­cois said, as my sturdy Nis­san SUV pulled up, poised to plow through the snowy roads of south­ern Que­bec where I’d come sim­ply to skate.

As a win­ter lover who once trav­eled to Win­nipeg to skate that city’s sculp­ture-dot­ted frozen river in be­low-zero tem­per­a­tures, I was in­trigued by the icy fount of ad­ven­tur­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties in Que­bec, Canada’s largest prov­ince, where it’s pos­si­ble to es­cape the oval con­fines of what we nor­mally think of as ice rinks and skate for long, sin­u­ous stretches on frozen trails through forests and snowy land­scapes.

Skat­ing trails can be found across Canada. They em­brace the land­scape when lit­tle is grow­ing but frost and hark back to the ori­gins of skat­ing as a means of travel.

In Que­bec, many parks and vil­lages host skat­ing ar­eas that take a va­ri­ety of forms, from rib­bons plowed on rivers to forests that are flooded to cre­ate skat­ing mazes.

Sev­eral of these ice in­no­va­tions lie in Mauricie and Lanaudière, two of the 17 ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gions that make up Que­bec prov­ince, roughly mid­way be­tween Mon­treal and Que­bec City.

In terms of tourism, win­ter is among the busiest sea­sons here. Snow­mo­bil­ers come to sled inn-to-inn; “glis­sades,” or sled­ding runs, abound, from public parks to pri­vate re­sorts; and ice-fish­ing shanties cre­ate pop-up vil­lages of down-padded an­glers.

With ice skates in my carry-on, I laced up to ex­plore Que­bec’s long, wind­ing skat­ing trails in a three-day ice quest.

Is­land skat­ing trail

At Trois-Rivières, a two-hour drive from Mon­treal, the broad and swift St. Lawrence doesn’t freeze ex­cept in some shel­tered bays. A pair of is­lands in the in­ter­sect­ing St.-Mau­rice River cre­ates three chan­nels where they meet the larger wa­ter­way, giv­ing Trois-Rivières or Three Rivers, the sec­ond old­est Fran­co­phone city in North Amer­ica, its name.

On one of those is­lands, Île St.-Quentin, park man­agers sea­son­ally flood an ice-skat­ing path that’s about 1¼ miles. The frozen maze skirts the sea­way, flow­ing with jagged cells of ice, and weaves into the hard­wood for­est be­hind it. Fol­low­ing the con­tours of the land, it had enough grad­ual down­hills to per­suade sev­eral skaters to wear hel­mets.

I laced my skates in­side the park’s gen­er­ous field house, which of­fered fat­tire bike rentals for rides on another trail, shared by snow­shoers, that runs for about 2 miles around the pe­riph­ery of the is­land.

With just a few skaters shar­ing the ice on a sunny and windy week­day, I had the “sen­tier de patin,” or ice path, largely to my­self, al­low­ing me to skate the route in all di­rec­tions with­out fear of col­li­sions. Af­ter an ex­ploratory foray, slow and cu­ri­ous, I thrilled to make each it­er­a­tion dif­fer­ent, tak­ing the first al­ley right away from the river and the sec­ond left to­ward it, cir­cling a warm­ing tent one way, then the other, and edg­ing back on the in­land route, tak­ing oc­ca­sional spurs in unan­tic­i­pated di­rec­tions in the ex­hil­a­rat­ing labyrinth that held me safe in its ge­om­e­try.

Al­though the ice trail was quiet, it didn’t take long to find Mauricie’s win­ter pil­grims. About 30 miles north­east of town, I checked into Le Balu­chon Eco-Re­sort be­hind a dozen ex­hil­a­rated French snow­mo­bil­ers who were sled­ding inn to inn.

On the Rivière du Loup, or Wolf River, Le Balu­chon of­fers 89 rooms in a mix of inns and chalets on 1,000 acres fea­tur­ing about 25 miles of cross-coun­try ski and snow­shoe trails, a tub­ing run and an ice rink with sup­plied equip­ment for broom­ball — a hock­ey­like game played with brooms and with­out skates. The sled­ders headed straight for the Nordic spa to steep in a se­ries of hy­drother­apy pools in­doors and out.

Later that evening, a full moon lit the river­side trail to the inn’s restau­rant — ac­claimed for its menu us­ing lo­cal in­gre­di­ents in dishes like wall­eye with Que­bec seaweed but­ter — and wa­ter­falls stilled by ice.

Agri­tourism on ice

One win­ter, when Jean­Pierre Binette and Madeleine Courch­esne, bee­keep­ers in ru­ral Notre-Damedu-Mont-Carmel, about an hour north of Trois-Rivières, had three chil­dren un­der age 9, they flooded a small sec­tion of woods on their prop­erty. Ex­cited by the frozen for­est play­ground, their chil­dren in­vited their friends, who in­vited their friends. In 1997, the sea­sonal di­ver­sion be­came a sec­ondary busi­ness as Le Do­maine de la Forêt Per­due, or the Lost For­est, opened to the public, keep­ing a form of agri­tourism alive in win­ter (in sum­mer, they of­fer a high­ropes course).

“We were the first skat­ing path in Que­bec, and now we are train­ing peo­ple who are open­ing trails around the prov­ince,” Thérèse Des­lau­ri­ers, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Forêt Per­due, said, as she worked the rus­tic en­try house that dou­bles as a re­tail shop for honey prod­ucts.

Out­side, be­yond the skate rental tent, more than 9 miles of ice­ways wove through pine and hard­wood forests dot­ted with farm pens oc­cu­pied by goats, sheep, ducks, deer and more ex­otic an­i­mals, in­clud­ing an os­trich. Next to the al­paca en­clo­sure, a re­pur­posed phone booth dis­pensed hand­fuls of an­i­mal feed for a Cana­dian quar­ter.

Many skaters brought their lunches. For the less pre­pared, Forêt Per­due of­fers a heated snack bar in a tent and a maple candy cabin in the woods.

Invit­ing though it was, I skipped the snack bar, threw my skates in the car and drove roughly 40 miles east to another of the grand lodges that draw win­ter fans to Mauricie. Like a cas­tle-size ver­sion of a log cabin, Hô­tel Sa­ca­comie sits high above frozen Sa­ca­comie Lake, of­fer­ing win­try panora­mas from its pine­hewn din­ing room with a roar­ing fire in the field­stone fire­place — the per­fect place to warm up over lo­cal smoked trout and duck con­fit pou­tine.

A frozen river

Af­ter an overnight snow­fall of 4 inches, the 5.6-mile skat­ing path on the L’As­somp­tion River at Parc Louis-Querbes in Joli­ette, about mid­way be­tween Le Balu­chon and Mon­treal, was al­ready open and plowed by 9 a.m., serv­ing a smat­ter­ing of speed­skaters and slower glid­ers.

I skated hard for an hour, cov­er­ing the en­tire route, and was not alone. Like run­ners in warmer cities, the ear­li­est Joli­ette skaters came out to ex­er­cise in the light morn­ing traf­fic. By the time I cir­cled back to the park field house just af­ter 10 a.m., a food shack next to the ice had opened, serv­ing beignets and tea to the grow­ing col­lec­tion of fam­i­lies teach­ing their un­der-10s to skate by hold­ing onto loaner sleds and shar­ing the won­der of skat­ing on a sea­son­ally stilled river.

I in­tended to leave the river and head straight to the air­port in Mon­treal but couldn’t re­sist another skat­ing stop so close to it. Di­vert­ing 30 min­utes north to Bois de Belle-Rivière, I took a fi­nal 1.5-mile spin on yet another frozen for­est path. In this age of van­ish­ing ice, I skated with a pro­found ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the trans­for­ma­tion of win­ter and the spirit of ice mak­ers to de­light those who love the sea­son.

DAVID GIRAL/THE NEW YORK TIMES PHO­TOS

Skaters make their way along the trail at Le Do­maine de la Forêt Per­due in Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, Que­bec.

Maple syrup poured over fresh snow makes a sweet treat.

A vis­i­tor pets a goat at Le Do­maine de la Forêt Per­due.

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