Ice is spreading in front of the ferry’s bow. Immaculate water lilies submerged a time by a dark soup, they whirl in the eddy, before joining again. Between scintillating snow and garlands, Quebec City and its castle ignite, but the reflections on the St. Lawrence do not melt its ice. Under their screeching against the hull, one begins to dream of that time when the navigator Samuel de Champlain landed at the end of one of his frequent crossings of the Ocean, after having returned to Europe to promote his idea of a total colonization of the territory. It is here, at the narrowest of the river – 1,000 m barely wide – after having penetrated what he believed to be an arm of sea more than 70 kilometers wide, that the French explorer, cartographer, An ethnologist and botanist decided one day in the year 1608 to root the first permanent French colony.
Kebec or kebic, “where the great waters are shrinking”, in the Algonquin language, would later become Quebec, one of the oldest cities in North America. Arriving late, the snow does not end to fall on the homeland of Champlain, light, unctuous, exhilarating. We melt into the crowd that, at night, wander in the “Old”. Tying a tuque, putting on mittens and snow boots, hurrying around, for a shopping spree in the narrow streets of Old Quebec, is one of the most popular winter pleasures here. The enchanting scenery, lights and festive garlands, makes you forget the pungent cold and the numb fingers. But the little houses in the lower town, curled up one on the other, evoke a time when winter was not welcome. Of the 28 men on the Champlain crew landed in the summer of 1608, only 8 will survive scurvy, dysentery and their first winter. The stories of the time testify to the anguish experienced during the cold weather. The vital necessities, to eat, shelter, move, cover themselves, mobilize all their energy.
Arrived by waves to build the young colony, the colonists compete ingenuity to survive the terrible season and bring goods in this country still devoid of everything. For example, the glass panes of the windows that will adorn Place Royale in molasses barrels will take them back intact when they arrive in Europe, melting the thick syrup hardened by the cold. But volunteers do not jostle at the gates of New France. The efforts were not spared yet to praise the absence of taxes, wood and clothing distributed at will from November, the happiness and the vigor of the first settlers, for whom the climate is salutary and whose Temperament is done at the rigor of the winters! “It’s the nineteenth century that the winter to live gives way to the art of living its winter, writes Sophie-Laurence Lamontagne, ethnologist, for whom this season is a fundamental element of Quebec culture. The cold, the snow, forges the Quebec culture, comments the sociologist. After the apprehension, the familiarization, the understanding, here is venule time of its domestication. “Place to entertainments! It does not matter how much temperature, snow drifts and blizzard! The families of Quebec City go out on a picnic on the sugar loaf, the mountain of snow that forms at the foot of the Montmorency Falls. Carriage races are becoming increasingly popular. A strictly utilitarian object, snowshoeing is entering the city, as is the wilderness toboggan sledge designed in Canada by the Amerindians, for which a slipway is being built along the chic Dufferin Terrace.
And, when the intense cold comes to capture the waters of the St. Lawrence, the skates, by the hundreds, come twirling on the stretch as smooth as a mirror. Neither ice-breakers nor ferries can hinder the formation of such a solid natural bridge that carters and coachmen circulate while finding something to warm the soul and the body. Escaping from all jurisdiction, the icy waters become for a few months a lawless ground where you drink alcohol and get drunk by women light. The snow stopped at night. In the blue dawn, skaters glide past the Palais Montcalm. Traces of fresh skiing imprint on the sidewalks of the upper town. Below, the St. Lawrence, furrowed with open water channels, sparkles in its gangue of ice. This morning, the thermometer went down to -30 ° C. We follow the “Grande Rivière”, this “Canadian way” brought up by Jacques Cartier with the authorization of François I in 1535. Ice sheaves and seracs creak and growl against the shores of the island of Orleans. Freed from its strangulation, the St. Lawrence flourishes, gigantic.
At the same time river, lake, inland sea, glacial tongue, estuary, its course strewn with islands, brewed by strong currents and subject to the tides, remains difficult to navigate. The road soon climbs to the assault of relief. On one side, the river carrying its rafts of ice; on the other, the round and white rumps of the Charlevoix Massif. Difficult to imagine joining one of the most popular ski areas of Quebec, Le Massif, when the altitude does not exceed 800 meters. It’s also hard to imagine sloping down the slopes when the thermometer goes below -28 ° C. But the ardor and good humor of Denis, our guide, whose physical appearance as a young man makes us forget the years, prohibits us any hesitation. He leads us in his wake of competitor.
Le Massif is skiing upside-down: you get to the top of the mountain, put your boots on the top of the slopes and, without waiting, you make your way through the spruce trees, avoiding digging or bumping into a hump and you go down to the river’s edge before going back to the gondolas. And start again, magnetized by this sea – the river stretches 23 kilometers wide – omnipresent, at the bend of a bump, at the edge of a grove of spruce trees, between the banks of fog that emerge at dawn ; a sea visited by whales and seals, a pack ice spread at the foot of the mountain. The magic of the Quebec winter, the generous sun, the stable air, the beauty of the fir trees and the white birch trees bent by the snow make us insensitive to the cold. The powder? Exceptional, wonderfully light, fluffy, abundant. The last descent is made by skip. We are facing the St. Lawrence. The time to jump on the foot of the Charlevoix Light Train and the small bright yellow warp starts at the water’s edge.
Direction the village of Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, always peaceful cradle of the colonization of Charlevoix, where came to bring the islanders of the river on their schooner with flat bottom. All passengers, their noses glued to the windows, contemplate the “River that works”, hypnotized by its banks frosted, compressed, fractured, straightened by the power of the current and the comings and goings of the tides. The train now runs on the rails of the most impressive rail links, with its 900 bridges and culverts, and breathtaking views that transported, in the 1920s, American tourists who came to enjoy, at La Malbaie, the luxury of Manoir Richelieu. The train slows down. The bay frozen by the snow can not imagine the perilous shoals that caused so many shipwrecks.
Four buildings of glass, metal and wood, Le Clos, Le Moulin, La Bergerie and La Basse-Cour plus a main building, forming the newest hotel complex, stand at Baie-Saint-Paul, on the site of Canada’s largest lumbering operation, where the community of Little Franciscans of Mary was active. The ashes of the fire that devastated her in 2007 created an original concept, matured after a tour of more than twenty years of the president and co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, Daniel Gauthier. And a name: La Ferme (today Le Germain Charlevoix). This hotel has a charm both contemporary and rural where the remains of the old farm nuns, red wood barriers, milk lockers, ice tongs and milkers, merge into a resolutely modern decor. After selling his circus shares, Daniel Gauthier returned to the sources.
It was in the heart of the Charlevoix that the young student had met a mountebank, the wader Guy Laliberté. Cirque du Soleil would be born from their meeting. After skying en masse for the whole winter, he buys Le Massif, then the lands of the little Franciscans. At the brand new hotel and the mountain was missing a train of union; the contractor puts back on his tracks the one who comes every morning whistling in the icy air to take the hosts and their skis down the slopes. Three years after its opening, La Ferme is a success. The hotel, the mountain and the train have given a big boost to the economic boom of the region.
The snow on the edge falls on the ice gardens. It is so dense that the day is struggling to get up. The euphoria of the big white pushes us to the heights of the Charlevoix on which watch the national park of Great Gardens, decreed central area of the World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO to protect the territory of the wolf, the moose , caribou, lynx, taiga and humans. In a ball under their blanket of snow, the dogs get up on our arrival, snort. They know that their time has come to “go running” in the powder. Impossible to contain their excitement. Loving words and hugs with a certain authority overcome the preparation of the team. Tobby, head of the kennel, is also a musher, a dog leader. Put all your weight on the brakes, not too brutally, run and push the sled to relieve the pain of the six hitching dogs, lean in the bends, not too much … The driving skills that he mime should suffice to launch our sleds on the narrow track.
Braced on the brakes, we struggle to contain our hordes of dogs too happy to get into the race and roll in the snow. The sled leaves leaping. Gradually, the silence settles again, interrupted by the friction of the skates and the panting breathing of the huskies. We travel between meadows and forests in the manner of these coureurs des bois who crisscrossed the plains in search of precious furs for sale in the ports. Whipped by the low branches of the spruce trees, intoxicated by the speed and motivation of the dogs, we release the pressure. The landscape is gradually coming out of the blizzard. The sun emerges, and the cold cutting with. The Quebec winter, sung by Beau Dommage, is there: “A big winter alive / Like a slap”.
Credits photo : Olivier GRUNEWALD