1 September 2007 by Duncan Mills
Three straight lines had been scraped into the side of the tall fir tree straining under the weight of thickly clumped snow. A fresh fall had come overnight, leaving a blanket of white as clean and crisp as the mountainous morning air. The three lines were a few inches long, neat markings etched into the wiry bark. They’d be missed by most people: but to those who know this part of Quebec well, they were the tell tale sign that there was something else out here in the wilds. "The marks of a bear," explained Gaspard, a native trapper and my guide in the forest, his French-Canadian accent emphasising his last word. It was a numbing minus 25 degrees, but the Quebecois was unperturbed. Around 60 years old, thin wisps of grey hair poked out from beneath his hat, which, like his enormous gloves, was made from neat raccoon fur. Strapping on metal snowshoes, he led me through the forest close to the enchantingly named Lac a leau Clair - Clearwater Lake - where beams of sunlight twinkled on crystallised snow.
"Breathe through the nose. Listen. Enjoy the bush," he encouraged, as I followed behind, my feet flapping up and down in the snow, like beaver tails slapping on the surface of a river. His enthusiasm for the wilderness was contagious. We were just a few hours north of Montreal by four wheel-drive, but it felt like much more. There was a cosy auberge close to the lake, but otherwise it was just woodland, snow, ice and mountains for mile upon mile. One of the best ways of exploring this wonderfully pristine landscape is by motorised skidoo, or snowmobile. Bidding farewell to Gaspard, I join a group heading to another auberge at La Montagne Coupee, a few hours’ skidoo away in neighbouring Lanaudiere. Wrapping up in overalls, gloves and helmets, I noticed a man with a plaster on one cheek and a purple burn on the other where frostbite had taken its toll, and zipped up my overalls as far as my chin.
We headed out in convoy across the frozen lake, opening up the throttle to 50 miles per hour. Coming off the ice, we slowed down and head uphill into the woods. It was exhilarating as we sped away, along ridges, crossing bridges over frozen rivers. At one point we passed through a small settlement, where a few cars were buried up to their wheel arches in snow, and a bright red two-seater plane sat outside a wooden shed with a pair of moose antlers above the door, metre-long icicles hanging from the eaves like stalactites. Except for the rumble of our engines and the steam from our exhausts, it was still and quiet as we headed back into the woods. Dollops of snow like sticky marshmallows lined the forest floor. Every now and again we passed other snowmobilers, some of them locals simply getting from A to B, others having travelled up from Maine and Vermont on Quebec’s many kilometres of dedicated snowmobile trails.
Another way of getting around the Canadian bush is the more traditional sport of cross-country skiing. I’d downhill-skied a few times - and many do just that at the famous ski fields at Tremblant - but never tried the Nordic style before. Kitted up with narrow skis, goggles and poles, we met our instructor, the wonderfully named Jean-Pierre Sansregret (’no regrets’). His brilliant white beard framed a smile as he shook our hands one by one and then led us onto the 1.5 kilometre practice circuit, crisp snow sparkling under the clear morning sky as we shuffled and slid along the trail. A Quebec state ski team instructor, Jean-Pierre wore a tight black Lycra ski suit and a black beanie hat with Canada written on it. Charismatic and likeable, he reminded me of Papa Smurf. As we jumped around on our skis to warm our muscles, before heading off into a stretch of Christmas-card pine forest, he tipped his head up towards the cloudless sky and bellowed "Blessed be the sun gods," grinning widely and looking around with the enthusiasm of someone who’d found this beautiful spot for the first time.
"Breathe in, look around," he encouraged. "Enjoy the skiing. This is beautiful nature." And as we gradually got the hang of the classic technique - walking, gently jogging and picking up speed in the grooves in the snow made by those before us - he reinforced what we needed to do. "You must glide," he told us. "If you glide, you ski." We passed women in their fifties and sixties going the other way, chatting as they worked their way around the mountain trails. A boy and a girl of seven or eight also overtook us, less out of breath than me. It was tremendous fun, but for travelling greater distances native husky dogs are still preferred, for their reliability in the extreme cold. Straining on their harnesses, a team of eight to ten dogs was put together in front of their sledge, their throaty howls echoing across the trail before their human handler set them off. Then, suddenly, we were thrust forward.
From my position in the sledge - held firm with a blanket - I saw their haunches working overtime and their upturned tails waggling as they propelled us through the woods. Occasionally one turned around, staring back determinedly with opal blue eyes, its tongue hanging floppily from powerful jaws. It was a real thrill to see them working as a team, responding to calls of "Haw" and "Gee" - to steer left or rightmost of the time together, although occasionally testing their master’s mettle. The sledge slid on the hard ice, and we careered over a few saplings as the combined force of the dogs powered us forwards. They were impervious to the cold, their thin-looking coats working just as well as hi-tech man-made winter garments. The sky remained wonderfully blue overhead, and I sensed that we were all equally content, man and dog at one with nature, enjoying the many pleasures of the woods in wintertime.