Story by Jamie Ross
LA MAURICIE, QUEBEC — The ice fishing is superb here at the Pourvoirie du Lac Blanc. The brookies and specs are biting all around me. To the left and right, rods dip on their supports, bowing down to the circular holes augured in the thick lake ice, causing whoops of excitement as flopping fish are hoisted high and displayed with pride. I join in, cheering every catch, applauding each success, while watching my own ice-fishing rod and line do nothing but sway in the breeze.
At first there was much guidance, “Try jigging the line.” I jig the line, I dance a jig around the hole, and I offer the fishing gods a few drops of Caribou liqueur. Still they do not bite. Then the advice ended, replaced by pity, and then by impatience, as the guide announced that as soon as I had my catch, we could retire to the warming hut for dinner.
“Try my rod,” they say. “Use my hole,” they offer. Then, finally, a bite — my rod dips and I grab the line excitedly and haul out a big, beautiful brook trout, holding it up for all to admire. What they see is a teasing twisting trout slip the hook, give me a wink, and then masterfully pull off a double somersault before hitting the centre of the fishing hole with an excellent re-entry. The group disperses, off to the fire to enjoy their catch, fried up fresh on the open flame, and I am left to beg for tasty handouts.
My angling game has never been very good, but here, in the beautiful winter playground that is La Mauricie, there is so much more to enjoy, which means I won’t have time to dwell on my fishing failings. Quebec knows how to celebrate winter, and La Mauricie offers it all.
Explore La Mauricie National Park
They call it Real Winter here in La Mauricie, which ranks No. 13 on the 2017 Vacay.ca Best Places to Travel in Canada list. I came here not knowing quite what that meant, and left saying, yes, that’s what a real winter is! It obviously starts with a healthy dose of the white stuff, and the snow is here in abundance as our group drags our bags and gear into our evening abodes on the sleds that are provided here in La Mauricie National Park. I feel like an arctic explorer, but my accommodation for the night is a comfortable Parks Canada oTENTik, a cross between a tent and a rustic cabin, heated on this frosty day by an airtight, wood-burning stove.
So I organize my gear, stoke the fire, and grab my skis to explore a section of the park’s 80-kilometre (50 miles) network of marked and groomed trails. Located in the Laurentian mountain range, La Mauricie National Park is a 536-square-kilometre (207 square miles) natural conservation area in the southern part of the Canadian shield. Here, Parks Canada has a bevy of winter adventures on offer, from the traditional sports like skiing and snowshoeing, to more recent cold-weather pursuits like fat-biking, Nordic hiking and snow tagging.
Fat-biking: This sport essentially involves mountain biking on snow, with really big, balloon-like tires. Here is an activity where I can really wheel, I’m thinking, just before I wobble off the packed trail, bury my front tire in a soft bank, and thus catapult myself over the handlebars face first into the snow. Okay, first the ice-fishing and now this, I’m beginning to sound a tad inept, but in this case I soon start to get the hang of it. The single track meanders its way through the trees, you peddle hard up steep inclines and then howl with excitement as you whoosh down the long curving runs.
Snow-tagging: I thought I would get to run around in some clunky snowshoes in an exhausting game of winter tag, but no, this is a far more cultured activity. We set off with a day pack and snowshoes strapped to our backs and crampons belted to our boots, to give us traction on the steep icy trails. A remote frozen lake is our blank canvas, and with a compass and a template we are able to trace a piece of art on the virgin snow. Teamwork and steady feet are required, as are the ability to read a compass and walk in a fairly straight line — and I guess this is why I am designated a follower and a packer. Afterwards, we hike back up the hillside to gaze down in wonder at the masterpiece we’ve created. Ours is a spider and her web; stunningly beautiful and scary!
Enjoy the Sacacomie Hotel
Perched high above the shores of Lac Sacacomie, adjacent to the Mastigouche Wildlife Reserve, the imposing white pine log structure of the Sacacomie Lodge is a perfect blend of comfort and rustic charm. Once again, a plethora of winter activity is on the menu — from a frantic game of broomball, to a flight on a ski plane high above the wintry wilderness of Mauricie. What strikes me most from this bird’s-eye view is the vast snowmobile trail network, which seems to be much more extensive than the highway system. Snowmobiling will be an activity for tomorrow, though; today it will be a more traditional means of winter travel, by dogsled.
We meet the friendly and enthusiastic huskies and then are able to mush our own six-dog team through the wooded trails and over the frozen lake. It is a surprisingly tranquil activity. Once the huskies are running there is no noise at all save for the creak and crunch of sled runner over the packed trail and the heavy breathing of the dogs. At the end of the day, as a welcoming break from all the activity, I slip into my robe and flip-flops and head for the resort’s GEOS Spa for some relaxation. The spa offers ecological and energy efficient facilities that focus primarily on the responsible use of natural resource. The saunas, eucalyptus-scented steam room, outdoor hot tub and a cold water pool with a frigid waterfall that I pretend I don’t see, are for the most part all luxurious, but the “keep quiet” rule is hard on me.
Snowmobilers in Paradise in Quebec
The lodge, chalets and restaurant on Lac Blanc are a haven for snowmobilers. In fact, there are more snow machines in the parking lot than cars. We rent machines, which are much more comfortable and sleek than those that I remember from my youth, and explore some of the seemingly endless trail system. There are roughly 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles) of trails in the Mauricie region alone. The routes are numbered and marked like provincial highways, and signposts give directions to distant destinations. I can see where touring through this winter wonderland by snowmobile can get addictive.
It is just off Lac Blanc where my fishing ability lets me down, but things are all uphill from there. Pierre Thibeault, a fascinating man who has spent much of his life in the far north, rescues us from the barren fishing holes in his majestic vintage 1948 B12 Bombardier snow bus, the first vehicle built to run on snow. Our mad trapper transports us to a wonderfully cozy canvas wall-tent in the woods, where he regales us with fascinating stories of the native history here, the voyageurs, and the life of trappers. We end the evening with a meal of venison stew and bannock inside the prospector tent, followed by a walk back to our cabin over the White Lake. It is a world apart, looking up to the heavens where millions of stars twinkle like chipped diamonds — one cannot help but be in awe of this Real Winter.
MORE ABOUT VISITING LA MAURICIE
Location: The region, a nexus point between the province’s two urban hubs, Quebec City and Montreal, is one of rolling hills, deep forests, lakes and rivers. The winter landscape is accessible from a selection of lodges and resorts, each offering a vast array of winter activities and adventures.
Québec Tourism: www.quebecauthentique.com