The Art of Winter: A Quebec Recap

Posted: Thursday, March 9, 2023

Colorado winters aren’t what they used to be. Twenty years ago, it would have been miraculous if I could wear sandals on a Monday, spend 2 hours shoveling snow from my driveway on Tuesday, then don a t-shirt and splash in puddles on Wednesday. And now? I have just described to you last week’s weather events. So it was very exciting for me to travel to Canada in February and experience cold weather activities in a place with a consistent and reliable winter like Quebec. 

The trip was put on by the Adventure Travel Trade Association and hosted representatives from the US to check out the best of the season’s offerings in Canada’s largest province. Though I landed in Montreal well after midnight, the next morning, I woke feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; the joys of traveling north as an American include less jet lag and more time to enjoy the sights!

With my tuque (hat) pulled low, I explored Montreal on foot and was tickled pink to see residents of all ages and stages cross-country skiing around the city’s largest park, Mount Royal. The green space was innovated by the same designer behind New York’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, and boasts 11 miles of groomed winter trails. Wow! All this, a mere stroll away from downtown. 

After Montreal, our group traveled north by bus to Lake Sacacomie for more outdoor activities and nordic spa time. Our first activity was ice fishing, and several people scrunched up their noses at the wriggling worms, so I volunteered to bait a few of my neighbor’s lines. The ice holes had been pre-drilled, and convenient wooden poles balanced on rudimentary hinges allowed for a hands-free experience. While my line never budged, several fisherwomen were rewarded with sizable rainbow trout (which the local restaurant cooked up that night). 

Arriving at the hotel, we discovered our room keys were mischievously frozen inside small blocks of ice and decoratively hung from a tree. After maple syrup whiskey shots from glasses made of ice (can you get any more Canadian?), we got to liberate our room keys with a hammer. What fun!  

Later, from the safety and security of the hot springs, I cheered on my companions as they braved the cold plunge pool (outside temperature 15 degrees F, cold plunge pool temperature 50 degrees F), all with majestic views of the snow-bedazzled lake Sacacomie below. With my arms resting on the lip of the infinity pool as snowflakes melted on my nose and cheeks, I thought, “Ok, Quebec, you win winter.”

The following day we followed the sounds of yips, yaps, and barks down to the yard, where eager-looking dogs were waiting to rush into the woods with us flying behind them. I have seen videos of idyllic-looking passengers cozied up in sleds as they sail through fields of white; this was not that. After our orientation, I volunteered to be the ‘runner’ first and found the name apt. Bundled up in my layers, I resembled a frenzied marshmallow on two legs, sprinting up hillsides and jumping back onto the narrow sled legs as we crested and careened, cornered, and coasted, but didn’t crash!  

After dog sledding, we mounted mechanical steeds and motored slowly into the woods. I admit I was biased against snowmobiles because they can be such a loud presence in an otherwise silent winter forest, but Quebec is the birthplace of snowmobiles so I tried to have an open mind. The ride was much more comfortable than I imagined, with heated handlebars, an easy-to-understand dashboard, and our instructor keeping everyone in line. I learned that the hotel is investing in electric snowmobiles for 2024 and beyond, which warms me up to the idea of snowmobiles even more!  

On to Quebec City, where half the group took a walking tour, seeing a historical city in the throes of celebrating Winter Carnival. The other half of the group (including me) was foolish enough to sign up for ice canoeing. Sometimes looking at a tour operator’s website before your adventure, you see images of hardcore people doing hardcore things, while in reality, the experience is a watered-down version, a chance to see the action but not be swept up in it. Well, ice canoeing was the exact melodrama that was promised in the pictures.  

“Put on your shin guards and knee pads before you put on your spiked cleats,” said the charming owner of Ice Canoeing Experience. We sat with our jaws hanging open, unsure how to slide the thick neoprene sleeves up and over hockey pads. Helpful canoe guides walked around, dressing us like we were confused children. Once we were all stiffly zipped, we headed outside for a few minutes of dry land training before pushing into the Saint Lawrence river, which was a labyrinth of moving ice blocks. 

I ignorantly volunteered to be in the middle of the canoe. This position requires sliding on your shins on the lip of the boat (while it’s moving swiftly in freezing water) between a built-in seat and a wall-mounted shin lock facing the opposite direction, a kind of circus maneuver that I never managed to execute smoothly. 

Rowing against the current in any river is a good workout; rowing against the current and through ice debris with a metal spike on the paddle is a battle dance. When we encountered floes that we could not break through, we jumped into scootering positions and pedaled up and over the ice with one leg hanging out as if the canoe had sprouted spider legs. At various times the ice my confident cleat spikes hurled into cracked apart, and my foot plunged into the wet black depths. After mere minutes of scootering, my glutes and arms were on fire, and my belly ached from laughing at the preposterousness of it all. It was the most challenging fun I’ve had in a long time.

Venturing farther north, we came to rest in Imago Village, where I slept in a yurt built to look like an igloo under a transparent plastic roof.  Try as I might, I could not will my eyelids to stay open past 11 pm for a possible peak at the northern lights. (An ambitious photographer in our group stayed up (and outside) until 2 am that night, but alas, he did not glimpse the lights either.)  

One of our last stops was at the famous Hotel de Glace, or “ice hotel,” where 24 rooms had been carved from snow and fashioned after unique themes. There was a Dia de Los Muertos room, an Under the Sea Room, and, disturbingly, a red-eyed gigantic Teddy Bear room. If you book a room at the ice hotel, you actually book two rooms, a backup room in the actual hotel in case you get too cold, and a room in the ice hotel where you can check in at 9 pm. We did not stay overnight there, thank goodness; the cold was pervasive, sinking into my marrow without permission. My favorite part of the ice hotel was the indoor ice luge, followed by the wedding chapel (I asked if brides ever get cold feet…). While pictures don’t do it justice, the sculpture work was extremely impressive. 

I’d be remiss if I did not mention the lovely dining options. In every place we visited, the food was incredible. In Quebec City, we had a 6-course ‘forest to table’ meal with wine pairings at the upscale restaurant Legende. Every hotel, no matter how small or ‘in the middle of nowhere,’ offered fresh fish dishes, hearty poutines, and delectable maple syrup-laced desserts. I tried poutine with small cheese curds and poutine with curds the same size as the generous fries and poutine with duck confit on top. I said ‘yes’ to everything that came across my plate and had no regrets. 

Getting to experience this cuisine and these fun outdoor activities in a place that has mastered the art of winter was a wonderful adventure. Time and time again, I was struck with the thought that Quebec felt so close to home yet was also a world away in terms of language, culture, and traditions. The province is so vast that there is undoubtedly much I didn’t get to see, do and taste. I can’t wait to go back!

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