Lamb’s testes and wolf paws

With a week to kill in southern Quebec, AGA photo-journo Mark Watson attempted to squeeze in as many micro-adventures as he could.
By Mark Watson February 3, 2015 Reading Time: 7 Minutes

I’ve just politely eaten an entrée of raw beef heart followed by a main course of lamb’s testicles. No, I am not kidding. I wish I had known what animelles meant before randomly pointing at it on a menu, but sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind when in a foreign land.

Maybe my naivety is where my meal choice went awry, but more often than not, just wingin’ it also offers rewards and this had been true of my Quebec experience up to this point. As well as chewing down thinly sliced sheep, I’d taken in a solid dose of ice canyoning, snowboarding, Hok skiing and XC skiing… and I was about to add a multiday dogsled journey to the list.

You see, not far from where I sat in the Hotel La Ferme in the Baie-Saint-Paul, with my empty plate of gonads, lies the wilderness area of the Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Riviére-Malbaie. This was the key reason I was in the snow-covered Charlevoix region of Quebec and not sipping summer beverages back home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

I was here to meet my guide and dogsled expert Andre Heller, as supposedly the weather had cleared enough for us to harness up 150kg of pure Siberian and Alaskan Husky muscle to plunge us into the wilderness of a majestic frozen national park.

However this was not the start of my frigid adventures; my week had been a whirlwind of ice hotels, crazy temperatures and turning a hand at anything on offer in this frozen playground. With temperatures hanging around -20°C, most sane people would have been looking for a fireplace in a warm pub. But not me… Noooo! On instruction from AGA’s Ed I had to cram as many Quebec micro-adventures into a week as possible. “Just layer up” were his sympathetic words from a sunny beachside café back in Oz.

Extreme… fishing?

Only a few days prior I had done exactly that, layered up that is, to try my hand at ice fishing on the St Lawrence River in the middle of Montreal’s Old Port, and I have to admit, this ice fishing malarkey ain’t so bad. A little hut on a frozen lake with a gas heater and flask of spirits may not seem to be an extreme adventure but when the outside temp bottoms out at -24°C, exiting the hut just to take a pee is extreme.

Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I discovered there was no guru-ice-fisherman-blood deep in my veins, and I only managed a few hours watching a stick in the ice before I decided this extreme winter sport wasn’t my cup of tea. I left humbled without even a nibble or glimpse of the famed sturgeon, or at least a serve of walleye or burbot for dinner.

Skinny ski workout

Luckily my next micro-adventure didn’t involve catching my own meals. Instead it was a little more in line with my passion for sliding on snow.

I am usually a snowboarder but many years ago (possibly when the dinosaurs roamed) I spent a winter season in Charlotte Pass in NSW dabbling with Telemark skis and ‘freeing the heel’ in a bid to become a more rounded snow sportsman. The truth is, a mad Frenchman Tele-ski guru had more faith in me than he should have, and I soon learned to enjoy dropping a knee and realised I quite enjoyed this world of two planks on the feet rather than one.

An opportunity to join a party heading to Duchesnay on the shores of Lac Saint-Joseph to check out 35km of trails was too good to resist, so I hit up a friend of AGA’s at Sepaq (the governing body of outdoor recreation areas in Quebec) to find a skiing buddy to show me around… and that they certainly did.

My guide for the day was an Olympic level XC skiing guru, and so my cruisy day on touring skis rapidly become a torturous four-hour sweat fest of classic XC and skating technique. It also swiftly dawned on me that 30 of the 35km of trails were uphill and designed solely to obliterate the egos of visiting Aussie photo-journos. By the time we stopped for a late lunch I was a ragged, sweating shade of the bloke who had arrived that same morning looking to revisit his cruisy Tele turns of yesteryear.

Desperately looking for an excuse to avoid further torture to my already lactic hamstrings, I claimed I’d always wanted to Hok Ski (mini skis halfway between touring skis and snowshoes), even though I’d never laid eyes on the peculiar snow craft before. I copped a few odd looks but my tormentors gave in to my enthusiasm and the transfer to the weird little skis enabled me to get my breath back, albeit briefly. I even managed to throw down a freestyle challenge that ended in accidental front flips and unexpected tree-hugging episodes, that is until it dawned on me we were still an hour from home, which would see me wheezing on a final Nordic quad-burner at last light.

Collapsing by the fireplace that evening, I ticked off another box on my micro-adventure to-do list, and finished the day writing: “Annihilated myself pretending to be fit today; I proved I am not!” The trailing squiggle implied I had more to write but my eyelids had other ideas and the open fire was just a little too cozy. I would need my sleep however, as I was due to meet my guide at 8am the next morning for some ice-canyoning.

Cascades and crampons

Recent excursions into some of the big exposed canyons of Kanangra Boyd National Park in NSW had hooked me on the exclusive world of canyoning, so an opportunity to taste ice-canyoning could not be passed up, especially when I realised it was only a short drive from Quebec City. Even better, the location coincided with my plans to head east along the north shore of the St Lawrence River to meet with Andre to go dogsledding. Perfect!
Cruising down a snow-filled gully amongst whispering birch trees laden with snow with the sound of trickling water underfoot is an experience to calm one’s sole… that is until it’s time to harness-up and yank straps tight on razor-sharp crampons that will tear your shell pants to shreds should you become preoccupied with any thought other than putting one foot in front of the other.
As with traditional canyoning, the entry into the first descent is often quite sudden and, in this case, just as I was wondering whether I really needed crampons, the trickling creek simply disappeared in nothingness. Standing atop a ledge it took me a moment to realise I was looking down at a frozen replica of a thundering cascade, only this time it sounded more like a bubbler-tap than a enormous cataract, and was adorned with intricate ice flutes and frozen abstract formations of impressive ice crystals.
With some serious steel claws jutting from my boots, I threaded my descender to launch into a new world of abseiling solid waterfalls rather than the usual immersion of leaping onto a surging torrent. I admit there is not the initial rush you experience with the wall of water a wet canyon offers, but there is undoubtedly a uniqueness and even peacefulness descending enormous hanging icicles and granular névé ice as snow-capped treetops stretch out below as far as the eye can see. There were a few moments of tentativeness negotiating fragile ice flutes, but it was all to the rhythm of the running water hidden somewhere deep beneath my crampon tips.
This taste of ice canyoning further fed my desire to descend all things water, both frozen and liquid, but unfortunately there were not enough pitches to keep going forever and I needed to get to Baie-Saint-Paul for my next adventure

The howl of the wolf-pack

For the uninitiated, the moments prior to harnessing a husky team for a sled expedition appear chaotic. The excitement of the dogs, the yapping and panting, the tongues out, the straining at the chains, the list goes on…

Fortunately there was order amongst the chaos, in the name of experienced musher Andre Heller. Andre’s passion for his dogs and the sport is evident as he calmly called the names of his huskies one by one, all the while suggesting they were like naughty children.
It is obvious however that each and every dog respects and listens to his every word, as they excitedly took their place in a well coordinated formation to be clipped into the gangline of the four sleds we were taking into the Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie National Park.

“Attentione!” Andre then instructed his team of straining muscle and fur.
I repeated the words to myself, “Attentione, Anava, Dishma and Whoa”, until they were secured in my memory bank. I have no idea of the English translation but the dogs don’t speak English so these commands are my lifeline to being able to start, move and, most importantly, stop.

As soon as the words “Anava” were murmured the sled surged forward like a canine-powered sportscar. The Alaskan husky team, while not a pure breed like the Siberian husky, can pull the most pound-for-pound of any sled dog over long distances and can do so at speeds in excess of 30km/h.

The cacophony of barking ceased instantly and the world turned to quiet with only the sound of sled on snow and a soft tempo of uniform panting in a surreal world of speeding silence.

We negotiated narrower and narrower forest trails, occasionally stopping for the dogs to rest as our silent train continued through a majestic landscape offering some of the highest rock faces east of the Rockies, where golden eagles soar and peregrine falcons perch. The Riviére Malbaie was teeming with salmon, offering ospreys summertime hunting, and black bear claw marks adorned ash and birch trunks beside our trails.

We came across the enormous tracks of a lone male wolf crisscrossing the trail and later that night, in the comfort of our remote wood cabin, the howl of the wolves could be heard echoing through the valley.

Unfortunately, just as I was settling into my personal dogsled groove on day two, I realised I was not destined for the iconic Iditarod or Yukon Quest arctic races, but instead back toward a distant civilisation.

My time here was fast running out and this taste of Quebec adventure had simply been a tease. I had only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg and not even touched it… I had seen the potential without time to discover the depth, and so I promise myself I will return.

I can envisage marathon dogsled adventures, multiday ice canyons and splitboarding expeditions into an untouched wilderness. Maybe even a little skinny-ski XC torture can be revisited, or some extreme ice fishing – because in hindsight it was actually fun… and if I am lucky, then maybe, just maybe, the next adventure will also come served with a decent-size plate of thinly sliced sheep gonads.

The essentials

Getting there: Air Canada flies from Sydney to Vancouver. From Vancouver, internal Air Canada flights go to all major centres in Canada, including Quebec. www.aircanada.com

Visa & permits: Australian passport holders do not require a visa to visit Canada. They just must have more than 6 months left on their passport.

Best time to go: Quebec offers adventures all year round but for winter sports enthusiast the best time to visit is from Dec to April . The famous Quebec Winter Carnival takes place every February. www.carnaval.qc.ca/en

Climate (Winter): Quebec City’s January average is minus thirteen degrees Celsius, however the weather can be extreme and winter temperatures may drop below minus 30 degrees. The cold is predominantly dry however so with appropriate layering and outerwear winter sports are enjoyable.

Transport: Quebec has a large road, bus and rail network (mainly in the more populated South) so travel options are plentiful. Driving in icy sub-zero temperatures however can be ‘interesting’ so sometimes best left to the experts (bus divers, taxis etc). The rail network is one of the best ways to travel in winter… warm and spacious with room to stretch the legs.

More info:
au-keepexploring.canada.travel
canada.travel (then click “Australia”)