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For an incredibly culturally mixed experience, start a trip in Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean region of Québec, Canada. In many visits to Montréal and Ville de Québec (Québec City), the urban mixed English-French experience and the historic cities are flavors of Europe in North America.
The region is a recreationalist’s dream. Lac-Saint-Jean is over 1,000km2 (387mi2) and drains into the Saguenay River. The river drops 90m (300ft) as it moves southeast into Baie des Ha! Ha! and becomes the Fjord-du-Saguenay, the Saguenay Fjord. The fjord is one of the rare intracontinental fjords and runs for 105km (65mi). Its deepest point is 270m (900ft). Instead of emptying into an ocean, the fjord connects with the Fleuve Saint-Laurent, the St. Lawrence Seaway. The fjord is perfect for inland sea kayaking.
A side note about Québécoise websites: most of the sites are in French, but in the top bar, click the “EN” or “English” menu command for an English version. Avoid using the “translate this page” option. Some sites are only in French, and the browser translator will be needed. These are noted as “(French)” right after the link.
Heading three hours north of Ville de Québec climbs into the enchanted world of the Reserve Faunique des Laurentides (Forest Reserve of the Laurentides). The nearly 7,900km (3,500mi2) on an excellent divided highway weaving around lakes, rivers and lands in the heart of the Canadian boreal forest, the “great north woods.” The region is a year-round wonderland. Visiting in the heart of the subarctic winter means being well-prepared to be warm. It was easy to see why Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean is a fantastic place to visit anytime during the year.
The region is known for its wild blueberries, jams and blueberry products. Even the bicycle route around the lake is the Blueberry Bike Route. There is much more than the delicious berry to Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean. This is the land of outdoor activities. From the United States, a visit to Québec province will be much richer if it includes the cultural and recreation experience of winter in Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean.
Économusée Bilodeau, Normandin
Frozen in its soon-to-be-museum exhibit pose, the clean white fur and benign expression made me look for the Coca-Cola bottle in its paw. The long dark claws were a real reminder that this polar bear wasn’t interested in carrying the kids; he was planning to hunt me for lunch. Luckily, although the polar bear was less than ten feet from where I was standing, it was a “taxidermy.”
“Our taxidermy division poses animals for museums, universities and very rich people,” said Samuel Bilodeau, grandson of the founder of Bilodeau Canada, a global purveyor of fur and leather clothing, Québec’s original industry. “We design and make our own clothing and boots, have taxidermy artists and create robotic animals for television and movies. ‘A Night In The Museum’ was one of the films using our animals.”
Bilodeau gently speaks fluent English and moves us through his family’s économusée in the quaint village of Normandin in the Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean region of Québec, Canada. We’re about three hours north of Ville de Québec (Québec City). Normandin has about 3,100 people, and Bilodeau employs several hundred as the village’s largest employer.
Économusée is a global network of museums, most often contained within a business. The tours allow touting its traditional Québécoise industrial roots. There are 28 in Québec, eight in Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean, more than any other region or city in the province.
“There would be no Québec without fur. It’s what brought the French to the area in the first place. Almost all historical trade in Québec started with the fur trappers, traders and tanners,” Bilodeau adds. “We are a certified sustainable company, and we use every portion of the pelts we receive. No waste.”
Watching artisans craft the famous the Mounties’ iconic fur hat
He picks up a fur hat, one of the hundreds the company is making for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he says, “These hats get a lot of rough use, they have to be warm, comfortable and last for years. Only natural fur can do that.”
We watch as his team uses every scrap of a pelt to make the hat. Even the loose fur combed out of the hat is sent to Le Chevrier du Nord, who add the fur into the skeins of mohair they market. It’s also a museum, Économusée de la Lainerie, in Saint-Fulgence.
The last stop in the économusée is in the taxidermy shop where a monstrous jawbone from a beluga whale spans more than the length of the three worktables.
“This whale washed ashore in Massachusetts,” explains Bilodeau. “We’re doing the work on the jawbone, and other specialists are working on the rest of the body. The whole whale is longer than a house.”
And longer than the taxidermy studio, he added.
Économusées may have hours that vary with seasons, so checking the individual webpages is worthwhile when planning a trip. Wild blueberry jam and the chocolatier are next on my list.
Zoo Sauvage – The Zoo Without Walls, Saint-Felicien
“Well, this one is quite a ham,” laughs Cindy Lavoie, a guide for Zoo Sauvage, an open range wildlife conservation center in the Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean region of Québec. It’s just a couple of us riding in a bus on a snow-packed road for an exclusive tour.
Routine visitors, even in winter, tour Zoo Sauvage in open trains in the summer, closed up and heated in the winter. The heat was a good thing, as an unexpected cold front dropped temperatures to extreme lows. It was -23C (-9F) the morning of our winter excursion. Even so, the train was packed with visitors heading out for their tour.
As we entered the controlled area, wildlife roams freely on hundreds of acres open ranges, a massive bull elk walked up to the bus and posed. Cindy stops the bus and cameras click. We head a little further along in the large mammal range where elk, bison and moose share the woods and grasslands.
Zoo Sauvage incorporates Québécoise history with the preserved original ranch log cabin and historically reconstructed logging camps of the “great north woods,” after all, and this is the real Boreal Forest we’re visiting. The historic ranch cabin and other buildings within the zoo preserve are available for group use. We step out of the bus onto the platform in the logger’s dining hall to shoot some photos.
No Taking Selfies with Moose or Wolf
Heading back to the bus, we’re stopped dead in our tracks. An old bison is slowly walking up the road right by the door of the bus. The massive bull stops gazes at the bus, an intruder upon his range. We’re feeling the cold, and Cindy stops us short of the bus.
Eventually, it felt like forever, the old guy moves on and we rush into the bus. The animals are used to people in their territories, yet they are still wild. Visitors are not allowed to try to shoot selfies with a moose or arctic wolf.
He trod at a leisurely pace in front of the bus until meeting up with other members of the herd at a feeding trough. In the winter, zoo personnel ensures that all the animals have plenty to eat. Zoo Sauvage’s Accueil, the visitor center, has as café to provide the same for visitors.
Every boreal continent at the zoo
The preserve is separate ranges representing the boreal forest’s circling the globe. The ecosystem sits below the arctic circle on every continent. Tundra, Mongolia, Asia, North American mountains and the mixed forest are all represented with preserved wildlife.
From the Accueil, there is a 4.5km pedestrian walk leading to some of the continental representations, including a salmon river, Rivière au Saumon. Mammals, birds and other boreal denizens are in this area. There is also a children’s zoo at the top of the mixed forest.
In the bitter cold, our exposure on the pedestrian walk was limited to the polar bear habitat. We didn’t see the cub, but the mother was near the path and headed away as we approached, but still was quite close. There’s quite a difference between seeing polar bear taxidermy and the real thing. The claws are long, and she can really move.
Zoo Sauvage is open all year, although there are reduced numbers of train rides in winter. Refer to its website.
Visiting a First Nation: Société d’Histoire et d’Archéologie de Mashteuiatsh Musée, Mashteuiatsh
On the point of the western shore Lac-Saint-Jean, where the Rivière Ashuapmushuan enters the lake, sits the newly remodeled museum of a Québécoise First Nation, the Mashteuiatsh. In February, the lake is a frozen expanse of snow-covered ice.
The Society of History and Archeology of the Mashteuiatsh Musée Amerindien de Mashteuiatsh (French) is more than exhibits; it’s a living representation of the Mashteuiatsh. In Spring 2020, the renovations will be complete. The story of the First Nation will be presented in photographs and personal histories and memories.
Raphaël Langevin, a tourism technician for the museum, is showing current and future exhibits. At a blank wall, she paints a picture with pride for the coming exhibition. She says, “We’re collecting photos from every member of the community to put into frames on this wall. We want to show that this is a long-lived culture.”
Make a Mashteuiatsh Craft
The museum is a combination of static, changing and interactive exhibits. It also provides children with an opportunity to learn to make traditional Mashteuiatsh crafts and art. Part of its beauty is its collection of evolving artifacts used by the community members. Snowshoes, canoes, baskets and dolls are a few of the antiquities displayed in the exhibit halls.
The new exhibit hall provides space for interaction with community members. The layout has visitors circling the story of the Nation.
Museum hours vary by season; museum guides are multilingual.
Living on Ice: Village Sur Glace, Roberval
It takes getting used to the idea of driving on ice. Dropping off the land in the Jardin des Ursulines in the lakeside town of Roberval and pulling up to Village Sur Glace (French), the Ice Village is a drive-of-faith. Looking at the collection of portable buildings surrounding the village, along with a group of parked cars and trucks, brought a double-take to this desert-dwelling writer.
“We’ve got an Olympic size ice rink here on the ice,” explained Alexandra Gosselin, the director-general for Village Sur Glace. She pointed to a wide oval track where plowing the lake snow clears the ice for skating. It wasn’t too busy, being a workday. “This place is filled with people on the weekend. There’s a lot to do.”
The center of the oval has an outdoor playground, and a cluster of children climb and slide, playing in the snow. The village is essentially a recreation vehicle park on ice. It’s hard to fathom ice thick enough to hold all the trailers and vehicles.
In Québec: Where There’s Ice, There’s Hockey
“There’s an area of hockey over there,” Alexandre said as we walked in the snow between the skate track and the village homes. We go into one of the recreation vehicles. “These are set up for families, corporate retreats, parties, and some are rigged for overnight accommodations.”
Walking to the edge of the village, she points out Isle aux Coulevres. It’s about 4km (2.5mi) from the ice village to the island. A group of people on Nordic skis head across the ice towards the wooded island. She says, “That trail is used by snowshoers, skiers and snowmobilers. We also have fat (tire) bikes.”
Back in the welcome shack, Alexandre talks about the equipment available to use at the site. There is a stack of child strollers designed like mini-Zambonis. Another trailer is for ski and skate rental. There are also food vendors for those who don’t want to cook. Planned activities fill the calendar throughout the season.
Village Sur Glace operates from January through March each winter.
Parc National des Monts-Valin, Saint-Fulgence
Across the boreal forest, Québec has publicly accessible lakes, rivers, preserves and stunning national parks. Parc National des Monts-Valin, nestled into the mountains above the Saguenay Fjord, is one destination.
With peaks towering nearly 1,000m (3,300ft) above the fjord, the park has distinct seasonal activities.
Québécoise live for winter sports. In the national park, there are trails for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and backcountry winter hiking. Although it’s not common in the lower 48 U.S. states, fat (tire) cycling is prevalent in Saguenay. Park trails cover more than 75km (46mi). There are winter cabin and hut accommodations available throughout the park. Snowmobile routes circumnavigate the park through valleys and over mountains providing for nearly 400km (250mi) of groomed, marked trails.
Monts-Valin, when the snow is gone, adds water sports—canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hiking, backpacking and camping, and mountain biking. Trails range from 2.5km (1.5mi) to 22km (13mi), and longer distances are possible with interconnecting loop trails.
Contact Nature, La Baie
If ecotourism were to have a model organization, it would be Contact Nature in La Baie; the most eastern of the three municipalities comprise the city of Saguenay. The others are Chicoutimi and Saguenay. In the car with Director-General Marc-André Galbrand, we head towards the ZEC Mars-Moulin (French) southwest of La Baie.
The zone d’exploitation contrôlée, a forest controlled harvest zone, adjoins the area of the Rivière au Mars managed by Contact Nature. We’re stopping at Centre Plein Air Bec-Scie. The lodge sits to the side of the road with a packed parking lot of vehicles on one side and snowmobiles on the other.
It’s winter and the air temperature is around -25C (-13F). We grab lunch at the café, then Marc-André shows off the facilities. Priced for families, most equipment rental for children is at no charge or significantly reduced cost. There are free lockers to gear up for activities.
Winter includes Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, fat (tire) bike riding and dogsledding. That’s where we’re heading. It’s going to be an abbreviated run due to time limitations, but this experience is different than the trails at Descent Malbaie in Charlevoix. Instead of dogs pulling the sleds on forest roads, at Contact Nature, the run is on a narrow track deep into the Boreal Forest.
Not Even a Barking Dog in the Forest
The heavy snow and thick woods make the trip soothingly quiet. The dogs are all excited about the run. When we stop to rest, they hop around, bark, roll in the snow and are anxious to start going again. We’re moving along on the return loop when Julien slows the dogs to a stop letting them rest briefly at the top of a rise.
“It’s hard; it’s hard if you don’t like it,” he says in thickly French-accented English, meaning, “it’s hard not to like it,” as we look into a thick grove of birch trees on one side of the trail, and an opening in the copse of trees looking onto the Rivière à Mars. “I just wanted to show you my office.”
In summer, Contact Nature manages fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, backpacking, and tent or mini-cabin camping. The backcountry trails are great for mountain biking.
Contact Nature is open all year with winter and Summer-Fall activities.
Pêche Blanche, Villages d’Anse-à-Benjamin et Anse-à-Philippe, Le Baie
“Visiteurs étrangers? Nous fêterons!” says Hélene, as the group of us crowd into the tiny, but very warm, fishing cabin owned by the first lady and her husband, Marc, the “mayor” of Village d’Anse-à-Benjamin, an ice fishing village sitting on Baie des Ha! Ha! of the shore of La Baie. The baie is the geologic beginning of the Saguenay Fjord.
Our group includes Marc-André from Contact Nature, the organization managing the ice fishing village, and five friends from France who are visiting Saguenay and staying a couple of nights at the ice fishing village. Hélène carefully pours a big dollop of erable (maple syrup) into a small plastic shot glass and then floats a hefty shot of ice-cold vodka on top. Marc passes the shot glasses all around, “You let the vodka sit on your tongue until the syrup runs in”to your mouth,” he says.
“À santé!” we all shout.
Fishing “shacks” boast bunk beds and a chemical toilet. At the front doors is a bucket with several freshly caught frozen sea bass. In the constant below 0C (32F) temperature, there’s no need to keep the fish in the freezer. After all, this village is sitting on around 90cm (3ft) of solid ice.
“We have engineers check the ice thickness, and that controls how we distribute the fishing shacks and assign parking spaces,” explains Marc-André. “The Saguenay police patrol the village and will ticket anyone who parks in unmarked spaces.”
A Village Collage
The fishing village has hundreds of fishing shacks in different sizes, shapes and colors. Some are on rails, some on wheels, all are towable. As Marc-André talks, a snowmobile passes towing a small fishing shack down the street. It may be on the ice, but the village has plowed roads, traffic control signs, street names and addresses.
The water is so deep under the village that it has both fresh and saltwater zones with a wide variety of fish. Fish weighing upwards of 25kg to 30kg (55 to 65 pounds) and more were caught through the holes in the ice.
The Contact Nature fishing villages are open from mid-December to mid-March. The rest of the year, the fishing is from boats on open water.
Musée du Fjord, La Baie
Back on snow-covered land along the south shore of the bay stands the Musée du Fjord, the Museum of the Fjord. This family-oriented museum includes an aquarium simulating the 275m (900ft) depth of the only navigable fjord in North America.
With its salt and freshwater zones, the fjord is home to many saltwater dwelling fish, such as sea bass and unique-in-the-world six-point starfish. The floor-to-ceiling aquarium has species native to the waterway, including trout, salmon, redfish, halibut, turbot and cod. The exhibit has more than 650 specimens.
Across from the aquarium is the “petting pond” where kids can touch fish and ocean dwellers in a shallow, interactive exhibit space. The museum offers a video about the fjord, permanent and changing exhibits.
Musée du Fjord is open all year.
The region is served from Montréal at Saguenay-Bagotville Aéroport by Air Canada, Sunwing, PAL and Pascan airlines. The Québec government has service from Québec City. Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean is also accessible by car from Québec City. It’s a beautiful drive. In addition to the four airlines serving Saguenay, Québec City Jean-Lesage International Aéroport is served by American, United and WestJet.
It’s about a three-hour drive using Québec Route 185, Route Antonio-Talbot. In winter, rent an all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicle. The road from the provincial capital is a divided, limited-access highway. It’s an easy and beautiful drive, most of the way through Réserve Faunique des Laurentides.
Celebrating Winter in Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean
While the winter is beautiful in Québec, it does require some planning and layering to stay warm. During the four days in Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean, an unexpected cold front dropped the temperature between -20C (-4F) to -42C (-40F) range with the wind whipping across the lake and down from the arctic. When planning an active day, avoid cotton and plan to layer up.
Layers of clothing that transpire perspiration and block the wind are perfect. I wore Knocker men’s polyester long underwear every day, an REI Co-Op Stacked shirt with a sweater. Sometimes I wore a breathable fabric sweatshirt. With my ski parka, a Buff multi-functional headwear over my neck and ears, wool cap and ski gloves, I was never cold. I also wore a glove liner to give my finger the flexibility to use my Canon EOS 80D camera.
Exploring the Boreal forest in the winter provides unique life experiences for the family, there’s more in the summer. This is the land of the wild blueberry. When the snows melt and flowers bloom, seasonal économusées are open featuring local craft foods and all things blueberry. Even the beautiful bike trail around-Lac-Saint-Jean is called the Veloroute des Bleuets, the bike route of blueberries.
Temperatures are moderate and there is a little less humidity than experiences along le Fleuve Saint-Laurent. Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean is splashed with hundreds of lakes in the forests. The Saguenay Fjord is an adventure in canoe or kayak.