Snowpocalypse Never: In Quebec, Winter’s Just An Excuse To Kick It Up a Notch

February 10, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Posted in Canada, Quebec, skiing/snow sports | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

ice slide at Quebec Winter CarnivalFolks in large swaths of the USA’s Northeast have been shellshocked by the so-called “snowpocalypse” these past several days, but meanwhile, up here in southern Quebec, I’ve been witnessing firsthand how little the locals let a little weather slow them down. In fact, they take it up a notch. Even with average annual snowfalls of 14 feet (4 meters) and subfreezing temperatures, for the past 55 years Quebeckers have thrown their own pre-Lenten Carnaval d’Hiver, falling around the same time as Mardi Gras, the big blowout in Rio de Janeiro, and other such overheated frolics (this year, the dates are February 29 to January 14; next year January 28-February 13).

Most Winter Carnival action takes place on a few dozen acres of the Plains of Abraham in Old Quebec City just below the National Assembly building. As I walked through the gates, to my left kids whooshed down a long, slick chute of ice and to my right, a couple of others brandished from long, blue and red plastic horns, bleating the likes of which you’d expect from a flatulent moose. Farther up to the left, I spotted somebody careening down a zipline across the way from the “Arctic Spas” area, which sported not just a dry sauna but a bunch of bubbling hot tubs, several filled with folks in bathing suits (managing to be at once sedate and at least a bit extreme).

Snow bath at Quebec Winter CarnivalAnd so it went. I checked out some ingenious snow sculptures, and careened downhill on a whitewater raft; made maple-syrup pops in the snow at a “sugar shack” and that night boogied to earsplitting techno and hip-hop in front of a glowing ice-brick castle. I’m sorry to miss this Saturday’s “snow bath,” though, in which a few dozen guys and gals strip down to beachwear and roll around in the white stuff. Frozen cheesecake, indeed.

The festivities get spread out a bit to outlying areas, too. I spent part of one afternoon down at the port watching teams of men and women charging through the ice-clogged St. Lawrence River in fiberglass canoes. It looked incredibly cold and incredibly dangerous; at dinner that night at the grandest hotel in town, the Château Frontenac, my friends and I ran into the captain of the winning team (which was, as it happens, for the 18th time in a row none other than…the Château Frontenac team), who burbled on so enthuastically about the experience and the rigorous training that goes into it. Then suddenly he stopped himself, then added with a smile, “I must sound like a freak.” No, no, we assured him — just incredibly committed (we didn’t specify whether we meant “committed” in a good way or the mental-institution way). A little less chilly and daredevilish was the Mardi-Gras-style night parade in the suburb of Charlesbourg, with some pretty snazzy floats and moves, presided over by Bonhomme, a chap in a jolly, red-capped snowman suit — the symbol of Carnival.

Clearly, a lot of locals spend a lot of the year putting this extravaganza together. Savoring a steaming hot caribou (red wine octaned-up with brandy) at a table with a couple of Quebeckers in one of the food-and-drink tents, I took my French out for a spin, marveling at the 17-day event’s quality, organization, and enthusiasm. One middle-aged gent shrugged and said, “well, everybody has their way of getting through the winter. This is ours.”

But this embrace of winter doesn’t start or stop with Carnival — far from it. I also got to pop out of town, a half hour up to a bucolic resort called Station Touristique Duchesnay, where I found locals and tourists alike snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dogsledding, cross-country skiing, and ice-fishing their hearts out. As my little group snowstomped along a ridge, we passed a yellowish frozen waterfall, and our twentysomething guide Yannick blurted — “oh, now ice-climbing — that’s my favorite thing to do in the world!” Whatever you say, dude. Afterward, with only the most minimal of preliminary instructions, Nicolas at Aventure Inukshuk let me drive a dogsled, even though eyeing that jumping, yipping team of huskies was turning me to nervous mush (get it, mush?). It was a workout, for sure, but I’m pleased to report that no humans or canines were harmed in the making of this anecdote (hey, it’s all in the brake); the team behind us, though, did at one point veer off into the woods and ended up with their mush puppies snarled up.

At Quebec's Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel)The highlight out at Duchesnay, though, had to be my night at the famous Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel), one of only two in the world, now in its tenth season. Running this year January 4 to April 4, it’s a work of art with the feel of a crystalline fairyland, including a nightclub, a chapel, and museum, an indoor ice slide, a hot-tub/sauna courtyard, and 36 rooms housing 88 people (some are plain cells, others artistically carved; rates start at CA$189*). Virtually everyone, myself formerly included, is simultaneously tickled and nervous about being unconscious for six-plus hours in an icebox. So they give you a thorough orientation on how to deal with your sleeping bag and store your stuff, dressing and undressing, getting up to go to the bathroom, and so forth. After an exceptional dinner in the main — and conventional — Auberge Duchesnay a couple hundred feet up the hill, that night’s guests hit the ice bar, which serves a range of soft drinks and tipples (try the Sortilège maple whiskey) in square tumblers of ice. Amid colored lights and disco music, an animatrice (kind of a social director) kept everybody busy — and warm –with activities like a scavenger hunt and ice sculpting. At midnight, c’est fini and it’s off to dreamland. Some people find the experience — mostly due to the sleeping bag — claustrophic, but for me it was fine. I woke up a couple of times, but not because of the cold; I did pass on my habitual 3am bathroom run, though. Folks generally spend only one night on ice and the rest up in the conventional lodge, but still, as unusual experiences go, this one’s definitely a keeper.

Leave it to the Quebeckers — they can teach us all a thing or two about making friends with winter.

*US$178; £114; €130; AU$203, NZ$257, R1378

photos: 1/3 David Paul Appell, 2 Quebec Winter Carnival
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