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Bears and Wolves in Canada’s Outback

“The only thing to be scared of is the cold,” warned Thérèse as she started her pick-up and cranked on the heat. “The bears and the wolves shouldn’t bother you, but the cold is another story.” She smiled and rolled up her window. The headlights of her pick-up poured across the swirling blackness of the Jacques Cartier river. My girlfriend Adèle and I watched anxiously as she slowly drove away down the corrugated dirt road that led back to Park headquarters. When the great shadowy bulk of a mountain finally swallowed her flickering headlights, the cold stillness of a Québec evening seemed to fall upon us at once. We turned on our headlamps, wrapped our faces behind thick fleece scarves, and began the three kilometer hike to our remote mountain-side hut. 

The wilderness of Canada first entered my imagination when I was a student at the University of Maine and read Voltaire’s Candide, the classic French philosophical work wherein Canada is dismissed as nothing more than “several acres of snow.” Of course, being a native Mainer raised several hours from the Canadian border, I knew that Canada wasn’t lacking in snow, but I really had no idea of its geographical vastness. A few weeks later, tempted by Voltaire’s offhanded claim, I sat down in the library and studied a map of Canada. It was a 16th Century reproduction of the map from the voyages of Jacques Cartier, and I was instantaneously fascinated by the tremendous blank space north of what is now Montréal and Québec City. Even when I referred to more contemporary maps from the 1990’s, the overwhelming spaciousness was still there, rarely interrupted by villages or roads.
On a clear October evening in 2003, over seven years after reading Candide, my fascination with really roughing it in Canada’s immense wilderness was finally coming to fruition. Adèle and I were in Québec’s Jacques Cartier Provincial Park, over 17 kilometers from the nearest paved road, with -8ºC temperatures and a strong southeasterly wind pushing at our backs. Thérèse, a hiker from Québec City, had been kind enough to drop us off at the trailhead after hearing that we planned to spend the night in the mountains. We had reserved our “rustic campsite” back in July, when such cold seemed impossible, back when the park was crawling with short-wearing backpackers, canoeists, and rock climbers. The bliss of temperate summer weather had charmed us into making this reservation, despite the myriad brochures and signs at park headquarters warning us of frostbite, hypothermia, and snow blindness only a few months off. But our summer visit to the park had been so refreshing and impressive that we couldn’t pass up an autumn visit as well. 

What had impressed us the most about Park Jacques Cartier was the remarkably quiet dirt road that carved the whole way along the picturesque Jacques Cartier River. We were accustomed to visiting National Parks in the U.S., where extensive and busy road systems have a tendency to take some of the wildness out of the parks. In the Québec provincial park system, however, things are a bit slower paced. A shuttle bus is available to pick visitors up at park headquarters every half hour and drop them off at the trail of their choice. The bus runs the entirety of the dirt road, and then heads back again, picking people up throughout the day. Thus, traffic and noise pollution are limited, and the shuttle bus seems to foster a sense of community amongst hikers who get to talking on the ride. Adèle and I took advantage of the minimal traffic by biking the 32km length of the dirt road and then getting picked up at the end by the shuttle bus. We saw a fox, a moose, picnicked on large rocks by the side of the river, felt like we were in the wild all day, yet  the predictability and comfort of the bus always there for us.

In contrast to our summer experience, late autumn in the park was an entirely different breed of adventure. Within the three months since our previous visit, the landscape had metamorphosed from a gentle, verdant countryside into a vast and overwhelmingly grayish-white snowscape. Though only an inch or two of snow had fallen since mid-October, everything already had the magical touch of winter. As we gradually found our hiking rhythm and began to warm up, the more we opened our eyes and noticed the subtle grandeur of the nature around us. Moonlight through the bare limbs of maple trees, snowshoe hare and squirrel tracks everywhere, the uninterrupted sounds of a forest at night, smells of raw winter earth.

After thirty minutes of mostly uphill hiking, we came to a small clearing in the middle of a dense patch of conifers and saw the sign for our hut. It was hidden at the edge of the clearing, next to a narrow, rocky stream that flowed down from the hulking white silhouette of a mountain. We had expected a rustic hut, a mere shelter to protect hikers from the snow and wind, but when we finally cracked open the frozen door we were pleasantly surprised. It was a cozy, well-insulated room with four beds and mattresses and a cast-iron stove fully stocked with kindling and wood. Rudimentary kitchen utensils were hanging on the wall, and someone had even left a half-tin of maple syrup on the picnic table with a note reading: “Bon appetit! À la prochaine!”

The first thing we did was stoke up the fire to a healthy blaze. Then we peeled off interminable layers of polypro and fleece and wool, set up our sleeping bags, and broke out a bottle of wine and some maple syrup cookies. We spent the next few hours by candlelight, sipping heated red wine and looking out across the spacious whiteness of a Canadian winter. An adventure that we had both been silently regretting only thirty minutes earlier had turned into a snug, warm evening in the middle of the north country.

If only Voltaire could see us now!

To make reservations in the Park Jacques Cartier campsites, group chalets, or backcountry huts, call 1-800-665-6527 or visit on the web. Assistance is available in both English and French.

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