Riding Snowmobiles In the Lac St. Jean Area of Quebec
By Scott A. Sumner
For as long as I've snowmobiled you would hear how great the riding was in Quebec. The week of January 13 to 17, 2003 I got to find out they were right. My trip began with a flight to Bagotville with stops in Toronto and Montreal. Some 1200 air miles from Thunder Bay and about 250 miles north of Montreal, this is beautiful country. The snow conditions were fantastic and with an elevation of over 3000 feet, the Monts Valin area was spectacular.
Unique to this trip was the opportunity to experience dog sledding, the mode of transportation before the snowmobile or moto - neige as they call it in Quebec. One thing I learned about the Quebec people on this trip was that they dont do things in a small way. Our dog sled ride began with the choosing of the teams of 5 dogs for our three sleds. This was an interesting time with 60 howling dogs anxious to get chosen for the trip in the -25 celsius weather. Our guide was Deighten, an experienced 25 year old outdoorsman who loved the sport. The dogs were huskies, malamutes, and alaskans. The malamute is not as smart but strong. The alaskan is for racing. The departure speeds of the dogs were 25 to 30 km per hour. After a hour their speed drops to 12 to 15 km per hour.
Each week the company, Les Chiens et Gate au Grand Nord does 5 or 6 trips with their three guides. The cost is $100 per day which includes lunch. You can go on 1 day to 5 day trips in which you stay overnight in tents. "There was no fishing because we have our trips in a private park. We've got some camps and a tent with us. We just need trees to build the tent," states Deighten Chouinard. "The dogs eat four pounds of meat per day at the end of the day. We have Americans, people from South Martinique, England, Germany, Sweden, and Australia."
Our trip was 30 kilometers and lasted 5 hours on the trail with an hour for lunch for the mushers (thats us!). It was made on a fire started on the side of a lake and consisted of meat pie with vegetables. "You can go 100 km per day but the dogs will be tired. We feed them everyday but they can go three or four days with no food. "It's not like a snowmachine then," laughs Deighten. The trip on up and down terrain , lakes and tight trail conditions was really fun. The musher had to control the dogs and help them up the slopes, meaning he got a physical workout. The dogs sometimes decided to take a short cut on the trail and this resulted in one of the media on the trip falling off the sled into deep snow. Our sled got caught up on a tree one time and brought us to an abrupt halt! It was fun to see the dogs perform as a team with only a little fighting amongst themselves. Also during our lunch break they slept in the frigid weather getting ready for the 15 km trip back. The teams picked up speed on the way back, probably anxiously anticipating their reward, a 4 pound frozen block of chicken, which they would devour in 30 seconds. I was glad we were going back to the La Pourvoire du Cap au Leste, our lodge for three days and their great food from chef Francois. The "Cap au Leste" is a rustic resort with a main lodge for meals and several large three storey cabins. Each one with a fireplace, main seating area and up to ten bedrooms complete with bathroom and a spectacular view overlooking the Fiord.
The unique part of this area is that the fiord consists of seawater. Sea water comes into the fiord because its a glacier valley. Three quarters of Canada is created by glacier. This is the Canadian Shield where a glacier dug up the river. A fiord is a glacier valley but connected to the sea. So that glacier valley runs into the sea and both are at the same level. "We have four tides here because it is very narrow and there is lots of salt water. At the surface the water is at 16 grams of salt per litre for the first 31 feet. From there to the bottom, 300 meters, the water is 36 grams of salt per litre, just like every sea or ocean in the world," states Regis Fournier, operations manager of Quebec Hors Circuit and our guide for most of the week. "The fish here would live in the sea like cod. There are 54 kinds of fish that can survive with less salt. No fresh fish can handle salt, but some salt water fish can live in a less salt water environment. Whales can also live in fresh water as they are mammals and breathe air. There are 13 species of whales in the region. The Buloga whales live here and four species of seals as well. The other whales come here in the summer migration. Some arrive early, some late etc. In the month of August all 13 species of whales and four of seals are here." There are also sharks. The salt water freezes at -15c and it was -28c during our trip.
The tide system operates every six hours. It lifts the ice up and down 6 meters each time. There are two low tides and two high tides. The ice lifts everywhere but you only notice it on the shore lines. You can drive on the ice like a ramp in a shallow bay however in a steep area there is open water. On a full moon the tide is bigger. The water is 300 metres deep and the same depth everywhere because of the glacier. The fiord is deeper that the ocean. In the summer people come to see whales, either sea kayaking and or in zodiac boats. Our guide Regis is a graduate of the University of Montreal in Aeronautical Engineering, but choose to get into the adventure guiding business because he has more fun. "Programming satellite systems, with Spar Aerospace, all day long wasn't that interesting. It's my own business." smiles Regis. "We have a lot of Americans visit here although they use their own snowmobiles. The Europeans use guides. Our highest cost guided trip is 5 day snowmobiling where we stay at good hotels costing $5000 without the plane fare. I'm happy when they come for 7 days and forget what day is it. They quit their lives for a while. They forget everything. When I accomplish that, I've done my job."
Snowmobiling was what I was looking forward to and we weren't disappointed with a great two days of riding. Our first day began helping Regis start the 2003 Ski Doo Skandic 550 Fan sleds after a cold night. Although I am used to a liquid cooled higher performance sled these machines ran very well and I enjoyed our trips on them. Their top speed was 100 km per hour, with a smooth ride and pretty good acceleration. Our trip with five riders and our photographer began from the Cap au Leste and soon got us onto the world famous Quebec trail system. Two of our riders were first time on a sled and the other two were very experienced plus our guide Regis who was a very good rider. In fact one of the media on the trip normally rides a Yamaha RX 1 and puts on 8000 km in a normal year. After a 65 km ride we stopped for lunch on the trail at a very unique restaurant. In the summer it was church and in winter a restaurant for snowmobilers only. "There are a lot of cabins for people to pass their vacation and they attend the the church," states Regis.
This day of riding I saw more police on the trail than ever before. It seems the Quebec police were out training officers from across the province to become eligable for snowmobile patrol. There must have been 30 plus police on snowmobiles, with many at the restaurant for lunch. In a winter Regis and his company, Quebec Hors- Circuits will guide 500 people snowmobiling. "I have some incentive groups where the boss pays for their best clients or sales staff to go on a snowmobile trip. Sometimes it's a short trip or it can be several days. On some of these trips we will have up to 6 guides and 60 people. We have one snowmobile rental dealer for the people at Cap au Leste and we have 6 sleds ourselves. With big groups our sleds become guide machines," states Regis.
A one day guided trip like we were on for a driver is about $275 per day including machine, gas, oil, suit and lunch. "If you are a passenger it is $75.00 per day. We have lots of families so you can have your kid or wife on the back," stated Regis. "Normally the one day trip is 130 km. We have some 3, 4 and 5 days trips on trail and some off trail. In March we will cross Western Quebec James Bay to Moosanee in Ontario. We will spend two nights in native villages in the bush and two nights in a hotel."
Many of the riders are first time snowmobilers. "90% of our clients have never ridden a machine. 50% have never seen snow as they are from Europe: including Italy and the South of France. Typically there are 30% of groups who ride motorcycles and they dream of snowmobiling, as it is a kind of motorcyling on snow. Those guys get quick pretty fast." states Regis "I guide in kayaking, zodiac rides, canoeing, skiing and snowmobiling. I dont guide for fishing. The only thing I dont get bored of is snowmobiling. I do it in my own vacation. I love it. The people from France, Switzerland and Spain like the normal on trail trips. The Switzerland people want off trail trips. The Germans want a special trip like in Nunavik. It's just not groomed trails to cabins. One machine has passed the route maybe a week ago." says Regis.
High performance sleds are available but in less demand as a rental sled. For example you could rent a 2003 Arctic Cat F7 for $200 per day with no gas etc. A 2003 Ski Doo Skandic 550 Fan is $140/ day for just the sled. "In the renting business you need to be booked for 30 days to break even. At 40 days you make good money. High performance sleds dont usually make their 30 days," states Regis "We have reservations for 35 days this year already. After two years we sell the sleds. The guide machine (a Ski Doo Skandic 20 inch track) always goes out. In a good winter it can go 10,000 km. We change the regular sleds normally at 5000 km. The length of the snowmobile season is 22 weeks from Nov. 1 to last of April usually."
Ski Doo is coming out with a chip made for the renting business and for families according to Regis. "A guy will get two or three computer chips so he can block the speed at 80 km and then take the open chip when he rides."
The speed on the trails in Quebec is 70 Km. The local Caribou Snowmobile Club has 2000 members and the cost of a trail permit is $180. Normally the temperature at -15 celsius.
Our second day of riding was even more spectacular with our destination the top of Monts Valin. This park has an elevation of over 3000 feet and we were able to travel to the top for a great view. The snow was at a depth of 8 feet here and will rise to 16 feet by the end of March. This was great riding and the heavy snow covered trees were very beautiful. "It was out of this world, a fabulous experience like I was in a sugar plumb fairy land. It was like walking in a forest of coral. It was amazing," stated Guy Desnauliers of Tourism Canada who reached the peak of Mont Valin by snowshoe with some of our group. After a great day of riding we were off to our final nights stay at the Aubberge du Battoire, a very nice hotel overlooking the Fiord. This was luxury with jacussis in the rooms and a great restaurant overlooking the place where tommorrrow we would try our hand at icefishing. Unique to this area is the salt water and we were to icefish in one of the 5000 huts on the fiord for red sea perch. This area is known for winter icefishing and as I hadn't done this for many years. It was a lot of fun in the hut with four lines and hearing the stories of great fishing. We didnt have lots of time before we had to leave for lunch and the Bagotville airport for our trip home. It was a great week and one that Ill always remember. I hope to be able to go back and see the whales in August.