Imagine you’re in a canoe on a tranquil lake. As your paddle creates gentle ripples in the water, you’re breathing in the calm, relaxing scent of nature. Ice canoeing in Quebec City is nothing like that. Each Winter Carnaval, teams of strappingly fit competitors hoist, haul, push, pull, and paddle heavy wooden canoes across ice sheets and water channels of the St Lawrence River. Much like Dragon Boat racing, it is quite the spectacle, except dragon boat racers don’t have inch-long screws in their shoes, spikes on the end of their paddles, and sharp chunks of ice ready to splinter their boat, and their bones, at any moment. Historically, ice canoes played an important part in the history of the city. Shuttling passengers and goods between the shores of the St Lawrence, ice canoes were the ambulances, delivery trucks and mail vans, operating each winter in snow, ice and freezing rain. The strong tides of the St Lawrence add further challenges, as the pack ice constantly shifts, requiring a combination of strength and navigational skills to successfully make the crossing. Ice Canoe Races took place in the city’s first Carnaval back in 1894, and today remains a highlight of the world’s largest winter festival. With the recent launch of a company offering visitors and locals the opportunity to experience ice canoeing for themselves, it’s just the sort of unique, one-of-a-kind adventure that belongs on our national bucket list. Which is how I find myself sweating bullets in the middle of the St Lawrence River, dodging sharp pack ice, and the occasional rusty crampon spike.
Although it attracts teams from as far away as France, Alberta and the USA, competitive ice canoeing is a sport unique to Quebec. Each team customizes their equipment with screws, spikes, handles, and even moulded booties. With the support of Rowing Canada and the Quebec Port Authority, former race organizer Felix Blanchet-Levesque founded Ice Canoe Quebec to introduce the public to the sport. We meet at the boat launch located riverside on the Plains of Abraham. After a casual briefing, I’m provided with neoprene socks and booties, a life vest, shin and knee guards, and rather intimidating slip-on crampons. Heavy screws serve as spikes to avoid slipping on the ice. Two guides demonstrate the five different positions in the canoe, and how to transition from rowing position to “scootering” – the art of pushing the canoe across the ice. With all the spikes and crampons about, I pay careful attention to avoid raking clothes (at best) or scarring my fellow racers for life (at worst). When hitting ice, rowers put away their paddles, and slide into scootering position (shins and hands in the boat) using one foot to propel the canoe forward, much like a skateboard. Nothing to it if we were on an ice rink, yet it is painfully obvious from the get-go that the St Lawrence River is no such thing. Ice sheets are erratic and sharp, and about as unpredictable as a jackal juggling sushi knives. Our canoe tilts and drops with no warning. Our pushing legs suddenly sink into dead-cold waters. We wade forward until reaching the next patch of ice where we must haul the canoe up, only to quickly receive instructions to get back into rowing position. Our guides, both racing veterans, appear have the strength of sixteen human beings. This includes the pint-sized Marie-Janick, who barely reaches my shoulders. She explains that Men and Women teams compete each year, and that women teams do particular well since they’re lighter in weight, and often have better technique. As for my own technique, I am clearly the weakest link in our team. Pains quickly sprout in places I didn’t know I had places. It takes me ages to figure out how to raise my paddle to jam the spike into thinner ice, and how to slide into scootering position without awkwardly tying myself into a thorny pretzel. Fortunately, our race includes plenty of rest stops, hot chocolate, and time to watch the ice packs flow with the tides, with the skyline of old Quebec City sparkling on the south shore.
Teams practice for months to find the pre-requisite fitness and flow, and we luck upon it on one stretch, co-ordinating each push in sync as our canoe carves through the ice. It feels terrific, and then we hit our own little Titanic iceberg, lurch to the right, and narrowly avoid capsizing. Stabbing aches in my thigh muscles tell me that giving myself a 4/5 fitness level on the waiver form was outrageously optimistic. While the true experience is best suited to fitter guests, Ice Canoe Quebec adjusts each excursion to the capabilities of each group. Depending on conditions, you’ll spend about an hour on the water, with training, gear-ups and rest breaks taking another two. As for the story about the time you raced an ice canoe across the frozen St Lawrence in Quebec City? That will last a lifetime.
Excursions with Ice Canoeing Quebec cost $175 per person plus taxes, including two guides per boat, equipment, training and Go Pro video filmed by your guides. No experience is necessary. Departures take place from Quai du Cap Blanc in downtown Quebec. Reservations are essential. www.canotaglacequebec.com