My four-year-old daughter’s name is Raquel, and I wish I could explain her feisty nature by the fact that she’s an Aries and half Brazilian and possibly possessed by a hyperactive leprechaun. Oh, she’s a busload of handful, but she’s also fun and impossibly cute and so enthusiastic her body can rock with excitement. Bucket Lists often get lumped with mortality, when the root of the phenomenon is really about life. It’s about the things we want to do, above all else, and above all else, my daughter wants to engage with animals.
Like a watered down drink with 14 parts tonic and one part vodka, Canada’s “abundant” wildlife is diluted across enormous distances. If you’re exceptionally lucky, you might see a bear, or a moose, or an elk, but while we might claim to have the Galapagos of the North, Canada is not the Galapagos. I asked myself: where can your kids meet Canada’s great animals? Where can you expose them to new cultures, landscapes, adventures and languages? Quebec, bien sûr! In particular, the beautiful region of Saguenay-Lac St Jean and the Quebec Maritimes. Via Montreal, Raquel and I fly into Bagotville, an airforce base doubling as a regional airport, rent a car, overnight in a local hotel (ie play a little hotel bed trampoline), and scoot off for a date with Baa Baa and friends.
La Vieille Ferme is a sustainable sheep farm located on the 105km-long Saguenay Fjord, the most southerly fjord in the northern hemisphere. Raquel’s a little overwhelmed to be dropped into a 100-year-old barn surrounded by bleating sheep. One day they’re just pictures in books and sounds in nursery rhymes, the next they’re smelly, muddy, baa-baaing creatures eating grain out your hand. When you travel with young kids, everything you see is equal parts fun and terrifying. Take the bearskin rug in the farm’s lovely suite where visitors can spend the night. Raquel called it Baloo. Three seconds after discovering it wouldn’t swallow her, she refused to get off the furry thing.
The nearby adventure park of Cap Jaseux was still prepping for the summer season, but we popped over to check out their unusual tree-top sphere accommodation. Resembling spaceships that have crashed into the forest canopy, Raquel was a little sceptical until I called them Fairy Balls. Blitzing around the treetops and beach high on bribe-induced ptit bonbons, she didn’t realize that rain boats don’t stop seawater drowning your tootsies should you walk into the sea knee-high. This led to a full-blown thermonuclear jet lag meltdown (Cap Jaseux do promise adventure). Fortunately, an hour’s drive away are several animals to come to my rescue.
Family owned and operated, Ferme 5 Etoiles is four-season nature resort designed to put a smile on the face of family travel. In winter they offer dogsledding, ice-fishing and snowmobiling. In summer, it’s ATV’s, sea kayaking and hiking. Throughout the large property are farmyard animals, deer, bison, moose, and more exotic rescues like fox, lynx, moose, wolves and emu. Each morning at 8:30am we could feed the quail, chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, puppies, kittens, and Raquel’s favourite, the peacocks. We howled with Jacob the large grey wolf and Luna the Arctic wolf, laughed at Rico and Rosie the cheeky racoons, patted Bella the white-tailed deer, and kept our distance from Peter the skunk and the curious beaks of the emu. Squealing with delight, we shredded through spring snow and muddy puddles on an ATV, exploring the surrounding landscape on our way to a black bear observation deck. Some kids might have been scared, but I was proud to see that the Apple in my Eye hasn’t fallen too far from the adventurous tree.
Our roadtrip continues to Tadoussac, where we check out the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre to learn about the many whales who visit the fjord each year, and hop on a free ferry crossing across the fjord and back. Returning to the regional centre of Chicoutimi on Route 172, our next stop is Alpaga Bersi, a friendly alpaca and llama farm where Raquel feeds dozens of the furry creatures. Here they spin yarn from individually named and lovingly cared for alpacas on-site, so you can accurately name your sweater. Onwards we drive to the industrial town of Alma, staying at the Hotel Universal overlooking the raging Saguenay River. Here we rent bikes and ride on the Véloroute des bleuets, a lovely trail alongside two massive dams with the floodgates wide open. As with so many firsts during this trip, it was Raquel’s first time on a bike extension. When the kids are smiling, everything is cest fun!
We pulled the car over when we saw Lac St-Jean for the first time, an inland sea that stretches over one thousand square kilometres. This is terrific roadtrip country, a smooth road passing small lakeside towns with impressive steeples. Chambord, Roberval, Saint-Prime – at times I had to remind myself we’re in Canada and not rural France. Our final stop is the region’s biggest attraction, the Zoo sauvage de Saint-Félicien. A sprawling complex, the Wild Zoo has reinvented itself various times over the decades and is now focused specifically on the creatures of the North. Remember that scene in Jurassic Park when everyone gets on a bus and enters the dinosaur habitat? That’s what it’s like in the the Wild Zoo’s Nature Trail Park. A land-train puts guests inside the cage as it snakes seven kilometres through a huge area where bears, bison, elk, deer, musk ox and moose roam free. The Mixed Forest zone houses beavers, eagles, porcupines, otters, seals, and racoons, while big-horned sheep, mountain goat, lynx and grizzly bears inhabit the Mountain zone. We toured the vet hospital and played with a beaver, learned how the animals are fed and cared for. There’s a quote I’ve always loved: “You can’t save what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know.” At the Wild Zoo, they use another: “learn to know, know to love, love to protect.” Conservation and education lie at the heart of the place, and while some might argue that large enclosures are no place for Siberian tigers or polar bears, it’s also the only place a four-year-old can see that these are actual creatures and not pixels on a screen. Pixels under tremendous threat from human encroachment and a changing climate. It was also inspiring to see how many staff – zoologists, vets, guides and keepers – were women and the impact that can have on a little girl.
Located about three hours drive from Quebec City, there’s much to see and do around Saguenay and Lac St-Jean. Outstanding summer whale watching, one of the best via ferratas in the country in Saguenay Fjord National Park, lively small towns and yes, plenty of wildlife too. It wasn’t my first visit to the region, but it has been one of the most memorable trips of my career. Kids have a funny way of fine-tuning the most important experiences in life. A funny way of changing bucket lists too.