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Noel in the Northern Forests

Tony Robinson-Smith

Stop en Route for Snacks © Tony Robinson-Smith

On Christmas Day, the third day of our trek through the snow-jammed forests of Vallée Bras-du-Nord, my Québécoise wife and I arrive at the foot of Chute Delaney. Mid-winter—when it is minus twenty or so—the four-hundred-and-ninety-two-foot waterfall probably resembles an old man's beard rippling down the cliff, the fallen birch branches entombed in ice looking, perhaps, like errant dark hairs. Today it is in transition, slowly crusting over. Open mouths lined with icicle teeth gape from the beard, water sloshing about in each. We look up in silence and hear the sound of cracking ice. The temperature was above freezing yesterday, but now it has dropped again. Tonight will be cold at the yurt above the fall.

This may be the third year we have skipped conventional Christmas and headed into the woods on snowshoes, but I have yet to acclimatize to the rigors of the activity. On the narrow trails, I keep tripping over the cumbersome “raquettes” strapped to my feet and snagging my hiking poles on skeletal maple saplings poking up through the snow. Without gaiters the first day, the rear end of my snowshoes kicked up snow and tossed it into my boots. My heels and toes soon froze. In the warmer weather yesterday, we were bombed regularly by snow sliding off the slanting branches of conifers, one landing neatly in the hood of my jacket and splattering my neck. We are glad, though, to dodge the frivolity of Christmas: the insane scrum at the shopping mall for gifts; the treacly festive tunes repeated ad nauseam on the radio and in stores; grinning marshmallow Santas and gingerbread snowmen; the chopping down of trees like those around us and the dumping of them on the side of the street after the two weeks of Noel and New Year.

Vallée Bras-du-Nord is in the Laurentian Mountains, a forty-five-minute drive northwest from Québec City (three hours from Montréal). “Bras-du-Nord” means “Northern-Arm, ” and our map of the area shows a forearm of flat land reaching up between two mountain ridges with the village of Saint-Raymond at the elbow and Shannahan Welcome Center where the arm branches into a hand. A river tracks up the valley like a swollen vein. The park—partly on public land, partly on private—is managed by a non-profit cooperative of employees, tourism service providers, local businesses, and landowners. It offers back-country skiing, “fat biking, ” and snowshoeing in the winter, canoeing, kayaking, hiking (80 kilometers of trails), and mountain biking (149 kilometers) in the summer, and horse-riding all year round. In summer, Chute Delaney attracts “canyoneers, ” those who like to rappel down a waterfall while being pounded with white water.


Sauntering of the Eye

Waterfall of Ice © Tony Robinson-Smith

Following red and white flashes painted on the trunks of the trees, Nadya and I begin our ascent of the path beside the waterfall. According to a description on the back of the map, the cliffs here “sont à couper le souffle” – take the breath away – meaning, I suppose, that they rear up splendidly from the valley. For us, the steepness of the path is what steals our breath. We must kick the crampons on our shoes into the icy snow and heave our bodies and backpacks up, snatching at low branches for extra support.

The going is slow, the stops to rest frequent, but that, I have come to realize, is what it is all about: find a rhythm, engage the senses, let the eye, as Thoreau would say, saunter. I look around. There appears to be little going on in the wood at this time of year. The trees are leafless, the birds have migrated, and life seems immobilized by snow and cold. But then, suddenly, there is the ratcheting trill of a chipmunk squatting on a low branch, objecting to our passage, or the knocking of a woodpecker, digging grubs out of a dead tree. And I see from the pile of shiny, brown pebbles at our feet and the deep, double-toe hoof prints ahead of us that we are not the first to walk this path. I peer through the trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of a lumbering creature with branching antlers. There are shallower indentations in the snow, too, crossing the moose tracks, those of a raccoon or possibly porcupine, judging by the claw marks.

“Look! Look up there!” Nadya hisses suddenly, waving at me to stop. A bright yellow bird is darting around the tops of the conifers beside the trail.

“Oriole?” It is all I can think of. I didn't expect to see any birds at close quarters, clumping along like we are, poles twanging each time we plant them in the snow.

Nadya shakes her head. “I don't think orioles are here in winter. Besides, this one is wearing a pair of spectacles!”

There are two of them, larger than sparrows but similar in build, with black and white wings and fat beaks, one bird a duller yellow than the other. And the dressier one does seem to have yellow spectacles or flaming eyebrows brightening its brown head. Evening grosbeaks, we would learn later from the bird book. Their appearance reminds me of the cedar waxwings we encountered last year at Sentiers des Caps in Charlevoix, another region of forested mountains good for snowshoeing. Against the white of winter, the birds, with their black masks, spiked crests, chestnut bodies, and lemon tail flashes, seem like escapees from paradise. It takes us two hours to reach the yurt, and the view from the cliff edge of ice constricting the winding river below and of the snow-spattered ridge on the far side of the valley “coupe le souffle. ”


Night in a Yurt

A Yurt © Tony Robinson-Smith

Yurts I associate more with the treeless wastes of Outer Mongolia and nomadic goat herders than a woodland park in Québec and recreational hikers, but they are becoming increasingly popular in Canada, and Vallée Bras-du-Nord has several of them. Maybe visitors who prefer not to camp feel closer to nature with canvas over their heads than they do under the wood rafters of a log cabin. Yurts are circular structures with conical roofs, the canvas pulled taut over thirty or so ribs forming the cone and the wooden lattice of the walls. In the one above Chute Delaney, Nadya and I find eight bunk beds, a woodstove, a large table and chairs, and two billycans. A disadvantage of staying in a yurt is that there are no corners to retreat into and read a book, an issue perhaps if you happen to be sharing with strangers. An advantage is that there are no mice.

Ne laissez aucune nourriture dans les refuges pour éviter d'attirer les souris et les ours! ” says a notice on the wall, a cartoon depicting a park employee scaling the cliff with broom, mop, dustpan, and bucket dangling on a rope from his belt. “Leave no food in the cabins so as not to attract mice or bears!” Help our staff keep the cabins clean, it goes on to say.

Mice live in the walls of log cabins in the woods, Nadya and I have found, and are disposed to emerge in the dead of night and perform acrobatic feats, like leaping onto tables looking for food crumbs or hanging upside down from coat pegs and chewing holes in bags of rations suspended there. Last night in Refuge Le Draveur, they even managed to burrow into the bag I hung from a nail outside the front door and feast on our trail mix. A second notice in that cabin of a cartoon rambler, wearing a baseball cap marked “Liberté,” implored patrons not to behave like “cochons” (pigs) and clean up after themselves. We found the refuge swept and spotless.

Our night in the yurt is disturbed neither by those travelling on two legs nor those getting about on four. We carry logs in from a shed outside, and I scoop up snow in one of the billies and set it on the stove. For dinner, we make soup and couscous and eat by the light of a candle.

An amiable note on the wall, written by a Québecer who came here in the fall, bids us take the time to appreciate the mountains, the sky, the “air pure, ” our health, our friends, and give thanks to the universe for granting us all these.


Snow Jellyfish

Poster Telling Visitors Not to Behave Like Pigs © Tony Robinson-Smith

It takes almost six hours for us to hike the twelve kilometers to Refuge Le Montagne Art, our final night halt. The trail follows the ridge south, and we get glimpses of the valley when it veers towards the edge of the cliff. We don't pause long to admire the view. The wind picked up during the night and continues to blow, numbing our fingers and bringing tears to our eyes. The Christmas cake we carry in our pockets never tasted so good.

Mid-afternoon, we begin a steep descent from the ridge (at times, on our behinds) and arrive at the foot of another waterfall near the cabin.

“See the face? ” Nadya asks, nodding at the fall while we catch our breath.

That is why I like hiking with my wife: her capacity to look at a landscape imaginatively. Yes, two cavernous holes in the ice do look like crooked eyes and another below them like a twisted grin. “Two fat men in a hot tub,” she said once when we were hiking in the Himalayas. We were gazing down at a pair of rounded mountains, poking their heads through stirring cloud. In the stream above the waterfall, she finds “une méduse de neige, ” a snow jellyfish, a boulder with a snowy back and a frill of icicles resembling tentacles. There's artistry in northern winter, the snow and ice creating new forms: waterfalls become bearded sages; rocks metamorphose into sea creatures.

I expected to feel tired and dirty after five days in the woods, in need of a hot shower and a cappuccino. Instead, we feel energized and cleansed. The back of the map says that a visit to Vallée Bras-du-Nord gives you the chance “de... se reposer, se revivifier, ” to rest and recharge the batteries. Next Christmas, we will have to stay for longer.

Tony Robinson-Smith has written travel stories for the Globe & Mail, Perceptive Travel, and Tashi Delek, Druk Air's in-flight magazine. Back in 6 Years, his travel book about circling the planet without using aircraft, demonstrates how refusing to fly can land you in plenty of trouble.