Are you the right stuff for the white stuff?
To survive in the frozen winter wastes of Canada, you need to take some tips from the locals. Adrian Mourby and son learnt the ways of the Huron
Sunday 24 January 2010
We came here to learn winter skills, but at the moment what I'm working on is my how-not-to-write-off-a-$9,000-snowmobile technique.
Andre, our guide, is heading towards Mont St Anne at more than 40mph and I'm doing my best to keep up. To be honest, I'm worried that my son, John, may have fallen off some way back, but when I squint over my shoulder I can make him out, clinging to the pillion in his black protective suit and shiny black helmet like some teenage Darth Vader. This was not quite the winter experience I had in mind when we set off for Quebec Province on Monday.
Speed proved to be of the essence at Stoneham, too, where we had a day on the slopes with Harry, a canny instructor who managed to cure my tendency to turn traversing into a blood sport. No longer did I cannonball across the steeper slopes like a newly released bull in Pamplona. I was almost able to keep up with John who was heading straight down as he always does, ski jacket flapping, hat flying off, his poles going in all directions. Not for nothing is my son known in the family as the Flying Scarecrow.
And it was a similar adrenalin rush in Quebec City where we tore down the old wooden toboggan run on the Terrasse Dufferin at 55mph, making one hell of a noise. In Quebec, at the moment, it's difficult to resist the heady cocktail of snow and adrenaline.
Then we get to Tsonontwan and everything changes. Since we arrived in Canada three days ago, this vacation has been about noise, daring, and speed, plus the occasional bout of bickering over the state in which John leaves his side of our hotel room, and a bit of rebonding, which is part of the reason for coming here. My boy is 19. I don't know how many more father-son holidays we'll manage, but we're going out with a bang. Then, as I say, we get to Tsonontwan.
The car drops us off at midday in the silence of the Jacques Cartier Valley. There are a few scattered houses in the snow, dwarfed by roofs painted green or red but nothing else. Just an infinite number of trees and a sign to say that Tsonontwan is a First Nations Site. For the first time since our arrival in Canada I feel enveloped in silence, and just the slightest worry that we may have arrived on the wrong day. Then I hear a snowmobile and Regent arrives at speed downhill. He does a victory lap around us and then dismounts to shake hands. Regent Garihwa Sioui wears many layers, several traditional necklaces, and a bobble hat. He pulls off huge gloves to shake hands then wipes his glasses.
"So you are here."
Regent looks like a bohemian academic from some liberal east coast university. He is, in fact, a former Huron chief from the Wendat people, who believe they were created on the back of a giant freshwater turtle. Not that Regent holds to that. He is very much a 21st-century Huron, running Tsonontwan as a place where Euro-Americans (as he calls them) can come and stay, learn something about his people, and maybe feel better about themselves.
Regent smiles at us both and seems in no hurry to move off. "You like this view? There is not a telegraph pole or power cable as far as you can see. Do you see that river? Do you know the name of that river?"
"The Jaques Cartier," I venture mindful of the fact that Cartier claimed this land for France in 1535.
"It is Dao8eoli Tsonontwan [the figure 8 is how the French wrote down a w]," Regent explains. "To my people, this means the river coming from afar, from among the mountains. This afternoon I shall show you that every 30 seconds the light changes in that view."
Still, we do not move, so I suggest lunch. Regent looks appalled. "You haven't eaten? They told me you would have eaten. I asked them if you would have eaten!" And with that we are loaded into the trailer behind the snowmobile and whisked up to Regent's glass-fronted house where his huskies go barking mad in the hope of an afternoon run.
Regent's fitted kitchen is a place of unusual calm. I'm not certain why, because, to look at, it's more Ikea than Iroquoi. Here, a woman with a long plait and red shirt is cooking. Her name is Ape "Gi" Git Nasa8eg Wastew, which means Little Flower of the Snow, but she asks us to call her Francine. "She is a medicine woman," says Regent. "Algonquin. Very wise."
Over a lunch of home-cured salmon, I ask Regent how long he has had this business. In reply, he gives me a long speech about the Huron helping the first Europeans to come to the Kanatha (St Lawrence River). "We guided your explorers and fishermen and priests and showed them how to find food." Regent then goes on to tell us that before the Euro-Americans and Afro-Americans came there were 60 million buffalo and no diseases like smallpox or tuberculosis, and no abuse of children or incest either in this land. Then, just as I think he's missed the point entirely he adds with a smile, "So since the beginning we have had 'this business'."
In the afternoon Regent takes us for a walk deep into the trees to look for animal tracks. We walk on large snowshoes made of rawhide and wood, padding over frozen pools and past waterfalls turned into shining white cliffs. I make the mistake of asking if Regent's people own this land. "You cannot own the land," he tells me. "The land is like your mother that gave birth to you. How can you own your mother?"
Later one of my snow shoes comes loose and I sprawl, suddenly realising as I struggle to get upright that we are in snow three feet deep.
"Shouldn't we help Dad?" John asks, but Regent keeps on walking as I curse and founder.
"Without snow shoes you will die in the bush," he tells John, and I realise that he is taking our interest in winter skills seriously. Getting your own snow shoes back on is a pretty fundamental skill out here.
As we explore the traditional long house that Regent has built, I ask how the Huron view winter. "It is a good time, a time of the aerial life. Your snow shoes are your wings and allow you to fly over everything, rocks and tree roots, even streams. You can see great distances – like a bird – because the trees have no leaves and you can trap animals because you can see their tracks. It is a good time for fishing, too, because you can make a hole in the ice and it is a good time to travel great distances on frozen lakes and rivers."
Having just come from a country that falls apart when the gritting lorries are delayed, I'm rather thrown by this eulogy.
"Now," says Regent. "Do you really want to build a quinzhee?"
It is already getting dark but I say "yes". John and I were drawn to Tsonotwan by the idea of learning how the First Nation people built a winter refuge. I'd had in mind a neat little igloo like Pingu's, but instead Regent gets us started on a temporary shelter of the kind you would construct if caught out in the snow. We find a snowdrift and then begin shovelling more snow on top until we have a roughly piled dome in the fading light. We then cut branches and spread them over, and then pile on more snow. The next stage involves tunnelling into the mound and digging upwards. If we hit the branches we've gone far enough.
Shovelling was hard work but tunnelling in is alarming if you have a healthy aversion to confined spaces. John and I do it in shifts lying on our stomachs, hacking with spades and pushing the dislodged snow back, a bit like Charles Bronson in The Great Escape. I notice John stays inside longer and longer, leaving me to clear the snow-rubble. This becomes his quinzhee. Extraordinarily, the snow does not collapse on top of us, it holds, and by the time Regent comes to walk us back for dinner we are both sitting in the dark inside our snow chamber. If we pulled the remaining branches in after us, we'd be sealed off from the cold night air.
Arriving back in Francine's kitchen I catch sight of myself in a mirror: I look as if large white ice beads have been threaded into my hair and beard. We eat heartily and I drink copious amounts of Francine's green tea. "We call it hunter's tea," she says. "Very good for the kidneys."
John is all for sleeping in the quinzhee, but having seen how thin Regent's sleeping bags are, I exert what is left of my parental authority and take up our host's suggestion that we use a nearby tent which he has equipped with a log-burning stove.
Bidding goodnight to Francine, John and I set off in the dark to find both quinzhee and tent. At first we get lost in the total darkness. So much for our winter skills. The night sky is clear and the tent bitterly cold. I find that hunter's tea benefits the kidneys by flushing them out, and every two hours I'm wakened by the need to go outside. But at least that gives me the chance to put more logs in the stove.
I awake feeling physically wrecked but pleased to see that our quinzhee still stands. Had John and I been stranded in the snow last night we would have survived. As we walk back through the woods in search of breakfast, I feel a desire to know more. It seems that the main skill Regent has to teach is how to enjoy this time of year. We British believe winter is to be endured when, in fact, we should be like the bird. We should fly.
How to get there
Frontier Travel (020-8776 8709; frontier-travel.co.uk) offers return flights to Quebec via Montreal with Air Canada, and four nights at the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac for £675 per person, with a fifth night at Au Pays des Hurons First Nations site from £72 per person, including quinzhee building.
Tourisme Quebec (bonjourquebec.co.uk); Canadian Tourism Commission http://uk.canada.travel).
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