Exploring the remote beauty of Quebec on snowmobile

Whizzing through Québec's remote outposts on a snowmobile leaves Rhiannon Batten with a sense of wonder at the wintry fairytale wilderness... as well as a few bruises
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The Independent Travel

It was minus 20C. I was high on petrol fumes. The scenery was passing so quickly it had taken on a Jackson Pollock blur, and the buzz of a space-shuttle-sized bee was attacking my ears. Welcome to Québec by snowmobile - zip through some of Canada's most otherwise-inaccessible terrain, stop for a few minutes to admire the view and then tear on to the next vantage point.

Jet-skiing on powder hadn't been quite how I'd imagined a snowmobiling trip in the Lanaudière region as I'd flicked through pictures of quaint villages, rolling hills and vast lakes online. But, not only had I inadvertently joined a party of French airline pilots, the only other non-speed-freak among us - honeymooner Shirley from Devon - had chosen to ride on the back of her new husband's machine. "I'd say I was an active person - I'd much rather be mountain biking or windsurfing than shopping - but I don't want to do it like the men. There's too much pressure to go fast," she said, as husband Christopher revved up on cue.

Step forward our guide for the day, Jean Renee, a lumberjack-shirted, stubble-jawed local with a passion for genealogy (he'd traced his ancestors back to 17th-century Normandy) and a relationship to snowmobiling so deep-rooted that he "was practically born on one". Sensing my concern, he put me in front of the other riders to keep their speed down - and then promptly va-va-voomed off into the distance along a snowy but well-signposted trail.

The area we were travelling through on the first day wasn't particularly remote but, with a heavy coat of snow, the agricultural terrain took on a wild, unexplored edge. The pressure that came from being the cork in a bottle of boy racers was only lessened by the realisation that the faster you go on a snowmobile, the less it slips on the track. Up to a point. My position as the Bridget Jones of the group was spectacularly sealed towards the end of the afternoon when I mistook the throttle for the brake going round a particularly tight bend and flew off the track, clipping a tree and spinning in the air before crashing into a conveniently placed bank of snow.

More queasy rider than easy rider by this stage, I was otherwise miraculously unharmed. While part of me would have been quite happy seeking my thrills back at the hotel with a cup of cocoa in front of the fire, I made myself get back on. Fast-forward two days and, apart from embarrassing myself by forcing the group to stop so that I could go to the loo - no easy feat when you're zipped into something resembling the Michelin man's suit - and spraining my wrist after slipping on ice, I was actually beginning to understand the appeal. Despite one of the pilot's snowmobiles going up in flames after a particularly feisty run out.

Meltdown aside, when else do you get to race across a frozen lake, stop off at a remote relais station (the snowmobiling version of Little Chef) for homemade trout pie and maple syrup pudding, or turn on to a silent country path and find a fairytale world of snowed-in summer houses, frosty mountains, gambolling deer and ribbons of snow shivering across the ground?

It may not be the most ecologically sound way to explore, but scenery like this is what makes Québec one of the most popular destinations for snowmobiling in North America. The fact that it's easily accessible - Lanaudière, where we were, is only 90 minutes' drive from Montreal - and has around 32,000km of snowmobiling trails also helps. As does the historical appeal: Québec was the birthplace of the snowmobile.

Frustrated with virtually having to go into hibernation during the region's harsh winters, in the 1920s local mechanic Joseph Bombardier began tinkering with cars to try to get them to "float on snow". A reminder that these machines aren't used only for sport, what Bombardier eventually ended up with was a series of postbuses, logging machines and vehicles that could transport rural doctors in winter (one of Bombardier's sons had died because the doctor hadn't been able to reach him). It wasn't until 1958 that Bombardier created his most famous invention, a one-person snowmobile called the skidoo. Originally meant to be called the "skidog" because it was designed to replace sled dogs, a printing error changed it to skidoo and the name stuck.

Today the company's factory stands close to a small museum dedicated to the inventor in his hometown of Valcourt, in Québec's Eastern Townships. Part history lesson, part Hamleys for grown-ups, a tour of the Musée Bombardier starts in his original garage, moves on to a collection of vintage Bombardier vehicles and finishes with a collection of some very mean snowmobiling machines from more modern times.

From Harley Davidson snowmobiles to a cute little custard-coloured "Sno-pony" (small enough to put in the boot of a car), all sorts of snow vehicles are on display here. There are versions from Russia, Finland and Sweden and the golf-buggy-style "Elite", with passengers seated side by side (Tom Cruise is rumoured to be getting someone to re-build one for him). The biggest boy's toy of all is the Aloette, or "wild one", designed by Batmobile creator George Barris. A souped-up vision of red and yellow go-faster stripes, four engines and 12 shiny metal mufflers, it's estimated that the Aloette could reach 322mph although, in a classic case of all talk and no trousers, it was never actually used.

Stand in front of one of Bombardier's ladybird-like school buses from the 1940s, or watch the black and white advert from the 1960s jingling "the skidoo brings joy, brings life, brings happiness" over pictures of happy families on skidoos, and you realise how he transformed the lives of a vast number of people. He may not have followed his father's wish that he become a priest, but to many locals he is a sort of saint (in 2000 a snowmobile-loving couple from Manitoba got married on the Bombardier assembly line, following the ceremony with a private tour of the museum).

Visit the museum and you become an instant Bombardier bore (did you know that Jean-Luc Bombardier, Joseph's nephew, reached the North Pole on a snowmobile in 1968? Or that Jacques Villeneuve comes from a family of famous Québécois snowmobile racers?). The most startling fact that comes out, however, is that, while today there are only four snowmobile makers, Bombardier still produces around 50 per cent of all the world's snowmobiles. Including the one I drove through Lanaudière. Sort of.

After my little accident I didn't feel like driving again. Instead I hitched a lift with Hugues, one of the French pilots. While he focused on the trail, I could finally relax and look at the scenery, which was spectacular. As the afternoon sun filtered through clusters of skinny silver birches, we passed cottages submerged up to the roof in snow, and skimmed across vast frozen lakes. "C'est super, eh?" said Hugues. It would be, if only he'd slow down just a bit.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled from Heathrow to Montreal with Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.com), which has return fares from £301.80. Other airlines flying this route include British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com). Zoom Airlines (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com) flies once a week from Gatwick. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Montreal is £10.80. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

SNOWMOBILING THERE

The writer joined a three-day snowmobiling trip, with a night at each end in Montreal, organised by Activities Abroad (01670 789991; www.activitiesabroad.com). This season the company is running comprehensive one-week packages in the same area from £1,830 per person, including flights, transfers, five days' snowmobiling, six nights' accommodation, most meals, equipment, outdoor clothing and instruction. You must be at least 21 and possess a full driving licence to drive a snowmobile in Canada. Younger clients can ride as a pillion passenger at a discounted price.

VISITING THERE

Attractions: The Musée Bombardier is at 1001 avenue JA Bombadier, Valcourt, Québec (00 1 450 532 5300; www.museebombardier.com). Winter opening hours are 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday, summer opening hours 10am to 5pm daily. Entrance costs C$7 (£3.30) for adults or C$5 (£2.40) for children over five.

MORE INFORMATION

Tourism Québec (08705 561705; www.quebec4u.co.uk).

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