Québec's unusual great outdoors

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Québec is famous for its great outdoors. But it is also home to an unusual wildlife experience, run by Zoo Sauvage by Lac Saint Jean. Sarah Barrell explains

It had something of a Victorian madness about it, a grand folly if you like, yet one that didn't take place in a tropical corner of the empire but in a rural outpost of Québec in the 1960s. Here, a former forest ranger turned municipal policeman, Monsieur Ghislain Gagnon, built a zoo. So enthusiastic was this nature lover about his grand rêve that he managed to convince six Québec big-wigs that creating a zoo in an abandoned fox farm, in the sparsely inhabited environs of Lac Saint Jean, some five hours from the province's major cities, was a viable idea.

And so, from across the globe, he collected great animals; tigers, elephants and lions, and brought them to this frozen forest. Today, the exotic creatures still come, but now in the shape of foreign tourists. The zoo has, in the name of conservation and public interest, parted with its collection of alien species and become a non-profit organisation devoted to northern North-American wildlife.

The fox farm now stretches across 12,000 acres incorporating a Nature Trails Park where animals are left to roam free, albeit within controlled habitats. There is tundra, prairie and boreal forest, each home to endemic species such as the majestic North American elk, the black bear, grey wolf and elusive moose – many of them originally rescue animals.

"It's rare to see moose in captivity," says my guide Amélie Trottier Picard. "They just don't do well in a cage. Even if you feed them and keep them safe they die within weeks. That was really the motivation behind the Nature Trails Park – to allow them to live 'free'."

Amélie manages to keep our group of French and English adventurers informed in two languages while looking out for these one-ton cervidae and ensuring that we – adults and kids – find our way to the camp for the night. This is no usual outing to the zoo. The Land of the Caribou Adventure, a new initiative for the Zoo Sauvage, offers treks through the Nature Trails Park where you track moose and caribou, spot black bear and bison, and camp out overnight in old-fashioned prospectors' tents. Think of it as Night at the Museum – The Field Trip.

We wade, waist-high, through fern for just 10 minutes, noting native medicinal plants and tree trunks with bear claw marks, before we spot a moose, or rather three of them: a cow and two calves. We stumble across them suddenly, finding ourselves 10ft away from the family with only a clearing of grass between us.

"It's very rare to get so close," whispers Amélie. "I've been watching this group for a while now. Each day the calves get more confident, straying further from their mother. But we don't want to get over confident," she says, pointedly, trying to rein in the awestruck kids who'd stroke the creatures given half a chance. They look endearingly like caricatures of old nags, with oversized nostrils, giant donkey-like ears and spindly legs.

But moose, solitary animals, notoriously grumpy, are not to be messed with. Our journey to the zoo from Québec City, through the misty Jacques Cartier National Park, had been flanked by a succession of roadside signs noting the perils of hitting these beasts. Bottom line: your vehicle comes off far worse than the moose.

Within the confines of the zoo, wild as it seems with vast jack pines and paper birch trees towering above us, the regular clatter of the little train taking visitors through the park reminds us that we are within a well-managed wilderness. Arrival at camp confirms this. It's spectacularly civilised, albeit an antique civilisation. Each traditional 19th-century-style canvas prospector's tent has a wood-burning stove (ornamental during my visit in the steamy Québec summer), beautiful wooden frames and doors. There's a campfire, an old-fashioned water pump and an eco-friendly long-drop loo.

But it's not time to bed down yet. Just as well, because some of us are going to need time to adjust to the idea of a pile of pine needles in place of a mattress. We're off for a sunset paddle around the lake in traditional dug-out-style canoes. Here we spot black bear, elk so huge you might mistake them for moose, and we follow a V of Canadian geese while attempting to maintain the canoe's fragile equilibrium and not lose the paddles as we take pictures.

Back at camp another family has joined us: a family of caribou. The young fluffy white calves nose around the camp's perimeters, making playful skittering dashes that have the kids in stitches. After that: silence. As the sun evaporates below the treeline, the forest becomes startlingly still. Compared with the chatter and hum of a rainforest, it seems almost benign.

Persistent mosquitoes remind us life is all about us, but the campfire largely sees them off and produces a superb wild trout for dinner followed by local Lac Saint Jean blueberry pie (some of the best you'll find in Canada). Pretty soon we're all nodding towards bed, armed with kerosene lamps and torches. Sleep is sound, snug in the dense -sleeping bags provided and we wake next morning with the smell of pine on our pillows and the sound of the Frederick bird making his morning calls. Otherwise known as the white-throated sparrow, this bird's song has a cadence that sounds like "oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada" or, in Lac Saint Jean, a traditionally separatist, French-speaking area, "où es-tu, Frédéric, Frédéric, Frédéric".

We learn a few more nature titbits before setting out for a trek, followed by our resident family of caribou. Amélie shows us the basics of telemetry – radio-tracking animals via a signal emitted from their collars or tags – and after less than 10 minutes creeping through the forest we find our moose family again.

This time the cow looks less impressed by our presence so we swiftly hotfoot it to the truck for a final VIP tour around the park before the trainloads arrive. The pièce de résistance is a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo, from the polar bears' night quarters to the vet's clinic, complete with a curiosity cabinet displaying formaldehyde jars and a fur ball so big my daughter mistakes it for a football.

It's all great fun and, while not exactly the real Great Outdoors, the Zoo Sauvage does do a good job of conserving and promoting Québec's unique wildlife. Boreal forests, one of the largest woodland ecosystems on the planet, are seriously under threat from unsustainable logging practices.

That night, from the terrace of an auberge near the shores of the Lac Saint Jean, we watch a cavalcade of logging trucks head north. The day's newspapers report a "monumental" move as the world's largest paper- tissue company announces an environmental policy, expected to help to protect Québec's boreal forest from unsustainable logging. Here's hoping. Otherwise, in a generation's time, when my daughter brings her children to the zoo, the endemic species on show might not have quite such an impact.


Québec, Canada's largest province, has 28 nature reserves, all exceptionally rich in flora and fauna.

Moose loose

The Parc National de la Gaspésie (sepaq.com/pq/gas/en/) is a rare place where caribou, moose and white-tailed deer co-exist. The park has 25 mountain summits rising to more than 3,000ft, including the Chic-Chocs, the highest accessible mountains in eastern Canada. The 18-room Chic Choc lodge (sepaq.com/chc/en/) has a hot tub, sauna and rustic elegant furnishings and is set in excellent terrain for treks. The impressive density of moose (4.8 animals per square kilometre) makes an encounter likely.

Oh deer!

Set in the middle of the Gulf of the St Lawrence River, the Anticosti National Park (sepaq.com/pq/ pan/en/) is the kingdom of the white-tailed deer. There are 160,000 of these Bambi lookalikes grazing around soaring sea cliffs, waterfalls, canyons and rivers. Vauréal Falls, in the centre of the island, is more than 300ft high and a truly spectacular sight, with or without those deer.

Frequent flyers

Hundreds of thousands of snow geese land on the St Lawrence River banks annually. Montmagny, just east of Québec City, is considered Québec's snow goose capital and holds a Festival de l'Oie Blanche (9-18 October 2009) to celebrate the 600,000 geese that pass through. This usually coincides with the final show of spectacular fall colours.

Grin and bear it

The Réserve Faunique des Laurentides (sepaq.com/rf/lau/en/) is a vast expanse of wilderness between the populated Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region and Québec City. Its forests, lakes, rivers and valleys are home to black bear, pictured right. Bear-spotting trips and regulated hunting is available.

New kid in the park

The new Lac-Témiscouata National Park, officially declared earlier this summer, will be one of Québec's largest and looks set to be a prime ecotourism destination. It has a massive concentration of archaeological sites and an extremely long and deep lake, after which the park and region takes its name. A popular spot for sports fishing.

And those whales ...

Québec is one of the few places where you can see such a wide variety of large sea mammals (13 species, including the blue whale). From May to October there are many places along the St Lawrence and the giant fjords of the Saguenay River where you can take whale-watching cruises or, as the rivers here are so deep, even spot whales from dry land.


How to get there

Canadian Affair (020-7616 9999; canadian affair.com) operates year-round non-stop flights to Montreal from London Gatwick. Fares start at £119 one way, including taxes and surcharges. Car hire, hotels and tours can be arranged. The Land of the Caribou Adventure at the Zoo Sauvage (zoosauvage.org) costs C$255 (£141) per adult and C$220 (£122) per child (age six to 13 years) including all food, activities and camping equipment.

Further information

Government of Québec (bonjourquebec.co.uk).

Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
people70-year-old was most famous for 'You are So Beautiful'
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
The US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'